Inspecting Iraq, in retrospect

by John Quiggin on March 18, 2013

Following up on Corey’s piece, I want to restate a point that seems to be forgotten a lot, especially by those who went along with the Bush-Blair claims about WMDs. Until December 2002, there was plenty of behavioral evidence to suggest that Saddam had WMDs, namely the fact that he had expelled (or, more precisely, refused to co-operate with) the UN weapons inspection program. Given the benefits from being declared WMD-free, this made little sense unless he had weapons. Equally, Bush and Blair were making statements that they knew what WMDs Saddam had and fairly accurate knowledge of their location. Again, this seemed (to me, at any rate) to make no sense if they were relying on a bluff that Saddam could easily call.

All of that changed, in December 2002, when Saddam readmitted the inspectors and declared that he had no WMDs. At that point, it suddenly became obvious (again, to me, at any rate) that Bush and Blair had been making it up. I naively supposed that it would be equally obvious to everyone else, and that, as a result it would be impossible to mobilise support for war. I was particularly struck by the unanimity with which the pro-war bloggers reproduced the ever-changing propaganda lines of the Administration. No one would be surprised now, but back then, the assumption was that disputes with people like Glenn Reynolds were a matter of honest disagreement.

{ 120 comments }

1

Daniel Key 03.18.13 at 10:48 am

Saddam’s stated motive for refusing to cooperate with UN inspection was that the CIA was using it to spy on the Iraqi military.

Which, it seems, they were: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1999/mar/03/iraq.julianborger

2

Christiaan 03.18.13 at 11:19 am

You say that Saddam could have benefited from cooperating because it would show that he had no WMDs. However, you don’t mention the negatives for cooperating: he would make himself more vulnerable to US attacks, because he would allow the US to spy on his military through the UN inspections. So the question is really whether the pros were bigger than the cons. Saddam probably gathered that the pros were not real: he would not have benefited, because he knew that the US and the UK were lying, and would have no reason to stop lying after more inspections, because the world would not take the UNs word over the USs. Remember (certainly in hindsight), all the relevant information was already known by the UN before December 2002, and both Saddam and the UN inspectors knew that (if you listened to Al Baradei rather than Cheney). Therefore there would only be net negatives for allowing inspections. Of course that happened to be true. The question then is why he did allow inspectors in December 2002. Perhaps he just realized (or found out) that the US already had enough military intel at that point, so there wasn’t as much to lose anymore? In other words: perhaps it was about the US knowing about the Iraqi military rather than the world knowing about the Iraqi weapons program?

3

rf 03.18.13 at 11:23 am

Saddam’s behaviour can also be explained by him seeing Iran as his primary threat, and all concessions made to the US would highlight his regimes weaknesses and undermine him regionally

4

rf 03.18.13 at 11:38 am

“At that point, it suddenly became obvious (again, to me, at any rate) that Bush and Blair had been making it up”

I don’t know. It’s been a while since I’ve read up on it, buy I always I assumed they did believe he had WMD. Not that he was a major threat, and not that it was the primary reason for the invasion, but that he had them. IIRC, there was general agreement between Western countries security services (as they were relying on the same incorrect source) a number of which instituionally didnt support the war. But there’s been a lot written on it recently that I havent had time to read, so I’m open to correction

5

rf 03.18.13 at 11:43 am

Ive posted this link before, but here are leading Democrats positons on Iraqi WMD’s

http://www.snopes.com/politics/war/wmdquotes.asp

6

Mao Cheng Ji 03.18.13 at 12:09 pm

What if he did have WMD?

7

Zach 03.18.13 at 12:11 pm

Colin Powell’s report to the UN convinced me we had no real evidence of WMD. At best, only a lack of evidence of destruction of earlier stockpiles. You don’t have nonsense props and PowerPoint presentations with made-up renderings of bio weapons RVs if you have evidence to justify the certainty coming out of the Bush administration. Compare JFK’s presentation during the Cuban Missile Crisis to Powell, and consider that we ought to be able to get somewhat better pictures after a half century of technological progress and with a broken country versus a global superpower.

So I was convinced at that point, but I was totally blown away when Hans Blix gave his last prewar report to the UN. He detailed complete Iraqi capitulation: access throughout the country without notice, private interviews with scientists. Amazingly, allowing unrestricted U2 flyovers and even destroying missiles (that may or may not have exceeded limits) as US troops gathered for a then-certain invasion. I paid extremely close attention to the US news in Feb/March 2003. The only story that percolated out of this report was that Hans Blix found some remote controlled airplanes. Amazing.

8

Zach 03.18.13 at 12:17 pm

One disturbing aspect of the lies leading up to war is that the United States spent who knows how many billions outfitting military personal and equipment with countermeasures against unconventional warfare. A rational look at the risks facing troops in Iraq would’ve saved untold dollars and/or lives by recognizing that Iraq was unlikely to have weaponized chem/bio weapons (or even an active program to research them) and directed resources instead towards more relevant threats (IEDs, other ambush techniques).

9

Chris Williams 03.18.13 at 12:18 pm

By January 2003 it was clear from Blix’s reports that _all_ the specific NBC sites Blair had used to illustrate his speech to Parliament of September 2002 were in fact clean. Glen Rangwala produced a useful briefing paper about this which circulated on the CASI email list, which is archived somewhere if you want to check it out.

I went to the trouble of meeting my MP and setting this out for him, in the hope that he might actually attempt to do something about it. Alas, since I wasn’t a pint of bitter, he paid me no heed.

10

rf 03.18.13 at 12:19 pm

“One disturbing aspect of the lies leading up to war is that the United States spent who knows how many billions outfitting military personal and equipment with countermeasures against unconventional warfare. “

Wouldnt that support the admin thinking he had them?

11

rf 03.18.13 at 12:23 pm

One of the biggest outrages of the war was that neighbouring (and some north European) countries were left to almost single handedly deal with those displaced from the war. Up until pretty recently the UK and US made no real effort on this front

12

rf 03.18.13 at 12:24 pm

“Glen Rangwala produced a useful briefing paper about this which circulated on the CASI email list, which is archived somewhere if you want to check it out. “

I’ll look it up, thanks

13

Zach 03.18.13 at 12:27 pm

@rf – I don’t know that quotes showing Democrats, too, thought Saddam had WMD are so relevant when no one is suggesting otherwise. There was a bipartisan consensus to shut down any discussion of the rapidly deteriorating case for war in the months before the war. Whether it was out of political cowardice or a failure to consider the new evidence that actually resulted from the 11th hour inspections is a good question. Many if not most of the foreign powers that (with some hesitation) supported the American push for ‘unconditional’ inspections did not agree with the American conclusion that Iraq was in violation of resolution 1441. Otherwise, the US would have pushed for an additional resolution making that finding.

14

SJ 03.18.13 at 12:31 pm

“Until December 2002, there was plenty of behavioral evidence to suggest that Saddam had WMDs, namely the fact that he had expelled (or, more precisely, refused to co-operate with) the UN weapons inspection program.”

I’m pretty sure this is false.

My recollection is that the US had made a decision to attack Iraq in 1998, and told the inspectors to get out before the bombing began.

15

ponce 03.18.13 at 12:32 pm

“Equally, Bush and Blair were making statements that they knew what WMDs Saddam had and fairly accurate knowledge of their location. “

This would have been fairly easy to verify even back in 2002.

16

rf 03.18.13 at 12:34 pm

It’s relevant, I think, in that it shows both parties (and multiple intelligence agencies) did seem to believe it *at some stage* (whether in 2002/2003 I dont know, and how much weight you give these concerns is up to you)
I don’t think most pople acknowledge a ‘bipartisan consensus’ on this, and prefer to imagine evil incarnate in Bush. It’s just a bit of pushback on that

17

rf 03.18.13 at 12:35 pm

above @zach 13

18

Zach 03.18.13 at 12:38 pm

@rf Outfitting the troops for chem/bio warfare had good propaganda value, at least. All of the embedded reporters showed off the gear, talked about anthrax meds, etc. It made the phony threat real. Ditto every time someone came across a few rotting mustard gas canisters and it made the evening news. I once met a very intelligent soldier who was convinced that we’d found WMD and kept it secret for some reason. If the the threat hadn’t been treated seriously, folks calling it a lie would cite that as evidence.

As for whether or not Bush et al actually believed it, I think they thought they’d find enough lost stockpiles of weapons from the Iraq/Iran war and undestroyed bio weapons material misplaced in research facilities to claim justification. If they really thought Iraq posed an imminent threat (itself or by providing weapons to terrorists), there’s zero indication that they had any evidence supporting this view.

19

SJ 03.18.13 at 12:39 pm

FWIW: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Iraq_(December_1998)

The claim that UNSCOM weapons inspectors were expelled by Iraq has been repeated frequently. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his February 5, 2003 speech before the U.N. Security Council, called for action against Iraq and stated falsely that “Saddam Hussein forced out the last inspectors in 1998″.[11] The claim has appeared repeatedly in the news media.[12] However, according to UNSCOM inspector Richard Butler himself, it was U.S. Ambassador Peter Burleigh, acting on instructions from Washington, who suggested Butler pull his team from Iraq in order to protect them from the forthcoming U.S. and British air strikes: “I received a telephone call from US Ambassador Peter Burleigh inviting me for a private conversation at the US mission… Burleigh informed me that on instructions from Washington it would be ‘prudent to take measures to ensure the safety and security of UNSCOM staff presently in Iraq.’ … I told him that I would act on this advice and remove my staff from Iraq.”[13]

20

rf 03.18.13 at 12:41 pm

“If they really thought Iraq posed an imminent threat (itself or by providing weapons to terrorists)”

I agree. I don’t believe they thought this

21

Barry 03.18.13 at 12:48 pm

The administration did nothing to secure ammunition depots in Iraq. If Saddam had had ‘vast stockpiles’ of chemical weapons, then the various guerrilla groups would have had chemical IED’s. and Al Qaida would have been smuggling nerve gas shells out of Iraq.

Either the administration did not believe in the WMD’s, or deliberately attempted to arm terrorists with WMD’s.

22

Bloix 03.18.13 at 1:32 pm

The entire concept of “WMD” was intended to mislead. It’s one thing to have a cache of nerve gas left over from the war with Iran. It’s something else to have a nuclear weapon that could destroy New York. The term WMD was used intentionally to blur the difference. I don’t doubt that Bush and Cheney believed that Saddam had WWI-quality chemical weapons; I don’t think for a moment that they believed he had nuclear weapons.

23

Trader Joe 03.18.13 at 1:36 pm

I think Rf @ 3 is closest to the pin about Sadaam’s original reasons for expelling UN Inspectors (Iran and regional role)- since he himself was the original ‘liar’ about WMDs – most particularly chemical.

For the better part of a decade he implied he had them or at least didn’t deny he didn’t to cow his enemies and his own people (particularly Kurdish).

As JQ notes in the OP, his reversal to admit the UN should have been read as the equivalent of a bluffer’s fold – but by then he had no credibility, which is to say even when he (Sadaam) finally told the truth, we assumed he was still lying, becuase we had based our own lies on his prior ones. Bush and Blair couldn’t let him fold, they made him play the hand and made him go ‘all in.’

None of this is to justify the subsequent actions, but Sadaam should have folded sooner and he knew it (all but admitted it on the eve of war). By December 2002 he had played his own bluff too far and he had left Bush/Blair no graceful pullback for the mobilization they had begun and the rhetorical stance they had taken. The WMD genie was out of the bottle and no one could put it back absent a war – true or not – since no one could be sure who was lying and who was not.

Again, far from a GOOD justification- but I think face saving ultimately became a part of the rationale.

24

mds 03.18.13 at 2:03 pm

rf @ 10:

Wouldnt that support the admin thinking he had them?

Zach @ 18 has already brought up the propaganda angle of so equipping the troops. I would add that shoveling billions of dollars to military contractors, regardless of necessity, was a feature rather than a bug, as subsequent conduct of the occupation demonstrated.

Bloix @ 22

The term WMD was used intentionally to blur the difference.

And even then, it wasn’t quite doublespeaky enough for post hoc justifications. Hence “WMD-related program activities.”

25

rf 03.18.13 at 2:25 pm

“I would add that shoveling billions of dollars to military contractors, regardless of necessity, was a feature rather than a bug, as subsequent conduct of the occupation demonstrated.”

The political scientist Jane K Cramer is actually doing research along these lines (which I havent read as dont think it’s finished yet)
Here’s her summation of it:

” This most recent work argues that none of these most common explanations for U.S. involvement in Iraq are primary; that instead, a desire for uncontested U.S. power and for unshared U.S. corporate wealth accession was the central incentive of the top policy makers.”

(She also edited a decent book about threat inflation in regards Iraq for anyone interested..”American foreign policy and the politics of fear”)
Just to clarify, fwiw, I don’t think it was *about* WMDs (but primarily about ‘showcasing’ US power and transforming the Middle East)

26

Guano 03.18.13 at 2:26 pm

“All of that changed, in December 2002, when Saddam readmitted the inspectors and declared that he had no WMDs. At that point, it suddenly became obvious (again, to me, at any rate) that Bush and Blair had been making it up.”

Exactly (though the inspectors actually entered Iraq in late November 2002 and Iraq had agreed to inspections before that).

The fact that the bombastic tone of politicians in the US and UK did not change when inspections began was a fairly clear indication that they were not arguing in good faith. There was a UK parliamentary debate in late November 2002 which was ostensibly about the next steps after UNSCR 1441 had been passed and inspectors had entered Iraq, but which was mainly politicians grandstanding about how we should invade Iraq the moment it stepped out of line. Public opposition to the planned invasion went up rapidly in December 2002 and apparently newspapers and politicians were swamped by letters about Iraq from the public written during the Xmas holidays.

Powell’s UN speech was trailed as an Adlai Stevenson moment in the weeks beforehand, but in the last twenty-four hours there was a reverse ferret: the spin-doctors began saying that it wouldn’t be an Adlai Stevenson moment as they realised that they had oversold Powell’s speech. It was, though, a bit late. If Powell really knew that Iraq had WMD he wouldn’t have had to use a garbled recording of a low-level soldier apparently saying “hide the weapons”. Powell didn;t come close to Stevenson.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/feb/06/iraq.usa

I’m still puzzled why some people believed in the desperately barrel-scraped evidence and convoluted arguments that marked those final weeks before the invasion ten years ago. I am still puzzled that members of the UK Labour Party believed that Blair had got Bush to commit himself to a push for an Israel-Palestine peace deal when Bush was opposed to such a push and there was no evidence that Blair had got him to change his mind. I am still puzzled why some people thought that this was about exporting democracy when the neo-cons had never mentioned democracy in Iraq. They didn’t want to face up to the fact that, for the neo-cons, this was a demonstration of US power, nothing more, nothing less.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/26/iraq-war-was-justified

27

Katherine 03.18.13 at 2:37 pm

I had the opportunity to hear Hans Blix speaking at a small talk organised by my old college (where he had been a postgrad student) in about 2005. He was crystal clear that the UN team had found no evidence of a WMD programme, and that the US in particular was briefing against and undermining the UN team constantly.

I think it’s possibly, nay likely, that many people sincerely thought Iraq had WMD. They were misled. They were deliberately lied to by people in the US administration who knew that the opposite was true, and were in fact spinning and obfuscating for all they were worth.

28

Zach 03.18.13 at 2:44 pm

@Guano It’s interesting to hear about conflicting public sentiment in the months before the war in the UK. There was very little of that in the States. I was a college sophomore in a fairly (but not overwhelmingly) Midwestern college town; anti war protests were dwarfed by pro war protests and anti war posters were torn down the night they were put up. There were basically zero anti war voices outside of the radical left. I don’t remember a single person publicly making the simple appeal that Quiggin made in 2002 (and what seemed logical to me at the time as well). A few prominent people (Gore, etc) opposed the war because they foresaw that it wouldn’t be easy, but that’s quite different.

29

OtherIan 03.18.13 at 2:53 pm

“Quite frankly, I don’t believe the US Administration is capable of managing a war for democracy in the Middle East. But if they show that they can, for example by demanding an immediate start to the dismantling of Israeli settlements in Palestine, and dumping their friendly dictators, I’ll be the first to cheer them on.” (2002)

Wait, what? Were you saying, if only you could be convinced that an American war for democracy in a Middle Eastern country would be competently managed, you would enthusiastically support it? Do you still think that? Sorry if I misunderstand.

30

Zach 03.18.13 at 3:02 pm

@Katherine It did not help matters at the time that Blix portrayed Iraqi compliance with 1441 as incomplete. He could and should have made these concerns known in 2002 and 2003 to the UN rather than to your university in 2005. Bush would’ve had more difficulty saying Iraq was in violation of 1441 with a straight face if Blix hadn’t assisted with hyper-literal definitions of ‘immediate’ and ‘unconditional’.

31

ponce 03.18.13 at 3:08 pm

63% of Republicans polled last year still think Saddam had WMDs(Question 63).

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~benv/files/poll%20responses%20by%20party%20ID.pdf

32

Ciarán 03.18.13 at 3:09 pm

To add to what RF has to say, that I recall the evidence gathered during the course of the Hutton Inquiry suggests that intelligence officials, including David Kelly, did suspect on balance that Saddam Hussein had WMD, but they didn’t believe he had offensive capabilities and many, including Kelly, found Alistair Campbell’s sexing up of the evidence to be intolerable. All in all, with apologies to Harry Frankfurt, the British political response to the intelligence falls more into the ‘bullshit’ than the ‘lies’ category.

See for instance John Scarlett’s evidence or this memo from the MoD to the Deputy Chief of Defence Intelligence.

33

Katherine 03.18.13 at 3:25 pm

Zach, the overall impression I got from him was one of complete honesty and integrity. And you are mistaken if you think he didn’t make his concerns known in 2002 and 2003. He most certainly did – another thing he was clear about when I heard him speak.

34

roger gathman 03.18.13 at 4:19 pm

myself, I thought the WMD construct was bogus, especially as the UK and the US were busy supplying wmd to much more dangerous regimes – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – and had no qualms about their own WMD.
But, specifically with regard to Iraq, the claims made no sense at all. Saddam clearly wanted Northern Iraq back. It had been basically independent since 1992. If he had WMD, he would have certainly used them in 1996, when the Kurdish civil war brought Iraqi troops into the field. He never did, cause he never had them. But he was supposed to be planning on gassing NYC? That was always bullshit, and the commentariat discussion seemed to me to be like a discussion among people who were all severely ADHD. Of course, the ADHD was feigned, and the war was surely not about wmd at all.

35

Hidari 03.18.13 at 4:19 pm

No one has said so openly but people aren”t even flirting with the idea that the invasion of Iraq was about “democracy” are they?

36

rf 03.18.13 at 4:28 pm

I think for some of them it was about ‘democracy’. Maybe not the principals as much (Cheney, Rumsfeld) but within the circles making policy that was one of the aspirations. If we accept a very specific definition of ‘democracy and freedom’ (pro West, small state, free market, secular, liberal, ). That’s not to say they weren’t willing to compromise on something less than ideal, but for a number of them this seemed to be their aspiration for the Middle East as a whole.

37

Bill Barnes 03.18.13 at 4:44 pm

Hidari & rf — see my #32 on the Bush Did Not Simply Lie thread.

38

Marc 03.18.13 at 5:01 pm

Fallows has a good article on this:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/03/as-we-near-the-10th-anniversary-of-the-iraq-war/273504/

I disagree strongly that we should blur distinctions between people who pushed us hard into a disastrous war, those who were either cowards or went along with the flow, and those who actually opposed the war. Bush, Cheney et al. are responsible for rivers of blood. Clinton went along, but didn’t instigate it. Gore flatly opposed it (no matter how much Naderite dead-enders want to pretend otherwise). These things are not the same.

39

rf 03.18.13 at 5:19 pm

Bill Barnes – what article is that? I largely agree fwiw.

“Clinton went along, but didn’t instigate it. Gore flatly opposed it (no matter how much Naderite dead-enders want to pretend otherwise). These things are not the same.”

Well no one is saying they are the same. And saying President Gore would be a different beast from travelling statesman Gore doesn’t make you a Naderite dead-ender. (I really don’t think most people making this argument care less about Ralph Nader, and would probably be sceptical of his ability to develop a coherent and humane policy vis a vis Iraq post 9/11)
And this isn’t a case of ‘Clinton going along with it’; it’s a case of most Democrat foreign policy principals (both in government and the FP community) going along with it. You don’t have to agree with the position, but to caricature it as simply the outgrowth of some intra Democrat feud from 2001 is ridiculous.

40

Katherine 03.18.13 at 5:35 pm

Ach, the Democrats went along with it because they’d have got hammered in the press if they hadn’t, because of aforementioned propoganda a la Goering. Quite possibly they’d convinced themselves they had honest, genuine reasons for going along with it – after all, no one likes to think they are being craven and cowardly, even if they are.

Given all of this discussion about how it all happened in the US, I still shake my head in disbelief that it happened in the UK. Lots and lots of individual people were against it, several hundred thousand were against it enough to march through the streets against it, lots of the press were against it, the bloody Leader of the House of Commons (formerly Foreign Secretary) was against it.

The big problem I think was that the Official Opposition weren’t against it, and the people who would have been against if they were the Opposition were in government instead. For all the standing ovation that was given to Robin Cook when he resigned, the Labour Party collectively was too craven and cowardly to stand up to Tony Blair and risk loss of power.

41

Marc 03.18.13 at 5:52 pm

@39: We had a president and administration who desperately, desperately wanted a war. They beat the drums as hard as they could, and the public was still very divided – about 50/50 before the war started.

There were Democrats who were enthusiastic (the despicable Lieberman, for example). And they had cover from pundits. But the Democratic party also had fervent anti-war voices, Gore chief among them. The war would not have been fought without Cheney and Bush manufacturing it, period. By contrast, the war in Afghanistan would have been fought whomever was in power.

“Too cowardly to oppose an aggressive war” is not exactly a ringing endorsement of moral character. But it’s extremely important to both make it clear that the Iraq war was a disaster and that there was a faction, still powerful, who were very much instrumental in causing it.

Put another way: precisely what goal is served by whitewashing the responsibility of Bush and Blair for the ruin they caused?

42

William C 03.18.13 at 6:02 pm

I lost faith in the argument for war when I saw Tony Blair on the TV making his speech in the Commons (in early March 2003?). As I happened to be reading the French Press for my work at the time I could see that he was seriously misrepresenting the French government’s position. At that point I realised he could not be relied upon as a reliable source of information and so the British government’s credibility (and that of the US government) collapsed as far as I was concerned.

43

rf 03.18.13 at 6:15 pm

“Ach, the Democrats went along with it because they’d have got hammered in the press if they hadn’t, because of aforementioned propoganda a la Goering.”

I agree in general (and there is some evidence that greater opposition could have prevented the war, but still) .. but the Democrat headliners seemed more enthusiastic, imo. (Clinton, Kerry, Lieberman etc .. and those now involved in policy in the Obama admin like Anne Marie Slaughter, to a lesser extent Samantha Power who I remember opposing it because she didn’t buy the Bush admins rhetoric on democracy promotion)

“Put another way: precisely what goal is served by whitewashing the responsibility of Bush and Blair for the ruin they caused?”

There’s no goal in ‘whitewashing’ their responsibility, (and who’s arguing against their responsibility at this stage?) it’s just trying to be realistic about the options a Gore admin would have had post 9/11 with an isolated Iraq, a strong pro invasion lobby pushing for action, a crumbling Iraqi state, expiring sanctions, and foreign policy elites not completely opposed to intervention (And Blair should be evidence of this. In a lot of ways he was cut from the same cloth as the Dem FP elite)
But lets not divert the thread with this, so I’ll put away this hobby horse

44

Frank in midtown 03.18.13 at 6:20 pm

hey rf, do you have the guts to disagree with the president when he has the CIA brief you that all his lies are true?

45

rf 03.18.13 at 6:24 pm

I ALWAYS disagree with him. Every morning briefing I play devils advocate on all policy. Then me and Leon Panetta go for a game of golf and an all you can eat

46

roger gathman 03.18.13 at 6:28 pm

no. 42. “… it’s just trying to be realistic about the options a Gore admin would have had post 9/11 with an isolated Iraq,..”
I don’t think the 9.11 attack would have happened in a Gore administration. It took the nine months of special Bush incompetence to allow 19 relatively blatant hijackers to make their successful strike. I think we would think no more of 9.11, if Gore had been elected, than we think of Dec. 14, 1999, which is the date on which the “millenium bomber’ was arrested.

47

Omega Centauri 03.18.13 at 6:32 pm

I think trader Joe’s arguments about facesaving are underappreciated. By the time the inspectors were to be readmitted, both Bush and Blair would have ended up looking really badly if a finding of no WMD got out, and this would have been very damaging to their political careers. So by then they had strong motivation to not be proven wrong. By the time the inspectors were done, billions had been spent prepositioning troops and equipment for the invasion, and thhe troops were psychologically fired up. It would have been profoundly damaging to back out at that late stage. So a sort of policy momentum set in, we staked too much on promoting the war, to turn around and say, ohh, sorry it’s all a mistake and call the whole thing off (which in a non facesaving world would have been the rational thing to do). And the fact that we never found any WMD post invasion -or even looked very hard, was just not given much media attention at home, so the short term political cost of being wrong just wasn’t real.

48

Ralph Hitchens 03.18.13 at 7:44 pm

rf at #5 pretty well brackets it. Saddam was playing to that same old audience, the (probably mythical) “Arab street,” and could not afford to look weak. He needed to be seen as standing up to the West, and unfortunately that put a rope around his neck.

49

Baskaborr 03.18.13 at 8:28 pm

I don’t know whether Bush/Cheney simply believed in the Saddam’s WMD so strongly that they refused to accept any contradictory facts or if they were lying. I do believe the fact no real effort was made to secure the supposed WMD sites immediately after the invasion lends credence to the lying side. We should be profoundly thankful that there were no WMD because if there had been they would have been scattered to the winds.

50

Barry 03.18.13 at 8:43 pm

“rf at #5 pretty well brackets it. Saddam was playing to that same old audience, the (probably mythical) “Arab street,” and could not afford to look weak. He needed to be seen as standing up to the West, and unfortunately that put a rope around his neck.”

He admitted the inspectors, they had pretty much free run of the place, and they found nothing. Read Hans Blix’s reports.

51

Main Street Muse 03.18.13 at 9:46 pm

What I found baffling about the Iraq war was the apocalyptic rhetoric during the build up to it – “mushroom cloud” – “credible intelligence” – “indeed, the facts and Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction” – combined with the absolute absence of Iraqi WMD discovered after we aggressively invaded that country.

That’s a gigantic disconnect between “facts” and facts. How could US intelligence be so wrong? Not just off by a few weapons – but completely and totally wrong.

52

Mao Cheng Ji 03.18.13 at 10:09 pm

“That’s a gigantic disconnect between “facts” and facts.”

Where’s the disconnect? It’s a feature, not a bug. Who wants to invade and occupy a country full of chemical and biological weapons? That could be very unpleasant.

53

Zach 03.18.13 at 10:19 pm

@Katherine re: Blix. I’m not saying he was a bad actor in this, but he was in a unique position to call out the United States in plain terms. Instead, he spoke diplomatically and offered the United States a chance to claim that Iraq was in non compliance (in his Feb 2003 presentation to the UN). Now, if you read that speech it’s obvious that Iraq was compliant with 1441 to an amazing degree in only a few months. But that’s not how it was reported in the States. Rather, the US media fans politicians focused on Blix’s statements that Iraq’s cooperation wasn’t immediate in the literal sense and some new concerns about remote controlled airplanes. It was plain at the time that the US was invading regardless of what Blix said; his presentation didn’t really acknowledge this urgency. It wasn’t his job to do this, but it was a missed opportunity to speak out of turn.

54

rf 03.18.13 at 10:23 pm

“How could US intelligence be so wrong? Not just off by a few weapons – but completely and totally wrong.”

I think a lot of their estimates were considerably more uncertain than the Bush administration let on, and that pressure was put on George Tenet, and then through Tenet on analysts, to find some evidence that could be used to make the case. (Then the ‘evidence’ was exaggerated through admin rhetoric rather than the intelligence agencies, and that which was classified was leaked, or presented in declassified form, with all the caveats removed)
So, for example, on potential biological weapons, all the major intelligence agencies (France, Russia, Germany, Britain) were basically working from a single source, (an Iraqi defector), who was considered suspect, but by the time the information was presented by the admin all the caveats about the reliability of the source had been removed. The problem was with the presentation rather than the information
And of course any intelligence that contradicted the admins stance, (for example a pretty accurate analysis of what post war Iraq would look like), was buried.

55

Doctor Memory 03.18.13 at 10:36 pm

Bliox@22 hits the nail on the head. Talking about “Weapons of Mass Destruction” was always a smokescreen intended to blur the fact that Saddam had demonstrably built and used chemical battlefield weapons (to the great detriment of the Kurds, but basically no concern whatsoever to any modern army) with the laughably unlikely scenario that he had a working biological or nuclear capability.

I recall losing my temper several times and losing a few friends on this very subject back in 2002. In retrospect I was nowhere near insulting enough.

56

Matt 03.18.13 at 11:36 pm

Bliox@22 hits the nail on the head. Talking about “Weapons of Mass Destruction” was always a smokescreen intended to blur the fact that Saddam had demonstrably built and used chemical battlefield weapons (to the great detriment of the Kurds, but basically no concern whatsoever to any modern army) with the laughably unlikely scenario that he had a working biological or nuclear capability.

Thirded, though I would put it even more narrowly: only nuclear weapons would have deterred future options for belligerence against Iraq. Weaponized anthrax is no better a deterrent than nerve gas. It was clear even before late 2002 that Iraq had no way of hiding a nuclear weapons program. The WMD angle was a red herring no matter how many tons of Sarin Iraq had secretly retained for future use (zero, in actuality).

57

Tim Wilkinson 03.18.13 at 11:51 pm

In retrospect I was nowhere near insulting enough.

Yes, quite. And those who, having had a lengthy cooling-off period and the benefit of still more disclosures, are still trying to salvage some respectability for the pro-invasion cause merit even greater contempt. There is really no room left for serious debate on this stuff (not that there ever was much), except to speculate on minor details such as whether “Curveball”‘s evidence was the result of a fishing expedition in search of someone who was telling the right lies, or the product of a full-blown stooge coached and planted, or something in between.

58

Billikin 03.19.13 at 12:07 am

What happened during the winter of ’02-’03 made no difference, as in the fall Congress had relinquished its responsibility to declare war, ceding to Bush the decision to engage in hostilities on his own say-so. It is not like they could not have declared war if Bush had asked them to. (And they probably would have, under the circumstances.) But they just rolled over. Anyway, Bush had been hankering to go to war with Iraq from the start. 9/11 gave him a convenient excuse.

59

James Petzke 03.19.13 at 12:11 am

I think what you have to remember is what if he actually did have the weapons? Not starting that fight, and the resulting mass destruction, would be looked upon as the worst mistake in the history of the United States.

60

Belle Waring 03.19.13 at 12:48 am

I was totally wrong about Iraq, remember? I think the “face-saving” momentum that pushed Tony Blair on even after Hans Blix and the UN inspectors had pulled the factual rug out from under the case for war also happened on a smaller scale with people who were dumbasses and supported the war. Once I had gone so far as to commit myself to such an idiotic course of action (getting it pretty good from every member of my family the entire time) I had kind of dug in ideologically and was willing to be spoonfed bullshit. Also, I discovered the magic of the blogosphere at the same time I discovered the magic of the right-wing blogosphere. So, yeah. And I was a dick about it, too. And really, reason #1 on my list, “let’s rzip some shit up,” was actually the #1 reason for all US support of the war, sadly, but also ANTHRAX. Because, as Atrios has perhaps wearied of reminding us, it was ANTHRAX that freaked the Washington D.C. press corps so bad, and freaked me out about all my family in NYC and DC.

61

Jeffrey Davis 03.19.13 at 1:03 am

The question of “strongly believe” vs. “know” was posed to Rumsfeld on one of the Sunday talk shows and he insisted that they “knew”.

Which, of course, was a lie.

62

Kindred Winecoff 03.19.13 at 2:49 am

The CIA reflection linked below is pretty much insta-classic from the perspective of illustrating rationalist explanations for conflict. Information asymmetries, dynamic consistency problems, the whole lot. I assign it to my class. That doesn’t mean that the Bush administration were not a bunch of mendacious liars of course — it’s pretty clear that many of them were — but they could have been a bunch of Belle Warings (pardon the liberty) instead and ended up in exactly the same place. In fact, some of them probably were (possibly including Bush himself).

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/09/05/a_classified_CIA_mea_culpa_on_iraq%20

63

JW Mason 03.19.13 at 3:17 am

But economic science shows the war had a positive present value!

64

a different chris 03.19.13 at 3:43 am

The “believed” or “lied” argument is just hopeless at this point in history. Look at seemingly every other blog post today — another discovery of how completely our elite has become unmoored from reality. We just had a zillionaire who claims he “loves going thru spreadsheets” and spent 10 years running for President making a “47%” remark that both showed that he had actually processed less pertinent economic data than is in a phoned-in Dean Baker column *and* he is completely unaware of the lack of privacy in today’s tech world. What the hell kind of bubble keeps a guy with unlimited time, unlimited money, and a thirst for the most powerful job in the world shielded from info that I knew just from sampling some “free ice cream” as Atrios calls it. Hell, just from going outside on a fairly regular basis.

And with all due respect to #62, “history is bunk”. Maybe that’s what went down, maybe they just took what happened and built the best narrative they could around it.

My takes:

Dick Cheney: Believes everything that comes out of his own mouth.

George Bush: A weak man with an ear highly tuned for situations where he can look strong. Perfect foil for Cheney.

Tony Blair: What mental structures allow you to hold both apparently unshakable Christian faith and one of those really fancy English educations I am so envious of? How does the steam get let off? Was this a new Crusade to him? The one guy I’ll never even try to explain.

The Republican Party: Toadies to the powerful and to outright bullys. They look for reflected glory, or what they see as glory, to bask in.

The Democratic Party/elite media: Teacher’s pets. Yeah, not original. You don’t get A’s and promotions questioning what you are told, you get them by sincerely believing whatever you hear and proving that you can work harder at supporting the current CW than anybody else.

Umm, who did I miss? Oh, Colin Powell – even more mysterious than Blair.

Rumsfeld – just a dick, but you knew that!

65

mds 03.19.13 at 3:56 am

Not starting that fight, and the resulting mass destruction

Of … ?

I mean, yes, of course, Saddam Hussein was far more deranged and evil than Stalin, and blatantly suicidal to boot, but what US target was he going to pick to provoke the subsequent annihilation of Iraq by nuclear fire? Hackensack, New Jersey?

66

rf 03.19.13 at 4:13 am

re declassified CIA mea cupla -wouldn’t analysts trained to think in ‘rationalist explanations’ be more likely to offer a rationalist explanation for a percieved mistake, especially when faced with accusations of cognitive bias/politicisation etc ?

67

rf 03.19.13 at 4:22 am

And as David Lake mentions in ‘two cheers for bargaining theory’, if the fear the drove the war was Saddam’s future capabilities (and intent) and there’s an argument it was (and evidence he had some capability) then rationalist explanations aren’t so good..due to the subjective nature of the information needed

68

bad Jim 03.19.13 at 4:25 am

Within days of Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N., Blix and El Baradei had debunked his most alarming claims, yet most elite opinion in the U.S. continued to consider Powell’s case definitive.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that those same opinion-makers now insist that the Federal budget deficit is an existential threat, but the world-wide recession is merely an unfortunate circumstance about which nothing can be done. What I can’t understand is why anyone continues to take them seriously.

69

rf 03.19.13 at 4:33 am

And one more thing..can fear be included in a rationalist explanation for conflict?

70

Bruce Wilder 03.19.13 at 5:17 am

I think what you have to remember is what if he actually did have the weapons? Not starting that fight, and the resulting mass destruction, would be looked upon as the worst mistake in the history of the United States.

Yes, by all, means, forget the facts, remember the counterfactuals!

71

GiT 03.19.13 at 5:20 am

“unshared U.S. corporate wealth accession “

What a poor phrasing.

72

Ciarán 03.19.13 at 6:39 am

News just in: the invasion was an intervention in a completely invisible civil war. Or something.

73

bad Jim 03.19.13 at 8:37 am

The 1% doctrine is the sort of thinking that makes people buy assault weapons to defend themselves against the coming invasion of United Nations troops in black helicopters, or buy gold or stockpile canned food. Sure, a zombie apocalypse would be a terrible thing, but it’s worthwhile to make an estimate of its likelihood.

74

Mao Cheng Ji 03.19.13 at 8:55 am

“Sure, a zombie apocalypse would be a terrible thing, but it’s worthwhile to make an estimate of its likelihood.”

Yes. I was listening to a wingnut radio station, and it had a firearms commercial. The punchline: “it’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.” Well, fair enough, and there is, sort of, logic to it: when zombies start walking the earth (however unlikely), having a gun would be an advantage.

But starting a war, that itself is a version of a zombie apocalypse, and – for sure – is going to kill a whole bunch of people, that just turns that logic on its head.

75

Barry 03.19.13 at 12:35 pm

rf 03.19.13 at 4:22 am

” And as David Lake mentions in ‘two cheers for bargaining theory’, if the fear the drove the war was Saddam’s future capabilities (and intent) and there’s an argument it was (and evidence he had some capability) then rationalist explanations aren’t so good..due to the subjective nature of the information needed”

English, please?

76

Chris E 03.19.13 at 1:30 pm

@75 Essentially arguing against intentions would have required Bush to have looked into Saddam’s eyes.

77

rf 03.19.13 at 1:38 pm

Barry how in the name of God is that not english..David Lake is the person..‘two cheers for bargaining theory’ is the article..hence..and as David Lake mentions in ‘two cheers for bargaining theory’..
I guess it isnt written as neatly as I would have liked (as it was 5 in the morning) but is prob still comprehensible with minimum effort..but here goes..
one claim that David Lake made (IIRC) was that fear of Saddams future WMD capabilities and his willingness to use them drove the war rather than current WMD capabilities..
..(2) there is some evidence that this fear is what drove the war and that he did have the capacity to manafacture WMD..I don’t personally buy this narrative so am not going to defend it against claims of being on the CIA’s payroll, but its a legit perspective, imo..
..the last bit is confusing b/c I’m personally confused about what a rationalist explanation for the war would look like. ‘Bargaining theory’, I think, would be classified as a rationalist explanation for conflict. David Lake works under rationalist assumptions (I think)..his two cheers implies he doesnt accept fully a rationalist explanation for the Iraq war..one of the areas it falls down under rationalist assumptions Lake argues (once again IIRC and taking into consideration I dont know this area) is that a war waged on Iraqs future capabilities would not involve simple intelligence analysis and threat assessment..it would be complicated by the subjective nature of assessing that future threat..it also wouldnt be a reaction to an actual threat or result of mutual misunderstanding, but would be a deeply political/ideological (or whatever) option..I dont know (emphasis dont know) if a ‘rationalist explanation’ can explain this..
and to clarrify my 69 when Im at it.. if Kindred is stressing fear in the Bush admin as leading to Iraq, then I dont see how useful a ‘rationalist explanation’ is (how do you incorporate the 1% doctrine into a rationalist explanation for the war?)..perhaps fear as a primary motive can be incorporated into the way political scientists model conflict..once again I dont know. B/c I’m not a political scientists..and as I said I only know these arguments on a superficial level..

78

Trader Joe 03.19.13 at 1:38 pm

Mao @74
Don’t let the radio ad steer you wrong. Unless you are good enough with an automatic weapon to make a head shot – you’re just going to waste a lot of ammo trying to kill zombies with bullets.

Liquid nitrogen and a machette are unquestionably the most effective against the undead.

79

rf 03.19.13 at 1:40 pm

Ha .. that formatting came out terribly..Im delighted..enjoy it Barry and go to hell!

80

Omega Centauri 03.19.13 at 2:15 pm

A different Chris.
My reading on Bush was, has ultimate connfidence in his gut, and makes snap judgements. Once a decision is made it is a matter of high honor never to change it.

With Colin Powell, it is chain of command loyalty that trumps all else. The dutiful soldier following orders.

81

Tim Wilkinson 03.19.13 at 3:13 pm

Thanks for the link and further comment, Belle – it’s rare to find people discussing this kind of thing so frankly (and probably fairly rare for people even to be so honest with themselves).

1st-person reports seem to me to be useful social-psychological data in the context of my interest in parapolitical mechanisms and strategies and in particular associated information flows, opinion dynamics etc., e.g. The phenomenology of self-censorship – Walter Schwarz – YouTube, Julie Nicholson on Jul 7 attacks – healthy cynicism v trust – YouTube.

Also, yeah, I too remember the anthrax attacks, attributed at the time by the White House and media to The Saddam-‘AQ’ alliance, that freaked out the Washington D.C. press corps – and a couple of senior Dem senators too, just before the Patriot Act went through IIRC.

82

Hidari 03.19.13 at 3:16 pm

`And really, reason #1 on my list, “let’s rzip some shit up,” was actually the #1 reason for all US support of the war`.

Doubtless US elites had their own motivations for the invasion (almost certainly to do with natural resources) but in terms of why large sections of the American public supported it, this is undoubtedly one of the major motivations for the attack, although pro war commentators seemed to be strangely reticent about stating it outright. And so we had the grim spectacle of erstwhile intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens giving speeches whose real meaning was ` Hulk Hitch no like beardie men! Beardie men make Hitch mad! Hitch go SMASH* beardie men!!!` and then jazzing it up with incoherent references to Hegel to audiences of American males too drunk with rage** to know or care whether any of it made any sense. And everyone else sitting about and scratching their chins as though profound and important points about international relations were being made.

*Or to be precise Hitch make other men go smash beardie men.

** Or just too drunk.

83

Uncle Kvetch 03.19.13 at 3:32 pm

pro war commentators seemed to be strangely reticent about stating it outright

Not Airmiles, bless his heart.

84

Sebastian H 03.19.13 at 5:17 pm

I was essentially in the Belle Waring position.

I want to respond to this up thread. “Clinton went along, but didn’t instigate it.”

One of the reasons I was wrong strongly contradicts this statement. One of the reasons I bought into it all was that Clinton very much did instigate it with the 1998 bombing to destroy WMD campaign. So when Bush came along and was saying exactly the same things only stronger I believed it was the same thing only with four years more development.

I point this out NOT to excuse me for being wrong, but to contradict the notion that Clinton was just going along.

85

Kindred Winecoff 03.19.13 at 11:14 pm

rf,

No, I don’t think fear would constitute a rationalist “explanation” for war, unless it were fleshed out in terms of dynamic consistency problems. In IR rationalist theory fear might be something to fight *about*; but it would not be the reason why a negotiated settlement wasn’t reached instead. Lake may disagree with this — it’s been awhile since I’ve read that article — but Fearon probably wouldn’t. And, in terms of bargaining theories of conflict, Fearon is the dominant one in the IR literature.

It seems pretty clear to me (and did then) that the US was going to war in Iraq unless Saddam abdicated. And, from his perspective, he maybe should have. But, you know, trembling hand and all that.

With all due respect to #64, “history is bunk” does not constitute an argument. The CIA document I linked was not written for public consumption. It was not signed, so no reputations were on the line. I.e., there is no reason to doubt its sincerity and in any case it has a bit more credibility than your gut “takes” on Cheney’s and Blair’s psychology. Almost anything would.

86

rf 03.19.13 at 11:20 pm

I’m not arguing the CIA document is ‘bunk’ just that it should be taken with a pinch of salt..and havent offered any take on Cheney or Blairs psychology (from the gut or anywhere else)

87

rf 03.19.13 at 11:22 pm

Sorry the response to #64 wasnt me

88

Tim Wilkinson 03.20.13 at 1:07 am

Reports which have been heavily redacted are pretty close to being bunk (and the ambit of that particular report is of course restricted to discussing the ways in which Saddam – with his different, Iraqi, ‘logic system’ – was at fault for over-estimations, which were in any case largely irrelevant to any issue of preemptive invasion, of his germ and gas stocks and programmes).

We know there was intense political pressure to make the assessments as scary as possible, we can be sure that the CIA’s higher echelons would not want such corruption to be made public, and (AFAICT) we may note that there is scarcely any mention of such influence in these retrospectives as released.

These concerns are not easily dismissible as tinfoil hattery – see http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB129/ complaining about redaction, for example, and informed comment about top-down pressure here: http://www.armscontrol.org/events/iraq_july03

89

Hidari 03.20.13 at 1:43 pm

@83 The guys in the video below seem to be pretty excited about it too. The invasion of Iraq was great because it restored confidence in America.

http://mediamatters.org/video/2013/03/19/foxs-bolling-iraq-war-was-the-smartest-thing-ge/193131

90

roger gathman 03.20.13 at 3:38 pm

I’m sourly amused by how many of those wrong about Iraq, like George Packer, attribute being wrong to their being too nice and noble – and then end up adding, well, we got rid of Saddam, and to that all must bow. Now, if cancer had gotten rid of Saddam, it would not make cancer a beneficial organic condition. So I am unsure what is being argued for here/
But, just as one should resist arguments about alternatives to Bush’s action based on the idea that the 9.11 attack was an immutable historic fact which no president could have avoided – which I think is total nonsense – one should also avoid the trap of thinking that the only policy option before the U.S. post 9.11 was either to get rid of Saddam through invasion or not. Actually, the U.S. could have – and should have – trashed its Persian gulf policy and leaned heavily towards Iran if it really wanted to get rid of Saddam without war. A combination of recognizing Iran and strengthening economic relations with that country, and pouring money into Northern Iraq to bring Kurdistan into a new level of development would have had large and devastating consequences for Saddam even within the Baathist structure, which was supported partly by the fact that the U.S. kept both Iran and Iraq on the shitlist.
But of course nobody in D.C., that nest of conventional wisdom, corruption, and subgenius, even mentioned other options, even though such options had been enacted before – a notably precedent was Nixon’s detente with China. This, it turned out, actually benefited Taiwan in the long run, destroying the Nationalist illusion that cemented that party’s tyrannical grip on the island.
The reaction to the 10 year anniversary by the liberal hawks, who are much more powerful in O.’s administration than the liberal doves, shows, depressingly, that they have learned nothing, except that they were deluded by how wonderful they all are, and isn’t it a shame that we aren’t all so nice. Of course, this is the liberal vice – they are always excusing their defeats and missteps by reference to their superior intelligence and excellent ethical sensibilities. We can mock, but these people are still driving the Democratic party Bush lite foreign policy.

91

PHB 03.21.13 at 12:55 am

I think people are letting Blair off too easily.

Bush, Cheney and co obviously didn’t have a shred of integrity or honesty. Nor did any member of their government, not Rice, not Powell, none of them.

Blair was not such an obvious liar. That didn’t mean he was believable but he was the only member of the war party whose statements did not demand immediate rejection as obvious lies.

Blair’s statements did not convince me but they certainly persuaded a lot of people. If Blair had refused to join the war party the Bushies would have had a much harder time selling their war. Their only other non US supporter of significance was Silvio Berlusconi, the only politician who is arguably less credible than George W. Bush.

92

Belle Waring 03.21.13 at 1:45 am

Agreed that for people like me who wanted some intellectually-respectable frosting on the cake of “HULK SMASH PUNY FOREIGNERS”, Tony Blair was very crucial. He was clearly not a moron (whatever other faults he has, he’s even now obviously not stupid, just probably evil?) or an oil executive, and due to a special kind of verbal agility that Americans are wont to admire in English people he did very well in question time when the Iraq War issue came up (even though everyone else was right, and in all likelihood if I watched it now I wouldn’t think he had done so well.)

93

Rich Puchalsky 03.21.13 at 1:57 am

“Their only other non US supporter of significance was Silvio Berlusconi, the only politician who is arguably less credible than George W. Bush.”

Didn’t Vaclav Havel support the war? Perhaps not “of significance”, but in terms of moral authority he had a lot more to miscommit.

94

between4walls 03.21.13 at 1:59 am

There was also Aznar, though at least he wound up losing the next election.

95

hix 03.21.13 at 3:00 am

There were a lot more war supporters than Berlusconi or Blair in Europe. We have an unhealthy tendency to feal infirior and support every American shit out of some miguided Nato loyality/idea that Americans know better/fear to lose support against evil Russians or whatever. Angela Merkel was among those who thaught so.

96

Tim Wilkinson 03.21.13 at 9:22 am

I’ve just been told that the Today (morning news magazine) programme on BBC Radio 4 is ending a few minutes early to make way for a ‘deck Syria’ campaign – Google’s topmost relevant result for ‘deck syria’ was a post from ‘EastAnglianEDL’, reporting that ‘the Disasters Emergency Committee, which represents 14 UK aid agencies is launching an appeal to help those affected by two years of conflict in Syria.’ (sourced from the BBC).

It’s very unusual to have charity appeals interrupting programming on the BBC. This follows recent reports about UK govt upping the volume of its calls to have the arms embargo lifted, so that the Syrian rebels can openly be armed. And yesterday, there was a report of someone letting off a rocket containing poison gas http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-21863750 which if you read closely seems probably not to have actually happened but for there at least to have been enough doubt for both sides to blame the other just in case. But the point is it was enough to get a slot on news programmes, and Mr Obama, on a visit to Israel, said some Syrian government officials had “expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves”. He repeated his insistence that chemical weapons were a “red line” for the US in terms of its involvement in Syria, saying using them against Syrian people “would be a serious and tragic mistake”.

I expect to hear more stuff like this in the next few weeks, building up a strong but ultimately nebulous impression that Something Must be Done.

(The EDL, English Defence League, is a shady Islamophobic, incongruously but pointedly pro-Israel, astroturf organisation whose bodies are a smallish rump of racist/football hooligan/ skinhead types, hasn’t been in the news much since the Economic State of Emergency took over headlines from the War on Terror over here.)

97

rf 03.21.13 at 9:47 am

Disasters Emergency Committee:

“The DEC brings 14 leading UK aid charities together in times of crisis: Action Aid, Age International, British Red Cross, CAFOD, Care International, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Plan UK, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision; all collectively raising money to reach those in need quickly.”

Nothing to do with the EDL. I’m not sure what the issue is?

98

Tim Wilkinson 03.21.13 at 10:23 am

No, of course the DEC is not connected with the EDL. That is just an odd organisation in its own right which is pushing the same thing. The point is that there is a buzz building, among the great and the good as well as the grotesque and nasty. I am making a prediction that things have been shifted up a gear on the Syria front in the last day or so, on the basis of observing what I think look like ripples in the pool (excuse mixture of methaphors). I am not trying to suggest that Obama, ‘Tommy Whassname’, the controller of R4, the secretariat of DEC, etc. have had a pow-wow in a smoky room to discuss how to stage a rocket attack and invade Syria.

99

Tim Wilkinson 03.21.13 at 11:16 am

I should add that by ‘Something Must be Done’ I mean a military intervention. Obviously something should have been done during the last two years to try and prevent, then halt the violence – but instead it has been escalating all this time.

Continuing the probabilistic, sketchy attempt to guess at unseen events – a possibly somewhat proximate node in the causal web might be:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/21/us-syria-crisis-golan-idUSBRE92K0BI20130321

(Reuters) – Syrian rebels have overrun several towns near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the past 24 hours, rebels and a monitoring group said on Thursday, fuelling tensions in the sensitive military zone…There is growing concern in Israel that Islamist rebels may be emboldened to end the quiet maintained by Assad and his father before him on the Golan front since 1974.

100

rf 03.21.13 at 11:54 am

But what could have been done in the last 2 years to halt the violence without some sort of military intervention? Perhaps more concentrated diplomacy? Or arming the rebels earlier?

101

Tim Wilkinson 03.21.13 at 12:00 pm

Not to hog the tail-end of this thread, but this stuff is on topic, really. A couple more links:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/cb3dab42-908f-11e2-a456-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz2OAnOv8vl

(Mar 19) Dr Raymond Zilinskas, a leading authority on chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said he doubted a chemical weapons attack had taken place after studying pictures of the alleged victims.
“What appears to be medical masks worn by hospital personnel and some bystanders would not be sufficient to protect against chemical weapons agents,” he said. “The likelihood of a chemical attack having taken place is low as far as I am concerned.”
The US, which has previously said that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” in Syria said that there was no evidence either side had used them.

(yet recall in above link, Mar 20, Obama has said he is “deeply sceptical” of the Syrian government’s allegations that rebel forces used such weapons…[and] said some Syrian government officials had “expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves”. He repeated his insistence that chemical weapons were a “red line” for the US. This is the more prominent of the (prepared) statements; and highly suggestive of course.)

http://www.timesofisrael.com/us-backs-british-french-plan-to-arm-syrian-rebels/
(Mar 18)
The Obama administration lent its support Monday to British and French plans to arm Syria’s rebels, saying it wouldn’t stand in the way of any country seeking to rebalance the fight against an Assad regime supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the longer Syria’s two-year civil war goes on, the greater the danger of its institutions collapsing and extremists getting their hands on the Arab country’s vast chemical weapons arsenal. … he said the conflict is becoming a “global catastrophe.”

Support for greater US involvement appears to be growing in Congress. On Monday, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced legislation to train and arm vetted Syrian opposition forces.

Kerry said Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda-related elements are helping Assad.
With al-Qaeda and its allies, it’s unclear what support the secretary of state was describing. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has clearly backed Syria’s rebels, which has been acknowledged by US and other Western officials, particularly through its relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra — which the US has declared a foreign terrorist organization.

Sorry to splurge, but seems appropriate given the above to provide testimony – in real time, from beneath the foil hat – on (what I think looks increasingly like) regime change 3.0.

102

Jon H 03.21.13 at 3:33 pm

@96: “And yesterday, there was a report of someone letting off a rocket containing poison gas http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-21863750 which if you read closely seems probably not to have actually happened but for there at least to have been enough doubt for both sides to blame the other just in case.”

There was a prior report in January that Assad had used chemical weapons. That one didn’t stick, so I guess they’re trying again.

That’s the problem with drawing a red line for intervention. The side that wants you to intervene will have incentive to stage a fake event that crosses that red line.

103

Jon H 03.21.13 at 3:39 pm

Anyone remember Saddam’s giant document drop?

The one that the US pretty much stepped in ASAP and said “Nope, we’ll be taking custody of this stuff”.

I can’t seem to find anything about it now.

104

rf 03.21.13 at 3:52 pm

A lot of them are being used by researchers akaik. Duefler used some. There have been reports to Senate commitees etc. Joseph Sasson wrote a pretty interesting book on Saddams regime from some of them
On false flags and intervention etc, the US has had opportunities to intervene, or at least substantially arm the rebels, but has refused to (most recently Obama rejecting a plan for electoral reasons apparently) Of course some in the admin want to get involved more than others, but it doesnt look like any intervention is going to make much of a difference

105

Rich Puchalsky 03.21.13 at 3:59 pm

“But what could have been done in the last 2 years to halt the violence without some sort of military intervention? Perhaps more concentrated diplomacy? Or arming the rebels earlier?”

An MLK Jr quote that I can no longer turn up said something about tolerating young countries as they went through their own revolutionary struggles. What should people have done to halt the violence of the American Revolutionary War? Or the American Civil War?

106

rf 03.21.13 at 4:04 pm

Yeah that might be the best option in certain circumstances, but I wouldnt take it as a general rule. I would hope we could come up with some sort of coherent response and not fall back on examples from the 18th and 19th centuries

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Rich Puchalsky 03.21.13 at 4:17 pm

“I would hope we could come up with some sort of coherent response and not fall back on examples from the 18th and 19th centuries.”

Why? Our political system is based — formally, for the U.S. — on the 18th and 19th centuries. The whole 20th century was more or less a process of throwing the formal constraints on warmaking away without acknowledging that we were doing so. Coming up with a coherent response would mean getting rid of that relic, the Constitution, which has very little to say about Presidential / imperialistic adventures in name of civilizing some natives.

Or, I think that there are really only two basic general rules, either “Only go to war if we are directly attacked” or “Let’s kill people whenever we feel like it.” I prefer the first one.

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rf 03.21.13 at 4:42 pm

Well I’m talking more generally with the ‘we’ (as in ‘the international community’ or whatever we might call it) I’m not sure doing nothing unless your caveat is met is either politically realistic or something to aspire to. Especially when you have the potential of a major regional war escalating. (And when ‘doing nothing’ is not an aspiration that’s ever met – the Gulf States, Iran, probably Hezbollah, Turkey, seemingly Libya, and in the future the US and Europe are all arming/about to arm groups in the country – this seems the worst possible state of affairs)
Which is not to say I support intervention (i dont know) and I didnt in 2011, or with Libya (though I’ve reconsidered that)
The intitial point was a reposne to Tim’s ‘something should have been done’..just not military intervention..I was wondering what that was..as you have to lay out what that something is

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Rich Puchalsky 03.21.13 at 4:49 pm

If the demand is “something has to be done”, and “you have to lay out what that something is”, and the answer can not be “nothing”, then you’ve defined your way out of a very basic and coherent answer.

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rf 03.21.13 at 4:51 pm

I dont get you. If your position is we do nothing, then fine, that’s your position. If your position is something has to be done then what’s that something

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Rich Puchalsky 03.21.13 at 4:58 pm

Tim W wrote: “Obviously something should have been done during the last two years to try and prevent, then halt the violence – but instead it has been escalating all this time.”

Yes, I’m disagreeing with Tim. Saying that “something should have been done”, in the current international system, comes down to saying that a series of events should have started which would lead to sanctions or invasion, either one of which quite possibly kills more people than the civil war and leaves the political issues in the country unsettled. If the international system was actually set up to try and prevent or halt violence, it might be different, but it isn’t.

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Tim Wilkinson 03.21.13 at 9:14 pm

I don’t think there’s any reason to think the US has really ‘refused’ to arm the rebels directly or indirectly, nor that it has hitherto ‘stood in the way of any country seeking to rebalance the fight’, to use the diplomatese.

The language of ‘balancing’ is quite out of place here anyway. If the rebels got the upper hand, would the US volunteer statements encouraging other countries to rebalance the fight in favour of Assad’s regime?

I don’t go in for all this ‘the country has a right to sort its own affairs out’ business anyway – too many innocent bystanders getting ripped apart, dying from disease and all the other prosaic horrors of war. But even if one did think that some kind of bloody self-determination were the priority here, ‘balancing’ the fight is entirely out of place – it’s a war, not a decision procedure to be rendered ‘fair’, like some bout between champions. Balancing just makes it more attritional. If you think the wrong side is losing and you’re willing to get involved, getting it over with quickly would be the most humane option, rather than maintaining a ‘balance’. (“Don’t mention arming both sides and then stepping in towards the end – I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it”.)

The UN have arranged ceasefires, sent 300 unarmed observers and tried to get talks going. Assad has offered talks on a new constititution, elections, and suchlike (we don’t really know how sincerely or credibly, and we aren’t going to find out). NATO powers could have tried to help – offering some peacekeeping forces to be joined by others, getting down to some serious diplomacy, I don’t exactly know. What I do know is that instead of making any attempt to do anything like that, they have constantly kept up encouragement to the rebels to demand Assad step down – into the arms of a kangaroo court or a lynch mob, he must fear – as a precondition for talks: the classic diplomatic figleaf of the offer he can’t accept. And when this ridiculous opening gambit was not met, the ceasefires do look to have been broken by the rebels, openly encouraged to continue fighting by the support of the superpower.

Some kind of compromise ought to be possible Assad knows that he isn’t going to win the war outright given NATO don’t want him to, and that unless he plays his cards very very carefully, he is going to go the way of Saddam and Gaddafi (it may already be too late by now). Surely no-one is credulous enough to believe that this one is a Mad Dog who can’t be reasoned with – he speaks English properly and has good taste and everything. Meanwhile Russia and China don’t seem that intransigent, really; they’ve been willing to officially censure Assad, which is a damn sight further than the NATO powers have been willing to go, and certainly aren’t going to get directly involved on the ground. If the will were there, I don’t see that it would really be unfeasible for the rulers of the world, no less, to stop egging the rebels on and instead knock some heads together, really do whatever’s needed to show some good faith, get some talks going and start looking at some creative solutions to the situation. It may be too late now, and it’s not going to happen anyway because they have long since decided otherwise, but it’s not impossible – and that means it should be, or should have been really tried properly.

Regardless of what anyone else has been up to, the NATO powers’ role in sustaining hostilities is inexcusable, however unlikely one may think it that some compromise could have been reached. Enthusiasm about ‘revolution’ or a desire to see Assad banished and humiliated cannot possibly excuse the potentially avoidable misery, suffering and death wrought thus far and still to come. Nor IMO can the aim of a possible more free, equal and/or democratic future (how soon? Before the end of Assad’s probable lifespan?) – a future which in any case is not obviously best reached by starting from the burned-out husk of a country ravaged by sectarian bloodshed.

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Peter T 03.21.13 at 11:28 pm

re Tim Wilkinson at 112

CT commenters (and others) are very good at putting the finger on the pathologies rampant in Washington or London – the macho posturing, playing to loony constituencies, the self-validating beliefs circulating among the punditocracy (my HTML skills preclude me linking to a small selection of very sharp comments). But this largely disappears when the subject is what to do about some issue abroad. The choices made by Saddam, Milosevic, Assad, Ghaddafi, Bush, Cheney and so on were in retrospect awful. Even at the time they often made little sense in terms of their own survival or the survival of their regimes. In short, they were as much in the grip of various pathologies of power as their counterparts in Washington or London. As were – and are – their opponents. There are few good reasons to assume reasonableness, or fully rational calculation.

What we can fault Washington (and Damascus) for is not making every effort to understand the issues motivating the parties in terms of their particular histories, personalities and passions, and to deal with the situation in terms of that understanding – not in terms of sketchy abstractions.

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roger gathman 03.22.13 at 3:10 am

The Syrian situation, like Iraq, contains many variables that are distorted or ignored in the U.S. press. Assad not only represents the alawite shi’ia side, but the Christian side as well, which is why many Lebanese Christians support him – and he is opposed by precisely the kind of Sunni militants, the al qaeda types, that the U.S supposedly opposes. Of course, the U.S. began by training and arming those al qaeda types in the 1980s, so perhaps everything is cycling again. But the result in Syria, whatever side wins, is going to go against the U.S. There are situations where the U.S. has no allies – this is one of them. Iraq, of course, was another. One of the funnier-sadder things about the ten year anniversary is all the warhawk journalists – Filkins for instance, or Jon Anderson in the New Yorker – mention that their Iraqi “friends” have all fled the country, without considering that, perhaps, this is a sign of how abnormal their sample of Iraqis was, all along – that the upper middle class English speaking Iraqi might not have been exactly the best source to give a journalist a sense of the country. I think that the Iraqi war might well have been the worst reported war in U.S. history for exactly this reason – give or take Korea. The American newsmedia, when it wasn’t simply boosting the American side, was massively mislead by their own biases and their inability to pierce the ghetto in which they were embedded. It was basically useless to the reader.

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Peter T 03.22.13 at 5:13 am

It wasn’t just the newsmedia – it was the administration, much of the political class and a good deal of the bureaucracy. This ignorance was no doubt partly wilful, but I think there were other causes. It doesn’t hurt to note that Saddam and the clique around him seem to have been equally bad at reading the situation. The Iranian leadership seem to have had the clearest view and the savviest policies (or maybe they just got lucky).

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Hidari 03.22.13 at 5:26 am

“The Syrian situation, like Iraq, contains many variables that are distorted or ignored in the U.S. press. Assad not only represents the alawite shi’ia side, but the Christian side as well, which is why many Lebanese Christians support him – and he is opposed by precisely the kind of Sunni militants, the al qaeda types, that the U.S supposedly opposes.”

The key word in that sentence is of course “supposedly”.

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roger gathman 03.22.13 at 3:33 pm

Well, supposedly does lead to the history of American foreign policy, which creates freedom fighters in one decade and labels them terrorists in the next. A fact that you cannot hammer into the heads of the policymaking circles in D.C. who do it. They don’t care.

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Aaron 03.22.13 at 3:33 pm

I think a lot of the blame has to fall on the news media. I supported the war and my only excuse is that I was in high school at the time and did not really know how the world works, but most of what I saw in the media (nytimes, other online stuff I think) implied that there were at least good and credible reasons to support the war. The voices of dissent that I saw seemed more opposed to war generally or believed the government to have secret financial motives such as oil (both positions would have seemed much more reasonable to someone outside the US or with a better understanding of war and policy than I had at the time). I think the Bush administration did a good job of propagandizing the war. But looking back I realize how foolish being pro-war was and just wonder that I didn’t take the dissenters more seriously.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.22.13 at 3:59 pm

Don’t feel bad about it, Aaron; you were in high school. I think that being that age is a good enough excuse for most things.

But yeah, much older and theoretically wiser people than high school students often look at opposition to a war and say something like “Oh, but those people oppose all war.” It was never clear to me why this was a disqualification. It appears quite often on Crooked Timber in the form “Let us honor those impractical pacifists, but now, are there any serious reasons to oppose this war?” I remember that one from the Libya adventure.

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Hidari 03.22.13 at 4:18 pm

@119 Still I`m sure that after all the bad luck we have had in our last few hundred interventions our next fun-packed jape in Syria will go perfectly. After all, this time it`s different.

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