Monday, January 19, 2004

Comments on WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications

I have finished reading through the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report written by Joseph Cirincione, Jessica T. Mathews, and George Perkovich (available here) that been referenced a few times on this blog, and wish to share my thoughts. Mainly, I found the report to be a good synthesis on the statements made by the administration and the evidence (or lack thereof) that is in the public domain, but I am a little disappointed that the report seems to have reached farther than necessary in some of its conclusions. Specifically, the report does not emphasize that it is based on declassified and public information, and that any conclusions that are drawn without a full analysis of the classified material is quite obviously constrained. For instance, some of the "key findings" highlighted in the very beginning of the report are:

- Iraq's WMD programs represented a long-term threat that could not be ignored, They did not, however, pose an immediate threat to the United States, to the region, or to global security.
- With respect to nuclear and chemical weapons, the extent of the threat was largely knowable at the time.
- The uncertainties were much greater with regard to biological weapons.
- There was and is no solid evidence fo a cooperative relationship between Saddam's government and Al Qaeda.

If read with the caveat, "given what is publicly available, it appear's that...," then these statements seem fair. But where does that get us? To the same place that the report arrives at--calling for a nonpartisan independent commissino to investigation the state of intelligence from 1991-present. I just don't see what is gained by the authors stating unequivocally:

Based on what has been discovered in Iraq, it is plain that the dimensions and urgency of the WMD threat were far less than protrayed. Logic and the evidence available to date suggest that the likelihood that Saddam Hussein would give whatever WMD he possessed to terrorists was also far less than the administration believed. And, the belief that deterrence coudl not be used against Iraq appears unfounded. Thus, the threat that woudl be removed by war--the benefit in a cost-benefit framework--was far less than it was asserted to be. (Page 58).

All the same, I think the authors do an excellent job raising questions and tearing down the foundation of the preemption doctrine. They also demonstrate that the administration did misrepresent some of the information that has been made public, so there is good reason to remain skeptical about what hasn't been shared.

The paper offers a quote from Former British foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned over the war (his resignation speech may be found here on the BBC's website) that I think is particularly fitting to our administration--on virtually every issue it has faced:

I think it would be fair to say that there was a selection of evidence to support a conclusion. I fear we got into a position in which the intelligence was not being used to inform and shape policy, but to shape policy that was already settled.

The paper argues that the spin did not stop when we began the military operation, but has continued ever since. One of my favorite sections discussed a statement by David Kay on October 2 that Iraq had a "clandestine network of laboratories" and "concealed equipment and materials from UN inspectors," such as a "vial of live C. botulinum Okra B. from which a biological agent can be produced." The report then observes:

Kay's testimony and subsequent administration statements highlighted the discovery of the vial, stored in an Iraqi scientist's kitchen refrigerator since 1993. This was the only suspicious biological material Kay had reported as of the end of December 2003. President Bush said the "live strain of deadly agent botulinum" was proof that Saddam Hussein was "a danger to the world." Several former U.S. bioweapons officials, UN inspectors, and biological experts told the Los Angeles Times that the sample was purchased from the United States in the 1980s and that no country, including Iraq, has been able to use botulinum B in a weapon. Iraq has used the more deadly botulinum A in its pre-1991 weapon program, mimicking other countries' programs, including those of the Soviet Union and the United States. (Page 35.)

I think the report does an excellent job hammering home that the administration resorted to shady rhetorical practice in selling the war, including conflating the threat from biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons as all in one threat--the ominous threat from WMD. President Bush and others made references to "mushroom clouds." And virtually everyone in the administration treated Iraq as though it were an extension of al Qaeda, when no good evidence has been brought to light to demonstrate any connection.

The authors make their strongest points when addressing the Security Strategy. Much of what this report has to say echoes some of the same issues addressed by Record in "Bounding the Global War on Terrorism," discussed below, but a few points are worth highlighting. The report addresses the administration's decision to combine its preemption strategy with worst-case scenario evidence and reasoning:

The President stated the approach on October 7, 2002: "Understanding the threats of our time, knowing the designs and deceptions of the Iraqi regime, we have every reason to assume the worst, and we have an urgent duty to prevent the worst from occurring." Other members of the administration made the case that because our intelligence was imperfect, we had to assume that whatever signs of WMD we did detect was a small percentage of what was actually there. These reasonable-sounding statements describe an approach that is neither safe nor wise.

Worst-case planning is a valid and vital methodology, if used with a constant awareness of its limitations and if care is taken never to confuse the results with the realistic case. Acting on worst-case assumptions is an entirely different matter. To do so is to take the assessment out of threat assessment and largely to negate the billions spent on gathering intelligence. To cite one among many reasons, it leaves one open to one of the most common tactics in the history of warfare: bluff by adversaries seeking to gain an advantage by inflating their own capabilities.
(Page 54.)

And the report also suggests that we should more closely evaluate what residual role deterrence plays in a post- 9/11 world. The administration suspended decades of global security policy by fiat and without second thoughts, because it took for granted that 9/11 changed everything and made this doctrine antiquated. The paper quotes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass murder. We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light, through the prism of our experience on September 11th." (Page 57, quoting testimony Rumsfeld made before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 9, 2003, available here).

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