The revision of the history of the Iraq war continues incessantly, undaunted by fact or reason, with the intelligentsia compliantly playing their role in the development and establishment of any number of popular myths. Peter Wehner’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Revisionist History: Antiwar myths about Iraq, debunked” is no exception.
The “critics”, writes Wehner, say “the president misled the country in order to justify the Iraq war; his administration pressured intelligence agencies to bias their judgments; Saddam Hussein turned out to be no threat since he didn’t possess weapons of mass destruction; and helping democracy take root in the Middle East was a postwar rationalization.”
Since these are “myths”, we may conclude that the president did not mislead the country to justify war and did not pressure intelligence agencies to bias their judgments; that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the US despite not having any WMD; and “helping democracy rake root” was the rationalization given to justify the war prior to the invasion. To some, these assertions may seem unworthy of comment. But the arguments presented to “debunk” these “myths” are instructive, and there may be a lesson in examining each of them seriously. Let’s examine each, beginning with the last.
To demonstrate that “helping democracy take root” in Iraq was not a postwar rationalization, Wehner quotes President Bush from February 26, 2003 saying “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values…. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.” So there you have it. “Helping democracy take root” was a rationale provided prior to the invasion
The only problem with this “debunking” is that the only thing it knocks down is a strawman. Nobody denies that policy makers waxed poetic about principles of “freedom” and “liberty” and “democratic values”, or that the administration claimed a healthy democracy would arise from the ashes of the Hussein regime. Rather, when people like Nancy Pelosi, whom Wehner quotes as spreading the “myth”, say things like, “The president now says that the war is really about the spread of democracy in the Middle East. This effort at after-the-fact justification was only made necessary because the primary rationale was so sadly lacking in fact”, they are addressing the fact that the primary rationale for the war, prior to the war, was Iraq’s alleged possession of WMD, while the primary rationale for the war, after no WMD were found, has been “helping democracy take root”.
Take this same speech of the President in which he argues that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would lead to a peaceful and democratic Iraq. This was not the primary rationalization given as justification for military action, but merely an expression of an added benefit that would result from the coming war, which was actually rationalized on other grounds. Specifically, the primary rationalization, provided in the same speech, was that “In Iraq, a dictator is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world—and we will not allow it. This same tyrant has close ties to terrorist organizations, and could supply them with the terrible means to strike this country—and America will not permit it. The danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons cannot be ignored or wished away. The danger must be confronted.”
The American people were not led to believe that war was necessary to promote democracy in the Middle East, but rather that it was necessary to confront the “danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons”. Nor did the Congress authorize the use of force against Iraq to “help democracy take root”, but rather to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq”, a threat defined by Iraq’s alleged possession of WMD.
When asked after the invasion whether “the action was justified” if WMDs were not found, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer did not respond by saying the war was justified because it would “help democracy take root”, but rather by saying, “You’re asking about a hypothetical that I just told you I don’t think is going to happen.” A few days later he reiterated: “But make no mistake—as I said earlier—we have high confidence that they have weapons of mass destruction. That is what this war was about and it is about.”
As we all know, however, that primary rationale for the war would later change, shifting to “helping democracy take root”, as it become even more apparent that there were no WMD in Iraq. This shift in rationale, perfectly apparent to any rational observer even mildly interested in the facts, is simply too inconvenient for Wehner to acknowledge; and hence he dismisses it as nothing more than “myth”, with the expectation that his audience will by now have forgotten that WMD “is what this war was about”.
Take next Wehner’s assertion that it is a “myth” that “Because weapons of mass destruction stockpiles weren’t found, Saddam posed no threat.” One might first note that once again a strawman is employed. That is to say, nobody argues that Saddam wasn’t a threat because “stockpiles weren’t found”. Rather, rational observers point out that the argument that Saddam was a “threat” was predicated upon the declaration that he had WMD. But Iraq had no WMD, and so he was therefore not a threat.
Wehner dismisses this elementary logic and quotes David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group, as saying, “I actually think this may be one of those cases where [Iraq under Saddam Hussein] was even more dangerous than we thought.” The reason is that “We have discovered dozens of WMD-related program activities” demonstrating that “Saddam…had not given up his aspirations and intentions to continue to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”
Let us assume, for the moment, that “dozens of WMD-related program activities” were actually found in Iraq (the evidence Kay provides to support his statement is scant). The argument presented to us here, which we are supposed to accept without question, is that “WMD-related program activities” are even “more dangerous” than the existence of actual WMD, and that “aspirations and intentions” to acquire WMD are even “more dangerous” than possession of and willingness to use them. This is nonsense, of course, hardly worthy of comment but for the fact that it is so eagerly accepted by Wehner and others, who expect their audience to similarly pass through the looking glass to that place where fact and logic don’t apply.
Wehner also quotes Charles Duelfer, Kay’s successor, as saying that Saddam wanted to “sustain the intellectual capacity achieved” to produce WMD. Of course, for this “intellectual capacity” not to be preserved, Saddam would have had to execute every scientist involved in Iraq’s various pre-Gulf War WMD programs. It is only by virtue of the fact that these scientists remained alive and in Iraq that Duelfer could claim that Iraq’s “intellectual capacity” to make WMD was being sustained.
Nonsense aside, the point is that Saddam Hussein wanted WMD and could have one day obtained them. The “threat” is thus defined by this hypothetical, nonexistent in actual fact and circumstance. Wehner, by relying upon this hypothetical “threat”, thus tacitly acknowledges that there was no actual threat from Iraq, and so we may dismiss his “debunking” of the “myth”.
Wehner “debunks” the “myth” that “The Bush administration pressured intelligence agencies to bias their judgments” by citing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq, which said that, “The committee did not find any evidence that intelligence analysts changed their judgments as a result of political pressure, altered or produced intelligence products to conform with administration policy, or that anyone even attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to do so.” The Silberman-Robb report, he notes, came to a similar conclusion.
Let’s first look at the conclusion that analysts within the intelligence community were not pressured to change their judgments. This is plausible. Take, for example, the case of the aluminum tubes. It is correct to say that there is no evidence that Department of Energy analysts, who concluded that the tubes were not suitable for use in a centrifuge, but most likely intended for use in a conventional rocket program, were pressured or intimidated to change their assessment. Nor was there any evidence that analysts from the State Department’s intelligence branch, the INR, who concurred with the DOE assessment, were pressured to change that assessment.
Indeed, no pressure was required. Instead, the CIA fulfilled its function with no inconsiderable success by marginalizing the DOE and INR assessments and propagating its own conclusion that was better suited to the task of implementing the official policy of regime change. The SSCI report documents at great length that the CIA repeatedly failed to produce any credible evidence to sustain its arguments and simply dismissed DOE and INR arguments to the contrary, though one would certainly not be aware of this fact by relying upon editorials in The Wall Street Journal for information.
One would think that policy makers interested in learning the truth, prior to making declarations of fact about the tubes, would have sought the assessment of the nation’s leading experts on nuclear centrifuges, who, by no mere coincidence, could have been found at the DOE. Instead, we find that the assessment of the nation’s top nuclear analysts was not merely marginalized in public statements, but dismissed altogether. In fact, the administration never publicly acknowledged prior to the invasion that the nation’s leading experts on centrifuges disagreed with their repeated declarations that, in the words of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs”. This was no mere accident, no “failure” of “intelligence”.
Wehner may be correct that it is a “myth” that analysts were pressured to alter their assessments. Rather, producing assessments conforming with official policy seems to be a task performed willingly by any number of analysts, particularly at the CIA, who, without any evidence of pressure, were just as eager to marginalize other, more honest, experts who disagreed with them.
That the analysts whose assessments were “riddled with errors” (to quote from Wehner, quoting the SSCI report) were stove-piped to policy makers while those whose assessments we now know were correct were marginalized or dismissed altogether should tell us something. The fact that this was not a random phenomenon, but the modus operandi, repeated systematically with nearly every aspect of the case for war, should be even more instructive. In short, to debunk one myth, Wehner is more than happy to propagate another; namely, the myth that there was some sort of “intelligence failure” leading up to the war.
This leads us to the “myth” that “The president misled Americans to convince them to go to war.” Wehner asserts that “Most of the world was operating from essentially the same set of assumptions regarding Iraq’s WMD capabilities. Important assumptions turned out wrong; but mistakenly relying on faulty intelligence is a world apart from lying about it.”
Wehner thus equates “faulty intelligence” with “assumptions” that “turned out wrong”. He adds that relying upon such “faulty intelligence” (i.e. false assumptions) is different than “lying”. This is false on its face. Making an assumption and stating it as fact is, by definition, lying. Moreover, making statements not supported by even faulty “intelligence” is, by definition, lying.
Take, once again, the aluminum tubes. Bush stated that “Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.” First, note that Bush stated as fact that the tubes were “to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.” The truth was that the tubes were not suitable for use in a centrifuge, and the fact of the matter was that even the CIA had acknowledged that they could not be used for such a purpose without significant alteration. The National Intelligence Estimate, which, Wehner correctly notes, “is the intelligence community’s authoritative written judgment on specific national-security issues”, noted that the DOE “assesses that the tubes probably are not part of” a nuclear weapons program, as well as the INR’s agreement with the DOE on that matter.
Wehner’s argument is thus fallacious on three counts. First of all, it is incorrect to say that making statements of fact based upon nothing more than unproven assumptions is not lying. Secondly, it is incorrect to suggest that the Bush administration made only statements supported by the available intelligence. Many statements made by the administration weren’t supported by even faulty “intelligence”, much less by actual credible evidence. Thirdly, not only were statements made based upon unproven assumptions and unsupported by any credible evidence, but many claims were in fact contradicted by the available intelligence.
It’s no slight irony that Wehner’s article is entitled “Revisionist History”, considering the fact that he argues therein that the Bush administration did not mislead the country into war, that Iraq was actually a “threat” to the US despite not having WMD, and that the rationalization given to justify the war didn’t change from WMD to “helping democracy take root”. The fact that such arguments actually find their way into print in the nation’s most respected newspapers, where they taken quite seriously, might provide some insight into the role of the media in our society, if we care to actually question the assumptions and take the time to examine the facts.
An oft-quoted proverb warns us that if we don’t learn from the mistakes of history, we may be doomed to repeat them. If we care to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past, it might just help to get our history right in the first place.