TCS Daily


The Hindsight Effect

By Michael Totten - May 30, 2003 12:00 AM

George W. Bush gave up. The search for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is over. We hardly found a thing.

Polls show most Americans don't mind, but some accuse Bush of lying, including some in the Congress. Representative Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said "This could conceivably be the greatest intelligence hoax of all time."

Responsible critics of the Iraq war never doubted Saddam had nasty weapons. Democrats, Republicans, the UN, and even the French acknowledged Iraq's weapons program was dangerous. Denial was left to reactionary anti-Americans and conspiracy theorists. Phillip Adams, writing in The Australian, went so far as to say "if the US can't find those chemical weapons in Iraq, it'll smuggle some in and plant them."

We did find two mobile biological weapons labs. But even if we couldn't find anything, there is little reason to believe Bush lied. If Saddam Hussein were innocent he would have cooperated with UN inspectors. He would have thrown open every door and demanded the lifting of sanctions. Saddam was up to something. The only intelligent question now is, what?

Some say the weapons may have been trucked into Syria. Saddam had plenty of time to move his stash somewhere else, and Syria is a likely place for the weapons to go. Like Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Syria is ruled by the Ba'ath Party, adherents of a fascist ideology of Arab glory and conquest. If Saddam can't unite the Arab world under himself as a single dictator, maybe the Assad clan next door can pull it off for him.

Saddam Hussein erected a house of mirrors to reflect his own fantasies back at him. He needed constant stroking and praise. He knew he was hated but pretended he was loved. And for that he had to be strong. Messengers bearing bad news didn't last long. Those who spoke the truth were tortured and shot. His defeat in the 1991 Gulf War was one of the most devastating in history, but Saddam still spun it as victory. His fantasy ideology had no room for facts, not even brutal and obvious facts.

All of which leads Jim Lacey to an interesting theory.

Saddam Hussein might have thought he had a working weapons program, even if he did not. The sanctions may have wiped out his production capacity, and no one dared tell him. His goons may have stonewalled inspectors just to keep Saddam Hussein from finding them out and disappearing them into the nearest torture chamber.

Here's another possibility. Bush didn't lie; Saddam Hussein did. If he couldn't make Iraq a superpower, maybe he could fake it. Saddam scared the wits out of millions of people. His weapons gave him credibility through terror. If he puffed up his chest, casualty-spooked Americans might leave him alone. Iraqis did not dare rise up if they thought he could spray them with poison. Just the name of his henchman Chemical Ali is enough to make Iraq's people shudder. But Chemical Ali is nothing without his chemicals.

Still, Bush has his critics. Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said "It appears to this senator that the American people may have been lured into accepting the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, in violation of long-standing international law, under false premises."

Each of Byrd's claims is dubious, even more so when strung together like a rope of Christmas lights. Let's give the senator the benefit of the doubt, even so. Let's say Bush lied and Saddam was not a threat to us or anyone else. It is still unlikely that the anti-war position will be vindicated.

History will remember five salient facts about Saddam.

  • He was a fascist in the mold of Hitler and Stalin.

  • He invaded his neighbors solely to conquer and rape.

  • He was the patron and armorer of international death squads.

  • He was the first in history to procure the weapons of genocide and deploy them for that purpose.

  • And his regime was destroyed by a coalition of free and democratic peoples.

These are the elemental facts about Saddam Hussein and his war. Nothing more will remain of him and his legacy. Everything else is gossip and footnotes.

History is a crucible, boiling away impurities in time. Hindsight is not at all like foresight or the present. History books are not summations of headlines. The judgment of history is a narrow one, and it is always moral.

Bush's staunchest critics insist he is a liar. Let them go on insisting. We will know the truth in time. Even if we don't, it doesn't change the outcome of the war. The coalition forces were victorious. An enslaved people were liberated from a tyrant. And most Iraqi people are grateful. It does not matter whether or not Saddam had a ready-to-use arsenal in 2003. What matters is he did at one time, he used it when he had it, and he never will again.

History rewards a victory over evil. Millions opposed the allied war against the Nazis. But their case was trumped by the Holocaust, and their arguments were lost in time. Most American conservatives opposed Bill Clinton's intervention in the Balkans. Now that Kosovo is free, Serbia is democratic, and Slobodan Milosovic is in prison, Clinton's critics let the matter drop. In 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and demolished Pol Pot's nightmare regime. They did it for their own self-aggrandizing reasons, none of which was justified, legal, or moral. But a bad regime destroyed a worse regime, and even the staunchest anti-Communists look on kindly.

The reasons wars begin do not always matter. What counts in the end are results. Even those who hate George Bush, who hate the United States, who accuse the Administration of cranking out lies, even they, in time, will think differently about this war. Animosity toward Bush will fade, as it always does when presidents leave office. Saddam Hussein will always live in infamy.

Bush's critics were wrong about the war, and are wrong to dwell on these weapons. But Bush may have only himself to blame. He led them to this issue by the nose. It's their escape clause now, an excuse to distract us from what they got wrong. Saddam's weapons were in some ways a legalistic side issue, of little lasting importance. The U.S., Russia, Britain, Israel, and France have a far more sinister arsenal than Saddam ever had. The trouble with Saddam was the nature of his regime, that he was a genocidal fascist in league with terrorists.

Paul Berman made the best case for war in Terror and Liberalism. "Freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for the freedom of others." Like-minded Christopher Hitchens bluntly calls the liberation of Iraq "a slum-clearance program." Both Hitchens and Berman used liberation as the set-piece of their arguments, and history will reward them. Bush's case for war is more in doubt. In the end it is not even relevant, which Bush and his critics both miss.

The administration should have known better. Many of Bush's advisers are students of history. They should know, then, to factor in the hindsight-of-history effect. Bush's rationale for invasion obscured the moral dimension of war, and it remains obscured to this day. It muddied the pre-war discussion, and now his critics grab headlines when they gripe about footnotes. Let this be a lesson to him, and those who follow him in office, that the liberal case for war was always the stronger one.

Michael J. Totten is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. Visit his Web site here.
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