The Fallacy of Asking “What If We’d Known There Were no WMD in Iraq . . .?”

by Mario Loyola

Rich — here’s a conundrum for you. If a military occupation was necessary to prove that it was unnecessary, was it necessary or not? 

Alas, the question is far from fanciful. The supposed “intelligence failure” in the run-up to the Iraq war absorbed a good part of this country’s attention during the last decade. It became part of society’s received version of reality. But the real issue all along was this: What do you do about an unacceptably dangerous uncertainty when the certainty you seek can only come from preemptive military action? To talk about an intelligence failure presupposes an omniscient CIA, but such a presupposition is ridiculous. The CIA can’t know everything – and it especially can’t know everything when you need to know it.  

The truth is that the supposed intelligence failure was irrelevant to the grave and novel issues of policy that were — and still are — at stake in Iraq. Imagine the CIA had come to President Bush in 2002 and said, “Mr. President, we don’t know what’s going on with Iraq’s WMD. It looks pretty bad. No way to verify Saddam’s story. They stopped keeping records in 1995, the last time they got busted lying. Plus, Saddam knows that having WMD will give us a reason to attack them, but not having WMD will make it less risky for us and the Iranians to attack him, hence his most rational strategic option is probably to assume an ambiguous posture.” If the CIA had just told the president that much, it would have done its job perfectly. And yet the president would have been faced with exactly the same situation in Iraq: a terrible uncertainty that could not be removed except by (1) Saddam becoming transparent and law-abiding, or (2) military action. Saddam was unable or unwilling to do the former, so the latter was left as the only option among available policy tools.

Perhaps war could have been avoided by a far more expansive and intrusive version of UN inspections — say, expansive enough to take over major areas of Iraq’s administrative apparatus, under the diminishing aegis of Saddam. Now that’s a valuable What if. . .? But given the inconclusive inspections we got, we faced a terrifying confluence of terrorists, WMD, and one of the most virulent regimes on earth, right at the heart of the Middle East. The president faced a choice between living with that uncertainty and accepting the seemingly more manageable risks of removing it.  

Instead of asking people what they would have done had they known what it was impossible for them to have known, a more relevant question would be: What will you do when faced with a terrifying uncertainty? And how will you persuade the American people to back military action if necessary to remove an uncertainty?

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