As far as I can see, the Right seems to be winning the scandal wars just at the moment. I didn’t follow the Plame-Wilson scandal the first time around, so I can’t really tell how damaging or otherwise the latest claims from US and British intelligence may be to Wilson’s credibility. Similarly, although it seems clear that Sandy Berger has made a fool of himself , I have no idea what this means for anything that might possibly matter. Finally, it appears that last Thanksgiving in Iraq, Bush posed not with a fake turkey, but with a display turkey, never intended for carving but to adorn the buffet line. I’m glad that’s been cleared up.
All this confirms me in the view that the kind of “smoking gun” or “what did X know and when did s/he know it” scandal that has dominated politics since Watergate is a waste of everybody’s time. The real scandals are those that are, for the most part, on the public record.
Looking specifically at Iraq, I’m amazed at the continuing focus on intelligence reports about WMDs. It seems to me as if people on both sides of the debate have excised from their memories everything that happened between December 2002 and the outbreak of the war, with the exception of some speeches given by Bush, Blair and Powell. In particular, it seems as if judgements about the threat posed by Saddam’s regime depended primarily on intelligence reports from places like Niger.
To remind anyone who might have forgotten, from December 2002 onwards, anyone who watched the news could acquire all the evidence they needed to conclude that Saddam did not have nuclear weapons and was not close to getting them, and that he probably didn’t have a germ warfare program either. This is because UN inspectors had (with trivial exceptions) unhindered access to any site that US or British intelligence reports indicated might be suspicious. In particular, they were able to visit old nuclear sites like Tuweitha where both Blair and Bush claimed that suspicious rebuilding activity had gone on. They found nothing, for the very good reason that nothing was happening. A much more thorough search would have been needed to rule out the possibility of a stockpile of poison gas, but we now know it would have come to the same conclusion.
Of course, this was not enough to convince those who were bent on war in any case. But even for these people, the intelligence reports should have been irrelevant once the inspections commenced. At this point it became clear that whatever was in the intelligence reports, it was not information that could be given to the inspectors to say go and look at place X, take up the floor and you’ll find the evidence you need. I saw various more or less desperate explanations of why this might be the case during the leadup to the war, but I find it hard to believe that anyone actually relied on intelligence reports, as opposed to longheld beliefs, in concluding that Saddam must have WMDs.
Either way, it doesn’t matter much whether and how the intelligence reports were cooked, over-egged, sexed up or whatever. The main question is how, having agreed on a UN resolution that required either inspections or war, we ended up with both.
fn1. I can’t stop people posting absurd legal quibbles about the meaning of “active compliance” and so on, but I won’t respond to them.