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What's at stake in the WMD debate

By Ben Fritz
June 24, 2003

A very important debate, perhaps one of the most important in years, is brewing over two separate but related questions: Did President Bush lie to convince our nation to go to war? And was the war in Iraq justified given that the US has not found the weapons of mass destruction it allegedly possessed?

In previous articles, we have analyzed some of the deceptions that have already been revealed in the debate over the war. Late last month, for instance, Bush falsely claimed that "we found the weapons of mass destruction" when the U.S. had only found mobile labs that may have been used to manufacture biological weapons (subsequent press reports indicated that the labs may have been used to produce hydrogen to fill artillery balloons rather than weapons). The President also made the false claim that a 1998 report said Iraq was six months from developing a nuclear weapon. But the issues at stake are much larger than these specific incidents.

Making sense of such a heated and rapidly evolving debate can be extremely difficult. At this point, though, two things are clear. One is that, as with many intense political battles, some on both sides are stepping well beyond the limits of reasonable discourse and making vicious and unfounded accusations about their opponents. Even more notably, however, in many cases, both sides are talking past the other, making claims that are largely true, but don't engage the arguments of the other side.

Unfounded attacks

The tenor of the debate is so extreme at this point that some commentators have become clearly irrational and inflammatory. Syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, for instance, recently devoted an entire piece to analyzing whether President Bush and his top advisors are mentally disturbed. Though intended to be somewhat facetious, Huffington's argument jumps from a few specific examples to absurd pseudo-psychological diagnoses in a common pundit tactic taken to a disturbing extreme. "Wonder why the WMD are MIA?," she writes. "The answer may lie in the DSM -- the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders."

Democratic presidential candidate and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-OH, has also been making inflammatory accusations, saying, for instance, that the President's deceptions are morally equivalent to nuclear or biological weapons. "Lying to the American people is a weapon of mass destruction," Kucinich said at Wisconsin's Democratic convention.

Some conservatives, meanwhile, have made equally baseless accusations that ignore the real concerns of liberal critics, instead merely accusing them of bad motives. "It's transparently political," said Sean Hannity on the Fox News show "Hannity and Colmes" on June 5. "This is a political witch-hunt. Because they're on the wrong side of history." Columnist Ann Coulter also chimed in with the accusation that, "Seething with rage and frustration at the success of the war in Iraq, liberals have started in with their female taunting about weapons of mass destruction."

All talk, no discussion

Much more remarkable in this debate than this sort of inflammatory rhetoric has been the inability of both sides to engage the other sides' points. While liberals point to specific instances of deception by the administration and call for investigations into whether intelligence may have been altered or ignored by the President and his aides, conservatives respond by pointing out that several different organizations and people have accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction and defending the war based on other rationales.

Did the president lie? Was the war unjustified? These two questions are both in play right now, but many conservatives are ignoring the first question and many liberals are ignoring the second, leaving the public with a confusing set of mismatched arguments to decipher.

A recent column by Robert Scheer is a typical example of these sorts of liberal criticisms. He correctly points out that the administration has often implied a connection between Iraq and September 11 that has not been demonstrated. He also points to recent revelations about a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document from last September. He quotes part of it that reads, "there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has - or will - establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities." He contrasts that with more definitive statements made at the time by administration officials to conclude that the President and his aides have been deceptive.

That DIA report, however, is a perfect example of how both sides in this debate have managed to avoid each other's claims. Robert Kagan also cited it earlier this month in a Washington Post op-ed defending the administration against charges of deception. Kagan simply quotes a different part than Sheer does, which reads, "Iraq probably possesses chemical agent in chemical munitions" and "probably possesses bulk chemical stockpiles, primarily containing precursors, but that also could consist of some mustard agent and VX." Both Kagan and Scheer are using real evidence, but by only pointing to the portions that back up their case, they present simplistic cases to the public that ignore the complexities of the actual document.

Also demonstrating the different emphases of conservatives in this debate, Kagan points to other evidence not mentioned by liberals like Scheer. For instance, he mentions that Iraq admitted in the '90s that it possessed anthrax and deadly VX gas and that there is no evidence that it was destroyed. Kagan also notes that politicians such as Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, and former CIA Director John Deutsch have all previously stated their belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. To Kagan, this proves that, "If Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are lying, they're not alone. They're part of a vast conspiratorial network of liars that includes U.N. weapons inspectors and reputable arms control experts both inside and outside government, both Republicans and Democrats."

The rhetoric from politicians has been similar. Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), a Democratic presidential candidate, has been one of the most aggressive politicians to criticize the President of late, making statements such as, "I am concerned that either some of the intelligence was bad or was manipulated in some way in order to create the impression that we knew absolutely there were weapons of mass destruction."

In an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on June 8, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice responded to criticisms such as Graham's, "I just don't understand this argument. As I said, revisionist history all over the place. This has gone on with Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction for the better part of 12 years. Successive CIA directors, successive administrations have known that we had every reason to judge that he had weapons of mass destruction."

The fact is, however, that judging that Saddam had such weapons does not excuse any potential deceptions in making the case for war against him. While neither is being inaccurate, they are debating distinct points and only appearing to contrast with each other. Notice how Graham says the administration implied that "we knew absolutely there were weapons of mass destruction" while Rice states "we had every reason to judge that he had weapons of mass destruction" (all emphasis ours). President Bush could very well have been deceptive regarding the former while the latter is still true.

The real question

In reality, then, the question is whether these two issues can be considered separately. As previously cited work on this site and a recent article in The New Republic, amongst others, show, there can be no doubt that the Bush administration made deceptive statements in specific instances about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and its connections to terrorism. But the administration and its defenders correctly point out that many world leaders and intelligence experts have believed Iraq possessed these types of weapons or was in the process of making them. And supporters of the war have every right to consider the war justified by these assessments or to point to other rationales for the war besides weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately, partisans are making cheap attacks and conflating and confusing these two questions, making it difficult for the public to see what's actually at stake.

Update 7/19/04 11:22 PM: This column has been corrected to remove characterizations of President Bush's allegation that Iraq attempted to obtain uranium from Africa that have since come into question.

Research assistance by Davis Bell

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Related links:

-The strategically ambiguous George W. Bush (Bryan Keefer, 6/12/03)
-The discourse of mental illness (Brendan Nyhan, 10/16/01)
-Spinsanity on Robert Scheer

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