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August 12th, 2003

Everybody is pretty much blogged out with Iraq, but I was still a bit surprised that this report on the Iraqi “mobile germ lab” trailers seems to have passed without notice. Given that the official position of the coalition governments, including the Australian government is still that these trailers constitute proof that Iraq had biological weapons, the report that

Engineering experts from the Defense Intelligence Agency have come to believe that the most likely use for two mysterious trailers found in Iraq was to produce hydrogen for weather balloons rather than to make biological weapons

is of interest in itself.

But the report is more interesting because the trailers represent the clearest illustration of the way in which we got into a war where the official pretext was Weapons of Mass Destruction. Unlike, say, the Niger uranium or the dodgy dossier, this process was largely public, or made so by leaks, from day 1.

It’s clear that the Administration honestly thought they had found the smoking gun when the trailers first turned up, then doggedly held to that view as the contrary evidence mounted (the absence of any biological evidence, even on the second truck which had not been cleaned; the insistence of the Iraqi scientists that the truck was used to produce hydrogen; the absence of crucial components etc). In defending its position, the Administration did its best to suppress any alternative view from its own agencies and to prevent outside experts from access to the evidence.

This was the same pattern as we saw in the leadup to the war. A year ago, nearly everyone (including me) assumed that Saddam was hiding weapons, so Bush Blair and Howard felt free to overstate the strength of their evidence, pointing to specific sites and making specific claims which can now be seen to be ill-founded. After Saddam called their bluff and the inspectors went in, the process became more and more dishonest and the pressure directed against sceptics intensified.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the UN Security Council majority was absolutely justified. On the basis of the case presented to them, which solely concerned Weapons of Mass Destruction, there was no justification for halting inspections and going to war.

Of course, there was a better reason for going to war, namely to replace Saddam’s government with a democratic or at least non-totalitarian one. But reliance on the WMD pretext undercut this rationale, since it had to be claimed that war would not go ahead if Saddam complied with the weapons resolutions. Hence, it was not possible to do the things that would be required for a successful war of liberation, such as establishing a provisional government and getting it recognised. Instead, the coalition decided to wing it, on the assumption that victory and the discovery of weapons would legitimate the war.

This assumption now seems to be unravelling. If there has been progress towards a sustainable democratic government in Iraq, it’s not visible in the reports we are getting here.

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  1. August 12th, 2003 at 09:51 | #1

    Pr Q post is so full of non-sequiturs, false assertions and unlikely predictions that it is difficult to know where to start.

    Of course, there was a better reason for going to war, namely to replace Saddam’s government with a democratic or at least non-totalitarian one.

    Well this ignores the actual and good strategic reason to go to war, namely to:
    – get out of Saudi, as it is an unstable fundamentalist terrorist state upon which the US is oil-dependent and
    – get into Iraq, and develop it from a fascist militarist state as into a civilised and diversified alternative oil supplier

    I correctly predicted this move. And this move has a reasonable chance of improving the strategic situation in the ME region, whilist improving the moral situation of Iraqi nation.

    Pr Q chooses to ignore these realities and, might I add rather tartly, this explains why his model of the ME has not thus far generated accurate predictions.

    But reliance on the WMD pretext undercut this rationale, since it had to be claimed that war would not go ahead if Saddam complied with the weapons resolutions.

    Pr Q is falling for the EU’s rationalisations here. Reliance on the WMD pretext was caused because of “Old EU”‘s desire to make a fetish of the UN’s Lilliputian legal bureaucracy because it is envious of the US’s Gulliverian military power.
    Thus the Old EU faction of the UNSC knew that well-meaning people in the Anglosphere, such as PR Q, trust the UN politico-legal legitimation processes (disarmament). So it hid behind the cloak of these UN processes in order to check US power,never mind the strategic and moral benefits of regime change. The Old EU faction in the UNSC always had the aim of enhancing it’s own power. Chirac was quite open on this. This is the kind of man that Pr Q is forced to defend because he is so antagonistic to Bush.
    If the UN had lived up to the libertarian values inherent in it’s charter then a regime changing war on Iraq using the rationale of liberation from dictatorship would have been possible. But “Old Europe” resistance to this libertarian idea would have been stronger than it’s resistance to the WMD pretext. Afterall, “Old Europe” had a fascist practising genocide on its Balkan doorstep for the better part of a decade, and did nothing owing to it’s primary committment to traditional power deals.
    There is a pattern emerging amongst anti-US admin intellectuals (not PR Q) and their backsliding attitudes towards the values of the Open Society.
    The Keating-esque New Left is responsible for betraying the values of libertarianism and egalitarianism in Australian with it’s stupid and corrupt cultural policies. It was regime changed by the masses.
    So the Chirac-ist “Old Europe” was responsible for the UN betraying the values of it’s Enlightenment Charter on behalf of it’s pathetic dreams of lost power and squalid desires to keep oil contracts with a fascist. It has been given a nasty reminder of how weak and pathetic it’s arms of justice are.

    Hence, it was not possible to do the things that would be required for a successful war of liberation, such as establishing a provisional government and getting it recognised.

    Does Pr Q posess a crystal ball telling him that these things will not be done within a year or so, as soon as sabotaged utilities are restored?
    He would want to use a clearer one than he has used so far. I have, with malicious relish, kept a record of Pr Q’s disconfirmed predictions in the matter of ME politics.
    Pr Q correctly states that the US lied to the UN about the war’s pretext and broke the letter of the UN law. But the US can correcly claim that the UN failed to rescue an opressed people and violated the spirit of it’s own laws.
    Both sides are at fault which indicates that they ought, and will, kiss and make up.
    I predict that Iraq will get a provisional government that is more representative of Iraqi people than SH’s dynastic fascist ethnocratic dictatorship, perhaps before the 2004 elections. The US will then seek UN recognition for it’s successful regime change, and it will receive this UN legitimation.
    (probably in return for giving the UN a role in reconstruction – and Old Europe a share of the oil spoils.)

    If there has been progress towards a sustainable democratic government in Iraq, it’s not visible in the reports we are getting here.

    That is because Pr Q has been reading the same unreliable news sources that led to him (and me) to “lose it” during the war.
    In fact, there is a fairly healthy competitive party culture that is in embryonic form in Iraq, complemented by a thriving free press.
    These would have earned you the death penalty in SH’s Iraq.
    Apparently the US gets criticised for:
    – applying the death penalty to criminals and tyrants, and
    – withdrawing the death penalty from innocent and freed people.

  2. Homer Paxton
    August 12th, 2003 at 11:09 | #2

    When are you going to start blogging again on catallaxy?
    I am going to start demonstrations!

    GeorgW , Tone and Wee Johnny are now talking about WMD programs not WMDs.
    All the talk of Iraq threatening anyone was hogwash which is why there wasn’t a UN force and hardly any countries contributed any soldiers.

    Looking at Iraq at present I’m not sure the Yanks had much of an idea of what they were going to do post-war Iraq.

    If as it seems likely when Government eventualy comes to Iraq and it is a shia dominated Government then the war will have been for not much.
    The USs looks like an itellectually inconsistent imperial power at present

  3. Steve Edwards
    August 12th, 2003 at 13:16 | #3

    There is nothing I really have a problem with in Jack’s post. The other issue I took with the Q was the idea that the latest weapons inspections could have proven/not proven or made any impact on Iraq’s weapons programmes. They are inspectors, not detectives. Inspections completely failed in the second half of the 90s to disarm Iraq. And that was when they were cooperating significantly with US intelligence. This time round they had about 202 staff, were toothless, and held in complete contempt by Saddam. Saddam never accounted for what he undeniably made after 1995 (the Kamel dossier), so it was a pretty straightforward justification for taking him out.

  4. Mork
    August 12th, 2003 at 13:52 | #4

    If there has been progress towards a sustainable democratic government in Iraq, it’s not visible in the reports we are getting here.

    Has someone restricted your internet access?

  5. derrida derider
    August 12th, 2003 at 14:30 | #5

    Inspections completely failed in the second half of the 90s to disarm Iraq.

    Well of course, because they’d already disarmed!

    202 expert inspectors given free reign of the country, backed by massive satellite surveillance and by the combined humint of most of the world’s intelligence agencies must certainly have found any significant WMD program – as I kept saying before the war. In this case absence of evidence was clear evidence of absence.

    Now before the war people could be excused for ignoring this simple proposition because politicians they trusted, backed by a compliant media, set out to obscure it. But to ignore it now takes heroic rigidity of mind.

  6. dsquared
    August 12th, 2003 at 15:54 | #6

    I would like to preserve this sentence for posterity:

    >>If the UN had lived up to the libertarian values inherent in it’s charter then a regime changing war on Iraq using the rationale of liberation from dictatorship would have been possible.

  7. August 12th, 2003 at 16:40 | #7


    Ok wise guy, you got me dead to rights.
    To my hypothesis conjecturing that

    if UN had lived up to the libertarian values inherent in it’s charter then a regime changing…liberation from dictatorship would have been possible.

    I should have added the implicit, and obvious to all but the morally obtuse, missing clause:

    with all the enhanced legitimacy that international legal forums and increased efficacy that multinational troop formations would have added to the expedition

    In my rhetorical innocence I forgot that, in this debate, the anti-US admin Left is obsessed with scoring points on formal legal niceties, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, whilst sidestepping substantive politico-moral obligations.
    I believe Chritsopher Hitchens calls this debating tactic “subject changing”.
    And lets not delve to deeply into the gruesome business of exhuming the mass graves.
    Elsewise we might wonder which state it was that brought two of the world’s most heinous serial killers to rough justice.

  8. Steve Edwards
    August 12th, 2003 at 21:23 | #8

    It is when people like Derrida Derider pipe up, I sometimes feel sorry for Richard Butler. People seem to think he doesn’t exist. “My life’s work”, despairs Butler, “goes unrecognised!”.

    Iraq was disarmed in 1995. There is little doubt about that. But, alas, Derrider, twas not even remotely the case in 1999, at the time of Butler’s final report to the UN security council. Read that final report. I won’t list anything, but read it. The inspectors took three years to prove what Saddam really had at that stage, and they were cooperating with US intelligence.

    Saddam also had a biological weapons programme that the UN had no knowledge about during the early 90s. It, again, took them years to discover this. But let’s give inspections another chance, because Saddam really does wish to disarm.

  9. John
    August 12th, 2003 at 21:53 | #9

    “Saddam never accounted for what he undeniably made after 1995 (the Kamel dossier), so it was a pretty straightforward justification for taking him out. ”

    Steve, do you really think that a war can be justified by sloppy accounting?

  10. Andrew
    August 12th, 2003 at 22:22 | #10

    Saddam had not disarmed by 1995. He continued to build up a huge arsenal of weapons with which to attack the neighbouring countries in the region.

    He had such a formidable defensive capability that the US Army rolled into Baghdad in 3 weeks having killed more of their own than the Iraqis did.

    Get real.

  11. August 13th, 2003 at 00:02 | #11

    Correct me if I’m thick or something, but if Bush and Co wanted to get Saddam, why didn’t they just invade Iraq as soon as they felt ready, and not bother with this charade over whether Iraq complied with UN resolutions and making token attempts to placate the international community to get their approval for such an action?

    It really wouldn’t have made much difference – Saddam gone, continental Europe momentarily pissed off, US heavily in debt, Iraq left as another mostly harmless third world country instead of being presided over by a supervillian. World in turmoil – status quo.

  12. Observa
    August 13th, 2003 at 01:07 | #12

    You may have to be more patient on the WMD. Why? Because the best intelligence in the world has not found OBL or his body although I personally think he is deceased. Does that mean he did not exist when the UN went into Afghanistan? As well general intelligence presumes Saddam is still alive. He has to eat, drink, breathe and go to the toilet occasionally. The best intelligence in the world has not found him yet. Why should inanimate objects be any easier to unearth? Conclusion- As long as Saddam is at large, we cannot presume WMD do not exist.

    What if Saddam (or his body) is never found like OBL? Perversely enough, this will suit the Anglo-Alliance because time is on their side. It is like the mathematical algebra of limits, whereby you approach a conclusion, but never really get there. At some stage of course, we will all assume we’re pretty close to that conclusion, but it’s not much help to the more impatient critics if it is after the various incumbents’ retirements from politics.

    Streuth! I would imagine it would be Crean’s worst nightmare if Saddam was captured during the next election campaign. On the other hand what if a big cache of WMD were discovered just then? Sweet Jesus! The hard-core Left and conspiracy theorists, would freak out permanently. Surely Teflon John couldn’t be that lucky could he?

    On a less speculative note, it looks like the hydrogen trailers were bit of a dead end, but does anyone know what became of the centrifuges, etc buried under the roses? I didn’t hear the outcome of that one.

  13. August 13th, 2003 at 01:40 | #13

    Perhaps I should be a little contrite over my irate and intemperate outburst above, which was excessively scathing towards defects in Pr Q;s criticisms of Bush.
    It is clear that all is not that well in Iraq,
    as this report indicates.
    The main problem is not the US regime change per se, it is, as PR Q rightly predicted, the poor nation building efforts of the US admin.
    In addition to duplicity in rationale, forgivable to this machiavellian, the Bushies have added ineptness in follow through, less forgivable when results are the only criteria for evaluation.
    No points for intent or effort.
    The cause of this ineptitiude is not difficult to divine, it lies at the heart of the US admins guiding philopsophy which is antagonistic to nation building at home and abroad: central command economy of public ownership, fiscal expenditure and community services.
    Pr Q, to his credit, has been a keen critic of this penny wise pound foolish fallacy in Australian economic policy. He Bush model, contra my spiteful remark on his disconfirmed predictions, is accurately predicting the behaviour of this admin.
    Pual Krugman, his alter ego in the US, has the goods on the defects of this philosphy in an department of state very dear to the hearts of American COnservatives: the military.
    The sooner the US hands the whole thing over to the UN the better.
    It would be nice if Pr Q just once gave this US admin some credit for geting Iraq to the stage where the UN might have a shot at nation building.

  14. Old European
    August 13th, 2003 at 03:57 | #14

    Kamel once again:


    In the transcript of the interview, Kamel states categorically:

    “I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons – biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed”
    (p. 13).

    The Significance of the Kamel Transcript

    The above quotes from President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and Secretary Powell refer to material produced by Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War. The administration has cited various quantities of chemical and biological weapons on many other occasions — weapons that Iraq produced but which remain unaccounted for. All of these claims refer to weapons produced before 1991. According to Kamel’s transcript, Iraq destroyed all of these weapons in 1991.

  15. Homer Paxton
    August 13th, 2003 at 10:38 | #15

    It is interesting to note that the people who backed the war by implication do not believe some of the reasons put forward ie
    Iraq directly threatened the US, Iraq had WMDs ready to go in 45 minutes anf the WMDs were mammoth and massive!

  16. August 13th, 2003 at 15:38 | #16

    Even when we assume that Saddam had bio & chem weapons, and when we assume he was directly cooperating with terrorists, and when we assume that such weapons will make attacks twice as deadly and twice as common (extremely unlikely) then the benefits of the war are still less than the costs. Does anybody care?

  17. Steve Edwards
    August 13th, 2003 at 19:26 | #17

    The Kamel dossier says that Iraq was disarmed in 1995, but had the technology and moulds to rearm. The Butler report says that Iraq was armed to the teeth in 1999. He proved it categorically to the Security Council. If there is a flaw in the Kamel dossier, it is that it doesn’t seem to clarify the fate of the 1991 mustard gas shells. Richard Butler found their still existed.

    Saddam never made any attempt to disarm. Never did he engage in the process with even a skerrick of goodwill. He cooperated with at least three known terrorist organisations. He subsidised terrorism in the West Bank. He held (as reported by the Guardian) high level talks with al-Qaeda as early as 1999, through his envoys, in Afghanistan.

    He ran one of the most illegitimate regimes in the world, in a region dotted with appalling illegitimacy. His regime was built on publicly subsidised rape, murder, illegal oil sales, broken promises, weapons rearmament, and terrorism.

    I don’t know how much it takes to convince people that we should have taken him out. The added bonus of surrounding our geo-political enemies in the Middle East, ditching Saudi Arabia, saving the Kurds from their single greatest threat, liberating the Shiites, and expanding oil production some time in the future all point towards a fairly solid justification for war.

  18. John
    August 13th, 2003 at 19:57 | #18

    “The Butler report says that Iraq was armed to the teeth in 1999. …Saddam never made any attempt to disarm.”

    Therefore, Iraq was armed to the teeth in 2003.

  19. derrida derider
    August 13th, 2003 at 23:00 | #19

    Steve Edwards’ post might be more convincing if there was any evidence at all to support it – but where are all these WMDs now Steve? Seems to me I made a falsifiable pre-war prediction based on inference from what we knew, and that subsequent events have justified the prediction. I can’t say the same for those who thought Saddam had a significant WMD program.

    Now if a mug like me could make such an inference, don’t you think the better-informed and smarter people in government could? But they didn’t simply because they didn’t want to. That wilful ignorance (or worse) in pursuit of a war counts, IMO, as a crime.

    Observa, it’s a bit easier to hide one person than to hide an industrial and military infrastructure which must involve many hundreds – probably thousands – of people (we were told the WMD stocks were “massive”, remember). And BTW the centrifuge (note the singular – you need hundreds of them to make a bomb) was buried in 1992 when, according to its owner, Saddam decided not to pursue a nuclear program. It’s yet another dead end.

    As for our machiavellian mate Jack, the war on offer was never the one you talked about. Even if you think the end can justify the means, in this case the requisite means (massive, competent and far-sighted nation building) were simply never on the table. You must now see that you were always going to get Bush’s war, not Strocchi’s war, so why then do you still try and justify it?

  20. wmb
    August 13th, 2003 at 23:48 | #20

    My polemic is limited to the opinion that the larger story, of which this incident is part, is far from exhausted of potential repercussions. It keeps bubbling along with consequences in different Capitals.

    The Hutton Inquiry, ostensively about the death of Dr David Kelly, as reported in a number of sources, not least the Guardian Leader today,is turning into an inquiry into the justifications of the invasion. The Guardian reports that: ãDr Kelly also told Gilligan that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme was likely to be small, sanctions were effective, and Iraq did not have “usable weapons”, according to the reporter’s notes.ä

    Not to be forgotten is the chaotic situation in Iraq, with grievance and disaffection with the occupation, the cross border entry of Jihadist fighters as per the NYT today, and so on. The incremental deaths of US soldiers will sooner, if not later, lead to a political fall out.

    So too, the mounting costs associated with the preparation, invasion, occupation and rebuilding of the country, a small test of the Gulliver thesis, which the following two reports estimate at about 600 million USD: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20030811.wirkk811/BNStory/International/

  21. Keith
    November 25th, 2003 at 13:28 | #21

    ONE anonymous report from the DIA and the trailers are now for generating hydrogen? That is quite odd given NO reagents were present that would produce hydrogen in ANY chemical/biological reaction. Function is the key and the supposed engineers at the DIA missed this FACT.

    What they also missed the fact these trailers had been decontaminated with a variety of agents used only for sterilization from bacteria or viri. The one chemical that is damning is sodium azide. No hydrogen generator would EVER need that.

  22. John
    November 25th, 2003 at 15:05 | #22

    This post was written some months before the Kay report. On this question, Kay said

    We have not yet been able to corroborate the existence of a mobile BW production effort. Investigation into the origin of and intended use for the two trailers found in northern Iraq in April has yielded a number of explanations, including hydrogen, missile propellant, and BW production, but technical limitations would prevent any of these processes from being ideally suited to these trailers. That said, nothing we have discovered rules out their potential use in BW production.

    Given that Kay is about as enthusiastic as anyone can be to find evidence of Saddam’s WMD program, his equivocation on this speaks volumes.

  23. November 25th, 2003 at 21:44 | #23

    It’s easy to make impure hydrogen with the “water gas” reaction, which gives you a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The reagents are water and almost any renewable fuel that can be scraped up, so they wouldn’t necessarily be found lying around in the premises investigated.

    A slightly more sophisticated technique uses quicklime as well, and produces nearly pure hydrogen – not pure enough for most chemical reactions that need it, but quite good enough for physical uses like balloons, which is what I gather people were suggesting.

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