Confession of a naive optimist

Former UNSCOM boss Richard Butler has a useful opinion piece in this morning’s Australian, observing that the failure so far to find WOMD in liberated Iraq “has led to serious expressions of concern around the world that the rationale for invasion may have been false or fabricated.”

Butler recounts the history of Iraq’s non-compliance with UN resolutions over more than a decade, and reminds readers of UNSCOM’s discovery in 1998 that Iraq had produced over 4000 litres of VX nerve gas (when a single drop on the skin is enough to kill a person in 3 minutes). These agents were never disclosed by Iraq, not even in its 12,000 page dossier produced in response to UN Resolution 1441. Butler speculates that they were destroyed shortly before the US-led invasion. It certainly defies belief that they were destroyed any earlier than that, otherwise why continue obfuscating? The more worrying scenario is that chemical agents have been shipped abroad to Syria or elsewhere pending a Baathist revival after the Americans leave.

On the conclusions we should draw from Bush and Blair’s apparent hyping of the evidence for WOMD, Butler says:

They chose the WMD issue as justification. British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his dossier issued in London and US Secretary of State Colin Powell in his appearance before the Security Council went beyond the weapons that remained unaccounted for in my 1999 report and Blix’s 2002 report. They claimed they had intelligence of much more weapons development, including nuclear weapons. They also raised the spectre that Hussein might make these weapons available to terrorists. …

Second, the additional materials Blair and Powell published were questionable. Blair’s claim that Iraq had been trying to purchase uranium in Africa was later proved to have been based on forged documents. Powell’s insistence that Iraq’s weapons could have been made available to terrorists was speculation.

Nevertheless, while expressing concern about the Bush “pre-emption” doctrine, Butler rightly emphasises the role of UN inaction for over a decade as a precipitating factor:

It also derived from the parlous state of the Security Council. The council’s decisions are binding in international law and it has the right to enforce them or to authorise countries to take military action on its behalf.

Its failure to enforce its own decision on Iraq for more than a decade made it possible for George W. Bush to justify a US invasion of Iraq in the terms the President used: If you won’t fulfil your responsibility, we will. Although that might have a simplistic, Texas Ranger-type appeal, it does not allay concern that the Bush doctrine may lead to a period of US imperialism.

Reuters also carries a news story alleging US intelligence community concerns with Bush-Blair WOMD evidence hyping, reporting that:

A growing number of U.S. national security professionals are accusing the Bush administration of slanting the facts and hijacking the $30 billion intelligence apparatus to justify its rush to war in Iraq. …

Vince Cannistraro, a former chief of Central Intelligence Agency (news – web sites) counterterrorist operations, said he knew of serving intelligence officers who blame the Pentagon for playing up “fraudulent” intelligence, “a lot of it sourced from the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi.”

But does it matter? Does it matter if the Americans and British exaggerated the evidence for Iraq’s WOMD program, or relied on intelligence they knew to be lacking in credibility? Certainly right wing bloggers like Catallaxy’s Jack Strocchi don’t think so (also see his earlier post here). Jack thinks that “[i]t is as well that someone has the nerve to practice a little machiavellian rule-breaking“, given what he sees as the potentially favourable geopolitical consequences of US actions in the Middle East.

For leftie bloggers like Rob Schaap or Gary Sauer-Thompson, US lies and exaggeration also don’t matter. They conclusively presume that the “neocons” are always lying anyway. Even many in the apathetic centre aren’t likely to agonise over Bush-Blair duplicity. Is the Pope a Catholic?

Yet for self-appointed politically aware centrists like me, it really does make a difference. I’m not naive enough to think that politicians never lie, or even that they shouldn’t. However, I also don’t automatically assume that Bush or Blair (or for that matter John Howard) are just lying bastards who can never be trusted. Trust and democracy are inextricably interwoven. I strongly believe in the citizen’s civic duty to stay informed on important current issues and to participate responsibly in the civic dialogue without which any democratic polity becomes a mere elective dictatorship. It isn’t necessary for everyone, or even a majority, to fulfil this ideal of civic participation, but it is necessary for enough citizens to take it seriously to “keep the bastards honest”. If we simply can’t believe anything we’re told by our political leaders, even on issues like Iraq with such huge human rights and geopolitical significance, then any meaningful conception of democracy is fatally undermined. If it’s allowed to continue unchallenged, if we don’t insist on accountability, the only rational political stances would be either the corrosive anti-American cynicism of the left or the mindless partisan barracking of the warblogging right (they might be lying bastards, but they’re our lying bastards). Maybe that’s always been true, but I refuse to accept it.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

I have a few problems with the Iraqis indeed having WMD.

The CIA appeared to say in Senate Hearings that to be a WMD one had to arm a ICBM with a warhead.
( This is paramount to Blair claiming Iraq could threaten a country within 45 minutes and Bush saying not only Iraq threatening the US directly but Iraq possessing the most lethal weapons in history.)
I note the CIA also stated Iraq had no ICBMs and were a few years away from gaining them

You can’t just get rid of weapons such as this in a hurry. They have to be around somewhere as Robin Cook has been saying. It is inexplicable weapons such as these have not been found yey IF they existed.

If they had WMD then why didn’t they use them against the US. Afterall they had the perfect defence as their country was being invaded.
Moreover using them during the war would mean they would not get the nuclear retaliation they would normally expect.

Ken Miles
2022 years ago

I think that Paul Krugman has it right. They were so convinced of their case, that they simply discounted any evidence which went against it. Perhaps every government should have it’s own devils advocate.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Totally Off topic – Ken is this getting through in Email?

Gummo Trotsky
2022 years ago


… they might be lying bastards, but they’re our lying bastards …

I think I sometimes get more pissed off by the lying bastards on my side of the great political divide because they’re letting the side down and all that sort of tosh.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

My recollection is that before the war Butler (a) was convinced that Iraq had WMD’s ( and he was in a pretty good position to know) and (b) he was against the war in spite of that.

Whatever the hype on either side, it’s beyond dispute that Saddam Hussein was in breach of the cease-fire conditions at all relevant times. Even Blix admitted that. This alone justified terminating the cease-fire and resuming Gulf War I, which is what happened.

Butler is a reasonablly good source of information on the likely existence of WMDs but this doesn’t place any premium on his opinion on what should have been done about it.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Now Ron, I distinctly remember Tony Blair making a long speech in the House of Commons in February giving a detailed account of Saddam’s WMD and citing this a reason to go to war.

Not long after, Colin Powell did the same at the UN Security Council.

And so did our very own Little Johnny.

I think the fact that these stories about WMD have turned out to be pure fiction is of some relevance.

Rob Schaap
2022 years ago

“For leftie bloggers like Rob Schaap or Gary Sauer-Thompson, US lies and exaggeration also don’t matter. ”

Ferfucksake, Ken …

Tens of thousands are dead because of these lies. A country lies in ruins because of these lies. The world’s splitting at the seams, international conventions and good will lie horribly wounded, all our democracies have been violated and gawd-knows-how-many are yet to die because of these lies. Lefty bloggers called the liars on their lies when it (might have) mattered, warned what was at stake, begged people to take the PNAC extremists seriously, and discoursed on the assault on western democracy that has attended the whole obscene outrage.

Yet it is we, by your flickering lights, who don’t care.

There’s no shame in being sucked in by professional liars, Ken. The shame is theirs. So why spoil your confession by misrepresenting those who weren’t sucked in?

2022 years ago

Ron, you wouldn’t be calling Hans Blix a “useful idiot” would you?

Rob, he’s not saying you don’t care. He’s saying it doesn’t matter whether Bush lied or not, because you’d just assume he was bullshitting straight off. (hey, don’t shoot the messenger)

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

Call Blix ‘useful’? Useful as tits on a bull.

2022 years ago

Richard Butler on WMDs and the UNSC

RICHARD BUTLER’S opinion piece in today’s Australian is an interesting “state-of-play” analysis of issues surrounding Iraq, the UN Security Council and weapons of mass destruction. On WMDs: The weapons that remained unaccounted for from 1999 to 2002 we…