Saturday, March 11, 2006

A theory disproved: Saddam knew he had no WMDs

Why did Saddam risk an American invasion? One theory was that he himself thought he had bio and chemical weapons that he could use to blunt an invading force. A leak of a Pentagon report, printed in the NYT, claims that in fact he new Iraq had no WMDs but his senior leaders thought they existed:
Even as U.S. Invaded, Hussein Saw Iraqi Unrest as Top Threat - New York Times

The Iraqi dictator was so secretive and kept information so compartmentalized that his top military leaders were stunned when he told them three months before the war that he had no weapons of mass destruction, and they were demoralized because they had counted on hidden stocks of poison gas or germ weapons for the nation's defense....

... he ordered a crash effort to scrub the country so the inspectors would not discover any vestiges of old unconventional weapons, no small concern in a nation that had once amassed an arsenal of chemical weapons, biological agents and Scud missiles, the Iraq survey group report said.

Mr. Hussein's compliance was not complete, though. Iraq's declarations to the United Nations covering what stocks of illicit weapons it had possessed and how it had disposed of them were old and had gaps. And Mr. Hussein would not allow his weapons scientists to leave the country, where United Nations officials could interview them outside the government's control.

Seeking to deter Iran and even enemies at home, the Iraqi dictator's goal was to cooperate with the inspectors while preserving some ambiguity about its unconventional weapons — a strategy General Hamdani, the Republican Guard commander, later dubbed in a television interview "deterrence by doubt."

That strategy led to mutual misperception. When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell addressed the Security Council in February 2003, he offered evidence from photographs and intercepted communications that the Iraqis were rushing to sanitize suspected weapons sites. Mr. Hussein's efforts to remove any residue from old unconventional weapons programs were viewed by the Americans as efforts to hide the weapons. The very steps the Iraqi government was taking to reduce the prospect of war were used against it, increasing the odds of a military confrontation.

Even some Iraqi officials were impressed by Mr. Powell's presentation. Abd al-Tawab Mullah Huwaish, who oversaw Iraq's military industry, thought he knew all the government's secrets. But Bush administration officials were so insistent that he began to question whether Iraq might have prohibited weapons after all. "I knew a lot, but wondered why Bush believed we had these weapons," he told interrogators after the war, according to the Iraq Survey Group report.
The story sounds persuasive, but the Bush/Pentagon propaganda campaign makes me cautious.

The implications are that the world believed Iraq had WMDs because every nation's intelligence service was hearing from Iraqi military leaders -- and those generals thought Iraq had WMDs. Only Saddam, and presumably some trusted insiders knew the truth. Saddam was reluctant to fully verify this because he feared Iranian invasion, and wanted Iran to think Iraq might have WMDs. That was the wrong choice.

Update 3/12: Kaplan has more details from a subsequent Foreign Affairs article.

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