A number of critiques have been written about President George W. Bush’s responses to Tim Russert’s questions in the February 8 edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” primarily regarding his shifting rationale for the invasion of Iraq.
More problematic, however, was that President Bush made a number of assertions that were patently false, or – at the very least – misleading. The failure of Mr. Russert to challenge these statements and the ongoing repetition of such rationales by the administration and its supporters make it all the more imperative that such assertions not be allowed to go unquestioned. The implications of each of these are quite disturbing, since they involve such fundamental issues as international terrorism, the United Nations, weapons of mass destruction, and the policy of pre-emption.
A major rationale for the war by the Bush Administration was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s alleged inks to the terrorist Al-Qaeda network and other active Iraqi involvement in international terrorism. Regarding the failure to find any evidence, President Bush stated in his interview on “Meet the Press” that “We knew the fact that he was paying for suicide bombers. We knew the fact he was funding terrorist groups.”
Even this statement is a stretch. Saddam Hussein’s support for Abu Nidal (a secular nationalist group made up primarily of Palestinian exiles) and other terrorists peaked during the 1980s – the time when the United States dropped Iraq from its list of countries backing terrorism in order to provide the Iraqi dictator with technical and military support. According to the U.S. State Department, the last direct involvement by the Iraqi government in an act of international terrorism was the alleged 1993 assassination attempt in Kuwait against the former President George H.W. Bush. More recently, Iraq has provided money to the Arab Liberation Front, a tiny pro-Iraqi Palestinian faction, which has passed it on to some Palestinian families of “martyrs” killed in the struggle against the Israeli occupation. These have included families of suicide bombers who have murdered Israeli civilians, but most recipients have been families of militiamen killed in battles with Israeli occupation forces and families of civilians shot by the Israelis. The amount given to families of terrorists was far less than the value of the family homes, which are usually destroyed right after a terrorist attack as a part of Israel’s policy of collective punishment in the occupied territories. As a result, this limited Iraqi assistance probably did not result in any additional terrorist attacks.
Hamas, the Palestinian group responsible for the majority of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, has received most of its funding from Saudi Arabia and other pro-American monarchies in the Persian Gulf.
Perhaps more ominously, the U.S. occupation of Iraq is itself now being justified in the name of the war on terrorism. President Bush claimed that Iraqis are fighting U.S. occupation forces not because they resent being invaded and occupied by a foreign power, but because they “are people who desperately want to stop the advance of freedom and democracy.”
In the “Meet the Press” interview, President Bush reiterated the widely-accepted belief that “freedom and democracy will be a powerful long-term deterrent to terrorist activities.” While undoubtedly true, the Bush Administrations continues to provide military, economic and diplomatic support to Middle Eastern dictatorships and occupation armies that deny people Arab and Muslim people their freedom and democratic rights. It is not surprising that the majority of the leadership, financial supporters, and membership in the mega-terrorist Al-Qaeda network have come from U.S.-backed dictatorships like Saudi Arabia.
Enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions
Another misleading line that went unchallenged in President Bush’s “Meet the Press” interview was his assertion that the invasion of Iraq was fought in part to uphold UN Security Council resolutions being defied by Iraq. In reference to UN Security Council resolution 1441, President Bush stated that Saddam Hussein “he defied the world once again.”
Though the Iraqi regime had defied a number of UN Security Council resolutions prior to the unanimous passage of resolution 1441 in November 2003, Iraq appears to have been largely in compliance at the time of the U.S. invasion. Iraq unconditionally allowed inspectors from the United Nations Monitoring and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC) unfettered access within Iraq shortly after the resolution was passed; released what evidence it had of its proscribed weapons, delivery systems and weapons programs and their disassembly (which was initially greeted with skepticism, but now appears to have been accurate); and, worked out with UNMOVIC the modalities regarding interviews with Iraqi scientists, overflights of Iraqi airspace and other UN activities. Remaining disputes appeared to be largely technical in nature and could not reasonably be considered cases of “material breach” of the resolution.
Citing the resolution’s warning of “serious consequences” to Iraqi noncompliance, President Bush argued, “if there isn't serious consequences, it creates adverse consequences. People look at us and say, they don't mean what they say, they are not willing to follow through.” Even if one were to accept the assertion that Iraq was in material breach of 1441, the resolution states that the Security Council “remains seized of the matter,” essentially reiterated the UN Charter’s stipulation that only the Security Council as a whole, not any single member, has the right to authorize the use of force to enforce the resolution.
In any case, at that time there were more than 100 UN Security Council resolutions being violated by governments other than Iraq. The Bush Administration has opposed their enforcement by military or any other means, however, since the majority of the governments in violation of these resolutions are considered to be allies of the United States. As a result, the administration’s claim that invading Iraq was somehow an effort to uphold the integrity of the United Nations and its resolutions is simply false.
In the February 8 interview, President Bush rejected the idea that he rushed into war by claiming that he acted militarily only after he went “to the international community and see if we could not disarm Saddam Hussein peacefully through international pressure.” However, as it is now apparent, the international community did disarm Saddam Hussein peacefully through international pressure. This then begs the question, why did the United States have to invade?
Weapons of Mass Destruction
In response to Mr. Russert’s questions regarding the failure to find weapons of mass destruction that the administration and its supporters claimed Iraq possessed, President Bush defended the decision to invade that oil-rich country by observing that “We remembered the fact that he had used weapons, which meant he had had weapons.”
No one, however, has ever disputed that Saddam Hussein had possessed and used chemical weapons, both against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians. These war crimes took place over fifteen years ago, however, at a time when the United States was supporting the regime, including downplaying and covering up Iraq’s use of these weapons. The administration has failed to show any evidence that Iraq still had chemical weapons or any other WMDs for at least five years prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.
President Bush’s claim that in the months leading up to the invasion, “The international community thought he had weapons” is patently false. The International Atomic Energy Agency had determined back in 1998, after years of inspections, that Iraq no longer had a nuclear program. The IAEA’s four months of more rigorous inspections just prior to the invasion had not given any hint that that had changed. Similarly, UNMOVIC – while frustrated at Iraq’s failure to fully account for all the proscribed materials – similarly determined that there was no evidence that Iraq had any chemical or biological weapons. Rolf Ekeus, former head of UNMOVIC’s predecessor agency, the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), declared that Iraq was “fundamentally disarmed” as early as 1996. At the United Nations and other forums, representatives of many of the world’s governments went on record raising questions as to the validity of U.S. and British accusations that Iraq still had WMDs and active WMD programs.
In his interview with Russert, President Bush said that “I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman, and I believe it is essential . . . that when we see a threat, we deal with those threats before they become imminent.” Even though a number of top administration officials claimed on several occasions prior to the war that the threat was already “imminent,” now that it is clear that that was not actually the case, President Bush is claiming that “It's too late if they become imminent.” Furthermore, President Bush argued that while Saddam Hussein may not have actually had weapons of mass destruction, “He could have developed a nuclear weapon over time — I'm not saying immediately, but over time.”
Given that the IAEA had reported that Iraq’s nuclear program had been completely dismantled and the strict embargo against military and dual-use technology and raw materials would continue as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power, it is actually doubtful he could have ever produced a nuclear weapon.
Of greater concern is that, through this interview and related comments, President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption has been expanded to include the right to invade a country if the president of the United States determines that a foreign government poses even a hypothetical threat some time in the future.
As President Bush put it, “There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America,” not because he actually had weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S. invasion, but because “he had the capacity to make a weapon.” He went on to claim that Bush’s chief post-invasion weapons inspector David Kay reported that “Saddam Hussein was dangerous with the ability to make weapons.”
Even this assertion is questionable. Kay had actually stated that virtually Iraq’s entire infrastructure for nuclear and chemical weapons was destroyed. While Kay did say that he believed that Iraq could conceivably have been able to produce dangerous biological agents, it would be far more difficult for them to be weaponized “in a usable way.” In a February 17 story, the Boston Globe quoted former CIA counter terrorism chief and former National Security Council director of intelligence Vincent Cannistraro as saying that the Iraqis had the “capability” of developing WMDs only in the sense that they had the knowledge of how to do so, but they did not have many of the basic components to actually produce them
Given that it was only as a result of the import of technology and raw materials from Russia, Germany, France, Britain and the United States that Iraq was able to develop its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs in the 1980s in the first place, the administration was never able to make a credible case how Iraq could reconstitute such programs, as long as sanctions remained in effect.
In addition to the eight or nine countries which currently have nuclear weapons, there are more than forty other countries that are theoretically capable of developing nuclear weapons. At least twice that many could develop chemical and biological weapons and at least a couple of dozen already have. The Bush Administration has failed to make a compelling case as to why Iraq – which, unlike the others, allowed inspectors unfettered access to the entire country to look for such weapons, weapon components, and delivery systems – was a greater threat than all the others.
The Doctrine of Pre-emption
A cornerstone to Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive military intervention is the notion that deterrence cannot work.
In response to those who stressed containment of Iraq as an alternative to offensive war, President Bush replied, “We can't say, ‘Let's don't deal with Saddam Hussein. Let's hope he changes his stripes, or let's trust in the goodwill of Saddam Hussein. Let's let us, kind of, try to contain him.’”
Despite such assertions to the contrary, the doctrine of containment has never assumed goodwill on the part of the other party. If there was an assumption of goodwill from the Iraqi regime, intrusive inspections and strictly-enforced sanctions would not be necessary. Similarly, no one was suggesting that the world not “deal with” Saddam Hussein. For a dozen years prior to the U.S. invasion, the United Nations put more time, money and effort in successfully insuring that Saddam Hussein could no longer threaten its neighbors or its Kurdish minority than it had on any other issue.
Bush’s own Secretary of State, Colin Powell, appearing before “Meet the Press” in 2001, confidently stated that “We have been able to keep weapons from going into Iraq” and that the sanctions on military and dual-use items had been “quite a success for ten years.” In a meeting with the German foreign minister that February he spoke of how the United Nations, the United States and its allies “have succeeded in containing Saddam Hussein and his ambitions,” the result being “They don’t really possess the capability to attack their neighbors the way they did ten years ago.” Iraq, stated Powell, was “not threatening America,” and that “Containment has been a successful policy, and I think we should make sure that we continue it.”
The very fact that a dictator that had had WMDs and offensive delivery systems during the 1980s and – following a UN-led disarmament program in the 1990s –apparently no longer had any seems to indicate that containment in fact did work.
Part of the assumption that Bush and his supporters have put forward is that if Saddam Hussein did develop nuclear weapons, “We would have been in a position of blackmail.” This, however, does not make any sense. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons on ICBMs and other delivery systems pointed at the United States and the U.S. government had no defense against them, yet there were no attempts at blackmail. This is because the United States could blackmail the Soviets as well. This stalemate is known as deterrence and was the backbone of U.S. defense policy for decades. If it could work against a powerful totalitarian state like the Soviet Union, why wouldn’t it work against a weak Third World country like Iraq?
The only response the administration has been able to offer is that Saddam Hussein was a “madman,” a phrase that has been used repeatedly by President Bush, a half dozen times in his “Meet the Press” interview alone: “You can't rely upon a madman, and he was a madman. You can't rely upon him making rational decisions when it comes to war and peace, and it's too late, in my judgment, when a madman who has got terrorist connections is able to act.” Furthermore, “Containment doesn't work with a man who is a madman.”
While Saddam Hussein certainly has a record of making poor political and strategic judgments, that does not make someone a “madman.” A number of other heads of government have made such poor decisions on issues of war and peace, including President Bush. This does not mean the Iraqi dictator would launch a suicidal first strike against the United States with a nuclear weapon.
Saddam Hussein demonstrated repeatedly while in power was that he cared first and foremost about his own survival. He apparently recognized that any attempt to use WMDs against the United States or any of its allies would inevitably lead to his own destruction. This is why he did not use them during the 1991 Gulf War, even when attacked by the largest coalition of international forces against a single nation ever assembled and he still had chemical weapons and long-range missiles. (By contrast, prior to the Gulf War, Saddam was quite willing to utilize his arsenal of chemical weapons against Iranian forces because he knew the revolutionary Islamist regime was isolated internationally, and he was similarly willing to use them against Kurdish civilians because he knew they could not fight back.)
President Bush still raises the idea that if Saddam Hussein some day developed nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction that he would “then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network.” There is no evidence that the Iraqi government ever even considered such a dangerous move, including the period when their contacts with terrorist groups and their WMD programs were at their peaks during the 1980s.
Saddam Hussein's leadership style has always been that of direct control; his distrust of subordinates (bordering on paranoia) was one of the ways he was able to hold on to power for so long. He would have been one of the last people to go to the risk and expense of developing weapons of mass destruction only to pass them on to some group of terrorists, particularly radical Islamists who could easily turn on him. When he had such weapons at his disposal, their use was clearly at his discretion alone.
At the time of the U.S. invasion last year, Iraq's armed forces were barely one-third their pre-Gulf War size. Iraq's navy was virtually nonexistent, and its air force was unable to even get off the ground to challenge U.S. forces. Military spending by Iraq has been estimated at barely one-tenth of what it was in the 1980s. The Bush Administration has been unable to explain why in 2003, when Saddam had only a tiny percentage of his once-formidable military capability, Iraq was considered such a threat that it was necessary to invade the country and replace its leader – the same leader Washington quietly supported during the peak of Iraq's military capability.
In his interview, President Bush claimed the policy of pre-emption demonstrated in Iraq has had positive repercussions elsewhere, citing Libya’s decision to ends its nascent WMD programs an open up to international inspections. However, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi surely had observed that Iraq was invaded only after it had given up its WMD programs while North Korea, in reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, was not invaded. The Libyan decision, which was a result of a year-long series of diplomatic initiatives, seems to have come in spite of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, not because of it.
Ironically, President Bush claimed that “we had run the diplomatic string in Iraq” at the time of the invasion while “We’re making good progress in North Korea.” The reality, of course, is that the UN-led diplomatic efforts had successfully eliminated Iraq’s WMD threat prior to the U.S. invasion while North Korea has broken its treaty commitments and is apparently now developing nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the Bush Administration refused to engage in any direct negotiations with Iraq prior to war, raising questions as to how the United States could have “run the diplomatic string.”
Finally, President Bush tried to claim that the United States, through its invasion and occupation of Iraq, would bring democracy to that country and thereby make the world safer, since “free societies are societies that don't develop weapons of mass terror.” This, unfortunately, is not true. The United States was the first society to develop nuclear weapons and the only country to actually use them. Great Britain, France, Israel and India are also considered free societies, yet they developed nuclear weapons as well.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project and is the author of 'Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism' (Common Courage Press, 2003)