Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A "Lesson of Iraq" Which I Thought Everyone Learned But I Guess Not

Reading over all of the Iraq stuff this week, I'm sort of stunned that almost everyone -- supporters, opponents then, supporters then who believe they were wrong -- are still using the phrase "weapons of mass destruction."

Cut it out, everyone.

"Weapons of mass destruction" was a stupid category then, and it's a stupid category now.

Unless it's for a critique of the poor thinking that went on then, no one should use it. Ever.


  1. Care to elaborate?

    It seems to me that no one uses the term literally. That is, no one thinks that "WMDs" are the only weapons that can cause mass destruction, and no one thinks that a "WMD" is the only type of weapon that can cause such destruction.

    No, the term "WMD", when it is used, is used as shorthand for "chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons" or, more broadly, "unconventional weapons".

    You could argue that we should use "CBRN" or "NBC" to describe these weapons. That would be more accurate. But are you really saying it makes no sense as a category? And that this was one of the "lessons of Iraq"?

    1. I must agree. WMD was a common shorthand term for NBCs long before Iraq.

      That Bush exploited the name to stoke fears is regrettable, but it doesn't make the term bad.

    2. No, that's wrong.

      It's a common shorthand that obscures the crucial analytical differences between Nuclear Weapons and everything else.

      Nuclear Weapons are a true weapon of mass destruction that deters other states.

      Biological weapons can be destructive, but are not reliable and can inflict damage on the attacker.

      Chemical weapons can be deadly -especially against a civilian population, but have limited value against an organized army.

      Neither biological, nor chemical weapons have the same deterrence effect that nuclear weapons do.

      However, this was not a mere analytical error. This was the result of a deliberate policy the US adopted after the first Gulf War in order to keep Saddam caged in. It was the administration of George W. H. Bush which first conflated those three kind of weapons under the umbrella of WMD in order to keep inspectors in Iraq and Saddam in check.

      The fear-and arguably the fear in Cheney's mind which drove the war- was that had Saddam developed nuclear weapons and replayed the 1991 invasion to Kuwait, maybe even Saudi Arabia, it would have been impossible for America to respond. In such a scenario, Saddam would come to possess tremendous leverage over world oil production. Moreover, much like a nuclear Iran will lead to a nuclear race in the middle east, which no rational human being should desire, so would a nuclear Iraq.

      This to me is the only reason that remotely made sense for the war. Obviously, even that reason is debatable. The counter-argument is that sanctions were working and Iraq was contained. Were one to invade Iraq, he would open himself to a whole slew of problems, just like America did.

      That case wasn't helped by Saddam's actions; Saddam really didn't have anything, but he like to pretend that he did, in order to deter the Iranians.

      Unfortunately, mutual misunderstandings and miscalculations were the names of the game. And here we are.

  2. Dead on, Jonathan. I'm really glad you wrote this. It was true then, and it's true now. WMD was just a sneaky way to get everyone talking about chemical weapons AS IF they were nuclear weapons by creating an ad-hoc category that has both. If it has any utility as a technical category, that's fine, but it's true reason for existence was a political/propaganda one. Kill it dead.

  3. What Martin said.

    The basic thing is that nukes really ARE weapons of mass destruction. One warhead, one city. Chem and bio, not so much - they may be extra nasty, psychologically (poisoning has always had a bad reputation) and in terms of lingering deaths. But in any practical deliverable form they do not kill more people than ordinary airstrikes or shelling on a comparable scale.

    Which means that 'WMD' is basically about scary hype. So the only legitimate use of the term is in the context of discussing scary hype.

    1. They are indiscriminate, in the same way as a nuke can't choose one building or vehicle from another, and leaves a trace of death over time.

      I don't think it's useless, but it sure seems like it's not used with a consistent definition.

  4. I have to agree with both sides here. The term predates the Bush administration by years, although it wasn't frequently used in public discourse. Nevertheless, I have to believe that the Bush administration used it to fudge the differences between what they thought the Iraqis had (which was also wrong) and what they wanted people to believe. It's not the only instance of obfuscation. After the invasion, Bush said that he never claimed Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. If you go back and look at what he said, it's true. He would say things like, "Saddam is a sponsor of terrorism. The United States was a victim of terrorism on 9/11. We have to do something about it." (That's off the top of my head, not an exact quote.) It's hard to believe that sort of thing wasn't intended to create the impression of a direct linkage. (Cheney, on the other hand, came right out and said it and went on saying it.) And as far as I'm concerned, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" was clearly intended to cut off debate. (But, once again, they never actually said it would be a mushroom cloud.)

    1. Rick's point about "scary hype," I think, has a basis as well, but a slightly different one. If I recall correctly, the term WMD arose in the years immediately preceding or immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Chemical and biological weapons were being described as the "poor man's" nuclear weapons, ones accessible by countries like Libya. (I vaguely remember someone talking about how Libyan missiles would soon be able to reach Italy.) My impression at the time, still not shaken, was that a lot of nuclear strategists and analysts were worried that they weren't going to have the Soviet Union to focus on anymore and they were searching around for something else reasonably scary to study and justify their continued existence.

    2. I don't think your impression was wrong; it comports exactly with my interactions with ACDA people in the late 1990s.

  5. Re WMDs - take a look at link to Democracy Now! site & see who used WMDs n Iraq & their results. Horrible. Not pretty at all.

  6. Oh well. Remember when "National Technical Means of Verification" was being used during Nixon-Kissinger days for what us wimps were calling "satellites"?

    Something about Washington drives people nuts.


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