It started with Jeb Bush, since his brother George was president when the decision was made to invade Iraq in 2003. Since then, it has become standard practice in the media to ask every one of the more than a dozen people running for president the same question: “If you knew then what you know now, would you have invaded Iraq?”
Readers who weren’t politically active in 2003 might be forgiven if they thought that this question was serving some kind of progressive role, discrediting the invasion, occupation, and continuing U.S. military role in Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because the central function of this question is actually to perpetuate the myth that the invasion of Iraq was a “mistake,” a well-meaning action based on “faulty intelligence” but all in the service of some noble goal.
In late 2002 and early 2003, there was a certain divergence of opinion in the ruling class. Some were pushing for an invasion of Iraq, based on claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that it had something to do with Al Qaeda’s terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, and that its alleged alliance with Al Qaeda meant that, even if Iraq wouldn’t dare use nuclear weapons directly against the U.S. or its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, it might give a nuclear bomb to Al Qaeda who would do so. All of these claims were utterly false, but in the media that reflect ruling-class thinking, they were all (with the exception of the 9/11 connection) accepted uncritically.
The opposition to the invasion came not from those who disputed the supposed “facts” but from the more cautious who wanted U.N. inspections to continue, to be able to prove definitively that Iraq did (or did not) have WMD. Of course, following the famous dictum of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—”the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”—that proof would never have been forthcoming. There would always be one more place to look, and even if the inspectors had looked everywhere, those pushing for war simply claimed that WMD were being moved around to hide them.
But even that opposition vanished on Feb. 5, 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the United Nations, repeating and expanding upon allegations that had been made a few days earlier by President Bush during his State of the Union Address. Brandishing an ominous vial of white powder (as if it were anthrax), diagrams of imaginary mobile bioweapons labs, and ambiguous satellite photos, Powell told the world with absolute certainty that Iraq had WMD. “We know that Iraq has at least seven of these mobile biological agent factories,” he said. “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” “Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons.” Every one of these statements, and more, were categorical. Not “we think he has,” but “there can be no doubt.”
Unlike Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, Powell was looked on as a “moderate,” a reasonable man. Faced with his speech at the U.N., ruling-class opposition to the invasion collapsed, despite the fact that his speech didn’t sway enough U.N. members into providing a Security Council endorsement of the invasion, which would have made it “legal.” When reporters and politicians talk now about what “we” “knew” then, they’re referring above all to Powell’s speech at the U.N.
We know now that virtually every word of that speech was an out-and-out lie. But what about then? To begin with, even if it turned out that Iraq did have WMD, the speech was still a lie from beginning to end. Because, contrary to Powell’s assertions, the U.S. did not “know” that Iraq had seven mobile biolabs (to take just one of the allegations). It had been told they did by a single person, later revealed to have the curious code name “Curveball,” who had told the German intelligence agents who debriefed him that he had never made any bioweapons nor seen anyone else do so. The Germans categorized his claims as “vague, mostly secondhand and impossible to confirm” and categorized Curveball himself as “not a stable, psychologically stable guy.” This kind of “evidence” was the basis for Powell’s statement, which was not “we’ve heard that,” or “we have reason to believe that,” but “we know.” It’s true that the American public didn’t learn about Curveball until 2004, but Powell certainly had. The only Defense Department analyst who had ever met Curveball had told Powell the day before his speech that his “information” was unreliable.
The person in charge of the weapons inspections in Iraq, David Kay, had even admitted in a September 2002 interview on CNN that there was a “lack of hard evidence” for the charges they were making. Did that stop Powell from speaking with such certainty at the U.N.? Of course not, because this speech was intended to launch a war and nothing less. Admitting that the U.S. wasn’t actually sure of what he was claiming would have given more ammunition to those who wanted inspections to continue, and that is not what the Bush administration wanted. It (and the majority of the U.S. ruling class) wanted war.
It wasn’t just that the U.S. didn’t really “know” that Iraq had WMD, as Powell claimed they did. In fact, the U.S. actually had quite reliable evidence that Iraq did not have WMD. In 1995, General Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and the Iraqi minister who had been in charge of Iraq’s weapons programs, had defected to Jordan. Kamel told U.N. debriefers that after the Gulf War (which ended in early 1991), Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them. The U.S. government had managed to keep this story from the American public for years, but on Feb. 24, 2003, shortly after Powell’s speech but still three weeks before the invasion actually happened, Newsweek broke the story, and two days later, the transcript of Kamel’s testimony, which had been kept secret, was made public by a Cambridge University analyst.
So “what we knew then” was, in fact, that Iraq had neither WMD nor an active WMD program. The government (although not the public) was also well aware at the time that George Bush’s State of the Union claim that “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” was an out-an-out lie. Indeed, the reason the words “the British government” were in that sentence was to deflect responsibility, because the CIA already knew that the documents on which this claim were based were amateurish forgeries; the director of the CIA, George Tenet admitted as much, but only several months after the invasion.
Is this all “20-20 hindsight”? No. My own blog, Left I on the News, didn’t begin until August 2003, but in other writings before the invasion I wrote many of the things described above. And even in cases where the facts hadn’t yet come out (as in the case of Curveball, for example), listening to Powell’s speech with an open mind made very clear at the time that this evidence was less than solid, or completely fabricated. For example, I wrote then:
“The reason why the U.S. has not shared this “evidence” is readily apparent. George Bush and Tony Blair have stood before the cameras before and trotted out photos purporting to show, among other things, Iraq rebuilding nuclear facilities. But inspectors on the ground quickly verified that this was complete nonsense—the facilities in question were rusted, cobwebbed, and hadn’t been used in years. Likewise we have heard much about aluminum tubes, which Bush and Powell continue to point to as evidence despite the fact that the IAEA has concluded they were intended for conventional weapons, not centrifuges. The Iraqi government may have minimal credibility, but the sad fact is that the credibility of the U.S. and British governments is nil.”
Nor was I the only one, of course. Among others who wrote columns exposing the hollow nature of Powell’s speech (and the U.S. “evidence” in general) were Rahul Mahajan, Phyllis Bennis, Robert Fisk, Ali Abunimah, and Stephen Zunes.
Nor was the antiwar movement fooled by Bush and Powell’s lies. The ANSWER Coalition, which had formed a year and a half earlier in response to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, threw itself into organizing demonstrations against the impending war, demonstrations that brought out hundreds of thousands across the United States and millions around the world. In its response to Powell’s speech, it wrote, “Powell has presented no threat, no plan, no capability. Is there justification for waging a first strike war of aggression, for bombarding the people of Iraq with massive firepower?” And unlike the Bush administration, which was busy downplaying the potential cost of the war both in dollars and manpower, as well as the duration of the war (“weeks, not months” was their prediction), the ANSWER Coalition correctly foresaw what was to come:
“Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis may be slaughtered. Tens of thousands of service members will be sent to risk their lives. The economic cost, estimated between $200 billion to $2 trillion will loot the U.S. treasury and mortgage future generations, depleting funds that could provide essential human needs such as education, healthcare, childcare and jobs.”
The truth is this—any objective person who wasn’t looking for a reason (or an excuse) for the U.S. to launch a war on Iraq could look at the “evidence” presented and understand that it didn’t support the U.S. claims.
And there’s another aspect to this as well, perhaps in some ways even more important. What if Iraq did have WMD, or WMD programs? Based on their statements, all of the major candidates would have supported the invasion, even “knowing what we know now” (which is, among other things, that thousands of Americans and a million Iraqis would die, all to destroy a functioning country and leave in its place what is approaching what the U.S. government calls a “failed state”). But whether Iraq had WMD or not, the invasion was still illegal under international law because it was not supported by a vote of the U.N. Security Council.
There was also no “imminent threat” to the United States (for example, troops massed on the U.S. border) that would justify such an attack without a U.N. vote. Far from threatening to attack the U.S., Iraq had in fact been under constant U.S. attack since the end of the Gulf War, both militarily and economically. So the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a war crime, the “supreme crime” according to Robert H. Jackson, chief prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg Trials. That’s a simple statement of fact you won’t hear from Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, or any of the other candidates, because they are quite prepared to commit such war crimes themselves in the future. Today, for example, almost without exception they support arming rebels in Syria attempting to overthrow the sovereign Syrian government, a clear violation of international law. Yet the only criticism we hear of Obama is that he didn’t do it soon enough, or go far enough. To the U.S. ruling class, “international law” is something to be used to punish its enemies, but not something that applies to the U.S. itself.
So when you hear candidates claiming that “knowing then what we know now” they wouldn’t have attacked Iraq, realize that they are either ignorant of the facts discussed above, or lying. Because the politicians at the time also “knew then what we know now” (at least about WMD in Iraq, although obviously not about the outcome of the war), and it didn’t stop them from launching the war, which was never about Iraqi WMD, Al Qaeda, or any of the other explanations offered by the ruling class. Facts simply didn’t play a role in the decision. Not those facts, anyway.
A good chronology of what the U.S. government was saying, what they actually knew, and when the public learned the truth can be found here.