Now They Tell Us
Postwar Truths and Consequences
by David Corn
My fellow Americans, there may be threatening amounts of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There may not be. We're not sure. And if they are there, it may take weeks after military victory before we can launch a major effort to find and secure them. By then, they could be gone--that is, if they were there in the first place--perhaps in the hands of people who mean us harm. And after we defeat Iraq's brutal regime, the people of Iraq will welcome US troops as liberators. Then again, within days, many of them could be shouting, "Yankee, go home" and calling for a new government dominated by fundamentalist religious leaders. We don't know. Nor do we really know the extent of any operational links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda--if such things exist. Still, I believe the potential risk posed by Saddam Hussein is so great that we cannot let what we do not know to stand in the way of decisive action. We cannot afford to guess wrong. With that in mind, I have ordered...
With Baghdad conquered, the fog of prewar has started to clear. And it now seems that had the Bush Administration been honest with the American public (and the world), its on-to-war pronouncements would have resembled the imaginary sequence above. Instead, Bush and his national security team--including ex officio members deployed in think tank bunkers and op-ed command centers--declared, without question or pause, that Iraq had dangerous levels of weapons of mass destruction and that it was "urgent," as Bush said, to find and destroy these weapons. They also talked about birthing a democratic government in Iraq without acknowledging obstacles and potential traps. But, it turns out, the Administration was not on the level. Moreover, it was woefully unready to deal with the consequences of military victory.
Though Bush and other war cheerleaders had spoken of liberating Iraq, their main argument concerned the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The reason he was such an immediate danger, they said, was that he had these awful weapons and could, as Bush breathlessly noted, slip them to anti-American terrorists at any moment. Yet once US troops were in Iraq, the Bush Administration and the Pentagon adopted a rather lackadaisical approach to locating and securing such weapons. Weeks after the April 9 fall of Baghdad, the Pentagon was still in the process of assembling a survey team of 1,000 experts to search for chemical and biological weapons and signs of a nuclear weapons program. Why had this force not been ready to roll at the war's start?
During an April 17 press briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "I don't think we'll discover anything, myself. I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it. It is not like a treasure hunt, where you just run around looking everywhere, hoping you find something.... The inspectors didn't find anything, and I doubt that we will." Imagine if Rumsfeld had said that before the war: We're invading another country to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction, but we won't find them unless people there tell us where they are.
Bush had maintained that Saddam Hussein was a danger partly because he was close to possessing nuclear weapons. The US military, though, did not bother to visit Iraq's number-one nuclear site. A Washington Post story noted that before the war the vast Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center held about 4,000 pounds of partially enriched uranium and more than ninety-four tons of natural uranium, as well as radioactive cesium, cobalt and strontium. This is stuff that would be valuable to people seeking to enrich uranium into weapons-grade material or merely interested in constructing a dirty bomb. Yet, the paper reported, "Defense officials acknowledge that the US government has no idea whether any of Tuwaitha's potentially deadly contents have been stolen, because it has not dispatched investigations to appraise the site. What it does know, according to officials at the Pentagon and US Central Command, is that the sprawling campus, 11 miles south of Baghdad, lay unguarded for days and that looters made their way inside."
Most of the facilities suspected of being used to manufacture or store chemical and biological weapons have also gone unexamined. On April 28 British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "We started off, I think, with around about almost 150 sites [to search] and we were beginning to look at seven of them. Actually, the sites that we have got as the result of information now is closer to 1,000.... We have looked at many of those, but nothing like a majority of them." Days earlier, Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter embedded with one of four specialized military teams looking for WMD, noted (low in the story) that "two of the four mobile teams originally assigned to search for unconventional weapons have since been reassigned to investigate war crimes or sites unrelated to weapons." Sure, war crimes are important. But more so than finding weapons that can kill thousands and that happened to be the basis for the invasion and occupation?
Toward the end of April, Administration officials, speaking off the record, were telling journalists it was possible none of these terrible weapons will be found. Nothing had even been located at the sites the Secretary of State cited in his crucial briefing to the UN Security Council in February. Only about 150 actual WMD-seekers were then even at work within Iraq--and some were complaining they were short on vehicles, radios and encryption systems. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of allied forces in the Persian Gulf, said the search process would take months and probably involve "several thousand sites."
At any moment, US forces may find convincing evidence of chemical or biological weapons--which undoubtedly will stir rousing cheers of we-told-you-so from war backers. But that won't be enough. War was waged--so Bush and others said--to prevent Iraq's WMD from being transferred to people and groups who would use them against Americans. But the war plan included no schemes to prevent that from occurring. This was a dereliction of duty. Looters beat the United States to Iraq's nuclear facility. If Iraq had WMD, if Al Qaeda types were in Baghdad, and if these terrorists were seeking weapons of mass destruction in Iraq--the fundamental claims made by the Administration--then there is a good chance the nightmare scenario Bush & Co. exploited to win support for their war has already come true.
Why is Richard Perle not screaming about this from the roof of his French vacation house? Blair, for one, practically sounds bored with the topic of WMD. "Our first priority," he recently said, "has got to be to stabilize the country, the second is the humanitarian situation, and the third--and we can take our time about this and so we should--is to make sure that we investigate the weapons of mass destruction." Take our time? Wasn't the point that the United States and Britain could not wait one week longer before invading because it was necessary to neutralize the threat from these weapons?
So now they tell us. The Pentagon was not ready to go with an extensive WMD search-and-secure mission, and, after the war, there is no need to rush. And by the way, there might not be any WMD to show for all the effort.
The Administration was also unprepared--and disingenuous--regarding another purported aim of the war: bringing democracy to Iraq. In many cities, postwar dancing in the street quickly turned to stomping in the street, as Muslim clerics moved to gather political strength. But the rise of Shiite Power was not part of Bush's Iraq plan. Again, the Washington Post: "As Iraqi Shiite demands for a dominant role in Iraq's future mount, Bush administration officials say they underestimated the Shiites' organizational strength and are unprepared to prevent the rise of an anti-American, Islamic fundamentalist government in the country." But this was hardly an unforeseeable event. "Nobody who knows anything about Shiites and Iraq are surprised by this," says Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum. "There were people in the government who knew this. But they were on the desks, not in the room where decisions were made." Joseph Wilson, the last acting ambassador in Iraq, notes, "The Shiites always had aspirations. And the clerics have a constituency, an organization, a pulpit, an agenda, ambition and a trained militia. What else do you need?"
The Administration had a challenge for which it had not "war-gamed." Did no one in the decision loop remember Algeria in 1991? That year a fundamentalist party that wanted to establish an Islamic state won national elections, and the military then waged a coup to prevent the party from assuming power. US officials have been saying the Iraqi people are free to plot their own government, yet Rumsfeld has declared that an Iran-style government is not an option. What if a majority of voters want something more Iran-like than USA-like?
Such knotty matters were not covered by Bush and his aides in their prewar speeches, which raised the rosy prospect of a domino effect spreading democracy from postwar Iraq to other states in the region. Nor did they address the difficulties of providing security to postwar Iraq. In fact, when Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, testified in February that this could require 100,000 or more troops, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dismissed him as being "wildly off the mark."
But the war showed that the Administration and the Pentagon were not committed to effective postwar security. The national museum trashed, the widespread looting--Rumsfeld wouldn't even voice regrets about such events. These developments also were not predicted, even by the Pentagon, which decided to ignore such messy contingencies. "Months before the invasion of Iraq," the Washington Post reported in mid-April, "Pentagon war planners anticipated the fall of Saddam Hussein would usher in a period of chaos and lawlessness, but for military reasons, they chose to field a light, fleet invasion force that could not hope to quell such unrest when it emerged, Pentagon officials said." Was the public ever informed that US troops would rush to guard the oil ministry in Baghdad but not the three dozen hospitals in the city--even though Bush had promised in a prewar speech that "we will deliver medicine to the sick"? (He just didn't say when.) And one more dropped ball: As of late April, the Administration had not released a plan for overseeing Iraq's oil industry.
Another now-they-tell-us jolt has been the cost of the war. Before the invasion, Administration officials were fiercely tight-lipped, refusing even to hazard a guess in public (as if they couldn't even begin to estimate). In past weeks, the cost projections have ranged as high as $20 billion a year for a to-be-determined number of years. Despite Bush's prewar pledge of "a sustained commitment" to Iraq, some US officials talk of a sooner-rather-than-later pullout. Of course, that may conflict with the Administration's desire to have a friendly government in Baghdad. Occupations can be confusing. But weren't we informed of that? Actually, no.
Loose chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear material up for grabs. When-we-have-time WMD inspections. Those restive Shiites. Twenty billion bucks a year. None of this made it into Bush's prewar disclosure statement. War backers can--and will--argue that the outcome was worth the costs and the chaos. Indeed, the murderous Hussein is out; the Iraqi people are fortunately no longer at his mercy. Yet this was liberation by deceit and misrepresentation, and the scent of fraud hangs in the air. It's a swindle that, for the time being, benefited Iraqis but that undermined debate and democracy at home. And with projecting American power still a priority for Bush and his crew, a question lingers: What else are they not telling us?