Did You Know that WMD is DMW Spelled Backwards?

29 March 2013, 0216 EDT

Herbert Marcuse had some interesting things to say about certain political acronyms.

 The meaning is fixed, doctored, loaded. Once it has become an official vocable, constantly repeated in general usage, “sanctioned” by the intellectuals, it has lost all cognitive value and serves merely for recognition of an unquestionable fact.

This style is of overwhelming concreteness. The “thing identified with its function” is more real than the thing distinguished from its function and the linguistic expression of this identification (in the functional noun, and in the many forms of syntactical abridgement) creates a basic vocabulary and syntax which stand in the way of differentiation, separation, and distinction. This language, which constantly imposes images, militates against the development and expression of concepts. In its immediacy and directness it impedes conceptual thinking; thus, it impedes thinking.

I bring this up because of Tom Nichols’ thoughtful piece on assessing the Iraq War. His basic point: the persistence of Bush Derangement Syndrome among liberals, academics, and especially liberal academics makes it “too soon” for a sober assessment of the war. I’ll have a few words to say about that at the end of this post, but for now I want to focus on the issue of Iraqi WMD.

Nichols argues that:

More recently,  Steve did a piece in the Wall Street Journal pointing out that there was a time when almost everyone on the planet agreed that there were WMD in Iraq. (He also tells a great story about how someone in the Clinton administration, likely Madeleine Albright, wanted to engineer a military crisis with Iraq. How soon we forget.) Steve tells me that he has gotten hate mail for that piece like he’s never seen before. He’s a little surprised. I’m not.

The opinion-editorial is gated, so I can’t respond to the specific claims. But I do think this general point is, well, pretty misleading.

On the one hand, the Bush Administration’s fears concerning Iraqi nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons were at least somewhat comprehensible. Back in 1991 the George H.W. Bush administration invoked Iraqi nuclear proliferation as one of the justifications for going to war, but after the war ended most observers were surprised at how close Hussein was to acquiring nuclear capability. And, as we now know, Hussein dissembled about his programs before the 2003 war because he thought inflating Iraq’s capability enhanced his ability to deter other states.

On the other hand, the Bush Administration’s claims about the Iraqi nuclear program were simply outlandish.  And they involved a ginormous bait-and-switch in which the term “WMD” played a central role. Indeed, this is a theme we’ve talked a lot about at the Duck.

Here’s an excellent piece by Roger Payne on the subject. He quotes the introductory chapter of a volume, edited by Keller and Mitchell, that he contributed to:

This semantic leveling obscures the fact that each class of weapons falling under the “WMD” umbrella varies significantly with regard to potential lethality and destructive power; the feasibility of protection and defenses; and potential missions. When dimensions of threat are blurred in this fashion, inaccuracies are easy to introduce. For example, the rhetorical flexibility afforded by the omnibus category “weapons of mass destruction” enabled Bush administration officials to support claims of an Iraqi “WMD” threat (replete with ominous “mushroom cloud” imagery) by pointing to evidence of possible Iraqi chemical weapons development. Obviously, chemical weapons lack the capacity for nuclear destruction, yet as Wolfgang Panofsky points out, “Linking these three classes of weapons in a single WMD category elevates the status of both biological and chemical weapons.”

Or as I wrote back in 2005:

… most “people who should know” thought that Hussein had some biological and chemical agents, but not necessarily weapons of mass destruction….

One can have biological or chemical weapons without having WMD. Take anthrax, for example. A state can have lots and lots of anthrax. If it isn’t weapons-grade and/or the state lacks an effective delivery system, though, it doesn’t constitute a WMD. As one of my colleagues put it (I paraphrase): “the bioweapons capability we assumed Hussein had would be very deadly if you lined up lots and lots of people in the desert and injected each of them with a syringe.”

I know that I’m making a big deal out of a parenthetical, but this is a common refrain among apologists for the Bush Administration and the pro-war crowd. I find it frustrating precisely because it hinges on accepting the veracity of a sleight-of-hand that even many of us who were ambivalent about the war recognized, and recoiled at, from the start.

Now, I noted that I would say something about Nichols’ fundamental argument. I don’t doubt that there are liberals, academics, and academic liberals who can’t stand Bush and that this distorts their analysis of the Bush Administration. I don’t doubt it because I’ve encountered them. But there’s something worn out about this line of argument.

The tell is Nichols’ repeated invocation of the readership of The New York Times as a shorthand for insecure, self-important, irrational liberalism. There’s a certain irony here, given the well-documented role of the paper — via Judith Miller — as a conduit for pro-war propaganda. A bit more liberal bias would have, in retrospect, done the paper good.

But the substantive problem is certainly more important. Here’s Nichols:

My own theory is that intellectuals hated Bush not for what he did, but for who he was. Specifically, they hated him because he didn’t care about them. It’s important to remember that many people espouse politics as a form of self-actualization: they choose political positions based on what they think those positions say about themselves to others: “I support Obamacare because I love the poor, and that makes me a good person, and certainly a better person than you,” or “I hate gay marriage because Jesus loves me more than you and I’m going to Heaven.” Sanctimony is always the dread companion of political conviction.

Bush, in going to war, clearly didn’t care what a group of professors wanted, or what they said in a New York Times full-page ad. That whole thing, in fact, reminded me of a story I heard about Jesse Helms, which I could swear was printed somewhere back in the ‘90s, so maybe it’s not apocryphal. The short version is that some staffer came in all in a lather because the Times had, as usual, dumped on Helms, and the kid wanted to write a rebuttal. Helms said: “Well, son, that’s just fine, and you go ahead and do that, but I have to tell you: I don’t read the New York Times. And nobody I know reads the New York Times.”

If you want to piss off the New York Times and the people who adore it, that’s the quickest way to do it, because it says to them the one thing they cannot bear: You did not matter in this decision. And until those psychic wounds heal, a lot of people are going to carry just too much baggage into this discussion.

It is always much easier to diagnose people as deranged, irrational, or simply too emotional to see straight (see ‘Tea Part, liberal criticisms of’) than to confront their actual arguments. Although I’m sure Nichols doesn’t intend it, this kind of dismissal also reeks of a certain old-style gender politics. So, I think a few things are worth keeping in mind:

  • Partisanship certainly colored the entire debate; and
  • Many academics were, in fact, growing increasingly frustrated with the Bush Administration’s apparent lack of interest in fact-based policy making; but
  • The Bush Administration was not exactly devoid of academics;
  • Many academic opponents of the Iraq War were not reflexively anti-war (nor were they all particularly liberal); and
  • Although a number of the more alarmist claims about the consequences of the war did not come to pass, a large number of the critics’ core claims–that the threat posed by Hussein was inflated, that the war would be immensely costly, and that diverting resources from Afghanistan would not end well–were vindicated.

I’ll repeat that: the critics were vindicated. Not the supporters. Not the ambivalent-torn-between-liberal-hawkishness-and-concerns-about-the-competency-of-the-administration-and-the-timing-of-the-war (e.g., me). The critics were right. That’s the starting point for any discussion, not the dismissal of said critics for being knee-jerk stopped clocks with Bush Derangement Syndrome.

Regardless, I don’t feel qualified to judge the inner psychological motivations of people that I don’t know terribly well. I can speak for myself, though.

I see the Bush Administration as having committed a series of foreign and domestic policy blunders that, while not ranking it the worst administration in history, certainly puts it at least two standard deviations below the mean. I also think its overall performance improved significantly after 2006–even if it did botch the design of TARP in some significant ways and its penchant for appointing hacks to run organizations like FEMA turned out to be a bigger problem than anyone anticipated. It is also clear now that Bush moderated some of the worst impulse of the GOP base, such as the anti-Muslim tide that peaked after he left office. At the same time, the gay-baiting that marked the 2004 strategy isn’t going to sit well with future generations.

But all this is a bit beside the point. I think the simplest explanations are sometimes the right ones: we are, after all, talking about an administration that nearly destroyed the Republican brand. It wasn’t only liberal academics who wound up rejecting it. This isn’t about some kind of mythological George W. Bush who ignored the views of pointy-headed elites and hurt their widdle feelings. At heart, the Bush Administration made some terrible mistakes–mistakes that involved pursuing policies inconsistent with the preferences of liberal academics.   Given that, there’s nothing mysterious going on here.