TCS Daily

Returning to the Central Question

By Lee Harris - September 9, 2003 12:00 AM

"Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction?"


This question currently acts as a litmus test to distinguish between those who support the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and those who condemn it.


President Bush's supporters argue that the current lack of evidence of WMD's is no proof that such weapons will not be found in the near future -- and, of course, they may be right. But, virtually without exception, all those who argue that such weapons are still to be found devoutly wish that such weapons would be found as quickly as possible. For them, the discovery of WMD's hidden in the hills of Iraq would be looked upon as a cause for celebration, even if they were to be found in such a dilapidated condition that they could not possibly be considered as a serious threat to anyone's welfare. 


The Bush detractors, on the other hand, argue that the current lack of evidence of WMD's shows that Saddam Hussein did not possess such weaponry prior to the American invasion, from which one of two negative conclusions are promptly drawn: Either the administration was grossly incompetent, or else it was grossly deceitful. For the detractors, the discovery of a cache of concealed WMD's would prove a political embarrassment, if not disaster, since it would show that the reasons behind the decision to invade were neither incompetent nor deceitful.


Despite their obvious differences, the positions taken by the two sides share an underlying premise. Both believe that what is really important about the WMD's issue is its impact on our own domestic politics. It will be good for the Republicans if they are found, and good for the Democrats if they are not. 


But does any of this really follow logically? Would the U.S., or the world, be better off if it could be proven that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction cleverly hidden around Iraq all along? Would it diminish the status of Saddam Hussein in the eyes of his admirers in the Arab world? 


To the contrary, from the perspective of the Arab street the discovery of such a cache would immensely redound to Saddam's glory, and the more lethal and sophisticated the cache turned out to be, the greater this glory would shine forth. Indeed, those in the Arab world -- who much against their will have come to see Saddam Hussein in his true light -- would now joyfully greet such a windfall discovery as a vindication of their original heroic image of him. The unearthing of such weapons would, in short, make Saddam look both competent and glamorous to those radical Muslims longing to find a Strong Man to pose against the West. 


Hard as this may be to grasp, the best possible outcome to the invasion of Iraq is the one that Bush's defenders dread, and that his detractors long for -- that no WMD's will ever be found in Iraq. And, indeed, if I were advising the President of the United States, I'd tell him to issue standing orders to dispose of any evidence of Iraqi WMD's the moment they were discovered, in order that no trace of their existence should ever see the light of day. Indeed, I am somewhat surprised that conspiracy enthusiasts have failed to notice this angle.


If you are not a conspiracy theorist, however, you must face the fact that the Bush administration chose to justify the war against Iraq by claiming that Saddam Hussein was currently in the possession of WMD's. But if this is so, shouldn't Bush and his advisors be held accountable for this mistake?


Before we answer this question, we must first notice that there are two ways of making a mistake. The first is the kind of mistake that we all made in school when we failed to give the right answer to a multiple choice question about the capital of Illinois. In this case, our wrong answer -- Chicago -- is one that we could have avoided had we simply consulted an almanac or encyclopedia, wherein we would have discovered the right answer -- Springfield. In short, our mistake is one that we could have avoided prior to making it, if only we had done our homework, and not the kind of mistake that can only come to light after we have made it. 


The second kind of mistake is radically different from the first. It occurs precisely because we have done our homework, and because we have consulted with experts about how to answer the question confronting us, only to discover, to our dismay and surprise, that the universally approved answer to our question was in fact wrong.


To learn that you are wrong and everyone else is right is one thing; to learn that you are wrong, and everyone else is wrong as well, is quite another. The first involves a modest correction of one's error, while the second may well involve a more drastic reevaluation of our community's collective fund of knowledge. Furthermore, in those cases where this putative knowledge relates to questions of fundamental importance, this reevaluation may amount to what the American philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, has called a paradigm shift, defined as a radical rethinking of the basic premises that have led us, and the entire cognitive community of which we are a part, to make such a collective error in judgment.


The Bush administration's mistake about Saddam Hussein's WMD's, if it indeed proves a mistake, will clearly be a mistake of the second kind, and not the first -- as President Clinton himself made clear during a recent appearance on the Larry King Show, during which he argued that the entire world intelligence community was convinced, prior to our invasion, that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD's. 


Seen from this perspective, the attempt to turn Bush's "mistake" into a partisan campaign issue is not merely regrettable; it is a dangerous distraction. It is to ignore, merely for the sake of ephemeral partisan advantage, the potential revelation contained in the administration's -- and the world's -- so called mistake, and thereby to miss the opportunity to make the necessary paradigm shift in our understanding of our current enemy. It is to divert our energies into domestic squabbling at the very time when we need most to focus them on the central question: How to make American safe from catastrophic terror. 


Our present peril arises not from the weapons of mass destruction themselves, but from the willingness to use such weapons against us. It is our enemy's eagerness to destroy us, and not the specific instrument by which such destruction is wrought, that should alarm us. As 9/11 should remind us, in the right hands, box-cutters can become weapons of mass destruction.


In order to grasp the needed paradigm shift, consider, for a moment, what is probably the most convincing argument for believing that Saddam really had WMD's in the first place. If he didn't have such weapons, what motive could he possibly have for refusing to comply with the UN weapons inspectors? Why on earth, this argument goes, should Saddam put on such an elaborate charade in the first place, and one, moreover, that was fraught with immense danger in terms of the survival of his own regime? What sense can such behavior make?


None to us; but a lot to him. Because, from Saddam's point of view, it was infinitely better for the Arab street to believe that he had such weapons than to permit them to discover the damning truth that he was, in the words of Chairman Mao, merely a paper tiger. What mattered for Saddam Hussein was his status in the collective fantasy of the Arab street, including the Arab street in Iraq, and in order to retain this status he was willing to risk attack by the U.S.


And not without reason -- because the imagination of the Arab street was the ultimate foundation of his political power, much more so than the hit-or-miss torture that, at best, could only be used against select targets, and which therefore could not sustain wide-spread support for Saddam throughout the entirety of the Arab world.


It was to retain this support that Saddam Hussein happily consented to play the role of a man who has something to hide. He wanted the world to believe he had something to hide precisely because he didn't have anything to hide; and because the revelation of the true state of his pathetically incompetent regime would destroy at a single stroke the laboriously accumulated glamour in which Saddam Hussein was accustomed to bask.


This means that the paradigm shift that our collective mistake has nudged us toward, if we but recognize it, is a paradigm that acknowledges the profound and critical role that fantasy plays in determining the motivation of our enemy, and it indicates how badly we will go astray the moment we begin thinking that they think like us. They don't. And our failure to adjust to this fact is perhaps the greatest obstacle facing us today.

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