Sunday, December 24, 2006

Iraq Expert, January 2005

War stories
By Carne Ross
Published: January 28 2005 17:53 | Last updated: January 28 2005 17:53

Nearly two years after the United States and Britain invaded Iraq, the
world remains polarised over the war. Supporters thought the war
necessary, while many opponents believe a false case was deliberately
manufactured for it.

This allegation has been reinforced by the discovery of a putative
intellectual justification for such deceit, the idea of the "noble lie"
propagated by the late University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss,
one of the strongest intellectual influences on the neo-conservatives.
According to Strauss, elites in liberal societies must sometimes create
"myths" to hold those societies together, for fear that they would
otherwise collapse through selfishness and individualism.

One such myth is the enemy, the threat, the identification and combating
of which forces the society to cohere and unite. Once that enemy was the
Soviet Union and communism; today it is al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's
weapons of mass destruction.

This is a big allegation and it is a toxic dispute, poisonous to both
domestic and international reputations, cause of both angry accusation
and equally bitter rebuttal. But perhaps another part of the Iraq story
- that of sanctions - can help throw light on the argument.

It was a story in which I was intimately involved: I was, from 1998 to
2002, the British "expert" on Iraq for the UK delegation to the UN
Security Council, responsible for policy on both weapons inspections and
sanctions against Iraq. My experience in those years and what happened
subsequently is in part why I recently resigned from the Foreign Office.

Opponents of sanctions argued that they were unjustified and caused
immense human suffering in Iraq. Iraq had demonstrably disarmed; the
weapons inspectors' endless probings and questions were nugatory. The
counter-arguments were plausible: Iraq had failed on many occasions to
co-operate fully with the weapons inspectors, leaving important
questions unanswered; Hussein obstructed the operation of the UN's
oil-for-food programme, which was designed to lessen the humanitarian
suffering. In northern Iraq, where the UN, and not Hussein, fully
controlled the programme, all indicators showed the positive benefits of
the programme in health, sanitation, education and the like.

It was my job to cull and collate the innumerable statistics, reports
and testimonies in support of this latter version of the story and to
deploy them in speeches and debates in the Security Council. On the
other side of the table, the diplomats opposing sanctions - led by
Russia and France - could cite myriad reports detailing the suffering
under the sanctions regime and the inequities of the oil-for-food
programme. They could provide convincing arguments that the north
received an unfair share of oil-for-food funds. Like me, they could
deploy an arsenal of facts and details to validate their version of "the
truth". But, oddly, they often cited the very same reports that I did,
for the UN reports provided ammunition for both sets of arguments.

It was, of course, a complex story that we managed to divide into two
distinct and opposing narratives. The atmosphere between the delegations
on the Security Council was aggressive and adversarial, as it remained
until - and after - the invasion. Political divisions were allowed to
degenerate into personal animosities. The Council, its chambers and
corridors became a diplomatic battlezone where the more we fought, the
more we entrenched our positions into competing blacks and whites. Thus
were we able to obscure the more complex, deeper and more important
truth, perhaps even the truth.

This was only slowly revealed to me by the many humanitarian workers, UN
officials and ordinary Iraqis, including opposition members, who
actually lived and worked in Iraq rather than those who wrote or read
reports about it. Their human testimony was in the end infinitely more
eloquent and convincing, in the main because all of them, without
exception, said the same thing. And this was that there was undoubted
human suffering in Iraq, of a quite appalling scale, and that not enough
was being done - by anyone - to address it. Put this question to a
British minister today and he or she will tell you that we tried to ease
the impact of sanctions, but it is clear now, and frankly it was clear
then, that it was much, much too little, too late. We - the US and UK -
could have done a great deal more. Meanwhile, the Russians, French and
others in the Security Council could have done a lot more to help
control illegal smuggling by Iraq (the main sustenance of the Hussein
regime and itself something that reduced the funds for humanitarian
supplies) and to support the weapons inspectors.

This example illustrates how governments and their officials can compose
convincing versions of the truth, filled with more or less verifiable
facts, and yet be entirely wrong. I did not make up lies about Hussein's
smuggling or obstruction of the UN's humanitarian programme. The
speeches I drafted for the Security Council and my telegrams back to
London were composed of facts filtered from the stacks of reports and
intelligence that daily hit my desk. As I read these reports, facts and
judgments that contradicted "our" version of events would almost
literally fade into nothingness. Facts that reinforced our narrative
would stand out to me almost as if highlighted, to be later deployed by
me, my ambassador and my ministers like hand grenades in the diplomatic
trench warfare. Details in otherwise complex reports would be extracted
to be telegraphed back to London, where they would be inserted into
ministerial briefings or press articles. A complicated picture was
reduced to a selection of facts that became factoids, such as the
suggestion that Hussein imported huge quantities of whisky or built a
dozen palaces, validated by constant repetition: true, but not the whole

It is clear from the evidence available that something similar went on
with the question of Iraq's weapons. This neither confirms nor fully
refutes the "noble lie" thesis of deliberate deceit. But, rather, it
suggests a more complex and subtle, and if anything more disturbing,

Here the basis of evidence was not UN, NGO or other reports on sanctions
or sanctions-busting, many of which suffered their own peculiar biases
and flaws, but a resource that is unavoidably unreliable, namely secret
intelligence. Particularly after inspectors were withdrawn in late 1998,
the available intelligence on Iraq was severely limited. Whatever
Hussein had or did, he concealed under roofs or underground, and there
is no aircraft or satellite camera yet invented that can penetrate

Both the US and UK were thus forced in large part to rely on that most
unreliable reporter of facts - human beings (or "humint" as it is
known). In addition, there was the expert knowledge of the many
inspectors who had visited Iraq's WMD sites and had spoken with Iraqi
officials and scientists. Despite these difficulties, the picture that
emerged in the late 1990s and into 2002 was reasonably consistent.

This was that Iraq was not rearming to any great extent, that there were
still questions about its disposal of past stocks of weapons but, in
summary, that the policy of containment was working. Inevitably, there
were unanswered questions - unconfirmed reports of attempted imports of
dual-use materials that might be used to produce WMD and possibilities
that the unaccounted-for dozen or so Scud missiles might still exist and
be reassembled (not one has been found postwar). But there was nothing
that would suggest significant rearmament or intent to attack Iraq's
neighbours, let alone the UK. The Butler report gives a similar account.

Yet, by September 2002, both the US and UK governments were claiming
that Iraq was a significant threat, citing clear and authoritative
intelligence evidence of rearmament and attempts to acquire nuclear,
biological and chemical weapons. The US government went further,
suggesting that Hussein, al-Qaeda and 9/11 were somehow connected. Bush
began to juxtapose al-Qaeda and Hussein in adjacent sentences, never
quite claiming a proven connection, but deliberately implying some kind
of link. The implication, still repeated to this day by members of the
Bush administration, was refuted by the 9/11 Commission. Even at the
time of the war, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) let it be
known publicly that there was no foundation to this suggestion.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn cites a number
of studies where scientists with different paradigmatic views observe
different patterns in the same data - what he calls a switch in the
visual gestalt. For example, looking at a contour map, a student sees
lines on a paper, a cartographer a picture of terrain. Only once trained
will the student see the same as the cartographer, even though the data
he is observing have not changed.

Both the British Prime Minister, to the Butler review, and Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have admitted publicly (long after the war)
that what changed before the war was not the evidence of Iraqi weapons
but, in the new post-9/11 light, the appraisal of that evidence. The
Prime Minister told the Butler review: "after September 11th it took on
a completely different aspect... what changed for me with September 11th
was that I thought then you have to change your mindset... you have to
go out and get after the different aspects of this threat... you have to
deal with this because otherwise the threat will grow... "

This rings true and is understandable. An event of the horror and
magnitude of 9/11 should have changed our appreciation of the dangers of
WMD and non-compliance with international law. It represented, for good
or ill, a paradigm shift in the way our leaders saw the world. But it
appears that not only did the appraisal change but, crucially, so did
the presentation of that appraisal, and the evidence justifying it, to
the public.

There were no doubt other factors at play. There is a tendency in
government to see intelligence material as being at the pinnacle of the
hierarchy of information. Awash with information, government reifies the
skill of abstracting the core from the mass (indeed it is a skill tested
in the entrance exams when you join, for instance, the Foreign Office).
Unlike the voluminous flow of diplomatic telegrams, memos and
open-source information that hits computers on desks across government
every day, intelligence arrives in slim folders, adorned with colourful
stickers announcing not only the secrecy of the information therein but
the restricted circulation it enjoys. The impression thus given, a
product of these aesthetics, is of access to the real thing, the secret
core denied to all but the elite few.

History gives an interesting example of this phenomenon, namely the case
of the Zinoviev letter. In 1924, Britain's Foreign Office was sent a
copy of a letter, purporting to come from Grigori Zinoviev, the
president of the Soviet Comintern, addressed to the central committee of
the Communist Party of Great Britain. The letter urged the party to stir
up the British proletariat in preparation for class war. The letter then
appeared in the press, causing immense political and diplomatic
repercussions. It was a major embarrassment for the Prime Minister,
Ramsay MacDonald, and the governing Labour Party. The opposition
Conservatives won the general election four days later. Relations
between Britain and the Soviet Union soured, and Anglo-Soviet treaties
were abandoned.

Only in 1999, when the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook ordered an
investigation of Britain's official archives, was it confirmed that the
Zinoviev letter was a fake. The fake was believed as genuine by the
Foreign Office, the archives revealed, because it came from the Secret
Intelligence Service (this an observation from the Foreign Office's own
archival investigation).

An additional factor in Iraq was also that many of the human sources of
intelligence had an understandable interest in exaggerating what they
were reporting, not least because they wanted to encourage the overthrow
of a regime they hated. The role of the Iraqi National Congress, the key
Iraqi opposition group before the war, in providing "humint" is now
well-known. But, interestingly, the Butler inquiry discounts this
factor, instead pointing to the SIS's failure to properly validate its
sources, the long reporting chains and the sources' lack of expertise on
what they were reporting.

Back in the capitals, there is meanwhile an invisible undertow at work
on the civil servants who collate and analyse this information. If
ministers want a particular story to emerge, it has a way of emerging:
the facts are made to fit the policy. It takes a brave if not foolhardy
civil servant to resist this tide. This is not to claim that there was
some secret cubicle in Whitehall (or Washington) where evidence of
Iraq's weapons was deliberately fabricated, but something more subtle.
Evidence is selected from the available mass, contradictions are
excised, and the selected data are repeated, rephrased, polished (spun,
if you prefer), until it seems neat, coherent and convincing, to the
extent that those presenting it may believe it fully themselves.

All of these reasons will have contributed to a considerable bias in the
information that the government received and the analyses then produced
on Iraq's WMD. All of these reasons should have inspired caution; any
assessment based on such information should have been heavily caveated.
But, as the Butler report relates, instead of transmitting these caveats
in its public presentations, such as the infamous Number 10 dossier, the
government left them out. What was broadcast to the public was in effect
not the summit of a hierarchy of information but a selection from a
spectrum of information, a spectrum that ranged from the
well-established to the highly speculative, and the selection came from
the wrong end. Just as I once produced one-sided arguments to justify
sanctions by ignoring all contrary evidence, the government produced a
highly one-sided account of inherently unreliable information.

Of course governments in all democracies present one-sided accounts of
policy. Economic statistics are always presented with the positive
numbers in the forefront, the negative sidelined to footnotes or
ignored. Civil servants are highly skilled in slanting information in
this way. But there should be limits. When seeking to justify military
action, the government has a duty to tell the whole truth, not just a
partial account of it.

Something else was going on too. As the drums of war beat louder in
Washington, both the US and UK governments became more strident in
dismissing containment or other alternatives to all-out invasion. Bush
declared sanctions as full of holes as Swiss cheese; the Prime Minister
even once, bizarrely, argued that military action was preferable to the
distress caused by sanctions. Sanctions were crumbling, the public was
told (and still is today). These governments gave the impression that
all alternatives had been exhausted; war was the only option.

This was not in fact the case. There was a viable alternative. Effective
action to seize Hussein's illegal financial assets and block oil
smuggling would have denied him the resources which sustained his power.
Sanctions on the regime, and not its long-suffering people. This
alternative was, unfortunately, for many years before the war never
pursued with the necessary energy or commitment. The reasons for this
are not immediately obvious.

Such a policy would have required consistent pressure across the region,
applied to all of Iraq's neighbours. And, for different reasons in each
case, it wasn't pursued with sufficient vigour. Senior envoys and
ministers only rarely or half-heartedly mentioned smuggling in bilateral
contacts, thereby implying toleration. Gradually it came to be
understood that certain of Iraq's neighbours were "allowed" to import
illegal oil, undermining attempts to deal with even the most egregious

Meanwhile, back in the Security Council, any attempt we made to propose
collective action against smuggling was invariably blocked by France or
Russia, on the alleged grounds that there was insufficient proof of the
smuggling, or that such action might further harm Iraq's people. I lost
count of the number of times we inserted provisions for
sanctions-monitoring units, or other exhortations for action, into draft
Council resolutions, only to have diplomats from these countries strike
them out in negotiation (as veto-wielding permanent members, their
acquiescence was essential to every dot and comma). The US and UK
governments now like to claim that this was the reason sanctions failed
(when in doubt, blame the French); some even claim that the UN itself
connived at corruption to benefit Hussein (an allegation for which so
far there is scant evidence). But, in truth, we too exerted precious
little energy to enforce controls. While in New York we argued ourselves
hoarse in negotiation, Washington and London rarely lifted the
diplomatic equivalent of a finger to pressure Iraq's neighbours to stem
the illegal flows.

An effective anti-smuggling policy would have required an over-arching
and long-term strategy, addressing problems - ranging from illegal bank
accounts to cross-border oil smuggling - in a variety of different
areas. Such a strategy was never implemented. Instead there were
piecemeal and ineffective efforts.

I suspect that the reason for this perhaps lies in the universal human
truth that what can be left until later usually is, until it is too
late. The policy was difficult, complex and unfashionable, demanding
extensive study to master and discuss, a luxury busy ministers and
senior officials do not enjoy. It was never the first or most glamorous
priority, so it was allowed to slide.

In the end, when contrasted with the complexity and uncertainty of the
alternatives, war may have seemed simpler. In the strange way that
governments are swept along by events without properly stopping to
think, war came to be seen as the only viable course, a current
strengthened in Britain no doubt by the clear determination in
Washington, now amply chronicled in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, to
pursue conflict.

It would undoubtedly have taken considerable political and diplomatic
effort to corral Iraq's neighbours and other states into this alternate
course. It would not have had the binary clarity of winning or losing a
war (though this war seems neither won yet, nor lost). But this effort
would have certainly been less than that of going to war, and it had the
real potential to remove the regime by cutting away the funds that
sustained it. Above all, this approach would not have incurred the
sacrifice of Iraqi and British and American, and other, lives.

If Iraq was not a threat and not collaborating with terrorists, why did
the Bush and Blair governments go to war? Several plausible explanations
have been offered by others: the US administration's need, after 9/11,
to demonstrate its power - anywhere, anyhow; a "mission civilatrice" to
democratise the world by force, an impulse given strength by the
vigorous and forceful lobby of the Iraqi opposition. But less credible,
given the record on sanctions, is the claim that the welfare of the
Iraqi people was the primary concern.

Another possible explanation lies in the more sinister motives of oil
and its control. The prospect of Iraq's huge reserves (the second
largest in the world) hung in the air throughout policy deliberations in
the years before the war. It was well-known that Hussein had allocated
all the massively lucrative post-sanctions exploration contracts to
French, Chinese, Russian and other non-US and non-British companies (and
it bothered the companies a lot, as they would tell us). It is hard to
believe that the immense potential for money-making and energy security
did not exert some pull in the decision to invade, but the evidence for
a Chomskyan sort of conspiracy led by Big Oil is hard to come by. But
again, we do not know, because we have not been told. Instead we were
given not the "noble lie", but the somewhat less-than-noble half-truth.
The full answer will perhaps be revealed by the chief protagonists in
years to come. For now, all we can know for sure is that the empirical
reasons these governments have given so far simply do not add up.

Perhaps, therefore, a non-empirical reason is at the heart of this. They
did it because they thought it was right. Hussein was a bad man, a
potential danger in the future (if not today). And this, if true, is a
legitimate reason, or at least arguable. Unfortunately, it is neither
the primary reason both governments gave the UN or their peoples for
going to war (though Bush alludes to it with ever greater frequency, and
Tony Blair has begun to do the same), nor is it justifiable in any canon
of international law (although perhaps it should be).

And here we return to Leo Strauss: not to the "noble lie", but to his
belief in "natural law", a fundamental, sometimes religious (though
Strauss, I read, was an atheist) sense of right and wrong, a right and
wrong superior to all other laws- including, it seems in this case,
international law. Both leaders have said in the past that they believe
in such rules, as I suspect do most of us in some way. And it is perhaps
the readiness of electors, especially in the US, to accept this
reasoning that lies behind the curious phenomenon that, although the
evidence that these governments misled their populaces is now clear,
neither Bush nor Blair appears likely to pay any long-term political
price for it.

In the recent presidential elections the allegation of lying, noble or
otherwise, and the decidedly ambiguous course of the resulting war, did
not turn the people against their chosen president. His "natural law"
argument - that it was right to remove Hussein - sufficed, even when the
empirical evidence didn't. Tony Blair is no doubt hoping the same will
be true when Britain goes to the polls.

Political theorists of the 21st century have much to feed on in this
analysis: it is a story rich in paradox and contradiction, from which it
is hard to divine rational inferences or laws. The governments did not
manufacture lies, but neither did they tell the truth, even when they
thought they did. These half-truths, moreover, bore no relation
whatsoever to the real truth of what was actually going on in Iraq (no
terrorists, no WMD). And in the end, the electors, in the name of whose
security and safety the whole exercise was undertaken, do not seem to
care much either way. In this picture, it seems that neither Strauss nor
Plato (who in fact originated the "noble lie") nor anyone else is much
guide. Things seem altogether less ordered and coherent than any logical
analysis would have it. The key actors claim to have agency, to make
rational decisions, but in fact are swept along by forces they cannot
grasp. Laws of democracy and morality give way: the law of chaos instead
must hold sway.

Here may be the biggest misperception of all, though not a lie, since it
is hardly conscious. This is a misperception - a fiction, if you like -
in which governments and governed collaborate alike, for to believe
otherwise is too uncomfortable. And this is that governments,
politicians and civil servants are able to observe the world without
bias and disinterestedly interpret its myriad signs into facts and
judgments (indeed, in the Foreign Office, telegrams are divided into
these two very categories: "Detail" and "Comment") with an objective,
almost scientific rigour. The story of what these two governments
observed, believed and then told their populations about Iraq suggests
an altogether more imperfect reality.

Carne Ross recently resigned from the senior management structure of the
British Diplomatic Service. He is now director of a new diplomatic
consultancy, Independent Diplomat.