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March 1, 2016

‘The sense that everybody thought
they had WMDs is a total fantasy’

By Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson interviewed Stephen Zunes about misremembering the Iraq War for the CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: The Iraq invasion is a good example of Faulkner’s  line about the past not even being past. Claims about the lead-up to the calamitous 2003 attack, who believed what and when, and even claims about the war’s impact on the course of Iraq and US history resurface repeatedly in US political discourse, including in the 2016 presidential election.

But is the story we hear about the Iraq War well-grounded in reality? And what does it mean if it isn’t? We’re joined now by Stephen Zunes. He’s a professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. He joins us now by phone from New Zealand. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Stephen Zunes.

Stephen Zunes: Good to be with you.

JJ: It seems obvious that we can’t interpret candidates’ ideas about the Iraq invasion and what it might portend about their foreign policy without some baseline understanding of events. But here US media can be the opposite of useful.

One quick example: FAIR has been getting outlets to correct a claim made by Secretary of State Colin Powell that Saddam Hussein threw out weapons inspectors in 1998, and that made it more difficult for intelligence agencies to get information. The New York Times and others repeat that claim as fact. If they’re called on it, they run a correction, because, in fact, the inspectors were not kicked out; they were removed in advance of an American bombing campaign.

But then, my point is, a few months later, the same outlet will make the same false statement or let a politician make it unchallenged, maybe run a correction, maybe not, and then a few years later do it all again. It seems to fit the narrative so well that it’s not recognized as an obvious and, one would say, important falsehood. I wonder how much in general do you think that public opinion about the Iraq War has been shaped by incomplete or even inaccurate information?

SZ: Unfortunately, it has been a major factor, in that just as the media twisted the facts in the lead up to the war by not challenging the claims by the Bush administration and their supporters in Congress of this alleged threat, they do not seem to be very responsible in looking at the history even now that everyone should know better. I recall in 2008, Hillary Clinton repeated the line that inspectors were thrown out, when in fact it was her husband who ordered them to be removed.

And indeed, she was unchallenged just a few weeks ago, during a town hall meeting in New Hampshire when she claimed that Hans Blix, the head of UNMOVIC, the UN inspection regime, had supported the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, and he’d never done that. He did say that the United Nations should make clear in no uncertain terms that Iraq had to comply with the UN inspectors, and the United Nations did that in UN Security Council Resolution 1441. But he never supported the idea that the United States should act unilaterally in this way.

And yet the statement was pretty much unchallenged, including her claim that she wasn’t voting for war, she was only voting for a return of the inspectors. And, in fact, she voted against the Levin amendment, introduced by the Democratic senator from Michigan, that would have authorized force if Saddam Hussein had refused to cooperate with inspectors and the UN authorized military means to enforce that. And instead she supported the Republican-sponsored resolution that essentially gave President Bush a blank check to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing.

JJ: Well, I think it can only be possible for politicians or anyone to rewrite their own history on this because there’s such a miasma in the public understanding about it. And I can’t help but blame media for at least some of that. There’s a sense, when we look back at the beginning of the, this time around, the Iraq invasion 2003, that there was something that we all believed. Now, maybe we were mistaken, maybe history proved us wrong, but there’s a line that we all were duped, we all were confused about the reasons for invading Iraq. As someone who wrote “The Case Against War,” which ran in The Nation, September 12, 2002, I just wonder how you make sense of this idea that we all were fooled, and what you might tell perhaps some of our younger listeners about the political climate at the time.

SZ: Oh, clearly I think the media have a motivation to push this line that, “Oh, we were all fooled,” because they did such a poor job in challenging the lies of the Bush administration in the lead-up to the war. Indeed, there are many of us who were questioning the need for war, the legality of such a war, the rationales that Iraq had the supposed weapons of mass destruction, not to mention the consequences of an invasion regardless.

JJ: Yeah.

SZ: In terms of Iraq’s military capabilities, we had no less than Scott Ritter, the chief weapons inspector for UNSCOM, the UN inspection regime, making the case that Iraq had achieved at least qualitative disarmament. He and others, including those of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the journal Arms Control Today, Institute of Policy Studies, Institute of Global Security Studies, the Kroc Center at Notre Dame, other think tanks, were arguing that while we couldn’t rule out the possibility that Iraq had some proscribed materials or older weapons stored away somewhere, this idea they had some kind of offensive capability of chemical weapons or biological weapons was a total fantasy. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency, as far back as 1999, had said that Iraq’s nuclear program was completely eliminated.

And given the thoroughness of the sanctions against Iraq, it would have been physically impossible for them to have resumed a nuclear program, or even a chemical and biological weapons program. After all, there was evidence 95 percent of their chemical weapons had been accounted for and destroyed. And the remaining 5 percent in fact had been destroyed as well, as we later found out. Indeed, even if they had these chemical weapons, the shelf life is only three years, so they would no longer be of weapons grade. We argued all these reasons, and arms control experts did as well. This was all public knowledge. And so the sense that everybody thought they had weapons of mass destruction is, again, a total fantasy.

JJ: Well, when we do talk about the weapons of mass destruction, it seems that behind that there’s an implicit understanding that if they did have them, that that would on its face justify invasion and regime change. And I often wonder how foreign policy reporters, what do they think about when they think about international law? Are we not allowed to–forget challenging it, just expose this notion, the problematic notion, that the United States, among all other countries, has a justification in changing the governments around the world that it doesn’t like?

SZ: That’s a very important point. I mean, I keep hearing supporters of Hillary Clinton and other candidates who supported the war saying, “Oh, it’s not her fault; she thought they had weapons of mass destruction.” Well, there’s over a dozen countries that have chemical and/or biological weapons, and even more that have nuclear programs that are capable of having nuclear weapons. There are seven countries that actually have nuclear weapons. Are they saying, therefore, that the United States has the right to invade all of them? Are they saying that some country has a right to invade us? Because we still have a chemical weapons arsenal; we have nuclear weapons.

If that was a justification for invasion, you’d have nations invading each other all over the place, and it would be a total breakdown of international law. The United Nations charter and the Nuremberg principles are very clear that this kind of aggressive war is forbidden.

And so it’s rather frightening that people are still using this excuse, “Oh, we thought they had these weapons, therefore we had the right to invade.” Even if they had had those weapons, the United States and allied countries in the region had more than sufficient deterrents.

And this idea that they would somehow pass them on to Al Qaeda, given that Al Qaeda was trying to attack the Iraqi regime and the Iraqi regime was brutally suppressing any kind of Salafist opposition–again, that is totally ludicrous. In short, virtually all the rationales that you’re hearing to this day regarding the justification for the war were false then, and continue to be false now.

JJ: Stephen Zunes is professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco. Stephen Zunes, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

SZ: My pleasure.