Evidence, WMD, and the Iraq War: Reflections on Tony Blair and Colin Powell

With the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, it’s an appropriate time to comment on two elements of the public discussion of the war, in the US and the UK, that puzzle me.

  1. The insistence, particularly among lefties who supported the war then and have reconsidered the matter since then, that everyone thought Saddam Hussein had active nuclear and chemical programs. At the time, I strongly opposed the war — because I thought it was an inappropriate distraction from Afghanistan, I didn’t like the way it was being ginned up, the WMD argument didn’t seem to me sufficiently important relative to the trouble it was likely to stir up –but I had every anticipation that the US military would march in and would find the missing nuclear program, and that this would be waved in the face of everyone who was still legitimately skeptical. I assumed there was a lot of secret information that more or less proved to anyone entitled to see it that this work was going on. It seemed more likely than not, until… Until Colin Powell’s speech to the UN. I found that speech astonishing. My thought was, surely they are pulling out all of the most convincing bits from their secret dossier, and that’s it?
    Some overheard conversation where someone said something like “Don’t talk about the nuclear program”, and there was a satellite photo truck that the CIA labelled”mobile germ warfare lab”, or something like that. At that point I decided that the expressions of certainty coming from the Bush administration were not based on secret knowledge, but were either feigned or delusional. (This still left me in some uncertainty about the truth of the matter, though the consistent failure of the UN inspectors to find anything weighed heavily in Saddam’s favour.) Other people seem to have taken away a different impression from that speech, but I’ve never had anyone praise it on the substance. It’s more like “I trust Colin Powell, and he convinced me that he’s convinced, so I should be convinced too.” Maybe it’s my deformation professionelle as a mathematician, that while I don’t discount the importance of reputation for judging whether someone is intentionally dissembling, I don’t rate it very highly for judging whether he is right to believe what he believes.
  2. The UK public, in particular Labour supporters and erstwhile Labour supporters, maintain that Tony Blair was Bush’s lapdog in the matter of the Iraq War. He is to be faulted for allowing himself to be coaxed into joining the war, in order to maintain British influence more generally and the “special relationship”, without obtaining any significant concessions. This requires them not only to believe that Blair is a brazen and unrepentant liar — admittedly not too much of a stretch — but also to ignore clear evidence of his messianic megalomania. I’m sure it is a relief for Labour voters to say that Britain, and the government they elected, are not really responsible for the war (and its disastrous aftermath), but I just don’t see any evidence of force majeure. Blair would not have had Britain go it alone to invade Iraq, but I don’t see any reason to believe that he wasn’t stiffening Bush’s spine. The Britons who would like to plead innocence must consider that, while demonstrations might be an appropriate intermediate means of expressing popular discontent with a government, they’re no substitute for an election. Censure and re-elect is not a credible democratic strategy. Once you’ve re-elected the government, you’re on the hook for their crimes.

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