"Weapons of mass destruction" is promising to live up to its name: The issue may well result in the mass destruction of senior British and American officials who used concerns about WMD in Iraq as the primary, public justification for going to war. The simple fact is that no one has found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and — except for some vans which may have been used for biological weapons — no evidence that Iraq was working to develop such weapons. Since finding WMD is a priority for U.S. military forces, which have occupied Iraq for more than a month, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction not only has become an embarrassment, it also has the potential to mushroom into a major political crisis in the United States and Britain. Not only is the political opposition exploiting the paucity of Iraqi WMD, but the various bureaucracies are using the issue to try to discredit each other. It's a mess.
On Jan. 21, 2003, STRATFOR published an analysis titled Smoke and Mirrors: The United States, Iraq and Deception, which made the following points:
1. The primary reason for the U.S. invasion of Iraq was strategic and not about weapons of mass destruction.
2. The United States was using the WMD argument primarily to justify the attack to its coalition partners.
3. The use of WMD rather than strategy as the justification for the war would ultimately create massive confusion as to the nature of the war the United States was fighting.
As we put it:
"To have allowed the WMD issue to supplant U.S. strategic interests as the justification for war has created a crisis in U.S. strategy. Deception campaigns are designed to protect strategies, not to trap them. Ultimately, the foundation of U.S. grand strategy, coalitions and the need for clarity in military strategy have collided. The discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will not solve the problem, nor will a coup in Baghdad. In a war [against Islamic extremists] that will last for years, maintaining one's conceptual footing is critical. If that footing cannot be maintained — if the requirements of the war and the requirements of strategic clarity are incompatible — there are more serious issues involved than the future of Iraq."
The failure to enunciate the strategic reasons for the invasion of Iraq—of cloaking it in an extraneous justification—has now come home to roost. Having used WMD as the justification, the inability to locate WMD in Iraq has undermined the credibility of the United States and is tearing the government apart in an orgy of finger-pointing.
To make sense of this impending chaos, it is important to start at the beginning — with al Qaeda. After the Sept. 11 attacks, al Qaeda was regarded as an extraordinarily competent global organization. Sheer logic argued that the network would want to top the Sept. 11 strikes with something even more impressive. This led to a very reasonable fear that al Qaeda possessed or was in the process of obtaining WMD.
U.S. intelligence, shifting from its sub-sensitive to hyper-sensitive mode, began putting together bits of intelligence that tended to show that what appeared to be logical actually was happening. The U.S. intelligence apparatus now was operating in a worst-case scenario mode, as is reasonable when dealing with WMD. Lower-grade intelligence was regarded as significant. Two things resulted: The map of who was developing weapons of mass destruction expanded, as did the probabilities assigned to al Qaeda's ability to obtain WMD. The very public outcome — along with a range of less public events — was the "axis of evil" State of the Union speech, which identified three countries as having WMD and likely to give them to al Qaeda. Iraq was one of these countries.
If we regard chemical weapons as WMD, as has been U.S. policy, then it is well-known that Iraq had WMD, since it used them in the past. It was a core assumption, therefore, that Iraq continued to possess WMD. Moreover, U.S. intelligence officials believed there was a parallel program in biological weapons, and also that Iraqi leaders had the ability and the intent to restart their nuclear program, if they had not already done so. Running on the worst-case basis that was now hard-wired by al Qaeda into U.S. intelligence, Iraq was identified as a country with WMD and likely to pass them on to al Qaeda.
Iraq, of course, was not the only country in this class. There are other sources of WMD in the world, even beyond the "axis of evil" countries. Simply invading Iraq would not solve the fundamental problem of the threat from al Qaeda. As STRATFOR has always argued, the invasion of Iraq served a psychological and strategic purpose: Psychologically, it was designed to demonstrate to the Islamic world the enormous power and ferocity of the United States; strategically, it was designed to position the United States to coerce countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran into changing their policies toward suppressing al Qaeda operations in their countries. Both of these missions were achieved.
The problem of WMD was always a side issue in terms of strategic planning. It became, however, the publicly stated moral, legal and political justification for the war. It was understood that countries like France and Russia had no interest in collaborating with Washington in a policy that would make the United States the arbiter of the Middle East. Washington had to find a justification for the war that these allies would find irresistible.
That justification was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. From the standpoint of U.S. intelligence, this belief became a given. Everyone knew that Iraq once had chemical weapons, and no reasonable person believed that Saddam Hussein had unilaterally destroyed them. So it appeared to planners within the Bush administration that they were on safe ground. Moreover, it was assumed that other major powers would regard WMD in Hussein's hands as unacceptable and that therefore, everyone would accept the idea of a war in which the stated goal — and the real outcome — would be the destruction of Iraq's weapons.
This was the point on which Washington miscalculated. The public justification for the war did not compel France, Germany or Russia to endorse military action. They continued to resist because they fully understood the outcome — intended or not — would be U.S. domination of the Middle East, and they did not want to see that come about. Paris, Berlin and Moscow turned the WMD issue on its head, arguing that if that was the real issue, then inspections by the United Nations would be the way to solve the problem. Interestingly, they never denied that Iraq had WMD; what they did deny was that proof of WMD had been found. They also argued that over time, as proof accumulated, the inspection process either would force the Iraqis to destroy their WMD or would justify an invasion at that point. What is important here is that French and Russian leaders shared with the United States the conviction that Iraq had WMD. Like the Americans, they thought weapons of mass destruction — particularly if they were primarily chemical — were a side issue; the core issue was U.S. power in the Middle East.
In short, all sides were working from the same set of assumptions. There was not much dispute that the Baathist regime probably had WMD. The issue between the United States and its allies was strategic. After the war, the United States would become the dominant power in the region, and it would use this power to force regional governments to strike at al Qaeda. Germany, France and Russia, fearing the growth of U.S. power, opposed the war. Rather than clarifying the chasm in the alliance, the Bush administration permitted the arguments over WMD to supplant a discussion of strategy and left the American public believing the administration's public statements — smoke and mirrors — rather than its private view.
The Bush administration — and France, for that matter — all assumed that this problem would disappear when the U.S. military got into Iraq. WMD would be discovered, the public justification would be vindicated, the secret goal would be achieved and no one would be the wiser. What they did not count on — what is difficult to believe even now — is that Hussein actually might not have WMD or, weirder still, that he hid them or destroyed them so efficiently that no one could find them. That was the kicker the Bush administration never counted on.
The matter of whether Hussein had WMD is still open. Answers could range to the extremes: He had no WMD or he still has WMD, being held in reserve for his guerrilla war. But the point here is that the WMD question was not the reason the United States went to war. The war was waged in order to obtain a strategic base from which to coerce countries such as Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia into using their resources to destroy al Qaeda within their borders. From that standpoint, the strategy seems to be working.
However, by using WMD as the justification for war, the United States walked into a trap. The question of the location of WMD is important. The question of whether it was the CIA or Defense Department that skewed its reports about the location of Iraq's WMD is also important. But these questions are ultimately trivial compared to the use of smoke and mirrors to justify a war in which Iraq was simply a single campaign. Ultimately, the problem is that it created a situation in which the American public had one perception of the reason for the war while the war's planners had another. In a democratic society engaged in a war that will last for many years, this is a dangerous situation to have created.