Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Public sold only one reason to take up arms against Saddam

By Martin Woollacott  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Much that was claimed and predicted in the period before the war in Iraq has turned out to be wrong. The forecasts of political upheaval across the Arab world, the anxieties about high American and British casualties, and the fears about the destruction of oil wells turned out to have been as mistaken as the assumptions that Iraqi troops would switch sides, or that large stocks of chemical and biological weapons would swiftly be found, or that Iraqi gratitude would make everything easy after military victory.

This is surely no surprise. It is what happens when decisions are taken, and argued over, as they usually are, on the basis both of incomplete information and of pre-existing tendencies to favor one course of action or another. So even has been the balance of miscalculation between opponents and supporters of the war, in fact, that most have agreed on what amounts to an informal amnesty as far as their own erroneous positions before the conflict are concerned.

But that amnesty manifestly does not apply to the American and British governments, and the hunt in both countries for evidence that intelligence was exaggerated by our leaders has become the principal means through which the argument about the rightness or wrongness of the war is being continued.

Governments bear far more responsibility for getting things wrong or for persuading others into a mistaken view than do people in think tanks, universities, or in newspapers and broadcasting. Yet, even as distortion of the intelligence evidence is at the center of this argument, there is something distorted about the argument itself. It does not seem to connect with what people knew, or thought they knew, and with what they were mainly in dispute about before the war.

As the conflict came closer, there was no great division between people who believed that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein represented an immediate threat to Western countries and those who did not. There was a consensus along the political spectrum that the Iraqi regime almost certainly possessed some rather limited biological and chemical capacity and might just conceivably have a radiological weapon or two. That consensus was summed up by Tom Friedman, the popular American columnist and war supporter, who wrote just before it began that "Saddam Hussein has neither the intention nor the capacity to threaten America and is easily deterred if he does."

True, both the American and British governments tried to give the impression that Saddam had serious stocks of unconventional weapons and might be trying to restart his nuclear program. But, as Friedman and others implied, that was because the real justifications for war could not be presented to a public conditioned to believe that war is only an acceptable risk if a clear and present danger can be demonstrated.

So we had the spectacle of the arguments being conducted on two distinct levels. One involved disputable claims about the extent of Saddam's weapons holdings, probably wholly specious claims about his connections with al-Qaeda, and questions to do with the role of inspectors and the UN. The other involved forecasts of the threat that Saddam might present if left alone, and, even more difficult to assess, calculations that his removal from power would change the Middle East in ways which would weaken the forces of Islamic extremism in the region and therefore the terrorist threat to the US and Europe. Present on both levels of argument was the humanitarian case for military action, but that was not the primary focus of either discussion.

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