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Bush Defenders Say the New York Times Just Vindicated the Iraq Invasion

After taking the country to war over Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration spent the years after the 2003 invasion searching in vain for the weapons it claimed posed a growing an imminent threat to international peace and security. The armaments President George W. Bush and his lieutenants claimed would be ...

STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images
STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images

After taking the country to war over Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration spent the years after the 2003 invasion searching in vain for the weapons it claimed posed a growing an imminent threat to international peace and security. The armaments President George W. Bush and his lieutenants claimed would be there were never found. Bush’s critics, in turn, have long accused him of launching a long and bloody war under false pretenses.

But has the New York Times now managed to find the weapons the Bush administration so fruitlessly sought? That’s certainly how some defenders of Bush are reading a report in Wednesday’s Times that details the ways U.S. soldiers were exposed to Saddam’s old chemical weapons stocks. Those weapons turned up as improvised explosive devices and in rusting weapons depots, and now, reports of their existence are being treated as long-sought vindication for Bush’s rationale for war. Bush, supporters are now saying, was right after all.

But seeing Wednesday’s report, authored by veteran war correspondent C.J. Chivers, as the first cut of a more sympathetic history of the Bush administration’s march to war requires deliberately neglecting the nature of the weapons the White House sought to eliminate in Iraq. If Bush’s defenders are seeking vindication for the former president, they aren’t going to find it in today’s Times.

In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Condoleezza Rice made a now infamous appearance on CNN laying out the administration’s case for war. The international community, she argued, needed to stop Saddam’s drive to obtain weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. Acknowledging that there was "some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons," Rice said that "we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

But the American case for war — besides its broader political goals of knocking out a despotic leader who had invaded a neighbor and killed tens of thousands of his own people — extended beyond the issue of nuclear weapons. Four days after Rice’s CNN appearance, Bush went before the United Nations and argued that Iraq also posed a threat because of its biological and chemical weapons. "Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons," Bush said. "United Nations inspections also revealed that Iraq likely maintains stockpiles of VX, mustard, and other chemical agents, and that the regime is rebuilding and expanding facilities capable of producing chemical weapons."

As Wednesday’s Times story reveals, there was some truth to that claim. Saddam indeed possessed stockpiles of chemical weapons, but by the time U.S. troops arrived they didn’t find a vibrant chemical weapons program but a decaying one, whose risks to U.S. forces stemmed primarily from contamination and not from use on the battlefield.

Chivers notes in his story that the chemical weapons U.S. troops encountered were all made before 1991 and were remnants of a chemical weapons program that had fallen into disrepair during the intense sanctions applied on Iraq during the 1990s. While the Bush White House argued that Saddam was actively pursuing weapons of mass destruction, these chemical weapons were leftovers from a bygone era:  

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.

Moreover, America’s top generals didn’t see these discoveries as a vindication for the war. Rather than publicize their discovery, the Pentagon studiously ignored the fact that its soldiers were getting injured as a result of stumbling upon the weapons and lacking preparation for the encounter.

The focus on this old stockpile also distorts how the Bush White House sold the war. Saddam’s chemical weapons were certainly a component of that argument, but his biological and nuclear programs were of much greater importance to Bush’s lieutenants. When, for example, Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the U.N. Security Council to press the case for war, it was a vial of anthrax, not sarin, that he brandished before the body.

And nothing in Chivers’s story suggests those vials of anthrax existed.    

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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