Iraq, WMD, and the Questions Nobody Is Asking

By on May 19, 2015

Marco Rubio is the latest GOP presidential candidate to stumble on the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He and Jeb Bush have complained about interviewers “constructing past hypotheticals.” However, the real issue involves questions that nobody is asking.

The standard explanation for why one supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and one’s subsequent about-face is that the intelligence community told us that there Saddam Hussein had WMDs, and that intelligence proved to be wrong. Now, apart from the question of whether Hussein actually had WMDs–and, if so, what happened to them–this explanation has always seemed to me to be a convenient way of sidestepping the real issue by scapegoating the intelligence community. “Oh, well, we were misinformed. Blame the whole war on the guys who gave us the bad information. It’s their fault.”

While WMDs was an important issue, it was only one part of the overall calculus about whether to go to war. The larger issue was whether Hussein presented an imminent threat to the U.S. and whether it was enough to justify a preemptive invasion. Even if he had WMDs, that did not necessarily make him an imminent threat. And if he never had WMDs, he might have been an imminent threat anyway. Those advocating for war had to make the imminent threat case apart from the WMD question.

Whether Hussein posed an imminent threat was essentially a political question, not an intelligence one. It’s a judgment that all of us–politicians and ordinary people alike–had to make on our own. There’s no sidestepping or scapegoating on this one.

So rather than “constructing past hypotheticals,” journalists should ask these simple and direct questions of the presidential candidates:

Did you believe in 2002-2003 that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the U.S.? Why or why not? Have you change your mind in the years since? If so, why?

I’m not holding my breath on those questions coming from mainstream media outlets. They’ll likely continue to focus on WMDs. Why? Because they were among the biggest cheerleaders for the invasion, and they need a scapegoat, too.