The rush of experts and politicians to the microphone this week to finally admit that US and British intelligence estimates of Iraqi weapons holdings were wrong underlines the fact that the invasion of Iraq was not conjured from thin air in the few months before the war began.
It did not come about simply because a handful of forceful advocates found themselves in positions of influence in Washington, or merely because the US administration was looking for a course of action after the twin towers attack. It was also the consequence of a decade-long Anglo-American struggle with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, one which both the administration of US President George W. Bush and the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair inherited from their predecessors.
Aerial attacks and surveillance, coup attempts, economic sanctions sand the Iraqi responses were aspects of the struggle. But at the core was an intense contest between US and British intelligence and Iraqi counterintelligence, the most significant such espionage battle since the end of the cold war.
The concentration on the interaction between politics and intelligence in the immediate run-up to the invasion has until now obscured the need for an examination of this much longer period of conflict, without the legacy of which, it is reasonable to say, the war could not have happened.
Bush, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and even Geoff Hoon, Britain's defense secretary, have all recently conceded to one degree or another that the pre-war intelligence was wrong, but none have probed the concepts which shaped US and British policy for many years before a second Iraq war became a possibility.
In Britain, the Hutton report's rejection of the argument that the available intelligence was exaggerated by politicians may have let the government off too lightly. But it does have the virtue of showing that the government and intelligence services had essentially the same mindset on Iraq.
That mindset was exemplified by the dead British government scientist, David Kelly, as the former UN inspector Scott Ritter wrote in The Guardian yesterday.
Kelly was a veteran, and indeed a hero, of the intelligence war against Saddam, and his view seems to have been the same as that of most such veterans: that Saddam almost certainly had some limited stocks of chemical and biological weapons, some capacity to restart production, some very limited means of delivery and some hidden but very scaled-down research programs.
The importance of these supposed stocks and programs was not that they were very dangerous in themselves but that they were evidence of Saddam's long-term intentions.
What most worried Kelly was what Saddam might develop in the future.
Hard evidence, such as might be constituted by participants at a high-level meeting, was not, as far as is known, ever acquired. This is the critical point: the intelligence assessment of Iraq was fundamentally an assessment of Saddam's character. In a sense he himself was the weapon of mass destruction, so obdurate was his will to possess such weapons assumed to be.
This understanding of Saddam's demonic intentions was forged literally in the heat of the desert as inspectors waited fruitlessly for entry to military installations or watched as trucks made off with the equipment or the documents they had wished to examine. The contest was undoubtedly at first very much to do with Saddam's efforts to conceal weapons stocks and programs.
But it was -- from the beginning, more so as it proceeded, and perhaps entirely so toward the end -- a contest also having to do with his need not to be seen as humiliated, and with his need to outwit those he believed were plotting his downfall.
Why otherwise continue to play a shell game when there was nothing, or virtually nothing, under the shells? Why deny inspectors entry into the palaces when they housed no weapons? Why precipitate the departure of the inspectors from Iraq when there was no longer anything to find?
Much that Saddam did could have been expressly designed to produce the impression that he wished to preserve his programs so that he could restart them on a full-scale basis as soon as he had the resources to do so.
This thesis has not been disproved by what is now known about how little, if anything, he did preserve -- for a resumption would still have been possible from scratch. Nor could it be disproved by anything he might say in captivity. But, as we now realize more clearly, the conviction that Saddam would not and could not change was at the heart of the long Iraqi crisis. For many inspectors and Western intelligence people it became a given, and it survived the increasing evidence that his weapons programs were either abandoned or so run-down and under-resourced as to no longer be a cause for major concern.
That, we may speculate, did not change their inner conviction, formed in the early to mid-1990s, that, since Saddam himself was inherently untrustworthy, the possibility of Iraq acquiring weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, could only be removed if he was removed.
It is possible that US and British intelligence became essentially a process of sifting information to buttress this view.
So deep was the mistrust that the weapons became, in a sense, secondary. Saddam was convinced that Anglo-American policy was aimed at his destruction whether he gave up his weapons or not, and the British and Americans were convinced that Saddam's motives were so suspect that no renunciation of weapons could ever be taken seriously.
Neither the Hutton report, nor David Kay's evidence before the US Senate's armed forces committee, has changed what we know about the beliefs and motives of the US and British governments before the war.
We knew then and we know now that they believed he had some minor holdings in weapons of mass destruction and expected to find them, or encounter them in battle. They were not lying when they said this, yet it was not the reason they went to war.
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