The Senate Intelligence Committee has issued a scathing report of the CIA’s pre-war assessments of Iraq’s WMD. According to the committee, claims made by the CIA that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons and was working to acquire nuclear weapons were either wrong or based on false or misleading analysis. Sen. Jay Rockefeller said, “We in Congress would not have authorized that war … with 75 votes, if we knew what we know now.” Rockefeller blames the CIA’s “bad information” for the decision to go to war in Iraq. But that’s only part of the picture, and not the most important part.
Obviously, the CIA didn’t get everything right about Iraq’s WMD. But, in fairness to the intelligence community, much of what was in the CIA’s October 2002 “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs” report was not markedly different than a series of intelligence estimates dating back several years. Iraq was thought to have the ability to produce chemical and biological weapons as a result of its legitimate civilian chemical and biological industries, such as pesticide and vaccine production. Iraq was thought to be pursuing a nuclear weapons program but was finding it hard to acquire sufficient nuclear fissile material—material that Iraq could not produce indigenously.
While it’s important to understand what the CIA got wrong and fix operations, the more important issue is the decision to go to war. Even if Iraq possessed WMD, how did possession of those weapons — even a nuclear weapon — constitute such a dire threat to the United States that preemptive military action was a necessity? In other words, why couldn’t Iraq be deterred from attacking the United States?
Prewar administration statements dismissed the reliability of deterrence against fanatical terrorists and rogue states, failing to distinguish critical differences between the two in character, aims, and vulnerability to U. S. military power. Administration spokesmen argued that Saddam, once he had nuclear weapons, would be undeterrable, that he would feel emboldened to run amok in the Persian Gulf and even attack the United States. The only way to eliminate this threat was to eliminate the regime itself, before it could acquire nuclear weapons. Because rogue states “see WMD not as means of last resort, but rather as weapons of choice…[as] tools of intimidation and military aggression,” said President Bush in his 2002 “axis of evil” speech, “the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”
But there was no history of Saddam’s Iraq or any other rogue state using WMD against enemies capable of inflicting unacceptable retaliatory damage. Though Saddam had used chemical weapons against helpless Kurdish villages and Iranian infantry in the 1980s, he did not use them against U.S. or Israeli targets in the 1991 Gulf War.
More to the point, even had Saddam managed to build a few atomic bombs, he would have been no more able to escape the reality of credible nuclear deterrence than the Soviet Union before him or North Korea today. As national security adviser Condoleeza Rice declared in 2000, against rogue states, “the first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence — if they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration.”
The administration rightly questions the utility of deterrence against fanatical terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. But rogue states, unlike terrorist organizations, have assets — territory, population centers, economic infrastructure and governments — that can be held hostage to devastating U.S. retaliation. Saddam always loved himself more than he hated the United States. And in 1991, when he had vast stocks of chemical weapons, he was deterred from using them against the Coalition and Israel by credible threats of obliteration.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that Hussein gave chemical or biological weapons to the Palestinian terrorist groups he supported to use against Israel, a country he hated as much as the United States. And while Hussein and bin Laden share a common hatred of America, ideological differences — Hussein was a secular Muslim dictator whereas bin Laden is a radical Islamic extremist — created disincentives for Saddam to become an ally of al Qaeda, let alone give the group WMD.
Focusing on the existence of WMD and the CIA’s inability to get it right about Iraq misses the point. It’s too easy to lay the blame on the doorstep of the intelligence community. Perhaps the reason the Senate Intelligence Committee and Sen. Rockefeller are reluctant to take aim at the White House is because they know that they too must share the blame for bad decision-making.
It’s not because of bad information that Congress voted to support the Iraq war. It’s because Congress was unwilling to ask the right questions about how Iraq — even with WMD — was an undeterrable threat to the United States. If you don’t ask the right questions, you never get the right answers, regardless of the quality of the information.