Several weeks ago I wrote an article that addressed the allegation that George W. Bush lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. I noted that this charge doesn’t make sense, even when granting it for the sake of argument, and that underlying the charge is an obsessive hatred of Bush that muddles the thinking of otherwise sensible people.
The response to the article was generally positive, though I did receive some angry emails.
“I think there is something fundamentally dishonest about your article,” began one writer, who offered that his “most charitable interpretation” was that I couldn’t help myself from “distorting the truth” to defend the Republican president—even though my view on Iraqi WMDs was consistent under the previous president, a Democrat. The email concluded: “Are you an educator and historian, or are you a propagandist?”
A number of emailers flat-out called me a liar. Bush had lied, and now I had lied to defend the liar. One email did everything but shout, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”
A few emails were less emotionally charged, and I felt a responsibility to respond—a correspondence which has carried on for weeks. One of these emailers was a Harvard professor of neuroscience. He made a good point, the answer to which should be shared more broadly.
“I think you misrepresent what people mean when they say, ‘Bush lied,’” wrote the professor. “They are not generally making references to his beliefs, but they are making reference to the simple fact that he made claims for which he has no evidence…. And given the seriousness of the issue at hand (war), the bar was raised and the evidence had to be pretty damned good.”
The professor is too charitable to the “Bush-Lied-Kids-Died” crowd, whose line of reasoning is not so thoughtful. (I know this because I correspond with them daily.) Nonetheless, he posed a valid question, which merits a response.
The professor is correct: Bush did not have absolute evidence of stockpiles of Iraqi WMDs. He had no pictures or first-hand accounts from, say, a Tony Blair or Kofi Annan returning from a remote corner of Iraq to report: “Saddam has a warehouse of chemical warheads. I saw them.”
Yet, such unequivocal evidence was not possible. It was unattainable because Saddam Hussein concealed his WMDs, as he had since 1991, when the United Nations first began doing inspections. All along, he claimed he did not have WMDs, and all along we continued to find them.
Our “evidence” for his WMDs in the 1990s was identical to George W. Bush’s “evidence” later: volumes of testimony from Iraqi scientists, citizens, soldiers, and foreign officials who comprised the “intelligence” that reported that Saddam had WMDs. Entire books laid out the details, such as the bestseller, Saddam’s Bombmaker, by Khidhir Hamza.
Here are merely a few facts about Saddam’s WMD inventory, which were uncovered by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s and became widespread public knowledge:
The Iraqi dictator acquired gallons of chemical and biological agents. He repeatedly used chemical arms and probably employed bio weapons in some form, likely on groups like the Marsh Arabs. His bio arsenal was staggering—anthrax, botulinum toxin, and dozens of others. His regime remains the only in history to weaponize aflatoxin, a substance that slowly causes liver cancer and has no battlefield utility whatsoever. He loaded thousands of artillery shells and missiles with such substances.
The United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) needed several years to destroy these weapons, and was certain that countless more remained hidden.
Much more elusive were nuclear weapons. UNSCOM learned that Saddam had an enormous nuclear program that dated back to the 1970s. Spread among 25 facilities, it employed 15,000 technical people. Based on a Manhattan Project bomb design, Iraqi scientists pursued five different methods for separating uranium. Saddam pumped $10 billion into the program.
This information was made public in the mid-1990s by U.N. officials. UNSCOM chief scientist David Kay reported that Saddam had been only 12 to 18 months away from a workable nuclear bomb at the time we drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991. This became a lingering fear once Saddam again barred weapons inspectors from suspect sites in the late 1990s; writers in the New York Times were vigilant in reminding us that Saddam must be perilously close to possessing that bomb.
A September 1998 article by Barton Gellman in the Washington Post reported “credible” evidence (from U.N. arms inspectors) that “Iraq has built and has maintained three or four ‘implosion devices’ that lack only cores of enriched uranium to make 20-kiloton nuclear weapons.”
An intriguing February 25, 2001 London Times feature went further, reporting that Saddam had actually secretly tested a nuclear weapon.
The Clinton administration had enough, and in December 1998 unleashed a flurry of cruise missiles at Iraqi sites. Still, Saddam would not relent. And by 2003, not a single weapons inspector had entered an Iraqi building in five years—a risk the president of the United States found unacceptable in a post-9/11 world.
This brings us to George W. Bush, and to my answer to the professor’s question: Indeed, George W. Bush did not have unmistakable evidence of stockpiles of Iraqi WMDs, but neither did the U.N. in 1991 nor Bill Clinton in 1998. Bush knew what they knew: Saddam had a rich history of manufacturing and using these weapons, and then lying about and hiding their existence.
Yes, there’s a liar in this story, alright. His name is Saddam Hussein.