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The Case For War

Kevin Drum responds to Norman Podhoretz's essay detailing the case for war in Iraq:

Nor does Podhoretz apply himself to the entire period before the war. He stops his investigation at the end of 2002. But that's not when we went to war. We went to war in March 2003, and by that time UN inspectors had been combing Iraq for months with the help of U.S. intelligence. They found nothing, and an increasing chorus of informed minds was starting to wonder if perhaps there was nothing there. In response, President Bush and his supporters merely amped up their certainty that Saddam was hiding something.

Let's go back, look at the record and see if we can't refresh our memories a bit. The issue, as it stood throughout all of 2002, started with this declaration by the President in his State of Union address in late January of that year:

Our nation will continue to be steadfast and patient and persistent in the pursuit of two great objectives.  First, we will shut down terrorist camps, disrupt terrorist plans, and bring terrorists to justice.  And, second, we must prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world.

We all know Bush explicitly singled out Iraq:

Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror.  The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade.  This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens -- leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children.  This is a regime that agreed to international inspections -- then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.

The first four sentences of the above paragraph represent uncontested fact. The last is a reasonable, logical, and prudent conclusion flowing from the previous four.

The implication of Bush's words were clear and supremely significant: in the aftermath of 9/11 America would no longer tolerate Iraq's deception, its cat-and-mouse games, its flouting of international authority.  The burden of proof on WMD, which for so long had rested on the international community's ability (or lack thereof) to make a case, shifted directly to Iraq. It was Hussein's responsibility to come clean once and for all, to open up to inspections and make a full and complete accounting to the world.

Eight months later (a pretty pathetic rush to war, if you ask me) Bush made the same cogent, powerful argument directly to the United Nations on September 12, 2002. The UN Security Council responded by unanimously approving Resolution 1441 on November 8 which gave Iraq "a final opportunity" to "provide accurate, full, final, and complete disclosure" of its past and present WMD activities.

Almost three weeks went by before inspections resumed in Iraq on November 27, 2002. At this point there was still a general consensus among intelligence agencies around the world - not to mention policy experts and politicians from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. dating back nearly 10 years - about what type of WMD Iraq was potentially concealing.

Yes, we now know there were some dissenting opinions in the mix of intelligence, but that only serves to highlight a point that cannot be overstated: our ability to know exactly what Saddam had or didn't have depended almost exclusively on his willingness to cooperate with the inspection and disarmament process.  Everyone, including Hans Blix, knew this and stated it openly and repeatedly, often citing South Africa as the model for full, accurate, and complete disarming of WMD.

The record shows that is not how Saddam behaved. On December 7 Iraq submitted a 12,000 page weapons declaration which both the U.S. and the U.N. found to contain "gaps" and "inconsistencies" which Iraq either could not or would not explain.  Inspectors gained access to sites but were accompanied by groups of Iraqi "minders" in ratios as high as five to one.  Iraq initially refused to allow inspectors to interview its scientists under conditions set by the UN. And on and on.

Far from being open and cooperative, what little compliance the UN received from Iraq came at the point of the gun. Saddam became a bit more responsive as the first U.S. soldiers began massing in the Persian Gulf in early 2003, but even after eight full weeks of inspections Hans Blix opened his status report before the U.N. on January 27, 2003 by saying:

Unlike South Africa, which decided on its own to eliminate its nuclear weapons and welcomed the inspection as a means of creating confidence in its disarmament, Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace.

At the point Bush made the decision to go to war in March 2003, Saddam had had more than four months worth of opportunities after the passage of Resolution 1441 (and another 12 years and 15 resolutions before that) to make a meaningful display of cooperation on the issue of WMD disarmament to the US and the UN. He never chose to do so.

We now know one of the reasons Saddam never felt pressured to cooperate is because he had been running a multibillion dollar bribery scam through the U.N. itself. Support for sanctions was on the verge of crumbling.  And everyone knew maintaining a huge U.S. military force on the Iraqi border to force continued inspections was untenable for any serious length of time.

In the end, the story of the run-up to the Iraq war is about intelligence, but not in the way most people think.  Intelligence is always flawed and imprecise, even more so when you're dealing with a closed, paranoid and authoritarian regime like Hussein's. It's foolish to suggest Bush should have bucked consensus estimates on Iraq WMD built from more than a decade of intel, and it's even worse to suggest he lied for not doing so. 

What President Bush did instead was put an end to the decade-long guessing game and place the burden squarely on Saddam Hussein by saying in front of the world: "This is what we think you have. It's now your responsibility to prove us wrong." In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in the history of America, it was absolutely the right thing to do.