Before the Iraq war, Kenneth Pollack The Gathering Storm was among the leading advocates of the arguments that Saddam’s weapons represented an imminent threat justifying preventive war. In this piece in the Atlantic he discusses why the intelligence on which he relied was so badly wrong.
What’s startling about Pollack’s piece is that he simply ignores the resumption of inspections in December 2002 and the declaration by Iraq that all its illegal weapons had been destroyed. These two events made it clear, within a matter of weeks, that none of the main suspect sites previously mentioned had any weapons and that the intelligence held by the US and UK (particularly as summarised for political and public consumption) was way off the mark. Until about a week before the Iraqi declaration, official statements from the US and UK governments implied not only that they had definite knowledge of Iraqi weapons but also that they knew where they were located. If this had been true, the weapons would have been pointed out as in the previous case of Cuba, and war would have been justified by the terms of Resolution 1441.
Even without such knowledge, it was obviously impossible to conceal nuclear weapons facilities under the UN inspection conditions. Since nuclear weapons are the only ones that represented a threat to the world more serious than that of ‘conventional’ weapons, the WMD-based case for war was greatly weakened by the beginning of 2003 and was completely untenable by the time the war actually took place.
The absurd legalism that suggests that war was justified because, although the weapons had been destroyed, Iraq’s accounting for the destruction was not sufficient to satisfy the Bush Administration, can be dismissed. This kind of argument would be available to justify any war of aggression, any time (that is, Country A asserts a violation of international law by Country B, demands an explanation, then asserts that the explanation is inadequate).
What remains defensible is the argument that Saddam was an evil dictator, and that the world community could justifiably overthrow him. This was the argument that should have been made. It would have required the issue of a postwar government to be addressed in advance instead of being left in limbo as it was, and still is.