As the GOP has quickly settled into a new consensus that the decision to invade Iraq was – at least in retrospect – a mistake, it has come with a willful amnesia bordering on a whole new generation of deceit about exactly what happened in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. To hear Republican presidential candidates tell it, Americans believed Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction which justified and necessitated the invasion. Since he didn’t, there was no reason to invade. The carnage and collateral effects we’ve seen over the last dozen years only drives home the point: knowing what we know now, the invasion was a mistake. We wouldn’t do it again.
While it’s welcome to see the would-be heirs of President Bush, including his own brother, acknowledging the obvious, this history is such a staggering crock that it’s critical to go back and review what actually happened. Some of this was obvious to anyone who was paying attention. Some was only obvious to reporters covering the story who were steeped in the details. And some was only obvious to government officials who in the nature of things controlled access to information. But in the tightest concentric circle of information, at the White House, it was obviously all a crock at the time.
While it is true that “WMD” was a key premise for the war, the sheer volume of lies, willful exaggerations and comically wishful thinking are the real story.
Let’s start by reviewing some essential history and the several categories of willful lies that paved the ground for war.
First, it is true that US intelligence agencies believed well before President Bush even entered the White House in January 2001 that Saddam Hussein likely continued to possess or be developing some chemical and possible biological weapons capacity, as he had prior the Gulf War in 1991. Other Western intelligence agencies believed the same. But the nerve gas that Saddam used against Kurdish civilians in the 1980s never posed any imminent threat to the United States or really any direct threat to the United States mainland at all. These junior WMDs were a real issue. And that is why there was a broad consensus in favor of re-instituting the inspections regime that had been in place into the 1990s.
It was from this kernel of truth that the Bush administration and numerous neoconservatives policy experts and propagandists spun up a web of lies and willful exaggerations that goaded the country – already traumatized and angry after the 9/11 attacks – into war.
Let’s break them up into broad categories.
Part of the problem with the phrase “WMD” is that it classes together totally dissimilar weapons. Chemical weapons get classed together with doomsday biological contagions and the ultimate terror weapon – nukes. US intelligence agencies did not believe Saddam Hussein had any active nuclear weapons program, certainly nothing that put him anywhere near the ability to create a weapon. Not having UN inspectors in the country did create an element of uncertainty. And that was a rationale for re-instituting inspections. But there was zero evidence of any imminent or even medium term threat of nuclear weapons. None.
But by using the ambiguity of WMD code word the White House went to great lengths – even on numerous occasions facing demands from the CIA not to place willfully deceptive statements in the President’s mouth – to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein might be on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. There was simply no real evidence for this, even after the White House and Pentagon leadership pressed numerous conspiracy theories on what was actually fairly accommodating CIA leadership. In public the White House creating a confection of sleight of hand, misleading uses of the phrase ‘WMD’ and slivers of evidence, either misleading, inconsequential or bogus, to create a totally misleading picture. In some cases, it was just ominous catch-phrases used on a population not thinking that top administration officials would willfully deceive them, like when Condi Rice and other administration officials parried demands for clear evidence with the notorious rejoinder: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
This was quite simply a lie, and one which played a huge role in justifying and creating a climate of fear that made the invasion possible.
But there’s more.
Saddam’s Role In 9/11
The other key willful lie that paved the ground for war was the series of nonsensical conspiracy theories, embraced by the White House and Pentagon civilian leadership, which posited an alliance between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. While it never got official White House sanction, key administration leaders (Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, et al.) and outside surrogates pressed the argument that Hussein may actually have played a role in the 9/11 attacks themselves. Don Rumsfeld’s Pentagon actually set up a special civilian working group at the Pentagon to plumb the depths of the right-wing fever swamp for Saddam/al Qaida alliances theories to press the CIA to accept.
There you have the two pillars of the grand deception: Saddam with nuclear warheads and in active alliance with the reviled figure who had just pulled off a brutal and devastating terror attack on one of America’s biggest cities. Now that both 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq 18 months later have receded somewhat into history and we can see the events of that time with some distance and perspective, it’s no mystery that connecting these two dots would prime the country for almost anything. After all who would want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud?
It is very important to remember that before we invaded, Saddam Hussein actually did allow inspectors back into the country, thus undermining the key argument for following through with the threat of invasion in the first place. But the critical point is that we didn’t invade Iraq because we had “faulty” intelligence that Iraq still had stockpiles of sarin gas. The invasion was justified and sold to the American public on the twin frauds of the Iraq-al Qaeda alliance and the Saddam’s supposedly hidden nuclear program. As much as the White House and the key administration war hawks like Vice President Cheney tried to get the Intelligence Community to buy into these theories, they never did. And to anyone paying attention, certainly anyone reporting on these matters at the time, it was clear at the time this was nonsense and a willful deception.
There was of course still more involved. The White House insisted – over the vociferous disagreement of the Pentagon’s uniformed leadership – that the occupation would be quick and could be managed with a light force. We would, as the painful cliche had it, be greeted as liberators. It is probably true that if the insurgency had never happened and Iraq had become a stable and strong US ally, as predicted, the collapse of the original premise for the invasion would have been largely forgotten. It is the mix of immense costs of the invasion (human and financial) and the chaos in Iraq we are still wrestling with today combined with the collapse of any clear rationale for the invasion in the first place that explains why it remains such a charged and explosive issue even today.
The story we’re hearing today is: Yes, it was a mistake. We wouldn’t do it again knowing what we know now. But we acted on information that just turned out to be wrong. But that is quite simply a crock. The Bush administration was at best in deep denial about the true costs of the invasion. And it lead the country to war based on claims that were quite simply willful deceptions – lies. It may be too much to say that it was obvious to everyone at the time. But to reporters working the story and certainly anyone in the government, it was clear that the White House was involved in a mammoth exaggeration. Only later did it emerge that there was even more willful deception than those following closely realized at the time. Looking back and looking at the time it has always been somewhat difficult to find the bright line where flagrant lying met willful self-deception. But the truth is painful and clear: Iraq wasn’t a good faith mistake. It was a calamity based on lies and willful deceptions. Much of that was clear at the time. It’s all clear now.