Thursday, March 21, 2013

What I Got Right And Wrong About The Iraq War

Ten years ago, I was not yet blogging. But I had an opinion about the accusations against Iraq. Bits and pieces of it might still be excavated from dead or dying discussion forums. I’ll expand here. I have to start by going back further than that.

The 1991 Iraq war had served up a big surprise for those of us following nuclear issues: Saddam Hussein’s electromagnetic separation project. Who’d have thought that would be the technology in today’s world? Which, of course, was a good reason for the Iraqis to go for it. After all, it helped enrich the uranium for the Little Boy bomb exploded over Hiroshima.

But after that program was dismantled and the equipment destroyed, the sanctions and overflights imposed on Iraq seemed to preclude a restart of any nuclear weapons projects. Biological and chemical agent programs might have continued at a low level, but the country was in dismal straits.

And then came the United Nations inspections. The request for volunteers went out to the national laboratories, and I thought about it for a while, but decided that my life was exciting enough.

A place like the Los Alamos National Laboratory has its own kind of grapevine. Some information filtered into the grapevine from the UN inspectors.The common wisdom, based on that and other information, was that Hussein might have some small and residual bio or chem weapon capability, but nuclear? No way.

So when the war drums began to beat after 9/11, I dismissed them. I looked at the supporting evidence.

The aluminum tubes seemed to me unlikely to be used for centrifuges, but I am not fully informed on centrifuge specs. Reports from sources I considered to be knowledgeable were that they were for rockets, and that sounded about right. I had met people from Oak Ridge who were experts in centrifuge design, and I knew that they contributed to intelligence assessments.

Then came Judy Miller and the New York Times: intelligence assessments say that the aluminum tubes are for centrifuges. I read the articles carefully, looking for mentions of assessments from the Department of Energy. I never saw them. But, I guessed, the multiagency assessments must have included them, and the Oak Ridge guys knew what they were doing. So maybe---???

Even if that maybe came down on the side of centrifuges, I thought, it would be some time before Iraq could have a nuclear weapon, so issuing ultimatums and pulling the inspectors out so that the US could bomb Iraq seemed unwarranted.

I was also dubious about the claim that once Saddam Hussein was gone, the people of Iraq would naturally form a democratic government with no problems. Some of what was said by people by Paul Wolfowitz used the Baltic States after the Soviet Union as an analogy. But I had spent some time learning how Estonia left the Soviet Union. I interviewed people who had participated in the process, including then-President Arnold Rüütel, in the hopes of writing a book.

[I never wrote the book; the story is well told by the film “The Singing Revolution,” and parts of it are treated in several book chapters, but I think a book is still needed.]

The transition depended upon an informed populace who had some experience of democratic rule. It ran over several years, from street protests allowed by perestroika to forming political parties that couldn’t call themselves that, to the Supreme Soviet’s declaring sovereignty (not independence!) and renaming itself the Parliament of Estonia and then to independence quickly declared as the coup unfolded against Gorbachev. As people participated in those actions, they learned more about governing. It wasn’t a matter of waking up one day and finding the government gone, much less was it done during a war.

I cringed every time the comparison was made. How could people so allegedly smart not be able to see the enormous historical differences?

Then there was Colin Powell’s presentation. I had some experience working with aerial photos when I managed environmental restorations. I thought the evidence was thin – closed trucks may be carrying anything – but, again, was not an expert in the area.

Perhaps there was something I was missing – something classified – that made the case more persuasive. So I wasn’t too vocal about my misgivings, although I would offer them up when given a chance. And I didn’t have a blog for a platform.

Some time after the war was started, several years, it became obvious why Miller and the New York Times didn’t mention the Oak Ridge or DOE intelligence assessments. They said that the tubes were unsuitable for centrifuges. In fact, that was in the original National Intelligence Estimate. The public didn’t know that until much later.

And we have seen that democracy is indeed not so easily achieved. There were, of course, no WMDs beyond a few buried chemical shells, rotting in the sand.

So I had been right. I have become more wary of what the government says, particularly in regard to matters that could lead to war. I look for confirmation outside the government.

I couldn’t have stopped the march to war all by myself, but if all those who felt as I did had spoken up, maybe it could have been slowed, might have been stopped. So now I am more vocal, particularly in areas that I know something about and that could lead to war. Or other damage to my country.

Here’s some ten-year commentary from others. The neocons are unrepentant, and I link only one summary of their comments because we’ve heard them before. Whatever went wrong wasn’t their fault.
Others who supported the war have been more forthcoming.

David Ignatius says he owes “readers an apology for being wrong on the overriding question of whether the war made sense” and calls the war “one of the biggest strategic errors in modern American history.”

But at the core of my support for the war was an analytical failure I think about often: Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq war to support -- an Iraq war with different aims, promoted by different people, conceptualized in a different way and bearing little resemblance to the project proposed by the Bush administration.

Relevant documents, including the National Intelligence Estimate, from The National Security Archive.

The Lowy Institute Interpreter (I love the header photo!) has a symposium on many aspects of the war.

Numerous articles at Duck of Minerva.

Addendum (3/22/13): Short reactions from several people who were for or against the war. What I find shocking is that three of them refer to the large numbers of people (presumably the people they mostly talked to) who believed that Hussein did indeed have WMD (ill-defined, but apparently sometimes implying nuclear weapons).

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Looking back, it is hard to remember just how convinced many of us were that weapons of mass destruction would be found.

Leon Weiseltier: Those of us who supported the Iraq war ten years ago because we believed that Saddam Hussein—who had already used chemical weapons—possessed weapons of mass destruction must forever ponder the fact that he did not possess them. That we joined, or helped to establish, a near-universal consensus does not exonerate us from the unpleasant truth that President Bush took the United States into a major war on fraudulent grounds.

James P. Rubin: At the time no one really doubted the intelligence reports showing Iraq with substantial stocks of deadly viruses, germs and toxins (By contrast, the nuclear threat, “the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud,” was irresponsible scare-mongering by the Bush team).

Convinced. Consensus. No one really doubted. Wow.

These are policy people, who probably are unashamed of their lack of knowledge of scientific and technical aspects of those claims. But they might be expected to know that the Department of Energy analyzes quite a bit of intelligence from precisely those aspects. They might have wondered, as I did, what the DOE analysis said about the WMD claims.

1 comment:

Karen Street said...

One of the neocons was on PBS's News Hour. When he was told that nuclear weapons experts and centrifuge experts said the centrifuges could not be used for nuclear weapons, the neocon said, but other experts believe they can. So if we get our information from the right sort of expert...