A thought experiment on Iraq

Protecting against the use of chemical weapons (picture USAF)

Amid all the debate about what the British government did and did not know about Iraqi WMD in the run-up to war in Iraq, a thought occurs to me. Let’s approach the question from the other direction: imagine the claim was that there were no such weapons, and that they had been found.

First of all, though, let’s review the original claims.

In the autumn of 2002, there was a general assumption among Western intelligence agencies that Iraq possessed some kind of WMD programme, despite Iraqi official denials.

The famous dossier of 24 September 2002, with the infamous 45 minute claim, laid out this assumption for the British public in lurid, tabloid tones. Now, it is in the nature of tabloid journalism to talk up crises and to play down uncertainties and to neglect contrary evidence altogether. That’s what that dossier was: tabloid journalism. In a sense, then, its failing was that it was printed in the wrong way: it should have had a screaming, sensationalist headline and picture of a bikini-clad model on the cover, and the latest rumours about Frank Lampard on the back page. We don’t pay too much attention to the detail of the stories in the tabloid press: we shouldn’t have paid too much attention to this.

And indeed the government itself didn’t. The 45 minute claim never surfaced again. Possibly that was because the government decided it was no longer an effective argument, more likely because an official said “Erm, excuse me Prime Minister, I’m not sure that it’s entirely correct to give the impression that Saddam Hussein could fire missiles bearing WMD warheads at the British bases in Cyprus within 45 minutes of ordered it be done.” However, having given up repeating the claim that these weapons existed, the government should have gone further and withdrawn the original statement to that effect. But that, of course, they never did.

In order to confirm this general assumption that Iraq possessed some kind of WMD programmes, Hans Blix and his inspectors were despatched to check. Their timescale was too short and their resources too limited to be sure one way or another, but he discovered nevertheless that the initial assumptions made by the intelligence agencies were all false. The feebleness of the Iraqi economy and military establishment precluded it. That it is not to say that Saddam Hussein had abandoned the wish to have them, but there are lots of things we might wish for but do not have and have no prospect of getting. Whatever its other flaws, the policy of containment was keeping Iraq disarmed.

For the next bit of the story, we need to leap forward to Tony Blair’s Labour conference speech of 2004 (read it here), the speech where he was spun as having dealt with the subject of the war without actually having apologised for it. Here’s what he said about the evidence for the possession of WMD: “such evidence was agreed by the whole international community,”

On 5 February 2003, in his presentation to the UN Security Council, US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented this evidence (a “slam-dunk”, as then CIA director George Tenet put it). But the experience of the inspectors was different. Indeed, at the end of February 2003, the French, Germans and Russians put forward a statement that: “While suspicions remain, no evidence has been given that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction or capabilities in this field:”

So, by the time of the UN debates on a second resolution that might authorise war, and the parliamentary debates on the subject, there was no agreement on what weapons Iraq might turn out to possess. And it turned out, of course, that the image that Iraq possessed such weapons had been bluff.

And now for the thought experiment. What if the debate had been the other way round, that Iraq had been thought not to possess such weapons but had in fact, after an invasion, been able to wield them in war?

The consequences for the armed forces could have been very serious, if they had not been properly supplied with protective equipment and suitable counter-measures. And what would have been the public reaction? It would have slowly become apparent that the government’s blandishments about the absence of weapons had been thin. Officials had expressed doubts about the absence of such weapons, fearing that they really existed, but these doubts had been suppressed or played down in the interests of the political sellability of the war. To think that British servicemen had been exposed to needless risks in the name of political convenience: it is hard to imagine a bigger scandal.

And, back to the real world, that all really happened. Except that the needless risks were run by the people of Iraq, with the awful consequences they live with today. (This isn’t necessarily an argument against the war, but it is certainly an argument against the misjudgements that led to it.)

We conclude with Tony Blair’s 2004 conference speech. In it, he uttered the immortal words: “I only know what I believe”. Those words might belong in the mouth of a love-lorn country and western singer, but from the leader of a nuclear armed military power, they are very disturbing. Once belief trumps evidence, we are on shaky ground indeed.


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