A failure to find weapons of mass destruction does not prove the war on Iraq was based on a lie.
Though saying otherwise is of obvious political utility to partisan critics of President Bush, it does not withstand scrutiny. It does, however, show that intelligence will probably never be certain enough to remove the controversy from the so called Bush preemptive strike doctrine.
Virtually everyone agrees that Iraq had WMD when it gassed the Kurds and when the UN Special Commission uncovered the program post-Desert storm. So the real issue is whether Iraq got rid of them by early last year, when Bush pushed the Iraqi arsenal to the top of the global security agenda; whether Iraq got rid of them just before the war or whether they are still waiting to be discovered.
So far, a failure to find stockpiles is consistent with any of these explanations. Note that the critics who were unwilling to judge Iraq without several more years of UN.-run inspections are also the ones who are ready to reach a judgment on Bush's alleged duplicity after just months of U.S.-led inspections.
Suppose it emerges that Saddam Hussein did not have WMD in 2002 when Bush claimed he did. Does this mean Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair fabricated evidence to show Iraq posed a threat? This is doubtful in the extreme, unless Bush and Blair were in a vast conspiracy with the following unlikely bedfellows who also believed Iraq had substantial unaccounted for chem-bio stockpiles: Hans Blix and the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission; former President Clinton and his national security team; former Vice President Al Gore; French intelligence; half of the Democratic presidential candidates; most major players in the United Nations and even Iranian intelligence.
Of course, the difficulty in finding any WMD stockpiles does demonstrate that our intelligence was hardly foolproof. We expected the Iraqis to use.WMD, and they didn't. We expected to find weapons dispersed to forward depots, and they weren't. We expected some defectors to lead us to caches and they havent so far. Critics are wrong to conclude that all of the intelligence assessments were wrong because these were. But the Bush administration is no less wrong in pretending these are not serious failures in intelligence.
Every administration has been charged with politicizing intelligence." Indeed, some of the administration's now-controversial activities were attempts to deal with perceived politicization of intelligence in earlier periods. Some of the people complaining loudest that Bush exaggerated the significance of questionable intelligence indicating a serious Iraqi threat also complain the loudest that he under-emphasized the significance of questionable intelligence indicating a possible 9/11 attack. The truth is that intelligence is always uncertain, and analysts seldom fully agree even on narrow technical questions, let alone broader assessments. That is why documents that reflect intelligence consensus almost always have broad caveats or reflect lowest-common-denominator judgments.
It appears the Bush team did one thing very right: It met directly with analysts and challenged them to think and rethink assumptions. In some cases, the hawks have been proved right. Osama bon Laden urged his followers to support Saddam with terrorist acts during the war. Bush hawks thought this was possible, but some intelligence analysts assumed there would never be collaboration between a secular Baathist regime and a fundamentalist al-Qaeda network.
There is only one bona fide example of Bush relying on truly shoddy intelligence: when he claimed the Iraqis had tried to buy nuclear materials from Niger. The best available reports suggest the claim was based partly on a forged document. The mistake was including it in White House-level documents even after senior intelligence officials knew or strongly suspected it was bogus. Undoubtedly, this mistake occurred because the document supported a view the Bush team already had that Saddam was not abandoning his nuclear ambition. Bogus documents purporting to prove the opposite would have gotten far more scrutiny. But the hoax was exposed months before the war started so, if anything, this episode undercut support rather than tricked people into supporting the war.
Other claims look less dubious now than when the Bush team first raised them. The mobile laboratories for making WMD were discovered. We now know that French intelligence concurred with Secretary of State Colin Powell (and disagreed with some U.S. and international experts) that the aluminum alloy tubes were probably destined for a nuclear program. The British claim that Iraq could fire WMD warheads within 45 minutes of Saddam's order now appears linked to an active senior Iraqi officer, not a dubious defector as critics believed.
It is simply dishonest to pretend that the world was duped by bogus intelligence. Every dubious claim the Niger purchase, the aluminum tubes, the link to al-Qaeda was thoroughly debated, and the doubts of some in the intelligence community about particular claims were widely discussed well in advance of the war.
Added up, the "politicization charge is really a claim that war proponents were predisposed to accept the worst about Iraqi WMD as well as the more bleak assessments of the consequences of not going to war and the more rosy assessments of waging war.
Incidentally, this is exactly what war opponents did: They were predisposed to accept even wildly exaggerated bleak assessments of what war would produce along with rosy assessments of what would happen without it. So far, the actual events have been in the middle, and we will never know whether this was because all intelligence assessments were flawed or because one side was luckier than expected at beating the odds. Intelligence cannot answer this question, and this is why future "preemptive" wars always will be controversial. Bush changed his policy on Iraq after Sept. 11, 2001, not because of new intelligence about the Iraqi threat but because the same intelligence looked different after 9/11. Before 9/11, Bush was willing to risk leaving in power a determined, WMD-seeking foe who had largely shaken loose of the UN inspections/sanctions regime. After 9/11, the risk had not changed one iota, but Bush's willingness to run that risk had.
Bush proposed invading not because Iraq was just about to attack the United States or its allies, but because we would never know for certain when Iraq was just about to attack," and he was determined to deal with a probable threat sooner rather than later. This does not mean the United States should consider attacking every country because we can never be certain it won't one day attack us. Only partisan critics peddle that straw man version of the Bush doctrine. It does mean, however, that patterns of deception and the pursuit of WMD will be less tolerable than they once were, especially in a country such as Iraq that has resisted all other diplomatic means.
Previously published in The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC, USA, June 15, 2003. Republished by permission of the author and through the courtesy of The News & Observer.