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If Weapons Were Found


The English historian A.J.P. Taylor once argued that the principal difference between the methodologies of the lawyer and the historian was that “the lawyer aims to make a case; the historian wishes to understand a situation.” According to Taylor, the evidence amassed by the lawyer is “loaded” in ways that will maximise the chances of conviction or acquittal: “anyone who relies on Å [this kind of evidence] finds it almost impossible to escape from the load with which they are charged.”

Historians, on the other hand, should allow a “detached and scholarly” examination of the evidence to direct them to conclusions rather than taking a stand and then, retrospectively, seeking documents to support their case.

As Washington and London assemble their dossiers on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) for public edification, it is worth recalling Taylor’s warning about “loaded” documents. Bush and Blair are scraping together a case to support a decision they have already taken for other reasons. They are not interested in a judicious evaluation of the evidence.

Consequently, the next crucial question in the drama may not be heard above the clamour of spin and opinion management. Would conclusive evidence of Iraq’s possession of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons mean that Baghdad is likely to use them against the US and its allies?

George W. Bush says yes, however there are good reasons for thinking this is highly unlikely.

First, many states, including the US, the UK and Israel, use these weapons for deterrence against external attack. Why can’t Iraq legitimately use them for this purpose? As neo-realist Kenneth Waltz argues, “North Korea, Iraq, Iran and others know that the United States can be held at bay only by deterrence. Weapons of mass destruction are the only means by which they can hope to deter the United States. They cannot hope to do so by relying on conventional weapons.”

Secondly, Iraq had chemical and biological weapons during the Gulf War in 1991 and chose not to use them. Why would Saddam Hussein be more inclined to use them now knowing the horrendous consequences (as they were explained to him by Brent Scowcroft in 1991), unless his very personal survival was at stake and he had nothing left to lose?

Thirdly, it is true that Saddam Hussein has used these weapons before, against Iranian soldiers and perhaps most infamously on 17 March 1988 against “his own people” in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Within half an hour of this attack over 5000 men, women and children were dead from chemical weapons containing mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX which were dropped upon them.

Having used them before, is he more likely to use them again? This is presumed, implied and sometimes stated in Western capitals, but the logic of the argument would suggest that the US is likely to use nuclear weapons because it is the only state to have previously dropped them upon civilians. Is this credible?

Fourthly, just how concerned is the West about Saddam Hussein’s use of WMD?

After the Halabja attack, Washington appeared untroubled by Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. Initially, the US blamed Iran for the attack, a particularly cynical ploy given Saddam had also used chemical weapons against Teheran’s forces during their nine-year conflict. In fact Washington continued to treat Saddam as an ally and trading partner long after the attack on Halabja was exposed as his handiwork.

The Reagan Administration even tried to prevent criticism of Saddam’s chemical attack on the Kurds in the Congress, and in December 1989 George Bush’s father authorised new loans to Saddam in order to achieve the “goal of increasing US exports and put us in a better position to deal with Iraq regarding its human rights recordÅ  .”

In February 1989, eleven months after the attack on Halabja, John Kelly, US Assistant Secretary of State, went to Baghdad and told Saddam Hussein that “you are a source for moderation in the region, and the United States wants to broaden her relationship with Iraq.” Providing Iraq continued to counter Iran’s alleged efforts to export revolutionary Islam throughout the region, it could rely on Washington to avert its gaze from Saddam’s worst crimes.

According to William Blum, the Iraqi leader was regarded as so moderate the US Department of Commerce kept licensing the export of biological materials – including a range of pathogenic agents – as well as plans for chemical and biological warfare production facilities and chemical-warhead filling equipment – to Iraq until December 1989, twenty months after the Halabja massacre.

As Noam Chomsky has noted, the UK was still authorising the export of military equipment and radioactive materials to Baghdad a few days after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Hardly signs of concern.

Fifthly, the West was supporting Saddam when he committed the worst of his crimes at the zenith of his power and influence. In terms of international support – especially Western and Soviet backing, the strength of his armed forces and the state of his industry and equipment, Saddam was much more dangerous then than he is now under UN sanctions, no-fly zones, political isolation and a degraded civilian infrastructure. Why are Saddam’s attempts to develop WMD a concern now when they weren’t when he actually used them?

Finally, what quantities of chemical or biological agents constitute a threat of mass destruction? How will progress towards a nuclear weapons capability be measured and explained to a sceptical public? How can the public verify intelligence supplied by defectors and satellite surveillance photography? It is unlikely either President Bush or Prime Minister Blair will want to answer these questions even if they could. The evidence for the threat allegedly posed by an Iraq armed with WMD will have to be taken on trust.

The spectacle of governments in Washington, London, Canberra and elsewhere trying to persuade their increasingly doubtful populations about the need to attack Iraq is a concession that they have already lost the first battle. Whether they win the war against public opinion will largely depend on how quickly and effectively the anti-war movement can mobilise to expose their lies and true motives.

The “proof” that the War Party produces will need to be much more substantive and convincing than the largely circumstantial Al Qaeda dossier which the Blair Government released to the House of Commons last year to justify an attack on Afghanistan. Otherwise, by planning acts of aggression against a member state of the United Nations, the West will have again broken international law.

— Scott Burchill Lecturer in International Relations School of Social & International Studies Deakin University 221 Burwood Highway Burwood Victoria 3125 Australia

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