Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Weapons of Mass Hysteria

If anything, the war was about 100,000 corpses too late.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The United States has lost less than 350 American dead in actual combat in Iraq, deposed the worst tyrant on the planet, and offered the first real hope of a humane government in the recent history of the Middle East — and is being roundly condemned rather than praised for one of the most remarkable occurrences of our age. Yet a careful postbellum anatomy of the recent WMD controversy makes the original case for the war stronger rather weaker.

1. A Weapon of Mass Destruction. There were four unique factors in the calculus involving Saddam Hussein and his so-called weapons of mass destruction: (1) Saddam Hussein had petrodollars to buy such strategic weapons; (2) He had acquired and stockpiled such arms and used them in war against Iran and in peace against his own people; (3) He had a long history of aggression against the United States — from Gulf War I to trying to assassinate an American president; and (4) His Baathist police state had a systematic policy of hiding such weapons, from both the United States postwar intelligence gatherers and the U.N. inspectors.

Therefore as long as Saddam Hussein was in power it mattered little what the professed status of his chemical and biological arsenal was at any particular time, since our only certain knowledge was that he had a proven desire and ability to purchase, recreate, and use them on any given day — and that day would be mostly unknown to everyone outside of Iraq. He may have had thousands of tons of weapons in 1980, hundreds of tons in 1990, and tens of tons in 1995, almost zero in 2003 — and yet once again perhaps hundreds in 2005 and thousands again in 2010. Thus the cliché that Saddam Hussein himself was the weapon of mass destruction was in fact entirely accurate.

Throughout this war there has been consistently fuzzy nomenclature that reflects mistaken logic: WMDs are supposedly the problem, rather than the tyrannical regimes that stockpile them — as if Tony Blair’s nuclear arsenal threatens world peace; we are warring against the method of “terror” rather than states that promote or allow it — as if the Cold War was a struggle against SAM-6’s or KGB-like tactics; September 11 had nothing to do with the Iraqi war, as if after 3,000 Americans were butchered through unconventional and terrorist tactics the margin of tolerance against Middle East tyrannical regimes that seek the weapons of such a trade does not diminish radically.

2. Casus Belli. The threat of WMDs may have been the centerpiece of the administration’s arguments to go to war, but for most of us, there were plenty of other — and far more important reasons — for prompt action now.

Let us for the nth time recite them: Saddam had broken the 1991 armistice agreements and after September 11 it was no longer tolerable to allow Middle East dictators to continue as rogue states and virtual belligerents. Two-thirds of Iraqi airspace were de facto controlled by the United States — ultimately an unsustainable commitment requiring over a decade of daily vigilance, billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of sorties to prevent further genocide. He had defied U.N. resolutions; and he had expelled inspectors, demanding either enforcement or appeasement and subsequent humiliation of the international community.

It really was an intolerable situation that in perpetuity thousands of Kurds and Shiites were doomed on any given week that American and British planes might have been grounded. Saddam had a history of war against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, and the United States, destroyed the ecology of the Mesopotamian wetlands, gassed his own people, and relented in his massacres only to the degree that the United States monitored him constantly. Should we continue with the shameful litany?

Well, in addition, in northern Iraq al Qaedists were battling the Kurds. Old-line terrorists like Abu Abbas and Abu Nidal were at home in Baghdad. Husseinite bounties subsidized suicide-murdering in Israel. A number of accounts had cited relationships between al Qaeda and Baathist intelligence. Iraq, in fact, was already at a critical mass. Faced with a brutal unending U.N. embargo and the loss of its airspace, it was descending into a badland like Afghanistan. The amorality is not that we took him out, but that after 1991 we waited about 100,000 corpses too long.

3. “Intelligence” is rarely intelligent. It is regrettable that two successive administrations apparently (inasmuch as the complete truth really does await translations of the Iraqi archives, a complete inquiry of former Baathists, and assurances from Syria) have had no accurate idea of the extent, or lack thereof, of the Iraqi WMD arsenal. But incomplete or faulty intelligence — both hysterical overreactions or laxity and naiveté — is not rare when nations go to war.

We were fooled by Japan in 1941 and had no idea that its enormous fleet was a few hundred miles off Hawaii. The Soviet absorption of Eastern Europe caught utopians off guard in 1945-6. Everyone underestimated Mao’s resilience (“Who lost China?”). MacArthur’s “infiltrators” across the Yalu River turned out to be several Chinese armies. We know only now that the Soviets cheated on several major arms agreements — and had WMD arsenals far beyond what was disclosed. Its nuclear accidents and WMD catastrophes are still clouded in mysteries. Remember the Missile Gap of the 1960 election that helped to elect John Kennedy? Yet Cuba, we now learn, had more ready nukes than even Curtis LeMay imagined. The British surely had no warning about the Falklands invasion. An American ambassador gave the wrong message to Saddam Hussein in summer 1990, precisely because the CIA had no clue that Saddam Hussein was gearing up to invade Kuwait. Libya and Iran were further along with their nuclear programs than the CIA dared to imagine. Ditto North Korea. Who knew that Pakistan has been running a nuclear clearinghouse? The point is not to excuse faulty intelligence, but rather to understand that knowing exactly what the enemy is up to is difficult and yet almost never acknowledged to be so.

4. The wages of bluffing. If present stockpiles of WMDs are discovered not to have been present in Iraq in spring 2003 or to have been transported to Syria, it is probably because of deception inside Iraq itself. Either Iraqi weapons procurers and scientists may have misled an unhinged Saddam Hussein or Saddam knew he had no arsenal and yet deliberately misled the U.N. In other words, if the world decides that such a monster cannot have such weapons (as the U.N., in fact, did in several resolutions), and such a monster chooses for whatever bizarre reasons to avoid disclosing information about them, then either one acts on logical inferences or does not — and thus accepts the wages of such defiance.

I am sorry that the United States has established a hair-trigger reputation in matters of deadly agents of mass destruction — but apparently other rogue nations now believe that the burden of proof is no longer on us to establish that they have them, but rather on them to ensure the world that they do not. And that is not necessarily a bad thing if we ponder that the lives of thousands may hang in the balance.

5. WMD deterrence. So it turns out that the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the subsequent effort to take out Saddam Hussein have had a powerful effect on such arsenals far beyond Baghdad. Without the removal of the Baathists, Libya would never have confessed to its nuclear roguery. Without the recent war, Iran would never have professed a desire to follow international protocols. Without the recent conflict, Pakistan would never have investigated its own outlaw scientists.

Whether we like it or not, the precedent that the United Sates might act decisively against regimes that were both suspected of pursuing WMD acquisition and doing nothing to allay those fears, has had a powerful prophylactic effect in the neighborhood. Only in this Orwellian election year, would candidates for the presidency decry that the war had nothing to do with the dilemma of WMDs — even as Libya, Iran, and Pakistan by their very actions apparently disagreed.

6. Cost-benefit analysis. A decade-long U.N. trade embargo, coupled with occasional U.S. strikes (the 1999 Desert Fox operation may have killed 4,000 Iraqis) probably led to as much damage and death as the recent war — but without either freeing the Iraq people or finally ascertaining the exact nature of Saddam’s chemical, biological, and nuclear arsenal. Once Saddam Hussein took Iraq down the path of tyranny, invasion, and WMD acquisition, then it was not a question of stopping him without losses, but simply finding the most economical way to rid the world of his regime at the least cost in lives. When reckoned over a 30-year era, the recent war will have seemed humane in comparison to what transpired between 1975 and 2003.

Again, I am sorry that David Kay’s preliminary findings suggest an intelligence lapse; but that sorrow is mitigated by the recognition that there are tens of thousands of rotting skulls in the deserts of Iraq — the work of a psychopath and his sons, who, thanks to the belated efforts of the United States, have now been put permanently out of the business of mass death.

7. WMD paranoia. While conventional arsenals kill far more than chemical or biological weapons, the latter hold a particular horror for us all given the stealthy nature of microbes and gas, and their theoretical ability to kill us en masse without the scream of an artillery shell or burp of a machine gun. Illogical perhaps, but true nonetheless is our paranoia about these horrific weapons. My grandfather who was mustard gassed in the Argonne, coughed out horrific tales of yellow clouds; rarely artillery bursts that killed most of his friends. The Chinese demand reparations from Japan over the brutality of Unit 731 in a way they do not even concerning the Rape of Nanking. A few grains of Ricin empty the Capitol in a way a random artillery shell or abandoned M-16 would not.

Unconventional weapons, in other words, by their very nature of stealth, horrific death, and the failure of conventional military deterrence scare people — especially in the present context of asymmetrical warfare where rogue states and terrorist cells seek them precisely to nullify Western military advantage. This is not to excuse WMD paranoia, but only to suggest, for example, that Colin Powell’s excursus to the U.N. might in retrospect been inaccurate in all its details, but nevertheless a well-meaning effort to ensure the United States did not experience something like the cloud in Kurdistan — or unconventional and unpredictable acts analogous to September 11.

8. History’s verdict. The morality of a war, perhaps tragically so, is usually judged by the way it was waged and its aftermath. Thus while historians quibble about whether Roosevelt “knew” about December 7, most care little because they accept Japanese aggression and the ultimate success and morality of our efforts to defeat it. Conservatives harp that President Clinton neither went to the U.N. nor the U.S. Senate to bomb Serbia; but their objections to his preemption rightly fell on deaf ears because the real moral question was rather to stop genocide and end the reign of a mass murderer. Most of us did not care a whit about Monica, but appreciated deeply the Clinton effort (way too late) to stop the slaughter in the Balkans and finally to show some displeasure with Saddam Hussein.

This is not an argument to ignore concerns over dissimulation, but rather to appreciate that when confronted with an ogre the moral issue sometimes is ending his reign and leaving millions safe and free in his wake, rather than quibbling over the legal basis to do so.

In contrast, we talk still about an exaggerated Gulf of Tonkin resolution precisely because the ensuing war became morally questionable, was often waged nonsensically, and was ultimately lost — resulting in millions of dead in vain, refugees, and internees. Had we acted wisely in Vietnam, created a South Korea-like state within three years, and today be witnessing a Saigon similar to Seoul, the Gulf of Tonkin legislation would be seen instead as an irrelevant if improper effort to prompt needed action to save millions from Communism rather than the disingenuous catalyst that led to quagmire.

Again, this is not to suggest the ends justify the means, but rather to acknowledge that there are always deeper reasons to go to war than what lawyers, diplomats, and politicians profess. Those underlying factors are ultimately judged as moral or immoral by history’s unforgiving logic of how, and for what reason, the war was waged — and what were its ultimate results. We live in a sick, sick West if we investigate Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Blair’s courageous efforts to end Iraqi fascism, while ignoring the thousands of Europeans and multinational corporations who profited from his reign of terror.

Postmortem. If the United States went to war with Iraq only because of the threat of WMDs; if the mass murdering of Saddam Hussein was found on examination to be highly exaggerated; if we had some secret plan for stealing the oil of Iraq, if Saddam Hussein posed no future threat to the United States or its allies; if the war resulted in a worse future for Iraq, the United States, and the surrounding Middle East; and if the administration deliberately constructed false intelligence evidence to advance such an unnecessary war that resulted in misery rather than hope, then an apology is needed now. But so far, that has simply not been the case.

The real outrage is instead that at a time of one of most important developments of the last half-century, when this country is waging a war to the death against radical Islamic fascism and attempting to bring democracy to an autocratic wasteland, we hear instead daily about some mythical rogue CIA agent who supposedly faked evidence, Martha Stewart’s courtroom shoes, Michael Jackson’s purported perversion, and Scott Peterson’s most recent alibi. Amazing.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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