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Iraq an intelligence failure? Not quite

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This post is part of the The Iraq war ten years on debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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22 March 2013 08:55


This post is part of the The Iraq war ten years on debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

The worst mistake we can make in the aftermath of the ill-conceived decision to invade Iraq in 2003 is to draw the wrong lessons from it. Paramount among these wrong lessons is the view that the Iraq intervention resulted from an intelligence, rather than a policy, failure.

Sam's earlier post cites Stephen Hadley pushing the intelligence failure line that was predictably popular among Australian, UK, and US policy makers. Hadley suggests that, had intelligence analysts come up with the right question on Saddam's failure to openly demonstrate he had no WMD (ie. is Saddam not cooperating because he doesn't want the Iranians to know?), a different policy outcome may have occurred.

Such rationalist inspired explanations are inherently appealing, given our faith in the ideal of policy making as a product of careful cost-benefit calculations based on the best available information and pursued in the 'national interest'. It is, however, also a convenient dodge for the policy elites who supported the military option, since it allows them to say, 'Well, I would have made a better decision if I'd been given better information and analysis.'

A decision to invade Iraq was made within the Bush Administration possibly as early as a year before March 2003, so it is almost absurd to think anything would have changed had someone come up with Stephen Hadley's $64,000 question. Richard Clarke and others have said the arguments made within the Bush Administration for invading Iraq were made within days of the 9/11 attacks.

The point at which invasion became an unstated policy appears to have occurred at some point in the months between President Bush's 'axis of evil' speech in January 2002 and a London meeting later that July between senior UK policy and intelligence figures where, according to what became known as the Downing Street Memo, both the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq and its strategy of fixing the intelligence around this policy were communicated to the Blair Government.

The big challenge that supporters of an invasion faced, however, was the need to make Saddam's regime appear as an existential threat. They needed to make future threat scenarios more compelling, since an occupation of Iraq could not be legitimised only by pointing to Saddam's past behaviour as evidence of his future threat potential. Overcoming this challenge depended on the Bush Administration's ability to produce a body of evidence on Iraq's ongoing development of proscribed weapons that would support the kind of threat scenarios needed to justify precautionary action.

The Bush Administration and its allies exploited uncertainty regarding the kind and level of threat posed by Iraq by extrapolating from the available, but still ambiguous, evidence a number of nightmare scenarios involving mushroom clouds and WMD-armed transnational terrorist groups, all of which were made more credible by the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. And, in lieu of any indisputable evidence that Iraq had already abandoned its chemical, biological and nuclear programs, there was little prospect of undermining the Bush Administration's argument for preventive action against Iraq.

The real lesson to be learned from the Iraq debacle should begin with this question: 'Why did our policy makers choose to interpret the intelligence and the many uncertainties it necessarily contained only in ways that supported the case for military action?'

Most people instead seem more concerned about why intelligence agencies couldn't remove all the uncertainties so that Bush, Howard, and Blair could have dutifully made the right decision. The result is that intelligence agencies cop all the heat while policy elites are allowed to get away with the 'gee, if only we had known' defence.

Indeed, as one intelligence analyst I spoke to in Washington observed, a government wanting to avoid war instead of justifying it would have been keen to revisit the judgements made in the now discredited 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, following the return of UN inspectors later that year.

Rather than giving pause on the need for military action, the failure to uncover any evidence of WMD by Blix's team was instead understood by the Bush Administration merely as further evidence that Saddam was hiding them. Go figure!

Photo by Flickr user IAEA Imagebank.

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