Sceptics and suckers: A look back at Iraq

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, the disastrous failure of Bush’s war is evident to just about everyone. Here’s the news from the day before the anniversary.

Debates over the case for war in Iraq coincided with the emergence of the political blogosphere and created divisions that have been pretty much set in stone ever since. Those who, for one reason or another, swallowed and repeated the lies used to push the war dug themselves further and further in over subsequent years. Those of us who were sceptical[1] of the claims made by Bush and Blair, and proven right by events, came to realise that the other side inhabited a parallel universe, in which the possibility that prior beliefs might be changed by factual evidence was largely absent.

I want to restate a point that seems to be forgotten a lot, especially by those who went along with the Bush-Blair claims about WMDs. Until December 2002, there was plenty of behavioral evidence to suggest that Saddam had WMDs, namely the fact that he had expelled (or, more precisely, refused to co-operate with) the UN weapons inspection program. Given the benefits from being declared WMD-free, this made little sense unless he had weapons. Equally, Bush and Blair were making statements that they knew what WMDs Saddam had and fairly accurate knowledge of their location. Again, this seemed (to me, at any rate) to make no sense if they were relying on a bluff that Saddam could easily call.

All of that changed, in December 2002, when Saddam readmitted the inspectors and declared that he had no WMDs. At that point, it suddenly became obvious (again, to me, at any rate) that Bush and Blair had been making it up. I naively supposed that it would be equally obvious to everyone else, and that, as a result it would be impossible to mobilise support for war. That was wrong, of course. I was particularly struck by the unanimity with which the pro-war bloggers reproduced the ever-changing propaganda lines of the Administration. No one would be surprised now, but back then, the assumption was that disputes with rightwingers were a matter of honest disagreement.

fn1. It’s striking, in view of the extreme gullibility shown by such people that the overlap with those who call themselves climate “sceptics” is very high.

95 thoughts on “Sceptics and suckers: A look back at Iraq

  1. Thanks Mel – the sandpit is the place for this kind of thing. Even in the sandpit, please avoid personal attacks.

  2. @Jim Birch
    All one had to do was listen to Scott Ritter , often interviewed on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to realize that the WMD stories were complete fabrications. Actually, IIRC Ritter at one point said there might be 2-3 missiles unaccounted for.

    Add that the Yellowcake forgeries , the smuggled pipes etc all turned out to be lies or false interpretations of real facts and it was something like the War of Jenkin’s Ear.

    And this was topped off by poor Colin Powell’s pitiful performance at the UN–It’s rare to see a couple of senior international diplomats call the US Secretary of State a liar.

    I still cannot see how anyone (well other than Fox News watchers) could have thought that Iraq had WMDS.

  3. Well, John your argument doesn’t actually stand up John. But weirdly, the Bush administration never picked up a single one of the real arguments for WMD. It is quite obvious that the Bush admin was on a propaganda crusade with an ignorant bunch of clowns – a parallel universe indeed. (And even if Saddam had WMD, I don’t think justified the war either. He had them for decades. containment was working)

    1. According to UNSCOM report, a rock bottom minimum of 4 tons of VX was produced in Iraq. No records were ever found that any was destroyed. (And stored under poor conditions without stabilizers, roughly 50% of that would be viable by 2001. I have the calculations I did prior to the war somewhere.) Of course, the breathless “That’s enough to kill every human in the world X times over,” is rubbish. VX distributes over an area, degrades rapidly under desert conditions (UV/heat/oxygen) and is a largely ineffective weapon except as aerosol. I’ve just been reviewing old chem warfare materials, and to dose a test squad at roughly 300 meters required about 50 lbs of an agent that had effect at less than a milligram.)

    2. Saddam had weapons inspectors in Iraq before and successfully dodged inspectors for some time. Only Ekeus found them. Blix didn’t. To avoid an attack, of course Saddam would invite them in, if he had them or not. He would hide them and hope it worked. A basic tactic in war is to delay.

    3. Ekeus asked to be allowed into Iraq and said that if he was, he would find WMD – period. He had the contacts and knew the system. That was drowned out by Blix declaring that there weren’t any – the same guy who couldn’t find them before. Clearly, Blix had an anti-finding-WMD agenda.

    4. If you actually read the Kay report to congress, you will see that declarations attributed to him are not in the report. He never said no WMD were there. What he said was that he couldn’t find them given the lack of resources and lack of cooperation he had. That evidence indicates that the Bush admin themselves believed there were no WMD – despite significant evidence that WMD were there.

    5. If you read the Kay report, you will see that a succession of Iraqis came forward to help him, saying they knew where WMD were hidden. Every single one was assassinated within 24 hours. This was the major problem that Kay could not overcome. He couldn’t protect sources that came forward and their families. The Bush occupation force would barely give him the time of day. That’s why Kay quit. Anybody would.

    6. Yes, the inspectors were removed prior to the invasion. That’s SOP.

    The real story of Iraq is so completely bizarre it’s hard to imagine it could be possible. You couldn’t make it up. The utter incompetence of the Bush administration was so phenomenal, so outrageous, it boggles the mind and stuns the soul. The idiocy at every turn is still something that alarms me.

  4. I see Rupert Murdoch echoing neo-lib line of ‘Iraq War was a good idea poorly executed.’ Murdoch had quite a role to play in that News Ltd were consistently uncritical in the lead up to the war.

    If there are to be any positives to this mess one would be that the idea that democracy could be exported has been laid to rest. For too long the US has been exporting their version of democracy and for the most part it has been an epic fail.

    People want justice, not democracy. The US has demonstrated that democracy gives no guarantee that justice will be done – the Iraq War was an unjust war waged by a democracy.

  5. There are other aspects to this ‘exporting of democracy’ thing, one being that it is a market based democracy, not a political democracy as argued here.

  6. @rog
    Come on rog – Murdoch doesn’t now and never has deserved this kind of soft washing:

    On the war Mr Murdoch was equally unequivocal.”We can’t back down now. I think Bush is acting very morally, very correctly, and I think he is going to go on with it,” he said.

    “The fact is, a lot of the world can’t accept the idea that America is the one superpower in the world,” he added.

    Mr Murdoch said the price of oil would be the war’s main benefit on the world economy.

    “The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy, if you could put it that way, would be $20 a barrel for oil. That’s bigger than any tax cut in the any country.”

    It’s easy to make a case that without one man’s backing for it the Cheney gang would not have been able to sell their attack to the American public and it would not have gone ahead. (I’m not going btw to argue that case – just saying)

  7. I remember reading a book by one of the Australians who were inspectors . Two of them went to see Howard and told him Hussein had no chemical weapons.

    Next day Howard said the opposite!

    Iraq never had the capability to threaten many countries so why was there an invasion.

    perhaps we will never know

  8. nottrampis wrote:

    I remember reading a book by one of the Australians who were inspectors . Two of them went to see Howard and told him Hussein had no chemical weapons.

    However, chemical weapons are now being used against the Syrian people by NATO’s terrorist proxies.

    Next day Howard said the opposite!

    Howard knowingly lied to wage an illegal war against Iraq which cost the lives of many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. He should be prosecuted by the International Court of Justice and jailed.

    nottrampis wrote:

    Iraq never had the capability to threaten many countries so why was there an invasion?

    Perhaps we will never know.

    Many of the answers are to be found in Part 6 (chapters 16, 17 and 18) of The Shock Doctrine – the Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) by Naomi Klein. In part it was to enrich US corporations like Halliburton and mercenary outfits like Blackwater (now known as Xe). In part, it was to increase the United States’ global hegemony.

  9. @frankis
    Again, what you say cannot be right. It cannot have been the purpose of the invasion to halt Saddam’s firing of Scud missiles at Israel, since no such firing began until after the invasion.

    On the other hand, if the purpose of the invasion was to forestall the firing of Scud missiles at Israel, it actually had precisely the opposite effect and if judged by that standard can only be considered a total failure.

  10. @TerjeP
    ‘It arguably made our big friend feel glowingly towards us.’

    In less abstract terms, this means the goal for Australia’s participation was to feed John Howard’s self-importance by giving him opportunities to appear shoulder-to-shoulder (literally or metaphorically) with the US President. If that was the goal it was, obviously, achieved.

  11. [Saving this comment from a moderation queue. So … is it really clear why single links to websites such as the Grauniad should in a sane world get auto moderation?]

    Murdoch doesn’t now and never has deserved that kind of soft washing:

    On the war Mr Murdoch was equally unequivocal.”We can’t back down now. I think Bush is acting very morally, very correctly, and I think he is going to go on with it,” he said.

    “The fact is, a lot of the world can’t accept the idea that America is the one superpower in the world,” he added.

    Mr Murdoch said the price of oil would be the war’s main benefit on the world economy.

    “The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy, if you could put it that way, would be $20 a barrel for oil. That’s bigger than any tax cut in the any country.”

    It’s easy to make a case that without one man’s backing for it the Cheney gang would not have been able to sell their attack to the American public and it would not have gone ahead. (I’m not going btw to argue that case – just saying)

  12. @J-D
    I was thinking (as per derrida derider’s comment) of the Scuds of the first Gulf War a decade earlier. And – no argument from me about the abject failure of most of the war’s proponents to achieve their long-term (at least) objectives.

  13. @Happy Heyoka
    It is obviously true that any assessment of whether any action succeeded or failed in achieving its goals depends on what those goals were.

    So Fred Struth is right to question what the goals were of the people who decided to invade Iraq. But Fred Struth’s answer to that question is wrong.

  14. @Patrickb
    You appear to be responding to a version of Fred Struth’s comment from a parallel universe. In the universe I inhabit, Fred Struth’s comment contains no references to oil.

  15. Having said above that I’d avoid arguing the case against Murdoch, now it occurs to me that if the two factors of Rupert Murdoch’s war promotion and secondly of the Likudniks owning such a slab of the neocons’ worldview were to be treated as uncorrelated independently distributed variables, and if one were to guess say only a 60% likelihood that there’d have been a CoW invasion of Iraq without Bibi on board, and say 40% chance of invasion without the comprehensive support of Murdoch’s evil empire (ie supposing Fox and friends had been neutral on the attack and simply done a competent, honest job of journalism) … what does that come out to? Apparently I hypothesise a less than 25% chance there’d have been an attack on Saddam without both those two factors. Reasonable odds that hundreds of thousands of US casualties (dead, injured, disabled and life-shortened), and millions of suffering Iraqis, would have been spared had not the Cheney axis of evil in Washington been backed by both Netanyahu and Murdoch.

    I personally feel that both those prior probabilities are conservative, high-side figures btw. Good times.

  16. @hc

    Some of the self-righteous ranting in the comments preceding yours are nauseating triumphalism

    To have been right, and to have behaved in alignment with belief, ten years ago was, sadly, no triumph. It was a rout. You got your way. Enjoy your triumph.

  17. broadcasting standards same same now as then.
    a small illustration being todays (you guessed it) nufin.

    pages and pages of blather and faff

    and then

    page 13

    “two bills that were part of the package have already passed the parliament:
    halving licence fees for commercial networks, increasing Australian contents on digital channels and reworking the ABC and SBS charters”.

    the first two are pretty straightforward.
    the third,one would think, would have a bit of explication,opinionating,surmise as to what it all means?
    well i looked and looked and looked
    but whaddya know?

    lotsa hategrind faff though.

    the Guardian wonders what the hell is going on.
    just corpspeak as usual.

    still the perps didn’t manage to “unlock the value “of soulbricks—that story has been as good as Charter Hall VS the hedgies.

    the nufin can do reporting but it gets in the way of the wrongpolliehategrind.

  18. What a disaster it has all been . Hundreds of thousands dead (millions counting gulf war 1 and sanctions ) ,millions with major life long injuries , millions of refugees , millions internally displaced – all this in a population about the size of Aust – utter devistation . Triggering a big lurch to the right in many countries around the world (1000s of law changes in the name of terror) . Allowing a fantastic recruting drive for terrorists (they need an enemy too) . And all for the bargain price of who knows how many trillions of $ .Trashing so much goowill toward the West . No cause is worth this cost .
    A total of over 1 million marched against the idea of invasion in aust – still easily the biggest total in our history .Bush made the announcement to the aust public (and world ) that we were going , after no debate in parliament here . Melb Herald Sun banners seen shortly after were “CRUSADE” (word not used thereafter ) and “WE’RE IN” (like some pub brawl) .
    This episode is a big foonote in the book of how the West was lost . Why doesnt this monumental blunder hang like a mill-stone around Howards neck ? I remember being surprised at the time how quickly all (abc and sbs too) the mainstream media pulled into line once we were committed – there was much opposition before that .
    P.S. Blair made a wonderful slip of the tounge at the time when he said “weapons of mass distraction”

  19. The Last Letter: A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran

    Global Research, March 21, 2013

    To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
    From: Tomas Young

    I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

    I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries.

    I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day.

    I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded.

  20. I was living and working in London is the period before the start of the war in Iraq. I can say that I knew nobody in favour of it, though I suppose that’s London and London is not the UK. The war mongering hysteria from Blair and the compliant Murdoch press was transparent to anybody with a couple of the brain cells to rub together. From the Sun screaming about WMDs about to be launched with less than 15 mins warning on “helpless” British troops in Cypress to the infamous “dossier” purporting to lay out the WMD threat from Saddam. You could download the PDF and I did. After a few pages of waffle about the area of Presidential Palaces in Iraq (where WMDs *might* be hidden) I gave up. This document was not the work of MI6. Oh no! – it was mostly plagiarized content from some paper written by a PHD student carefully massaged by the Blair spin machine.

    Then there was the “tanks at Heathrow” incident. British troops rolling up at Heathrow in light tanks to combat some purported terrorist incident of which there appeared subsequently to be no evidence. Really? What were they going to do – lob a few rounds into Terminal 4? The excuse – an armored regiment and that was their only transport. Once again really? The British Army couldn’t rustle up a few trucks?

    The war in Iraq was a con from start to brutal finish. It was the ultimate expression of the neo-cons “creative destruction” in the Middle East.

    On a personal note, I attended a couple of the anti-war demonstrations including the huge one with up to 2 million. Quite amazing. With a couple of friends I arrived at Waterloo on the South Bank where there were tens of thousands milling around trying to cross over to the Embankment. It took us two hours and still the demonstration extended as far as the eye could see, though the front ranks were long gone. It probably shook Blair and co a bit, but not enough. In my more cynical or possibly pragmatic moments, I wonder whether if 10% of that demonstration had gone on the rampage, would the impact have been ten times more. When the chips are down, it’s really the only language that the Blairs understand. It is, in the end about political power. Why does the left not learn from history? Just look at Vietnam.

  21. Personally i thought there were good reasons to be skeptical about the claimed reasons for the Iraq war even apart frothe false WMD claims. Bush and Powell also postulated pre-war links between Hussein and Al Quaida. See

    This was plainly absurd to anyone with a passing understanding of the Islamic world. Hussein was a secular Shiite. Bin Laden was a Sunni fundamentalist. To the ignorant, who I think just lump middle eastern peoples together as “brown people”, the thought two western enemies might join forces seemed a real danger. But it would be like Martin McGuiness and Rev Paisley joining forces to attack the British government – unthinkable within their world.

    So why would anyone make up such an obvious lie? To justify a pre-determined course of action decided for other reasons. It was all obviously invented.

  22. But wouldn’t a 6 month mistake have been completely forgotten by now
    versus a 10 year nation building mistake?
    I think so.

  23. @J-D
    Hmm…not a very clever comment from someone who obviously thinks they are very clever. More point was more to Fred’s wider point around claiming something had failed without understanding the motives of the actors. Clown.

  24. Colin Powell’s underling ….

    Question: The then director of the CIA, George Tenent, Vice President Cheney’s deputy Libby, told you that the intelligence that was the basis of going to war was rock solid. Given what you now know, how does that make you feel?

    It makes me feel terrible. I’ve said in other places that it was– constitutes the lowest point in my professional life. My participation in that presentation at the UN constitutes the lowest point in my professional life.
    I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations Security Council. How do you think that makes me feel? Thirty-one years in the United States Army and I more or less end my career with that kind of a blot on my record? That’s not a very comforting thing.

    But even that turned out to be, in its substantive parts– that is stockpiles of chemicals, biologicals and production capability that was hot and so forth, and an active nuclear program. The three most essential parts of that presentation turned out to be absolutely false.


  25. One day I woke up to read Bush Junior’s “axis of evil”, and wondered why he said it. Then all the wmd talk started, and soon we were heading for war.

    I marched in Perth against it. It was the biggest march against anything in Perth since the 1970’s. Similar large rallies were held around the country. Of course the government ignored us. Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted a war, and hence Bush wanted a war, and therefore Howard and Blair wanted a war.

    Andrew Wilkie gave the lie to WMD, and of course was ignored. I wasn’t convinced that there were no wmds, but I was convinced that in the rush to war the allies were only interested in having some slightly credible justification for the war.

  26. Ken_L :

    hc you and I had some ill-tempered exchanges on another blog years ago about my contempt for John Howard and his government. I believed then and believe now that his fellow-travelling with the Cheney/Rumsfeld mob was the worst kind of unprincipled political opportunism and that he was to be despised for it. Likewise I despise the Rudd and Gillard Governments for never having commissioned an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Australia’s participation in the invasion (and for mindlessly boosting the virtues of the aimless Afghanistan operation). Politicians can do all kinds of things that people disagree with and still deserve respect, but waging aggressive war – for the first time ever in Australian history – is in a uniquely unforgivable category of political expediency.

    I’m not in favour of formally attributing blame. Everyone knows that Howard just went in because the US did, and repeated any necessary lies to justify it.

    We remain free of dictators because we don’t lock up former leaders. So they don’t feel compelled to cling to power at all costs. Lets keep it like that.

  27. Many Australian politicians deserve criticism for going along with this war, especially but not only Howard. Beasley raised almost no concerns, despite supposed honour and expertise on foreign affairs and defence issues. He was at best weak, at worst politically compromised, trying not to deter the right wing vote. Even that was folly, since Labor does not get such votes anyway, and Howard finished up with control of the Senate.

    Chris W

    Thanks for the links, though I find Powell’s “admission” that he was duped a bit convenient. Any strategist familiar with the arabic world could have known it was false. He was a very well educated man. I think the real reason for his regret was shame at his own cowardice. Deep down he knew it was rubbish, but lacked the courage to say so against his friends wishes.

  28. @John Brookes

    I’m not in favour of formally attributing blame. Everyone knows that Howard just went in because the US did, and repeated any necessary lies to justify it.

    Sounds like an excellent basis for attributing primary responsibility to me.

    We remain free of dictators because we don’t lock up former leaders. So they don’t feel compelled to cling to power at all costs. Lets keep it like that.

    I’m not in favour of locking him up. This is politics and he was a player. Yes, Howard was a shifty dissembling sleazebag but enough of the voters bought his nonsense to implicate them in the decision. You can’t say he is literally criminal without implicating large swathes of the voters.

    OTOH, truth telling is always a very good thing. Having it told when he is in a position to answer for his serious malfeasance would be a very good thing.

    * I’d like to see Beazley shamed in public too, not only on Afghanistan and Iraq, but on Tampa.

  29. You didn’t need political awareness, you didn’t have to know any history. All you had to do was think how the grunts were going to fare replacing the local police on the streets Iraq.

    It helped to know about PNAC, to hear Dubya call the invasion a crusade, to know about Cheney’s sojourn in private enterprise, to notice that Condi had an oil tanker named after her, to count the Iran-contra crooks and Likudniks within the administration, to boggle at the Patriot Act, to translate Blix’s Diplomatic-ese into English, etc, but that help was just fruit for the side board.

    It was a no-brainer.

  30. I watched a great doco last night from “Panorama” called “The Spies Who Fooled the World”

    I’m probably a weird conspiracy theorist, but this is the third time I’ve tried to post about it to this thread. This time I won’t include the link to the place you can watch it.

    Hint: information + clearing + house

  31. Megan :
    I’m probably a weird conspiracy theorist, …

    “Conspiracy Theory”: Foundations of a Weaponized Term
    Subtle and Deceptive Tactics to Discredit Truth in Media and Research
    by James F. Tracy on Global Research, 22 January 2013

    “Conspiracy theory” is a term that at once strikes fear and anxiety in the hearts of most every public figure, particularly journalists and academics. Since the 1960s the label has become a disciplinary device that has been overwhelmingly effective in defining certain events off limits to inquiry or debate. Especially in the United States raising legitimate questions about dubious official narratives destined to inform public opinion (and thereby public policy) is a major thought crime that must be cauterized from the public psyche at all costs.

    … In the groundswell of public skepticism toward the Warren Commission’s findings on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the CIA sent a detailed directive to all of its bureaus. Titled “Countering Criticism of the Warren Commission Report,” the dispatch played a definitive role in making the “conspiracy theory” term a weapon to be wielded against almost any individual or group calling the government’s increasingly clandestine programs and activities into question.

  32. @Patrickb
    Then you could have made your response a lot clearer by stating explicitly that you disagreed with Fred Struth about what the purpose of the invasion was, and it’s not my fault that you didn’t.

    I agree that if the purpose of the invasion was to create chaos, it succeeded.

  33. So, can anyone explain to me how NATO’s Syrian “regime-change” in Libya in 2011 and its ongoing “regime-change” proxy war against Syria, which some estimate has cost 70,000 lives, differ from its illegal wars against Iraq in 2003 and 1991?

    Can anyone explain why we should be less concerned about a war, which is raging now in 2013 and which we stand some chance of stopping, than a war which we failed to stop ten years ago?

  34. @malthusista I would also appreciate clarification of exactly how you believe ‘we’ could stop the Syrian civil war? A little elaboration of who ‘we’ are would also be helpful.

    @John Brookes I have never advocated locking Howard up. I don’t follow your argument I’m afraid; the point about locking people up seems a total non sequitur to the point about allocating blame, although I would prefer to talk about accountability rather than blame. However you are obviously on the side of the majority who want to forget the circumstances in which Australia waged aggressive war as quickly as possible, because ‘everyone knows’ we just don’t do that sort of thing. Democracy!

  35. (Professor Quiggin, I accidentally incuded more than one URL in the prvious post, so it is now ‘awaiting moderation’. Could you please delete it?)

    Ken_L (@ #42), John Brookes (@ #42),

    (The following response has also been posted here. Other material and links to other material about the Syrian conflict can also be found on candobetter -dot- net . Please feel welcome to post comments there as well as to here.)

    As previously advised, I don’t propose to entertain this kind of thing on my blog. All comments should be directed to the candobetter site – JQ

  36. @rog

    Gee, what useful terms. “There are other aspects to this ‘exporting of democracy’ thing, one being that it is a market based democracy, not a political democracy as argued here.”

    Yes, the US markets ‘market based democracy’, i.e. free for all for those with money, and often destroys ‘political democracy’ – actually having a voice even if you don’t have money.

    I suppose those terms have been around for ages? Hadn’t come across them before.

  37. see Chris Coyne’s After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy, California: Stanford University Press, 2008 for a good read, 1st chapter is online.

    talks about how efforts to export democracy and liberty through military intervention have often been ineffective and have resulted in unintended and undesirable consequences. it is about the continued effort to apply ineffective means in the attempt to obtain worthy ends.

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