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.

25 thoughts on “Intelligence?

  1. JQ its gets harder when you ask the people what specific weapons Saddam had that threatened anyone.

    As far as I can work out they must have had missiles with warheads to be a threat yet noone stated where the silos were.

    Surely some country in the vicinity of Iraq would have asked for help if they possessed such weapons yet not one country put their hand up.

    Although the prince of darkenss is still parading the tale Iraq could have had nukes the Mohammed and his lads laughed at the CIA operative who came up with this theory.

    WE had a war against a country that threatened noone merely because people believed they had weapons.

    Hitler believed Germans in Sudatenland were being threatened but provided no evidence. I guess on their logic his takeover was justified.

  2. And of course the human rights argument fails because

    a) you can’t bop one and ignore the others, like Myanmar or Tibet and

    b) international stability is created by a complex formal/informal set of agreements about the importance of sovereignty – such as the rule that said Iraq’s attack on Kuwait had to be stopped. Sustaining that rule is of much greater importance than removing dictators in particular countries.

    This is old,old ground now but I repeating it because the “free the oppressed Iraqis” meme is being trotted out as if it is a trump card, and its not being answered with the previous vigour.

  3. Good arguments, Q. They must be, as they correspond well with my analysis.

    It was clear that Butler, that outstanding Australian, & Co. had pretty well cleaned Saddam out by 1998. (In my book Richard deserves his cushy retirement for this contribution to world security alone).

    The lack of foresight and planning by the White House, the neocons, the Pentagon and commentators as to the scale and intricacy of both the post-“War” (ie, more of a walkover) rebuilding and anti-insurgency operations is breathtaking (in hindsight!)

  4. David Tiley’s view that he human rights argument for intervention fails because you can’t bop one and ignore the others, like Myanmar or Tibet, is flawed. One might as well argue that because an authority had not intention of fixing all the pot holes in an area it should not have attempted to fix any. Intervention was certainly justified on human rights grounds and the opposition of many on the left justified intervention elsewhere (Afghanistan and Kosovo)was often driven by rather mindless anti-Americanism.

  5. “Hitler believed Germans in Sudatenland [sic] were being threatened but provided no evidence. I guess on their logic his takeover was justified.”

    You’ve got to be careful with your examples. These people were threatened. It’s just that Hitler was using them for an excuse to implement an even greater wrong. That moral is actually more relevant to understanding much of modern US policy.

  6. This is off-topic on this thread.

    Recently, JQ asked about what evidence existed for claiming Hayek supported Pinochet. This was gone over in sci.econ years ago. See this post:

    and other posts in that thread from the same individual.

  7. The pot hole argument is far more flawed than the argument against taking out tyrants selectively ie only when they have a lot of oil and have upset your pappy.

    The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are far from stable and could revert to versions of the old regime very quickly – in fact Afghanistan looks as if it has reverted to age old rule of local war lords.

    My biggest concern is that we are being asked to swallow a new load of American poppycock that we will be safer if we sign up for the son of star wars. It is quite offensive to have to pay so much to be a “friend” and to make so many new enemies.

  8. America’s hands aren’t particularly clean, on human rights, ask the amerinds, what’s left of them, so the human rights excuse is rubbish.

  9. Pollack’s insight is useful in showing us that any undertaking occurs without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and further that it’s fairly hard to understand the logic of mass murdering dictators. Of course whether or not intervention in Iraq is justified in your mind comes down to individual taste. You weigh up all the factors and intuit your position which you will then openly defend.

    Now most people have intuited from the array of evidence, that we were right to intervene and have been joined finally, if tacitly, by the likes of Chirac and Schroeder in this. Generally if you’re an anti-US lefty, then of course you will hang your hat on, lies about WMD, above all else. You will also ascribe all sorts of horrible motives to those Satanic Bushites(but funnily enough not Blairites) To you Iraq is now a bigger cesspit than under Saddam and the world is more full of dangerous fanatics like Gaddaffi. If only we had listened to the wise counsel of the UN, Saddam was still in power, (albeit with US/UK sanctions) and our world was the safer place it used to be.

    Now for many of us, we feel a bit more comfortable with a small beacon of light, glowing ever more brightly in the ME. Do we personally feel any safer? Perhaps not, but our enemies sure as hell feel a lot less comfortable.

  10. I’m afraid I fail to see any justification for the Iraq war, despite the fact that Saddam was an evil nasty tyrant. There is nothing justifiable in one country attacking another country simply because the leader of the first country doesn’t like the behaviour of the second.

  11. There’s also a utilitarian objection to the narrow legalistic argument that Saddam technically violated 1441. If someone runs a red light, that’s undeniably a crime, but it would be absurd to spend millions of dollars on a multi-state manhunt to find them. Similarly, a case can be made that the resources put into deposing Saddam aren’t justified by the need to enforce a small but real infraction of the UN resolution.

  12. Niall, from memory Geoffrey Robertson made a pretty convincing case for extending the common-law principle of tyrannicide to modern conditions.

  13. Observa – the likes of me don’t give a damn about Bushite motives because we know that human talent for self-deception will always generate some bloody motive or other. We do see Iraq as a worse mess and source of future trouble, but also we see the USA unchained as a great problem. We don’t trust the USA not to cast us in the role of villain one day, maybe soon, if we don’t play along – that’s precisely the evolution of thinking that took the cities of Greece that Rome liberated from the Macedonians to being Roman dependents in a very few generations.

    We don’t give a damn how uncomfortable our “enemies” feel, since we were always at limited risk from them since they had limited power projection capability (except that their disconfort will if anything make them use it or lose it – maybe on us). But turning the USA loose, no matter how friendly it is, is much more of a risk from that point of view. It’s the difference between a malignant and a benign tumour; the latter is self limiting and only a threat if in the wrong place, while the former will get you in the end if you don’t catch it, no matter how small it is in the beginning.

    “God save me from my friends, I can look after my enemies myself.”

  14. I think there are many questionable statements and assumptions in observa’s post. To take one of the least important, where does he or she get the notion that Chirac and Schroder (tacitly) now support the invasion? (I assume that’s what’s meant by ‘intervene’, as ‘we’ were already massively intervening in Iraq.)

  15. jill,

    the main point of the afghanistan invasion was to depose the al-qaeda supporting taliban, and severely disrupt or destroy the al-qaeda infrastructure in that country: twin aims that were extremely succesful. al-qaeda before the invasion was running open door training camps very succesfully all over that country, and now they are on the run, or destroyed.

    icing on the cake: attempt to democratise afghanistan and return it to its former state before soviet ravage and taliban rule.

    the main point of the iraq invasion was to remove the massive wealth of the iraqi oil fields from a dictator who we could no longer trust not to make power grabs (unless we cripple the country through sanctions) – power grabs being kuwait and saudi, was probably next.

    iraq aims once again exceedingly well satisfied. the americans even got saddam in the flesh.

    icing on the cake: democratise iraq and free the population from the devastating sanctions, which did nothing to weaken saddam internally, just caused children to starve.

    if you understand what the neo-cons real aims are (and not the stated ones) you’d be aware that they are remarkably succesful in achieving their goals. (a left winger who gets this is noam chomsky…he continually says american foreign policy has been remarkably successful in achieving its goals)

  16. stanley gudgeon has a video you should look at if you think the war to oust saddam was unjustified

  17. Michael, If you wish to justify the war from a human rights perspective then you need to say why is Iraq top of the list and who else is on the list because if there is no list then the human rights position is blatantly untrue.

    I have not heard either.

  18. Rather than make a long boring disjointed statement, I simply summarize my conclusions or thoughts, that are different to those made by John or the other commenters. (Despite the result, I was trying to be concise.)

    According to Kenneth M Pollack, the United States was well intentioned, and “mistakes’ were made. Like the New York Times in these matters, he seeks to preserve a stance of dispassionate impartially, which of itself is a cultural/organizational problem for an intelligence analyst. The fact that his article fails the mention the work of the UN Inspectors immediately prior to the invasion is as pointed out a critical failing.

    I am puzzled by the lack of evidence for the more insidious Chemical and Biological weapons, which I imagined could be cooked up by any decent laboratory. Kenneth Pollack is somewhat dismissive of the claim that the Iraqi scientists dragged their feet. My hunch is the association of C & B weapons with terrorism, intentional or not, blurred over the need for Saddam to have appropriate delivery systems.

    We should not forget, the need for a military solution, was very much premised on the existence of WMD. And for that reason, the Department of State was not engaged in post-war planning.

    History provides context for behavior. Without a long term historical analysis, it is perhaps more plausible to claim the invasion as a mistake. However, the issue now post-Saddam, is for the Americans and everybody else to leave Iraq as a form of an independent country and not an overt colony. Colonialization, the present situation is by definition imperialism, appears consistent with the long term goal, of the Americans and their allies, principally the British, acting at least since the Second World War mostly in concert, to control ME oil.

    Saddam Hussein’s principle crime, by this analysis, is not that he was a brutal dictator, focused on maintaining internal control, but that he defied those whom Adam Smith might have called “the masters” (had he not been specifically referring to the Employers meeting to drive down wages). To quote Kennith M. Pollack on the first part of this point: “Saddam has always evinced much greater concern for his internal position than for his external status.” Saddam’s friends, I believe, kept him in power, especially during the Iraq-Iran war, and that is one reason his opponents, some of whom now installed as the Provisional Government, could not topple him. In fact, according to Pollack’s retrospective analysis, Saddam may have feared the UN inspectors as a cover to assassinate him.

    There are reasons to think, I believe, that the present colonialism in Iraq will continue, despite the capture, and in due course perhaps, the trial of Saddam Hussein. The continuation of colonialism will only aggravate the divide between the arrogance of the Christian overlords and the Islamic subordinates, in a gobalised world, unlike at the time of the Crusades, the rulers will not see the need the adopt the language or culture of the wider population.

    Thus, the invasion and pyrrhic victory turns out to have been more of a disaster for the West, including Western Values as distinct from modern society, far worse than I could have foreseen. By contrast, Kenneth Pollack maintains the invasion was not a strategic mistake, forgetting the reasonable alternative may have been an internal rebellion supported by external force, precluded by the events following the first Gulf War, which presumably was a strategic mistake.

    We now have also been tightly aligned, right or wrong, with Israel, and as Socrates said at his trial it is easier to do wrong than to die. I mention Socrates, to recall Plato and the other Greeks, because the West owes the Islamic World for our first full rediscovery and complete understanding of their thought, as we owe the Islamic World for arithmetic and algebra, for the concepts azimuth and zero, without which the modern world could not be.

    Let us start working out the bases for reconciliation and justice in Iraq but also in Palestine. It will not be easy.

    (By the way, if you know this is a mess of illogic or claptrap, fire away. I thought I would say it anyway.)

  19. I would use JQs argument in his next post ‘One last time on Schneider'(and my comment there) to also deflect the WMD criticism which Pollack deals with too.

    As far as Chirac and Schroeder go I understand some recent public statements show a softened stance toward rebuilding Iraq without official UN sanctioning.

    I am generally mindful of the criticism of imperialism and the caution of empire in such military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is reasonable to be cautious with the use of force, especially when you are a part of such a powerful military force. However, for me reason can only go so far, particularly with an enemy that wishes to kill indiscriminately, with no reasonable end goal in sight. I can listen to a Mandela or Ghandi, but an Arafat never(although I did when he stopped suicide bombing) I am not at war with Islam, just the mind gamers who wish to inculcate the mentally weak and vulnerable to murder. I don’t want to reason or argue with these people, just hunt them down and kill them. I totally support our Govt and military in this because I believe it is working. Killing, isolating and ostracising Islamic mind-gamers and their support mechanisms is producing results. The Taliban support for AlQaeda, Saddam’s regime, Gaddaffi and the Ayatollah of Iran’s recent responses, as well as Musharraf’s call for an end to Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. These all point to the significance of resolute force. You are ‘with us or with them’ doesn’t imply obedience to Western Culture. What it does imply is, not giving any succour to murderous mind-gamers, or else!

  20. observa wrote, I can listen to a Mandela or Ghandi, but an Arafat never(although I did when he stopped suicide bombing)… [ellipses added]

    How about Sharon or Kissinger? There is now, in the public domain, documentary proof thathe green-lighted the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which best estimates conclude led to the deaths of about 1/3 of the Timorese.

  21. observa wrote, Now most people have intuited from the array of evidence, that we were right to intervene and have been joined finally, if tacitly, by the likes of Chirac and Schroeder in this. Generally if you’re an anti-US lefty, then of course you will hang your hat on, lies about WMD, above all else. You will also ascribe all sorts of horrible motives to those Satanic Bushites(but funnily enough not Blairites)… [ellipses added]

    Analysis of errors:

    (a) “Now most people…”: appeal to popularity

    (b) “Generally if you’re an anti-US lefty, then of course you will hang your hat on, lies about WMD, above all else. You will also ascribe all sorts of horrible motives to those Satanic Bushites(but funnily enough not Blairites)…” [ellipses and emphases added]: straw man. (I don’t know who you’re talking about, but the people I know who make the points you want to ridicule (1) are not “anti-US,” whatever that is, (2) question Blair’s actions and motives in the same vain as we question Bush’s.)

  22. Stephen, My reference to ‘most people’ would mean the Australian electorate’s view post-war, in comparison to its pre-war concerns. I am of course as aware of the tyranny of majorities as I am that it’s hard to fool most of the people most of the time. Still, Labor and Latham can test my view about the electorate on this if they’re game.

    In terms of the Left straw man, I have probably summarised that extreme view fairly well. If you read Niall’s comment above, it’s hard to believe he could even force weapons inspectors on a tyrant, let alone hold my extreme views. I accept you fall somewhere in between.

  23. If the likes of France and Sweden had supported intervention in Iraq and the US had opposed it, the latter would be castigated by many on the left for being selfish and inward looking. (For an extended discussion this see Christopher Hitchens). A deeper problem (see also Hitchens) is that rather than ditch their Marxist intellectual straight-jackets for a more intellectually rigorous approach many on the left have caught the post-modern/cultural relativist virus. So rather than defend secular values and universalistic notions such as the notion of Universal Human Rights, much time is spent defending the excesses of non-western cultures or of minority groups with Western cultures. A good example of this is the way so-called Middle Eastern experts in Academia have played down the very serious threat of Islamic Extremism. Given a choice between these naïve cultural relativists and neo-cons I’ll take the latter any day.

  24. Can I add that it is more logically consistent for good right-wingers to oppose a humanitarian war as a giant peice of foreign aid, an armed welfare program headed by a bunch of militaristic mother teresas.

    Fine… good… Iraqi’s are happy. But that’s not the role of my government. Now, lefties may disagree with this, but why have the right changed so quickly? Has it anything to do with their other reasons going to shit?

  25. Why Didn’t Kenneth Pollack Listen to Hans Blix?
    The learned and very-thoughful John Quiggin puts his finger on what is very, very wrong with ex-liberal-Iraq-hawk Kenneth Pollack’s new Atlantic Monthly article about intelligence failures: John Quiggin: Before the Iraq war, Kenneth Pollack The Gatheri…

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