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Was Iraq a Mutual Charade?

A recent article by a Washington Post staff writer (Dana Priest, July 12th) provides vivid evidence to support what most astute observers and analysts of the causes for the Iraq War always knew down deep in their hearts to be true. That the invasion was essentially a put-up job concocted by a Bush administration eager to enhance its shaky legitimacy in the eyes of the American public following its dubious victory in the 2000 presidential election, and the shattering impact of 9/11.

Based upon a comparison between the content of a classified report on the Iraqi regime which the CIA provided to the US Congress in September, 2002, and a White Paper released to the public in October of that year, Priest concludes that the CIA exaggerated and distorted the evidence it had given to Congress just days earlier… The documents and their interpretation make it painfully clear that, despite pious denials to the contrary emanating from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and indeed the CIA itself, cooked the data in such a manner as to make Saddam Hussain appear to be the greatest danger to Western Civilization since Attila the Hun, or perhaps more contemporaneously, Josef Stalin. Basically, this was accomplished by parsing words between the confidential and public reports. Repeatedly, notes Priest, the CIA hedged its bets in the confidential report on how solid the evidence really was on whether the Iraqis possessed WMD, had stockpiles of chemical warfare substances, were really close to achieving a nuclear capability, had substantial links to Al Qaeda, or indeed had sufficiently rebuilt their armed forces following Iraq s defeat in the First Gulf War to constitute a significant military threat to her immediate neighbors let alone the United States.

Put simply, the CIA s doubts and hedges in the form of such qualifiers as we judge or we assess had the effect in the public report of making the best estimates appear as facts. Testimony by other witnesses to the events leading up to the Iraq war clearly confirm these perceptions of caveat manipulation employed as a means of telling an administration that had made up its mind to wage a preemptive war against Iraq what it wanted to hear. Richard Clark, in his public testimony and in his powerful book, Against all Enemies, describes President Bush and Vice-President Cheney pressuring intelligence operatives to come up with evidence of significant conspiratorial links between bin Laden and Hussein despite repeated insistence that none had been found and indeed none existed. But Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this, declared Clark right after 9/11. I know, I know, Mr. Bush replied, but see if Saddam was involved.

The obvious point is that the top ranks of the Bush administration, certainly Mr. Bush himself, were obsessed with establishing a publically acceptable basis for launching a preemptive war against Iraq, and if this required distorting and falsifying the evidence, then so be it. Undoubtedly, there was a smug assumption that subsequent disparities between fact and fiction, should they arise, could be fixed . Mr. Bush s current campaign rhetoric is attempting to accomplish this very purpose even as we speak,

The rest is history, as the time-worn cliche goes.

But there is an angle to this almost Shakespearean saga of tragedy and evil which thus far seems to have eluded everyone. There is strong evidence that Saddam Hussain clearly engaged in a colossal bluff; that in fact he was attempting to have his strategic cake and eat it. It was successful for nearly a decade because American intelligence, and indeed the UN s as well, was so abominable that they were unable to expose it. If this turns out to be true, as I believe it will, Saddam s bluff worked very well indeed up to a point, but in the end it turned out to be the most counterproductive charade in history. For it proved to be so successful that it set him up for George Bush s counter-charade namely, handing Bush the justification he sought for launching a preemptive war on Iraq!

Let it be recalled that following Iraq s capitulation in 1991, Saddam Hussein agreed to limited disarmament, most particularly with respect to whatever Weapons of Mass Destruction he allegedly possessed. The process of WMD destruction was to take place under the auspices of United Nations supervision. The agency created for this purpose was the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM). The long and short of this undertaking was that no matter how many tons of weapons and missiles were unearthed and destroyed, Saddam continued to sustain an atmosphere of obstruction and grudging acquiescence.

From 1991 until UN inspectors were withdrawn, just prior to President Clinton s punitive missile strikes, designed to punish the Hussain regime for refusing to cooperate fully with the inspection process, a large quantity of WMD ordinance had already been successfully unearthed and destroyed. This was attested by numerous inspectors even while nevertheless complaining that the Iraqis continued to deny access to sites, such as Saddam s palaces, where it was alleged that more banned materials might be concealed. Men like Richard Butler, the outspoken Australian official on the inspection team, no doubt abetted the mounting anxieties of the Clinton administration until it drove them to take some form of military action.

Saddam kept the pot boiling as it were by making it appear that he remained a dangerous adversary even as his capacity to be really dangerous was substantially melting away. What made it possible for him to have it both ways was his success in convincing the US and his Middle East neighborhood generally that he still had stocks of weaponry salted away in remote caves and other secret places. So successfully, in fact, that U.S. and British intelligence indicated that Iraq was hiding other programs, notably its nuclear weapons effort. (Clarke, p. 67.)

The point is that this by-play between Saddam Hussain, the US, and the UN perpetuated an atmosphere of doubt and ambiguity concerning how much of a regional military threat Iraq actually was. By adopting this defiant posture toward the regimen of inspections and sanctions deemed essential by the international community, while apparently not in fact either retaining or acquiring significant quantities of WMD, Saddam, to repeat, was able to have his strategic cake and eat it. His intransigence, his defiance, his token saber-rattling (e.g., firing at the allied aircraft enforcing the no-fly zones ), against the background of his earlier use of WMD against the Iranians and the Kurds, and despite his defeat in the first Gulf war, enabled him to carry out this colossal bluff. He was willing to pay the price in the form of lost oil revenues, economic sanctions and great suffering by his people in order to maintain a posture that garnered what to him were two worthwhile assets: It enabled him to sustain the image of Iraq as a regional power, and it enabled him to retain his image as a leading figure in the radical Arab movement.

9/11 and the ascendancy of George W. Bush and his neo-conservative entourage in Washington were destined to transform Saddam s carefully nurtured fantasy world into a house of horrors. Saddam suddenly was confronted with a regime that had singled him out for destruction from the moment it assumed office and immediately set out to find excuses for doing so. The fact is that even had the Bush administration either known or suspected that Saddam was deceiving everybody, and indeed they might have known had their intelligence capabilities not been so inept, it would not have mattered to them. However the actual situation came about, they wanted it that way. Richard Clarke, who served at the highest levels in the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations as a counter-terrorism specialist, says that he learned to his horror that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz [from the outset] were going to take advantage of this national tragedy [9/11] to promote their agenda about Iraq. He was told by friends in the Pentagon that we would be invading Iraq sometime in 2002. (p. 30)

Saddam Hussain’s vaunted guile simply played into the hands, or shall we say the heads, of people who matched his own guile with a vengeance! There is a saying in India which I once heard in the gangetic countryside: A fool and a horn are both played by blowing on them! What led to Iraq was a cacophonic symphony of mutual horn-blowing !

Harold Gould is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia.

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