Jeering is no way to find the truth

The inquiries into Iraq's lack of weapons of mass destruction are good news for the hawks. What a pity the doves will have nothing to contribute. The main focus of any inquiry must be how the intelligence could have been so wrong. As virtually every advocate of war with Iraq including me now concedes, Saddam Hussein did not have a working arsenal of WMDs. But virtually every Western intelligence agency was convinced he did. Not even opponents of military action like France's President Chirac denied it. They just disagreed about how to respond.

Here the left is letting itself, and us, down badly. Their jeering refrain has been that George Bush LIED! Not was mistaken, gullible or closed-minded. LIED! In November Jeffrey Simpson wrote in The Globe and Mail "We now all know what the majority of people outside the United States suspected before the invasion: that it rested on two large lies. There were no weapons of mass destruction ... There were no threatening links between ... Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda ... It's been fascinating to watch the evolution of U.S. discourse on Iraq once the two big lies became evident."

"Big lie" is not a phrase I myself would toss around lightly. Regardless, if Mr. Bush and Tony Blair were lying, they must have known the truth, which means there was no failure of intelligence to be investigated. The only question is why the president chose to lie that Saddam Hussein had huge stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and if not disarmed "some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal." Especially as that was President Bill Clinton in 1998.

If Mr. Bush or Mr. Blair had lied we would have a political scandal of the first order (and a puzzle as to their motives, since any such lie would be bound to be found out). If they were merely mistaken, but the press insisted they had lied, we might have a media scandal of the first order (as in Britain). On the intelligence side we would merely have a puzzle. How could everybody be so wrong?

The inquiries will rapidly eliminate the possibility that the intelligence was flawed because analysts are always paranoid. Even as it emerged that Iraq was mostly bluffing about WMDs, it became fairly clear that Iran is not. And Libya just revealed to the U.S. a nuclear program the UN admits it badly underestimated. Analysts frequently, even today, underestimate danger; what is odd about Iraq is that they uncharacteristically overestimated it. But the angry left has nothing at all to say here, let alone anything useful.

Part of the serious answer may lie in tacit reliance on past experience, especially of Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R., that enemies of the West always have more and worse weapons than they seem to. But don't put too much weight on a different culture in the Middle East: In Iraq, too, UN inspectors were shocked by how much they'd missed prior to 1991 and, as key defections revealed, again between 1991 and 1995.

So another part of the answer is probably that after 1998 the Iraqi regime sank into a morass of deception and fantasy. There was deception; it is no service to us, or them, that most opponents of the war deny David Kay's discovery of ongoing clandestine, largely ineffective and sometimes delusional research on WMDs and missiles, all in violation of relevant UN resolutions. But there was also fantasy. And if we did not reason out Iraq's strategy it may be because the leader had gone insane. A cartoon in National Review in October 2003 had Saddam telling a meeting "I know ... Let's just pretend to have weapons of mass destruction and refuse to give unrestricted access to UN inspectors so we can forfeit billions of dollars in revenue and quite possibly get ourselves killed." Incredibly, it apparently was the plan. It certainly worked. And while it may be possible to improve our capacity to detect bluffs, if you're dealing with the international equivalent of suicide by cop, there may be little you can do.

Or should. You obviously can't have a rule that you don't attack regimes that fool you into thinking they have WMDs, only ones you correctly think have them. I say if rogue regimes learn they can neither have, nor pretend to have, such weapons, it not only justifies the war but does so in terms of the original rationale. So I'm happy.

Except for one thing. I am persuaded by historian Victor Davis Hanson that the vigorous self-criticism of the West on military matters is a key to its 2,500-year lethal dominance of non-Western societies (Tuesday's New York Times even reports a harsh self-criticism by the U.S. Army of its logistics in the brilliantly successful Iraq war). So when those who should be asking probing questions from the left sink into shrill conspiracy theories, it hurts us as well as them.

The doves need to hold informal inquiries of their own, into why they can't make a rational assessment of an honest mistake by their partisan foes. I'm truly sorry they won't.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson