With Americans increasingly convinced that the Bush Administration lied to sell the war in Iraq, Bush and his defenders are pushing an idea that’s been refuted quite a few times before, but obviously needs another go. This is the claim that “everyone believed that Saddam had WMD’s”. Hence, it’s argued, even if the Administration misread the evidence, this was an honest mistake, shared by others. The argument is bolstered by citations from the Clinton Administration, Democrats who supported the war and claims about the concurrence of the French and other intelligence services.
For this argument to hold up, it’s obviously necessary that people believed in Saddam’s weapons independently of what they were told by Bush and Blair. After all, the whole point of the criticism is that the Administration’s lies led people to support the war.
It’s easy enough to support the claim that independent observers generally believed that Saddam had WMD’s with citations from 2002 and earlier. The evidence supported such a belief. Saddam was known to have used chemical weapons in the past, and to have attempted to produce nuclear and biological weapons. Moreover, he had first obstructed and eventually expelled the UN inspectors who were supposed to check that his weapons and facilities had been destroyed. This belief was reinforced by the claims made by Bush and Blair, who asserted that they had detailed knowledge about Saddam’s weapons programs. It was reflected in the unanimous passage of UNSC Resolution 1441, requiring Iraq to declare all its weapons and readmit inspectors.
The problem for the Bush argument is that the inspectors were in fact readmitted, inspected the sites that had been pointed to as likely targets, and found nothing. At this point, anyone who was not willing to rely on the word of Bush and Blair ought to have revised their beliefs and most in fact did so. For example, here’s my take on the issue, in January 2003, and this didn’t rely on inside information or special insight. Most national governments that were in a position to make an independent judgement reached the same conclusion, a point reflected in the failure to get a second UNSC resolution supporting the war.
The conclusion to be drawn from the evidence after the inspections resumed was not that no weapons existed, but that there was not enough evidence to reach a conclusion and that inspections should continue. Again, most people who did not rely on the disinformation presented by Bush and Blair drew this conclusion.
Of course, a lot of people did believe, even after the inspections resumed and found nothing, that Saddam definitely had WMDs. But, almost always, this was because they placed credence in the claims of Bush and Blair, and particularly the willingness of Colin Powell to endorse them. As evidence that these claims were not dishonest, the fact that they fooled a lot of people points in the wrong direction.
fn1. My lack of special insight was evident in my belief that the British Labour party would never support a war in the absence of clear evidence that Saddam had WMDs.