Iraq's Chemical Arsenal: Justification for War?

22 October 2014, 1146 EDT

Yesterday, a student asked me about the recent news reports indicating that Iraq did, in fact, have “weapons of mass destruction” back in 2002 and 2003 when the U.S. was attempting to justify a “preemptive” war. The New York Times reported that American soldiers were injured in the past decade by chemically-armed munitions found in Iraq.

Already, a slew of articles in the media have debunked the claim that this vindicates George W. Bush and his Iraq misadventure. This Washington Post piece is perhaps the best since it primarily quotes Bush administration claims from the pre-war period.

The Times piece certainly does not try to claim that Bush is vindicated:

The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush insisted that Mr. Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of international will and at the world’s risk. United Nations inspectors said they could not find evidence for these claims.

Then, during the long occupation, American troops began encountering old chemical munitions in hidden caches and roadside bombs. Typically 155-millimeter artillery shells or 122-millimeter rockets, they were remnants of an arms program Iraq had rushed into production in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.

All had been manufactured before 1991, participants said. Filthy, rusty or corroded, a large fraction of them could not be readily identified as chemical weapons at all. Some were empty, though many of them still contained potent mustard agent or residual sarin. Most could not have been used as designed, and when they ruptured dispersed the chemical agents over a limited area, according to those who collected the majority of them.

In case after case, participants said, analysis of these warheads and shells reaffirmed intelligence failures. First, the American government did not find what it had been looking for at the war’s outset, then it failed to prepare its troops and medical corps for the aged weapons it did find.

Read the piece and it offers more reason to believe that these revelations do not help the save the Bush administration’s reputation:

Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the United States suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong. “They needed something to say that after Sept. 11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Mr. Lampier [“a recently retired Army major who was present for the largest chemical weapons discovery of the war”] said. “And all of this was from the pre-1991 era.”

Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.

A decade ago, when I was blogging regularly about this, the media would occasionally report about old chemical munitions found it Iraq. I posted this passage on May 19, 2004:

What is very clear is that there was no vast infrastructure of WMD programs and no readily deployable arsenal. The nuclear program was dead. No one denies Iraq had chemical weapons in the 1980s and
that scientists could again make them. What is the appropriate level of threat justifying preventive war?

I ended up writing and publishing a number of pieces about that question and the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of “preemptive war.” In one of them, I quoted from this exchange involving David Kay, who was the head of the Iraq Survey Group in 2003 (the original team looking for WMD) and then-U.S. Senator Mark Dayton:

DAYTON: Which weapons of mass destruction qualify in that upper echelon of truly mass destruction? 

KAY: Well, I think all of us have and would continue to put the nuclear weapons in a different category. It’s a single weapon that can do tremendous damage, as opposed to multiple weapons that can do the same order of damage. As you know, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, in terms of number of people killed, was roughly equivalent to a single bomb in Nagasaki, but it took a lot more aircraft to do it. 

So I still treat, and I think we should politically treat, nuclear as a difference. But I must say, the revolution of biology, some developments in cyber — I think we’re going to have a blurring out there of capabilities. And that makes the control and makes the intelligence problem far more difficult to estimate. 

DAYTON: Just based on your general knowledge, how many countries would you say in the world today would qualify under the category of developing weapons of mass destruction-related program activities or having such activities?

KAY: Senator Dayton, I hesitate to give you an off-the-cuff number because I know it’ll probably is going to be like the 85 percent; I’m going to have to live with it for longer than I want to.I would say that in the nuclear area, in addition to those that we know have possessed nuclear weapons, that includes India… 

DAYTON: I want to go to the vernacular that we’re using in this broader category. 

KAY: The broader category. Oh, I suspect you’re talking about probably 50 countries that have programs that would fall somewhere in that broader vernacular. 

DAYTON: So if we’re going to take out those countries or their governments which are engaged in what we would call weapons of mass destruction-related program activities, we’re going to be cutting quite a world swathe. 

KAY: Well, Senator Dayton, I think you’re on to the issue. We no longer are going to be living in a world in which we can control capabilities. Intentions are what are going to be important.

Kay is correct. The war was primarily justified based on the threat allegedly posed by Iraq’s nuclear program. If the bar for preemptive war is lowered to justify attacks against states with potentially menacing chemical or biological capabilities, then states with such preemptive doctrines could launch attacks against thousands of universities or industries in dozens of states.


Note: This piece is cross-posted on my personal blog.