The Missing WMD

1 May 2003

The Missing WMD

By Gwynne Dyer

The favourite fantasy headline of British comedian Spike Milligan was: ‘Archduke Franz Ferdinand Found Alive! First World War a Mistake!’

We are unlikely to see a similar headline in any American paper soon, but in the rest of the world the continued failure of the US and British occupation forces in Iraq to find any of the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that were the alleged reason for their invasion is both a diplomatic disaster and a joke in very bad taste.

Tony Blair ran into both phenomena and came away severely shaken when he visited Moscow last Tuesday. The British prime minister thought he had a good personal relationship with the Russian president, but Vladimir Putin is a former intelligence officer, and like his American and British counterparts he was outraged at the way the US and British governments misrepresented the intelligence they got from their own agencies in order to justify their war. Unlike the people at the Central Intelligence Agency and MI5, however, Putin was free to speak — and did he ever.

Putin openly mocked Blair for the failure of the ‘coalition’ to find any of the fabled WMD even weeks after the end of the war: “Where are those arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, if indeed they ever existed? Perhaps Saddam is still hiding in an underground bunker somewhere, sitting on cases of weapons of mass destruction, and is preparing to blow the whole thing up and destroy the lives of thousands of Iraqis.” The Russian journalists at the press conference roared with laughter — maybe it loses something in translation — but Blair looked distinctly grim. He is going to have lots more practice at that.

Two months ago, Blair talked a reluctant parliament into supporting the attack on Iraq by warning of Iraqi WMD ready to strike on 45 minutes’ notice, and President George W. Bush warned of “mushroom clouds” if the US didn’t invade Iraq. It was all so desperately urgent, so hair-trigger dangerous, that Washington and London couldn’t wait for the United Nations arms inspectors to finish their job; they had to bypass the UN and invade right away. So many thousands of Iraqis (2,500 civilians and perhaps 10,000 soldiers) were killed, 137 US and British soldiers died, looters destroyed most of Iraq’s cultural heritage while ‘coalition’ troops stood idly by — and nobody has found any WMD.

The rest of the world never really believed the White House’s justification for war anyway. As UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said in late April, Washington and London built their case for going to war on “very, very shaky” evidence, including documents that subsequently turned out to have been faked — and with the war now over, Washington isn’t even bothering to insist that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States any more. “We were not lying,” a Bush administration official told ABC News on 28 April. “But it was just a matter of emphasis.”

The real reason for the war, according to the ABC report, was that the administration “wanted to make a statement” (presumably about what happens to countries that defy US power). Iraq was not invaded because it threatened America, but because “Saddam had all the requirements to make him, from (the administration’s) standpoint, the perfect target.” The assumption, at the White House and the Pentagon, was that everybody else could be bullied into forgetting the lies about WMD and accepting the fact of American control of Iraq.

They probably could be if the occupation turned out to be a brilliant success that produced a happy, prosperous, united and independent Iraq, but that does not seem likely. Instead, it is going sour very fast, with US troops shooting civilian demonstrators, the Shia majority seeking an Islamic state, and the beginnings of a guerilla resistance to the foreign occupiers. Even if the US were willing to let the United Nations have a role in occupied Iraq, the desire of other powers to get involved in any way in this proto-Vietnam is waning from day to day.

Washington continues to insist that the UN weapons inspectors will not be allowed back in, which means that the rest of the world is unlikely to believe the US and British forces even if they do claim to have found something. And frankly, hardly anyone in Britain believes in Iraqi WMD any more either — not even former cabinet ministers.

On 22 April, former foreign secretary Robin Cook said he doubted that there was a single person in the intelligence services who believed that a weapon of mass destruction in working order would be found in Iraq, and accused the White House of trying to bridge the credibility gap by “re-inventing the term ‘weapon of mass destruction’ to cover any artillery shell with a chemical content, or any biological toxin, even if it had not been fitted to a weapon.” Even on that preposterous definition, they have not found any WMD in Iraq yet — and as former British defence secretary Doug Henderson said on 18 April: “If by the turn of the year there is no WMD then the basis on which this (war) was executed was illegal.”

The post-9/11 patriotic chill still prevents any senior American politician from questioning the existence of Iraqi WMD in public, but this issue is not going to go away. As the situation in Iraq deteriorates and the American body count rises, questions about how America got talked into this mess will keep coming back, and sooner or later they will have to be answered.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Washington…illegal”)