I think I agree more with what Andrew says here about Dick Cheney than I do with Ross’ belief that Cheney and others were perfectly sincere in their WMD scare stories. Among other things, it’s worth recalling that there were always sort of two different Iraq debates happening on parallel tracks.
One debate, for the cognescenti, was about America’s strategic posture in the Persian Gulf vis-a-vis Iraq. You have Ken Pollack worrying that a nuclear-armed Saddam may invade Kuwait again, forcing us to either fight a second war to dislodge him (potentially subjecting our troops to nuclear attack) or else to acquiesce in Iraqi hegemony in the Gulf. You have concerns that a nuclear-armed Iraq might feel able to become much bolder in its sponsorship of anti-Israel groups. You have concerns that a nuclear-armed Iraq might become incredibly prestigious in the Arab world, making Saddam a kind of new Nasser and creating problems for our friendly governments in the region.
I have no doubt that the hawks inside the administration really thought Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program that was making meaningful progress, or at least that the odds of this being the case were quite high. Absent that sincere conviction, the war simply doesn’t make sense.
The argument the administration actually offered, however, had very little to do with America’s strategic posture in the Persian Gulf in the event that Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear weapons. It had a great deal to do with the risk that Saddam, in league with al-Qaeda, would mount an unprovoked WMD attack on the United States and that invading Iraq constituted a form of pre-emptive defense of the homeland. It simply beggars belief that they genuinely believed that. Consequently, a lot of arguments were simply offered in bad faith — tidbits about mustard gas or aerial drones or “he gassed his own people” — that were just kind of tossed off to help create a maximally scary storyline about warnings coming in the form of a mushroom cloud.
All of which is part of the reason I get a little queasy when I hear Democrats talk about Iraq teaching lessons about the need for solid intelligence. The lessons I’ve learned about Iraq go to the strategic calculus that says “we should engage in unilateral preventive military strikes to prevent countries from acquiring nuclear weapons in order to bolster US hegemony in the Persian Gulf,” not a lesson about how one should or shouldn’t process internal Intelligence Community disagreement about the state of a foreign WMD program.
Photo by Flickr user tswartz used under a Creative Commons license.