Wild weapons chase

In the search for Saddam's arsenal, the US elite is losing the plot.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

‘Go get the breach kit’, said US Army Major Kenneth Deal in early May 2003, as he and his team of weapons hunters stood outside a suspected weapons site in Baghdad, where ‘heavy crossbars sealed the doors’. Deal and his men smashed the padlocks, checked for booby traps, felt their way through darkened corridors, and finally found a cache of….vacuum cleaners.

The Baghdad building was number 17 on US Central Command’s list of 19 suspected weapons sites. Two sites remain to be searched, and still US forces haven’t located Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. There are also 68 ‘non-WMD sites’ which, according to Central Command, might offer ‘potential clues’ to the WMD’s whereabouts – 45 of which have been searched, and none of which has offered many potential clues (1).

US forces are in turmoil over their failure to find Saddam’s weapons. On 5 February, six weeks before the war started, US secretary of state Colin Powell told the UN Security Council that Saddam had ‘hundreds of tons of biological and chemical agents’ (2). On the eve of the war on 19 March, President Bush said America refused to ‘live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder’ (3). One war, two months and a defeated regime later, and still there’s no sign of Saddam’s hundred-ton threat to world peace.

America’s desire to make good its prewar claims about Iraq’s deadly weapons is no doubt a big part of its ongoing hunt. In their clashes with the UN and spats with chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, US spokesmen continually emphasised the urgency of ‘disarming Saddam’ (4). Now they want to show Blix and co that they were right all along.

Yet such considerations alone do not explain the intensity of America’s hunt for WMD – and why the weapons thing is now stirring up strife within the US elite itself. America’s search for WMD has become bound up with its search for a sense of mission. Since 11 September, America has defined its international role in defensive terms, as standing up to evil regimes and amorphous terror groups ‘over there’. In the absence of a positive mission to project around the world, US officials hope that the discovery of bad things in Iraq will be enough to justify America’s international role.

The desperate scrabbling around in Iraq’s burnt-out buildings is as much a search for America’s foreign policy as it is for Saddam’s illegal stockpile.

Iraq’s elusive weapons continue to loom large in the Bush administration’s mind even as its political opponents and the general public say that finding the weapons might not be so crucial after all. In April, a Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of those surveyed thought that going to war with Iraq was ‘the right thing’, with or without the discovery of illegal weapons (5).

According to one report, the Democrats are not intending to make a big issue out of WMD: ‘President Bush appears to be in no political danger from the failure to find chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq, with Democrats reluctant to challenge Bush on any aspect of the war….’ (6)

Yet as Iraq’s weapons become less of an issue for everyone else, they have become an ever-bigger issue for Bush officials. As White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says: ‘[WMD] is what this war was about and is about.’ (7) It seems that the hunt for WMD has gone beyond how others – whether it’s Blix, the Democrats or the masses – see America. It is now about how America’s rulers see themselves. For the Bushies, the hunt for weapons has taken on a life of its own.

Some US officials talk about the existence of WMD as if it were a religious conviction. ‘I know that there are weapons here’, says one US commander in Iraq, even as US forces run out of target sites to search. According to US Major General David Petraeus, ‘There’s no question that there were chemical weapons here’ – though he remains uncertain as to whether ‘they were destroyed right before the war’ or ‘whether they’re still hidden’ (8).

British leaders, too – who also justified their backing for the war in Iraq as part of an attempt to ‘disarm Saddam’ of his deadly weapons – talk about the WMD with a sense of other-worldly faith in their existence. ‘I have no doubt at all in my mind that Saddam possessed these weapons’, said British defence minister Lewis Moonie, clearly a strong believer in putting mind over matter, or least belief over evidence.

Of course, no religious or pseudo-religious belief is complete without an element of doubt – as best expressed by US Army Colonel Richard McPhee, a central figure in the US taskforce searching for Iraq’s weapons. ‘We will find them’, declared McPhee in early May. ‘Or not. I don’t know. I’m being honest here.’ McPhee continued: ‘Do I know where they are? I wish I did.’ (9) It seems that, when belief in Saddam’s WMD is based more on blind faith than visible evidence, even the most hardcore believers can veer from certainty to doubt in the same breath.

US forces have retrospectively tried to alter the focus of their Iraqi campaign, to get around the embarrassing fact that no WMD have been found. But the weapons question still manages to rear its ugly head. On 12 May 2003, the Bush administration announced that it was winding down its 600-strong weapons-hunting taskforce and replacing it with an Iraq Survey Group, made up of 2000 personnel. The new group will focus on finding the truth about Saddam’s human rights abuses and killing sprees, as well as his alleged WMD.

The new team has been set up because the original weapons hunters had become increasingly ‘frustrated’ (10). Now that nearly all the target sites have been searched, the weapons team found itself at a loose end in Iraq. ‘We thought we would be much more gainfully employed, or intensively employed, than we were’, complained Navy Commander David Beckett, who had the misfortune of being in charge of the original team’s search for evidence of a nuclear programme. When the rest of the team was having trouble finding traces of white powder, Beckett’s group were hardly likely to stumble across plans for The Bomb.

In line with the shifting focus, US officials announced that the hunt in Iraq had moved from finding weapons to finding ‘documentary evidence’ that illegal weapons existed somewhere, some time. As Reuters reported: ‘The change in rhetoric has unfolded gradually in the past month as special military teams have found little to justify the administration’s claims that Iraq was concealing WMD.’

Now, as the new Iraq Survey Group discovers evidence of Saddam’s ruthless campaign against Shia Muslims in southern Iraq, US and British officials are citing these crimes as justification for the war. But none of these discoveries is big news to anyone who knows about Iraq’s recent history. A war that was launched to ‘disarm Saddam of his deadly weapons’ is being re-justified as a campaign to uncover Saddam’s past atrocities. This must be the first example of casus belli ( a cause justifying war) being discovered after the war has ended.

Yet even as US officials shift their focus, they can’t seem to let the weapons issue slide. A large section of the Iraq Survey Group will be dedicated to continuing the search for Saddam’s weapons. The 19 top target sites pinpointed by Central Command are being extended to include ‘possibly a further 100’. One US spokesman recently claimed that it would be ‘unthinkable’ for US forces not to find WMD in Iraq. Having made Saddam’s weapons central to their mission – to everything they apparently stand for (or at least against) on the world stage – US officials increasingly find themselves beholden to finding the WMD, whether they exist or not.

Now, unsurprisingly, America is experiencing political fallout in Iraq – and it’s coming out around the issue of WMD. There are clashes between the original weapons team and the new Iraq Survey Group; one of the original weapons hunters claims that his and others’ work has been ‘usurped’ by the newcomers (11).

There are internal squabbles between the White House and the CIA, with CIA officials accusing America’s political leaders of ‘politicising’ and overblowing the intelligence relating to Iraq’s WMD. The Bush administration may not face any criticism from the Democrats or the people for its failure to find weapons – but it is doing a good enough job of stoking up WMD controversy by itself.

The weapons fallout is a consequence of the US elite defining its international role negatively. From overblowing the terror threat around the world to claiming that outlaw regimes are holding the USA to ransom, America’s post-9/11 foreign policy has been defensive rather than assertive. The USA has defined its world mission in reaction to events (and alleged events) in the unpredictable, unknowable third world, rather than asserting any clearly defined global authority.

It was this focus on ‘over there’ that made something like Iraq’s alleged weapons such a crucial find for the USA, and which is now unravelling the US campaign in Iraq. After all, without any coherent mission, the only thing tying US forces together in Iraq is a hunt for some dodgy weapons. Which may not even exist.

In the continuing search for WMD, the US elite is losing the plot.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Frustrated, US arms team to leave Iraq, Barton Gellman, Washington Post, 11 May 2003

(2) Frustrated, US arms team to leave Iraq, Barton Gellman, Washington Post, 11 May 2003

(3) President Bush addresses the nation, 19 March 2003

(4) Bush repeats warning on dangers posed by Saddam Hussein, Wendy Ross, US Department of State, 22 January 2003

(5) More say war justified without finding weapons, Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, Washington Post, 5 April 2003

(6) No political fallout for Bush on weapons, Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei, Washington Post, 17 May 2003

(7) US search for illegal arms narrowed to about 36 sites, Don Van Natta Jr and David Johnston, New York Times, 12 April 2003

(8) US General unsure when or if weapons were destroyed, New York Times, 13 May 2003

(9) Frustrated, US arms team to leave Iraq, Barton Gellman, Washington Post, 11 May 2003

(10) Frustrated, US arms team to leave Iraq, Barton Gellman, Washington Post, 11 May 2003

(11) Frustrated, US arms team to leave Iraq, Barton Gellman, Washington Post, 11 May 2003

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Topics World


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