Saddam's 'Bluff'

Failure to find WMDs leads to interesting theories

Once the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq produced nothing but a few false alarms in the media, a new theory was being advanced by some outlets: The idea that Iraq had such weapons was really a well-orchestrated bluff by Saddam Hussein, telling the world false tales about his imaginary weapons.

The Los Angeles Times was one outlet that floated this theory. According to its August 28, 2003 report, U.S. officials who relayed false information from defectors about Iraqi weapons may have been “victims of bogus Iraqi defectors who planted disinformation to mislead the West before the war.” According to the paper, “officials say former Iraqi operatives have confirmed since the war that Hussein’s regime sent ‘double agents’ disguised as defectors to the West to plant fabricated intelligence.” A skeptical reporter, hearing these official claims, might have asked who would have had more incentive to exaggerate Iraq’s weapon capabilities: Hussein operatives trying to prevent an invasion, or anti-Hussein operatives trying to encourage one?

Weeks later, the Washington Post offered a more elaborate version of the theory (10/1/03), arguing that

Hussein may have put in place a double-deception program aimed at convincing the world and his own people that he was more of a threat than he actually was. This included moving equipment and personnel, and making public statements all designed to make the world and his own people believe that they had weapons of mass destruction.

This theory, advanced by CIA weapons inspector David Kay in his October 2 preliminary report to Congress, was reported widely in the media. U.S. News & World Report (10/13/03), under the headline “Was It All a Big Bluff by Saddam?” reported that “U.S. officials appear to have been taken in by attempts by Saddam to dupe his own regional enemies like Iran into believing he retained some sort of capability.”

Though Kay’s endorsement gave it new life, that theory had been floating around for some time: An Associated Press report (8/1/03) put it this way: “Intelligence officials at the Pentagon, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said some experts had raised the theory that Iraq put out false information to persuade its enemies that it retained prohibited chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.”

But if Iraqi officials were really interested in “convincing the world” that they had unconventional weapons, they certainly went about it in a strange way. When asked whether Iraq had unconventional weapons in late 2002 by Nightline’s Ted Koppel (12/4/02), Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz was clear: “The fact is that we don’t have weapons of mass destruction. We don’t have chemical, biological, or nuclear wea-ponry.” Several interviews with Aziz show him saying the same thing each time. Speaking to CBS’s Dan Rather (8/20/02), Aziz asserted that “we do not possess any nuclear or biological or chemical weapons.”

Time for speculation

There’s certainly no hard evidence in the public domain that Saddam Hussein or his associates were hinting that they might have banned weapons ; if there had been, even the most casual media observer would have seen such statements repeated countless times in the run-up to the war. But the notion that the Iraqis were responsible for creating the idea that they possessed weapons that they didn’t really have would certainly let a lot of people off the hook—not only in the Bush administration, but in the media as well. “Of all the miscalculations on Iraq, few have been as surprising as the inability to find real evidence of Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction,” admitted Time magazine (10/6/03).

That October 6 issue of Time probed the matter of Iraq’s missing weapons. The first order of business was to dismiss the idea that Bush and Blair knowingly lied about Iraq’s weapon capacities. As Time put it, “critics insist that Bush and Blair stretched the available intelligence on WMD until it fit their predetermined decision to go to war. But that can’t be the whole story.” It must be that “many British and U.S. officials really believed that Saddam had at least chemical and biological weapons—the British government, certainly, would never have taken the risk of waging an unpopular war if it had genuinely thought there was nothing deadly to be found in Iraq.” In other words, they couldn’t have gone to war based on a false pretense because they would never do such a thing. How could you think such a thing of Tony Blair?

Time also noted that Clinton administration officials were also sure of Iraq’s weapons—a frequently repeated media argument, apparently based on the assumption that if Clinton said it, you know it must be true.

To come up with a plausible alternative to Western exaggeration or fabrication, Time offered a new variation on the “bluff” theory: There “may, however, have been another reason [for false reports of banned weapons]: Saddam himself apparently thought he had them. . . . Possibly Saddam may have been duped by his own scientists, who didn’t tell him their work on WMD was not getting far. (It would have been a brave Iraqi who crossed Saddam on that point.)” Then, returning to the standard bluff theory: “Alternatively, in the hall of mirrors that was Iraq, Saddam may have been trying to fool everyone into thinking that he had something he hadn’t.”

A second article in the same issue suggested yet another scenario: Iraqi scientists “appear to have invented weapons programs and fabricated experiments to keep the funding coming.” Under this variation, it was not fear of Saddam Hussein that motivated scientists to lie about successes, but self-interest: The magazine speculates that some government officials were pocketing money intended for weapons research. The scientists were either so afraid of Hussein that they dared not admit that their research had stopped—or so fearless that they dared to steal millions from him. Take your pick.

To buttress these speculations, Time reported that “intercepted communications” indicated that Hussein was “taking a keen interest in the progress of ongoing WMD programs.” Given the track record of such intelligence so far, readers might be understandably skeptical.

But who needs evidence, really, when you can spin out fantasies based on supposed insights into Hussein’s personality? “That Saddam would have continued feverishly pursuing weapons of every kind seems more in keeping with his character than the idea that he gave up on them,” Time mused. “The Iraqi dictator was crazy for weapons, fascinated by every new invention—and as a result was easily conned by salesmen and officials offering the latest device.”

The important thing is that if someone—anyone—in Iraq was lying, then that eliminates suspicion that someone might have been lying closer to home: “If Saddam may not have known the true nature of his own arsenal, it is no wonder that Western intelligence services were picking up so many clues about so many weapons systems,” reported Time. Or as the other article in Time put it: “But if the assumption that Saddam had deadly weapons looks, at least for now, to have been mistaken, it was to an extent understandable.”

Blame where it belongs

War supporters were quick to see the value of the bluff theory for keeping the blame in the proper place. Michael Schrage of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote in the Washington Post (5/11/03): “But suppose Hussein was bluffing. Suppose Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction of any significance. That shouldn’t matter at all. To the contrary, why should the international community respect totalitarian brinkmanship based on a bluff? A brutal despot who bets his regime on a bluff deserves to lose everything.”

A Denver Post editorial (10/5/03) echoed that view: “The fact that Saddam may have only been bluffing, or may even have been deluded into believing he actually had such weapons, hardly forgives his crimes against humanity.”

“Maybe he was bluffing; maybe he thought he had WMD; maybe he really did have them. Who cares? Hussein played games,” wrote conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg (Kansas City Star, 10/30/03). In other words, it’s Saddam Hussein’s fault that we haven’t found the weapons he never had.