Paul Pillar

Rod Rosenstein and Iraqi WMD

Now roll the tape back a decade and a half, as the George W. Bush administration was mounting its big sales campaign for launching a war in Iraq.  The war was something neocons had long sought, and the sudden change in public mood after 9/11 finally brought their ambition politically within reach.  But remaking the politics and economics of the Middle East according to the neocon dream would not work as the basis for selling to the American public a step as drastic as initiating the first major offensive war the United States had begun in over a century.  So the war-makers came up with a sales pitch about the horror of dictators giving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to terrorists.  Because dictators, unconventional weapons, and terrorism were all things that the U.S. intelligence community routinely follows, there was an opportunity to pick out portions of what the community says and to use that output to get the sought-after stamp of nonpartisanship, objectivity, and expert authority.  That’s what was done with the topic of weapons of mass destruction.

The WMD issue was not the reason the Bush administration launched the Iraq War.  I have discussed at length elsewhere the whole story of why and how it was not the reason.  Some of the key facts include the longstanding prior neoconservative ambition to start exactly this war, the orders by the president to prepare war plans well before the intelligence community had even begun work on the estimate that would become pointed to most often as a rationale for the war decision, the disinterest of the administration in the intelligence except for the tidbits that could be used publicly as part of the sales campaign, and the fact that even the notorious intelligence estimate included the judgment that Saddam Hussein was unlikely to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. interests or to give them to terrorists except in the extreme situation of an invasion of his country with the intention of overthrowing his regime by force.  As avid war promoter Paul Wolfowitz later admitted in an unguarded comment in an interview, the WMD issue was just a convenient topic on which people could agree, not the reason the war was fought.

Perhaps most important, the presumed existence of unconventional weapons in the hands of a nasty regime does not imply that it is wise to launch an offensive war to topple that regime.  If it were, we should have invaded North Korea years ago.  The Iraq War was another case of erroneously treating presumed confirmation of a problem as a case for taking a specific drastic action in the name of addressing that problem.

The Iraq War also was another instance of public servants—in this case those working in the intelligence community—being used by their political masters as scapegoats for the masters’ own controversial decisions.  The intelligence agencies certainly did not advocate launching the war, and it would not have been their role to opine on that.  With no policy process leading to Bush’s decision, there was no opportunity for them to offer any such opinion even if they wanted to.  The intelligence judgments on the other major part of the sales pitch—the supposed alliance between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda—were contrary to the assertions in the pitch.  And as for what turned out to be far more important than any of the themes in the sales campaign, pre-war intelligence community analysis correctly anticipated most of the costly political and security mess and internal strife to which Iraq succumbed, and with which U.S. forces had to deal, after the invasion.

When the output of public servants is used—or rather, misused—in the way it was in these two cases, the use is not predicated on that output being accurate.  Whether Rosenstein was correct, as a matter of either fact or judgment, in what he said in his memorandum about Comey had no bearing on the Trump White House’s decision to use him and his memo as a public rationale for firing the FBI director.  Whether the intelligence community was correct or not about the various aspects of Iraqi weapons programs did not determine how the Bush administration used the intelligence output on the subject as a public rationale for launching the war. 

There also usually is not much relevance to costs and outcomes.  Whatever happens in investigating connections between Trump and Russia, the investigation will not depend, with or without Comey, on how Comey handled the question of Hillary Clinton’s emails.  And even if every word that the intelligence agencies issued about Iraqi unconventional weapons had been correct, post-invasion Iraq still would have been just as much of a bloody mess and the U.S. occupation would have been just as much of a costly quagmire.  If anything, the existence of WMD would have made the war even more bloody and costly than it actually was.

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