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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

WMD in Iraq

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

by Jessica Mathews, George Perkovich, Joseph Cirincione & Alexis Orton
Wednesday, January 07, 2004

The following is taken from a new Carnegie study, WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications. This report attempts to summarize and clarify the complex story of WMD and the Iraq war. It examines the unclassified record of prewar intelligence, administration statements of Iraq's capabilities to produce nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and long-range missiles, and the evidence found to date in Iraq.

Drawing useful lessons from experience begins with an accurate record of what happened. It is not too soon to begin this inquiry into the Iraq experience, because public confusion is widespread and revisionism has already begun. Some pundits now claim that the war was never about WMD but was undertaken to bring democracy to Iraq or the entire Middle East. Others say it was a response to 9/11 or was the necessary answer to a composite threat posed by Saddam Hussein's domestic evils, past aggressions, defiance of the United Nations, and desire for WMD. The administration has adjusted its public expectation of what Iraq will be found to have had from actual weapons and massive stockpiles of agent, to weapons programs, to "capabilities," and even to the "capability that Iraq sought" for weapons of mass destruction. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has called WMD merely "the one reason everyone could agree on," chosen for "bureaucratic reasons."

Notwithstanding these varied views, the definitive voice of U.S. policy-the president's-was unequivocal that the reason for going to war was the present threat to U.S. security posed by Iraq's WMD. From Mr. Bush's first detailed case for the war on October 7, 2002, to the declaration of war on March 17, 2003, the purpose is always clear: "Saddam Hussein must disarm himself-or for the sake of peace, we will lead a coalition to disarm him." Other than warnings addressed to the Iraqi military and reassurances to the American people regarding homeland security, the declaration of war address was only about WMD until the closing paragraphs, which touched on human liberty and a better future for the Iraqi people.

The reasons for war made to the rest of the world through months of negotiations at the United Nations, before and after the dispatch to Iraq of a greatly strengthened WMD inspection team, were the same. The basis for international action is stated in UN Security Council Resolution 1441, paragraph 2, as "bringing to full and verified completion the disarmament process." U.S. Secretary of State Powell's detailed case to the Security Council on February 5, 2003, mirrored the President's speeches: at issue was the threat from Saddam's WMD. All other matters were at most, a minor afterthought.

Because the WMD threat was the reason Americans and citizens of most other countries were given for invading Iraq, the large divergence between prewar descriptions of the threat and what has been discovered in the nine months since the war, is a matter of some consequence. The discrepancies raise questions whose answers should inform a full understanding of the war itself, the handling of pending proliferation crises in Iran and North Korea, and an urgently needed, broad rethinking of U.S. nonproliferation policy. These questions include:

  • Did a WMD threat to U.S. and/or global security exist in Iraq, and if so, precisely what was it?
  • Were there errors in intelligence regarding the existence and extent of Iraqi WMD? If so, when did they arise and were they based on faulty collection or analysis, undue politicization, or other factors? What steps could be taken to prevent a repetition?
  • Did administration officials misrepresent what was known and not known and not known based on intelligence? If so, what were the sources and reasons for these misrepresentations? Are there precautions that could be taken against similar circumstances in the future?
  • How effective was the more-than-ten-year-long UN inspection, monitoring, and sanctions effort in Iraq? What lessons can be drawn regarding the applicability of international pressure to prevent proliferation elsewhere?

Although the complete story can not yet be told, a massive amount of information is available from declassified U.S. intelligence, reports from the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), administration statements, corroborated press reports, and postwar findings. This study sorts through this mass of material, disentangles many of its complexities, and lays out a much clearer, if still incomplete, picture of what was known, uncertain, and unknown at each stage. From this we offer partial answers to these questions and point to issues that need fuller attention by bodies with access to the full classified record and to others that need further analysis and public debate. The aim is to clarify the record of the central reason for the Iraq war and to suggest changes in U.S. and international policies and practice that could help prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction.

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