Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
After British Prime Minister (and George W. Bush sidekick) Tony Blair issued a 55-page white paper on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction several days ago, The Washington Post slapped a story on the front page headlined, "Blair: Iraq Can Deploy Quickly." The subhead read, "Report Presents New Details On Banned Arms." The New York Times similarly noted, "Blair Says Iraqis Could Launch Chemical Weapons in Minutes." As a counterbalance of sorts, its subhead said, "Sees Nuclear Weapon Capability in 1 to 5 Years."
Both articles conveyed the impression that Iraq is an immediate threat and that Blair supports Bush's dash to war--which in a way he does. But the "dossier" Blair unveiled--based on British intelligence work--made the case for renewed weapons inspections, not war. In the foreword to the report, Blair states, "The case I make is that the UN Resolutions demanding [Saddam Hussein] stops his WMD programme are being flouted; that since the inspectors left four years ago he has continued with this programme, that the inspectors must be allowed back in to do their job properly." If Saddam blocks the return of the inspectors or "makes it impossible for them to do their job," Blair declares, "the international community will have to act." But Blair, Bush's closest ally in the campaign against Saddam, is clearly saying an attempt to revive the weapons inspection program should occur before the United States and Britain wage war against Iraq. That is not how the media characterized his presentation. And it is not the White House position.
Most of Blair's white paper was devoted to detailing threat indicators--noting Saddam's long history of developing and seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iran in the 1980s. It warns that Iraq possesses a useable chemical and biological weapons capability--without being specific about these weapons--and that it can "deploy" (which is not the same as "launch") some within 45 minutes. This may only mean that Iraq can quickly disseminate mustard gas on a battlefield--which would hardly be a surprise. Or a reason to preemptively attack.
The report offers no intelligence insights as to Saddam's intentions and plans. Citing intelligence sources, it says Saddam "believes that respect for Iraq rests on its possessions of these weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them." This is no newsflash. In fact, it undermines the argument that Saddam is a danger because he is likely to share such weapons with others--say, al Qaeda. The report contains no claim that Saddam is near any weapon breakthrough or about to engage in recklessly hostile activity. That is, no reason why an invasion must occur right away.
Regarding nuclear weapons, the report says, "In early 2002, the [British Joint Intelligence Committee] assessed that UN sanctions on Iraq were hindering the import of crucial goods for the production of fissile material [needed for a nuclear weapon]. The JIC judged that while sanctions remain effective Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon. If they were removed or proved ineffective, it would take Iraq at least five years to produce sufficient fissile material for a weapon indigenously. However, we know that Iraq retains expertise and design data relating to nuclear weapons. We therefore judge that if Iraq obtained fissile material and other essential components from foreign sources the timeline for production of a nuclear weapon would be shortened and Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon in between one and two years." Blair, though, offers no evidence Iraq has been able to gather fissile missile from outside suppliers. The paper does maintain "there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa," but no mention of how close Iraq came to succeeding. Nor is there any evaluation of how difficult or easy it would be for Iraq to locate the right sort and necessary amount of bomb-friendly material.
As for Iraq's ballistic missile capability, the report says Saddam wants bigger and longer-range missiles. But it notes that British intelligence predicts Iraq needs at least five years to develop a missile with a range of over 1,000 kilometers, as long as the current sanctions remain effective. "Sanctions and the earlier work of the inspectors," according to the report, "had caused significant problems for Iraqi missile development."
Blair's paper makes the easy case there is cause to fret about Saddam's arsenal and his apparent desire to enlarge and expand it. But it credits the UN weapons inspection program of the 1990s for having restrained, hindered and, in some instances, blocked Saddam's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. "Between 1991 and 1998," the white paper says, "[UN weapons inspectors] succeeded in identifying and destroying very large quantities of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles as well as associated production facilities. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] also destroyed the infrastructure for Iraq's nuclear weapons programme and removed key nuclear materials. This was achieved despite a continuous and sophisticated programme of harassment, obstruction, deception and denial." In other words, inspections can and did work. The dossier notes the inspectors discovered and exposed Iraq's biological weapons program and destroyed the al-Hakam biological weapons facility and "a range of production equipment" for biological weapons. The dossier offers no support for the Bush officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, who assert a new round of robust and unfettered inspections would be pointless and, worse, dangerous (for only providing false comfort).
Blair's paper actually is an argument for intrusive and aggressive inspections, not one for war. Or, at least, inspections before war. In tone, it seems in sync with the war-whipping of the Bush White House, but its facts--and its limited reference to policy options--support the give-tough-inspections-a-chance crowd. Following its release, President Bush praised his British helpmate. Maybe he didn't have time to read it.