The Weapons Debate, US Style

James Zogby’s Column

During the next few weeks, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, some form of official inquiries may begin into the background of the pre-war claims made regarding Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  These will be very different, however, given the politics at work in each country.

In the lead up to the war, both U.S. President George W. Bush and the U.K’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and their respective spokespersons were quite definitive in their charges.  The claims they made against the Baghdad regime were striking in both their specificity and urgency.

Pro-war hawks ridiculed legislators or analysts who questioned the official reports.  The work of the UN inspectors was deemed insufficient or even suspect.  And governments who opposed the stampede to war were demeaned for pursuing selfish interests.

The U.S. Administration’s case for the war was based on the “immediate threat” the Baghdad regime posed to world peace and U.S. security.  The charges were clear: the regime possessed huge stockpiles of WMD, it had links with terrorist organizations and it could therefore be expected to transfer its lethal arsenal to either strike out against the United States or to pursue its goal of regional hegemony.

At one point, Secretary of State Colin Powell in making the case for a U.S.-led preventative war to eliminate this danger used a line of argumentation that went something like this: if you have an enemy and it has the means to harm you and you know that it intends to harm you, don’t you have the right to defend yourself against this threat?  At the same time analysts wondered, “what if Baghdad had used this same logic?”

This issue of the “immediate threat” posed by Iraq’s WMD program was central to the U.S. and UK case for war.   While U.S. policy called for “regime change” in Baghdad, the UN could not endorse that goal.  The only internationally recognized justification for the use of force would have been to enforce existing UN Security Council Resolutions on WMD, which the United States and U.K. maintained Iraq had flagrantly violated.  And with polls showing that as late as January and February of 2002 a majority of Americans did not want the United States to go to war without UN backing, the tasks before the Bush Administration were clear.  They had to either convince the Security Council to support their claims of “urgency” and “immediate thereat” or at least be seen as making an effort to do so, and, in the process, convince the U.S. public that the UN was derelict in its responsibility to remove the danger posed by Iraq’s WMD stockpile.

President Bush was clear and emphatic both about the claim that Iraq had WMD and about the U.S. resolve to remove this “threat”.  During all this time the issue of “regime change” was not raised in the UN debate.

While the Security Council was not convinced, a majority of the U.S. public was.  Aided by a largely supportive U.S. media and bi-partisan political leadership, by the start of the war polls showed that most Americans supported Bush’s position.  They believed that: Iraq did indeed posses WMD; it was an “immediate threat”; and if the UN was unwilling to assume its “responsibility” than the United States should bear the burden by default.

Now, two months later, the war has largely ended, but no evidence has been found of an Iraqi WMD stockpile.  Several interesting developments have occurred.

For one, the U.S. public appears not to care about the issue.  In a strange and contradictory way, polls show that two-thirds of the public still believes that Iraq has WMD.  At the same time, however, two-thirds also say that even if Iraq didn’t have such a program or stockpile the war was still justified.  An even larger group of more than 70 percent are apparently willing to believe that Iraq has hidden its WMD-a line of argumentation put forward by some apologists for the war.  Some of their claims border on the bizarre, and yet appear to be believed. 

Given all of this one might assume that the story is over, at least on the American front. Not so.

A flood of recent news reports are casting doubt on the Administration’s pre-war intelligence gathering activities.  Before the Administration went on the offensive to defend itself, almost daily a new source was coming forward suggesting that: CIA and Defense Intelligence analysts had felt pressured by the Administration to shape their analysis to provide the “right answers”; that questionable sources were used by the Pentagon to make their case; or that, in the worse case, a “circle of deceit” may have been at work in all of this.

Troubled by these serious allegations, legislators in both the U.K. and United States have called for official hearings and some elements in both countries’ media have begun to dig deeper.  At this point the problem seems to be more serious for Blair who has long been criticized for his administration’s penchant for “spinning” its way out of troublesome situations and who faced a serious anti-war challenge from within his own party.

In the United States, the story will play out differently.  With Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress it may be more difficult for hearings to be effective.  Republicans, and even some Democrats, will be loathe to be perceived as attacking their still popular leader.  Additionally, the Bush Administration’s own “spin doctors” have been extraordinarily effective, helped by a more compliant media and political commentators unwilling to incur the wrath of a bludgeoning right wing.  And even some of the Bush Administration’s surprising lines of defense have not been subjected to scrutiny.  For example, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s line that: “just because Saddam hasn’t been found, doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist” was reported as “cute”.   And President Bush’s hedging and non-responsiveness tautology-“we’re on the look [sic].  We’ll reveal the truth.  But one thing is certain: no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime because the Iraqi regime is no more”–was merely reported as “tempering the claims”.

This week Republican lawmakers accusing the Democrats of playing politics agreed to a private review of the pre-war intelligence without public testimony.  So for now, reports that smack of exaggeration or “evidence tampering” are playing out bigger in the U.K. than in the United States. 

This situation may yet change in the weeks to come.  But it will take a great deal more to pierce this President’ armor.  He is still seen through the prism of his post 9/11 performance.  His image as an honest and straight-talking leader-a synthesis of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan-has been his shield.  Additionally those supporters of Bush’s Middle East peace initiative will not want to see the President weakened. 

If the story grows, some aides may fall, but despite being the main spokesman making the WMD case, Bush will most probably remain above the fray. 

One positive outcome, of course, is that WMD will be found.  But that has become more of a hunch and a hope and not the certainty it was before the war.  Even if proof of WMD is found, U.S. credibility has been affected, and the Administration’s pre-war claims are still subject to question.  On the other hand if evidence comes out proving that there was a “circle of deceit” and if the media is emboldened, and if it can be shown that the President was involved, and if his popularity slumps further because the economy continues to languish, and if no other pressing threat to national security rears its head, and if … then this story could grow.  But, otherwise, it will continue to be debated, but go nowhere at all.   

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.