Published on Sunday, February 8, 2004 by the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Bush's Iraq War Gamble Was Costly Indeed
by Elizabeth Sullivan
The emerging line on Iraqi weapons is that if Saddam Hussein didn't have the goods at the moment the Iraq War was launched, his hunger to get them, his failure to come clean and his past deceptions still justified the war.
Yet the United States would not have attacked Iraq without two massive rolls of the dice, both related to expectations about weapons of mass destruction.
Both gambles went badly wrong in ways that may yet lose the war for us.
One was Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld's controversial decision to jettison traditional military strategy and race fast and lean for Baghdad. Saddam was toppled with little ado. Yet without sizable U.S. forces to establish order right away, Baath regime loy alists got the opening they needed to organize resis tance. The other, related, gamble was that U.S. forces would quickly find all those weapons of mass destruction President George W. Bush, and his advisers kept assuring us were there. This would immediately vindicate the White House in having ordered the war without U.N. sanction or international backing. Outside support would pour in, helping us bring order and stability to the country.
Just the reverse happened.
U.S. troops found no weapons in the places U.S. spies thought they would be. That meant the effort to find weapons expanded. A purely military team was replaced by an inter-agency effort involving more than 1,000 people. Resources needed for the military effort, including scarce intelligence specialists and translators, were instead dedicated to the hunt for weapons. That waste of resources continues to this day.
In other words, U.S. officials were suckered by the self-same game of three-card monte they thought Saddam Hussein was playing with them on the weapons.
The almost evangelical certainty that Saddam had the nasties despite intelligence caveats and the negative findings from U.N. inspectors on the ground soars forth from this period like a choir of absolute truth.
In September 2002, Rumsfeld listed "facts" about Saddam in Senate testimony that he said should guide U.S. policy toward Iraq. Among them, the fact that "he's amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons, including VX, Sarin and mustard gas."
Yet that same month, a classified Defense Intelligence Agency document in support of war planning said there was "no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons," and no direct evidence, only probabilities.
Asked about this discrepancy, Rumsfeld said last week that he never saw the document.
But what about the caveats ever-present in official intelligence reports?
CIA chief George Tenet was almost plaintive last week when he said intelligence on Iraq weapons was never offered up as a dossier of certainty, but rather remained replete with recorded dissents right up until the moment of war.
Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell essentially had to eat crow after saying, "I don't know," Monday when a member of the Washington Post editorial board asked if he would have supported the war had he been told there were no weapons stockpiles in Iraq. Powell backtracked hastily the next day, telling reporters that, of course, "the president made the right decision."
What's most galling is how the certainties continued even as evidence poured in that the idea of huge weapons caches was a phantom.
Once weapons inspectors got back into Iraq, U.S. intelligence had a fresh source of information that some of the assumptions about production and stockpiling were faulty when inspectors went to sites highlighted by the CIA, and came up empty.
Yet Rumsfeld was still suggesting last week that "enough biological weapons to kill thousands of human beings" may still turn up in spider holes like the one in which Saddam was hiding.
That's totally illogical, accord ing to David Kay, who until recently led the Iraq Survey Group weapons hunt.
"Look, if there were large stockpiles, they had to be produced by people, they had to be produced in facilities and they would have left some indelible signs," Kay told a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace audience last week.
"Where are those people? Where are those facilities? Where are the documents, the importation and the other records of such large production? Those have not been found." That alone, said Kay, was "pretty compelling proof" that they don't exist.
Like any gambler, the Bush administration is unwilling to admit that it guessed wrong. Some people would have called it a good gamble. Saddam's drive for battlefield biological weapons goes back decades. He used chemical weapons in war. U.S. spies were caught off guard by how close he got in the early 1990s to a nuclear bomb.
The big surprise, Kay says now, is how deeply his regime had sunk into corruption and disrepair by 2003, making even Saddam one of the victims of his own deceptions.
But that does not excuse a decision to go to war based on a gamble by those who had the access and the wherewithal to know better. Sign them all up for Gamblers Anonymous, and then start repairing the damage.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.
© 2004 The Plain Dealer