Paranoia As Foreign Policy

Ken AshfordIraqLeave a Comment

Debate has grown to a fever pitch about the Iraq War — specifically, the intelligence on WMDs.  Defenders of the war seem to be applying inconsistent arguments.

For example, in this RealClearPolitics post countering Kevin Drum’s observations (which I discussed here), writer Tom Bevan notes that as of November 27, 2002, when inspectors resumed inspections in Iraq:

…there was still a general consensus among intelligence agencies around the world – not to mention policy experts and politicians from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. dating back nearly 10 years – about what type of WMD Iraq was potentially concealing.

And that seems to be ARGUMENT ONE from Bush defenders — the intelligent agencies were all in agreement.

But of course, honest Bush defenders quickly defeat their own argument, and Bevan is no exception:

Yes, we now know there were some dissenting opinions in the mix of intelligence, but that only serves to highlight a point that cannot be overstated: our ability to know exactly what Saddam had or didn’t have depended almost exclusively on his willingness to cooperate with the inspection and disarmament process.

We, the people, do now know about dissenting opinions.  We didn’t know then.  [And more evidence is coming out everyday: in the past 24 hours, there have been more documents disclosing that the CIA doubted an Iraq-al Qaeda link.]

But regardless of how intelligence was filtered, the very fact that there were dissents in the intelligence community directly contradicts that meme that the intelligence community was unified in its belief that Saddam posed a threat.

Bevan makes it even worse for himself by admitting:

Intelligence is always flawed and imprecise, even more so when you’re dealing with a closed, paranoid and authoritarian regime like Hussein’s.

This is absolutely true.  More importantly, it was just as true in 2002 as it is now.  And that’s what many of us were saying then: How can you commit American soldier’s lives to a cause based on intelligence which is inherently flawed and imprecise?

Therefore, what Bevan and others like him are basically saying is "Screw the intelligence.  Saddam was a badass and we all know it."

Again, true.  He was a badass in the 1990’s, and before 9/11.  But Bush didn’t propose an invasion then.  In fact, when running for the presidency, Bush rejected the idea of using our military for "nationbuilding".

So what, according to Bevan, did Bush do?

What President Bush did instead was put an end to the decade-long guessing game and place the burden squarely on Saddam Hussein by saying in front of the world: "This is what we think you have. It’s now your responsibility to prove us wrong."

Well, that’s a convenient little spin of recent history.   Bush didn’t articulate what he THOUGHT Saddam had.  He argued for invasion after pegging Saddam as an imminent threat — one who possessed WMDs, and one who had links to al Qaeda.  If Bush were truly interested in knowing what Saddam had or didn’t have, he would have let the inspectors continue their job.

Furthermore, placing the burden of proof on Saddam, when the deck is stacked against him, placed him in an unwinnable situation of having to prove a negative to a skeptical world.  How does Saddam prove the non-existence of WMDs?  How does he prove he has no substantive connections to al Qaeda?  How does he prove anything to people like Bevan who wouldn’t trust anything he says anyway?  Call it a "kangaroo court of world opinion", because nothing Saddam could conceiveably have done would have satisifed people like Bevan.

So it wasn’t intelligence that got us into Iraq.  And it wasn’t a desire to find the truth about what Saddam really had.  It was, quite bluntly, paranoia.  9/11-inspired fear of olive-skinned evildoers.   Saddam fit the bill, but unlike Osama, we knew where he was.  That’s why we went in there.

I agree with Matt Yglesius that the right wing talking points are falling into two contrary positions:

The right’s put two related narratives out there about the administration and the intelligence community which people need to recognize as directly contradictory. On the one hand, we’re supposed to believe that the White House was just the victim of bad intel coming from the professionals. On the other hand, we’re supposed to believe that the IC is ridden with die-hard Bush-hating anti-war types who are planting all these negative articles in the press. But of course if theory two is right, then theory one can’t also be right.

Theory two is getting some traction.  In fact, it looks like some on the right are attempting to engage in swiftboating the CIA/intelligence community.  I’m not sure how smart that is.