“We know where [the weapons] are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, north and south somewhat.” — US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, 30 March 2003
“It is...possible that they decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict.” — Donald Rumsfeld, 27 May 2003
Sure, Don, that’s probably what happened: “They’re going to attack us, boys. Quick, destroy all our weapons.” All the American and British leaders who hammered away on this issue before the war now just sound irritated when you bring it up.
“It’s not crucially important,” said British foreign secretary Jack Straw on May 14, but it is. And although the political uproar over the lies and distortions used to garner popular support of the war is much greater in Britain at the moment, the furore will grow in the United States of America as well. Probably just in time for the presidential election campaign.
The WMD story was needed to scare the US public into supporting the invasion, but also to give Britain some legal cover for taking part in the war. Americans were not much concerned about the legality of invading Iraq, but it was crucial for Blair to have a cover to retain the support of his own Labour Party — and the war would only be legal under United Nations rules if Iraq were violating UN resolutions ordering Saddam Hussein to get rid of his WMD.
When the security council, unconvinced of the urgency of attacking Iraq to “disarm” it, refused to support an invasion, Blair took Britain to war alongside the US anyway, but it left him horribly vulnerable, particularly within his own party. Over a quarter of the Labour members of parliament voted against an attack on Iraq, and as many more only backed it because of Blair’s blood-curdling accounts of Iraqi WMD “ready to launch within 45 minutes”.
So now, seven weeks after the war’s end, with no WMD found in Iraq, and British intelligence sources protesting to the media about Blair’s misuse of their reports, his position has become very difficult — but his worst problem is what they are saying in Washington. Consider the cynical remarks of the US deputy secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, in the forthcoming issue of Vanity Fair: “...for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction, as the core reason.”
Face the music
It makes perfect sense for the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, who cooked up the war on Iraq, to admit now that it wasn’t really about WMD. Their real purpose, after all, was to scare all of America’s rivals and enemies into submission by demonstrating US military power and making it clear that no considerations of international law would stand in Washington’s way. But they are putting Blair into a dreadful corner, and storing up trouble for Bush as well.
A great many Labour MPs deeply resent having been lied to by their own party and government, and neither they nor the British press will let the matter drop. In the US, but the smarter Democrats are just biding their time. Right now questioning the wisdom of the war would still leave them open to the charge of being unpatriotic, but as Iraqi resistance and American casualties grow — five US soldiers killed and 13 injured last week — that calculation will change.
By next winter, Bush will be facing harsh questions about why it was necessary to invade Iraq. With the US economy unlikely to recover dramatically in the next year, that could spell electoral disaster unless he wraps himself in the flag again, so another war before November, 2004 and a “khaki election” are not out of the question. The likeliest target would be Syria, which could be conquered quickly and cheaply, rather than Iran or North Korea — but whichever it is, he should not expect to have Britain along next time. Blair has not enough credit left.