Sunday, October 10, 2004

Saddam knew the tools he would need to reshape history and establish his glory: weapons of mass destruction. These weapons had what Duelfer and his team called a "totemic" importance to him. With these weapons, Saddam had defeated the evil Persians. With these weapons he had crushed his internal opponents. With these weapons he would deter what he called the "Zionist octopus" in both Israel and America.

But in the 1990's, the world was arrayed against him to deprive him of these weapons. So Saddam, the clever one, The Struggler, undertook a tactical retreat. He would destroy the weapons while preserving his capacities to make them later. He would foil the inspectors and divide the international community. He would induce it to end the sanctions it had imposed to pen him in. Then, when the sanctions were lifted, he would reconstitute his weapons and emerge greater and mightier than before.

The world lacked what Saddam had: the long perspective. Saddam understood that what others see as a defeat or a setback can really be a glorious victory if it is seen in the context of the longer epic.

Saddam worked patiently to undermine the sanctions. He stored the corpses of babies in great piles, and then unveiled them all at once in great processions to illustrate the great humanitarian horrors of the sanctions.

Saddam personally made up a list of officials at the U.N., in France, in Russia and elsewhere who would be bribed. He sent out his oil ministers to curry favor with China, France, Turkey and Russia. He established illicit trading relations with Ukraine, Syria, North Korea and other nations to rebuild his arsenal.

It was all working. He acquired about $11 billion through illicit trading. He used the oil-for-food billions to build palaces. His oil minister was treated as a "rock star," as the report put it, at international events, so thick was the lust to trade with Iraq.

France, Russia, China and other nations lobbied to lift sanctions. Saddam was, as the Duelfer report noted, "palpably close" to ending sanctions.

With sanctions weakening and money flowing, he rebuilt his strength. He contacted W.M.D. scientists in Russia, Belarus, Bulgaria and elsewhere to enhance his technical knowledge base. He increased the funds for his nuclear scientists. He increased his military-industrial-complex's budget 40-fold between 1996 and 2002. He increased the number of technical research projects to 3,200 from 40. As Duelfer reports, "Prohibited goods and weapons were being shipped into Iraq with virtually no problem."

And that is where Duelfer's story ends. Duelfer makes clear on the very first page of his report that it is a story. It is a mistake and a distortion, he writes, to pick out a single frame of the movie and isolate it from the rest of the tale.

But that is exactly what has happened. I have never in my life seen a government report so distorted by partisan passions. The fact that Saddam had no W.M.D. in 2001 has been amply reported, but it's been isolated from the more important and complicated fact of Saddam's nature and intent.
UPDATE. Now over to Michael Barone (via Glenn Reynolds):
There was, despite the headlines and charges to the contrary, no "intelligence failure" here. How were U.S. intelligence agencies—or those of other serious countries, who reached the same conclusion—to learn that Saddam was not currently actively developing WMDs? How could they do that when even high officials in Saddam's government did not know whether such programs were ongoing or not? This was a secretive regime, not given to public announcements of its weapons development, not subject to a Freedom of Information Act. Even if we had had human intelligence sources at the top levels of the Saddam regime who assured us WMD programs were not ongoing, how could we have prudently relied on them?

Intelligence is an inexact business. It deals with things that cannot be known for sure. In this case, it dealt with something that even an ideal intelligence agency could not determine for certain. Our intelligence agencies and those of other countries that concluded that Saddam had WMDs turned out to have erred, but they erred on the proper side, on the side of pessimism, as they had to—because the man had a record of developing WMDs and using them. And he had a record, we now know thanks to Charles Duelfer, of maintaining the capability of using WMDs again. The world and the United States are safer with Saddam in prison.
Well, in some way it's undeniable that objectively there's been some kind of intel failure: after all, we expected to find WMD stockpiles in Iraq and we didn't find them. At the same time -and that's an important point that war critics are hiding- there were surprises in the other direction too: few people suspected that Saddam was developing long-range missiles reaching way further than the 90-kilometer allowed, which is what Duelfer and the inspectors concluded. So it can be argued that there was an intel failure, but it must be considered that, as Barone says, intel is not an exact science. Furthermore, the failure was shared all over by both pro-war and anti-war camps; everybody thought Saddam had stockpiles, and the diference was in the threshold of tolerance towards that risk, and the strategy to follow.