Wolfowitz on Iraq

I went to the Council on Foreign Relations today, for a "policy

address" (I guess that’s one notch up from a common-or-garden speech)

by deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. It was obviously part of a concerted

effort by the White House to fight back in the War on Public Opinion: national

security adviser Condoleezza Rice had an almost identical (if shorter) argument

on the New York Times Op-Ed page this morning.

There’s no doubt that the US is losing

momentum in its drive to war in Iraq: Russia, China, Canada, France and

Germany have all now come out as unambiguously opposed. Presidential spokesman

Ari Fleischer’s list of possible supporters seems rather less imposing: Britain,

Italy, Spain, unnamed eastern European nations, and Australia. So with the anti-war

demonstrations reaching Washington in

force last weekend, it was clear that the administration needed a rhetorical

knock-out blow were it to regain the upper hand.

Wolfowitz certainly had a large and important audience for his speech: I was

seated in the overflow room, next to Harold Evans and Tina Brown. But he signally

failed to deliver that knock-out blow.

The main thesis of the Wolfowitz and Rice arguments is that Iraq isn’t really

disarming. Look at South Africa in 1991, they say: there‘s disarmament

for you. Which is all well and good, but does rather leave one waiting for the

other shoe to drop. I think the world can probably agree that Iraq is not South

Africa. But the rest of the Wolfowitz argument is rather more difficult to sign

on to.

In Iraq’s hands, says Wolfowitz, weapons of mass destruction are better termed

"weapons of mass terror", a designation which didn’t go down well

with the audience, the vast majority of whom, I’m sure, have read Politics

and the English Language. The renaming recalled the White House’s rather

pathetic attempt to rename suicide bombers as "homicide bombers":

haven’t they learned their lesson?

Actually, Wolfy slipped once, at the end, and had to catch himself –

"weapons of mass d… terror". And his argument for the renaming was

even weaker than the renaming itself: "In the hands of terrorists, what

we often call weapons of mass destruction would be more accurately described

as weapons of mass terror," he said, and then immediately started talking

about "Iraq’s weapons of mass terror". He didn’t even attempt

to demonstrate that Iraq’s WMDs are, or ever will be, "in the hands of

terrorists". He just made a vague hand-waving reference to "the terror

networks to which the Iraqi regime is linked", which could, really, mean


The rest of the speech was not much more persuasive. Once he’d got over his

initial hump of trying to rope Iraq into the War on Terror without any evidence,

Wolfowitz basically rehearsed a lot of the old stories about how Saddam Hussein

is hiding weapons from the UN inspectors. OK, Paul, we believe you there as


But in between the lines of the speech was an astonishing arrogance, which

was both picked up on and amplified in a pathetically short question-and-answer

session following it. In the speech, it’s very hard to work out what is accepted

fact (from UN sources) and what is simply US assertions, based upon intelligence

that they may or may not have but in any case cannot divulge.

The first question came from former director of central intelligence William

Webster. The US obviously had a lot of intelligence, he said: when could it

be shared with the rest of us, so that more of a case for invasion could be

made? Wolfowitz’s answer was unclear, but it sounded as though the answer was,

to all intents and purposes, "after the war is over".

One questioner characterised the tone of the speech as "trust us,

we know things we can’t tell you, but if you knew them you’d be with us too".

Surely one of the fudamental principles of a democratic and free nation, he

asked, is precisely that government shouldn’t, and can’t, be trusted –

hadn’t we learned that in Vietnam? Wolfowitz barely deigned to answer. Who do

you want to trust, he basically said, us or Saddam Hussein? "Neither",

it seemed, was not an option.

He gave a similar non-answer to a woman who tried a slightly different tack.

Surely you’ve shared your intelligence with the French and others, she said:

if it’s so compelling, how come they’re not on board? Wolfowitz’s answer was

breathtaking. France has a misguided but "well-intentioned belief that

the key to preventing war is to persuade us that we mustn’t act," he said.

He was sorry, but there was no persuading to be done over here: if France wanted

to prevent war, it should concentrate its efforts on persuading Iraq to disarm.

(Since we had already been told by both Rice and Wolfowitz himself that their

idea of disarmament was basically to make like South Africa, this didn’t seem

an especially promising tack.)

Wolfowitz is not a particularly good speaker. He peppered both his speech and

his answers to questions with the phrase "time is running out," without

ever clarifying what he meant by the phrase. Maybe he just likes its menacing

tone. He certainly alienated a lot of the audience when he took only five questions,

and didn’t really answer any of them.

In general, the speech seemed designed as an attempt to reframe the debate

over war: to move the crucial question over the UN inspections away from what

they may or may not have found, and towards whether what Iraq is doing counts

as disarmament. But it seems unlikely that either domestic or international

public opinion will rally behind a war which is predicated on the idea that

Iraq hasn’t been as helpful as South Africa was.

With three of the five permanent members of the Security Council now opposing

war, there seems to be no chance that the US is going to attempt to get another

resolution before invading. So the only hope we have that the US will not invade

is that it will start listening to what the rest of the world is saying: a pre-emptive

war would be illegal, would polarise the Arab world against the US, and could

radically destabilise Saudi Arabia, among other possible negative outcomes.

Of course, it would also cause the deaths of thousands of UK, US and Iraqi soldiers,

as well as Iraqi civilians and possibly foreign "human shields". But

based on the behaviour of Wolfowitz today, America is in no mood for listening

to anyone.

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5 Responses to Wolfowitz on Iraq

  1. George Wieland says:

    It is almost unbelievable that the reputation of the United States has been placed in the hands of a lunitic fringe. Where’s Congress while we lose our freedoms at home and place the stability of an entire region and safety of millions of people in their hands? And all of this while the US economy sinks ever deeper into a sea of red ink. How many generations will it take to pay off Reagon’s and Bush’s debt. Wake up America! Remember the lessons of WWII and what Justice Jackson who was chief prosecutor said about premptive war.

  2. Helena says:

    I am am American woman who is not ashamed to say she is embarrassed by the Bush Administration’s inane attempts to argue in favor of action against Iraq. I think we are quickly becoming the laughingstock of the world!

  3. Matthew says:

    Even if you accept that the doctrine of preemptive self-defence is a valid legal justification for war there are two requirements for it to be invoked. These are necessity and proportionality. Necessity requires some form of imminent threat from the aggressor. The aggressor in this case, Iraq, may or may not have WMD but it certainly does not have the means to launch these onto America. So there is no imminent threat to America.

    Furthermore the US has failed to show any links between Iraq and terrorist groups. Therefore it cannot argue that terrorists could deliver these WMD onto US soil.

  4. Peter says:

    You were wrong Felix. Dogmatic assertions that the war was or was not illegal lack credibility. Eminent international lawyers are divided on the question, just like the rest of us. One argument favouring legality is based on Security Council Resolution 1441 which declared Iraq to be in “material breach” of the ceaasefire agreement it signed at the end of the 1991 Gulf war (encapsulated in resolution 687). Under Article 60 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties the material breach by Iraq entitles the other parties to the ceasefire agreement (inculding the US and UK) to treat the ceasefire as suspended and to resume hostilities until the breach is rectified. Your predictions about the “Arab world being polarised against the US” and Saudi Arabia being destabilised were also wide of the mark. The same parts of “the Arab world” (as if it really ever was a monolith!)that hated the US before the war still hate it, although there seemed to be a lot of jubilant Iraqis when Saddam was ousted. And Saudi Arabia was just as rotten, corrupt and unstable before the war as it is now. Many other predictions about “thousands of civilian deaths” (the actual number was about one thousand)and “tens of thousands of refugees” (the actual number was 5!) also were shown to be wrong. Of course nobody likes a bully. But in my humble opinion Saddam Hussein fitted that description much more fulsomely than George W.

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