—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Politics
7 July 2005

Christopher Hitchens: Flickering Firebrand

3. WMDs

Right-click here and choose 'Save target as ...' to download the entire article as a word document. This article was published in issue 24 (2005) of Arena journal.

What else? Oh yes, Hitchens expounded the ill-fated WMD argument for invading Iraq from the very beginning, and incredibly, has continued to do so up until quite recently,[1] albeit in rather more muted tones. The last bleat we heard on this issue was that 'most of the groaning and sniping about the missing WMDs comes from the hard right'[2] - this unsupported claim insinuates that a statement of fact somehow betokens sympathy with unsavoury elements, reductively leaving aside the fact that the non-existent (not 'missing') WMDs is now a global consensus, including among the US intelligence agencies which formerly posited their existence. During a more confident era, however, Hitchens wrote an article leveled squarely at Seattle's 'peaceniks' in which he darkly forecast weapons sites galore, and added: 'Just you wait'.[3] Well, we've been waiting. Since March 2003. So for Hitchens' benefit, allow me to paraphrase what is now regarded as the dying gasp of this argument - specifically, the conclusion of the Duelfer report, the findings of the US government's own nine-month investigation into Iraqi WMDs, published in early October 2004: Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion, nor is there any evidence that it had produced any since 1991. It's tempting at moments like this to say a 'told you so' on behalf of the much-lampooned peace camp, in much the same way as Hitchens has been dying to say it to them, and now will never be able to.

It's been interesting to track the apostate's progress, however. Or perhaps it's regress. Because there's a parallel here. Like Blair and Bush, Hitchens also picked his moment to clear his throat and dilute his claims of 'WMDs' to 'WMD programmes' ... except that retrenching to this position has not worked out either. (When the facts force you to euphemize your own arguments, it's really time to bail. But again, Hitchens' nerve has held up admirably against reality.) During a December 4, 2003 debate with Tariq Ali on the Democracy Now radio show, Hitchens brought up the issue of Iraqi plans to buy a missile system 'off the shelf' from North Korea. (I can hardly think of a country that isn't armed with missiles.) The only other card he could play was that of the uranium-enrichment components placed in a barrel and buried in the garden of Iraqi scientist Mahdi Obeidi. This clearly high-tech and expertly concealed plot to launch an apocalypse from a flowerbed prompted Hitchens to confidently state: 'Of course there was a weapons of mass destruction programme: it's just been interrupted and now terminated.' Well, Hitchens is indeed scraping the bottom of this nuclear barrel for proof that the whole Iraqi fiasco was worthwhile. An average of 70 US servicemen per month now being killed in Iraq; estimates that bring the post-invasion Iraqi death toll to over 40,000; Iraqi civilians now 2.5 times more likely to die than under the Saddam Hussein regime;[4] open anarchy on the streets; near-daily bombings; a 'government' (whose members are wisely absent from the country most of the time) headed from its inception by an old henchman of the former dictator's regime and a stooge of the occupiers (does the name Hun Sen ring a bell?) ... apparently it was all worthwhile to learn for certain what UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter and scores of others had been telling us all along:
When I left Iraq in 1998, when the UN inspection program ended, the infrastructure and facilities had been 100% eliminated. There's no debate about that. All their instruments and facilities had been destroyed. The weapons design facility had been destroyed. The production equipment had been hunted down and destroyed. And we had in place means to monitor - both from vehicles and from the air - the gamma rays that accompany attempts to enrich uranium or plutonium. We never found anything. We can say unequivocally that the industrial infrastructure needed by Iraq to produce nuclear weapons had been eliminated.[5]
But Hitchens the tyro, of course, knew better than Ritter the expert who spent years in Iraq. And he insisted on an invasion so that we could be sure. Then, in an astonishing C-Span interview on February 20, 2004, he told viewers that '[Saddam's] possession of these weapons was overstated' ... as though Hitchens had not been doing some of the loudest overstating himself. But of course, there's a fall-back rationale. A few minutes later we are being told: 'We are now able to say that Iraq is disarmed ... but we would not have been able to say that without regime change. Iraq has now been inspected ... we don't know where those weapons went yet.' As any rational person will understand, it takes quite a feat of mental gymnastics to persuade oneself that the reason for invading a country was wrong but that we could only know this for certain by carrying out the invasion anyway. And then there's that tack-on throwaway at the end, the refrain of the luckless warmonger caught red-handed and fumbling for an explanation: we don't know where the weapons went ('yet'). One of the ironies that Hitchens seems to have forgotten is that no sooner had the US had gotten themselves into the Iraqi quagmire in early 2003, they then began demanding the same amount of time to find the fugacious WMDs as they had refused to give the weapons inspectors before the attack in a measure that might have avoided war. To the pre-apostasy Hitchens this simple fact would have been too delicious not to write about at length. But now that the whole world can see the obvious, Hitchens - ignominiously - has to look the other way. (The remainder of the interview found him accusing humanitarians of having 'penis envy' over George W. Bush's humanitarianism. No commentary required.)

Even now, he continues to dig up the bomb in the garden. One of his last articles on the WMD canard exhumes Mahdi Obeidi's story with the tagline 'A new book shows that Saddam didn't have nuclear weapons - yet.' (There's that word again.) Well, what a journey it has been to arrive at this place. To listen to the pre-war Hitchens one would think we were on the Eve of Destruction. Today the best evidence he can produce for this is the collection of spare parts abandoned in someone's back yard. The book, with spectacularly bad timing, was published almost at the same time as the Duelfer report. This meant that in writing about one, Hitchens could not ignore the other. He opens with cloying forthrightness:
It's a good coincidence that the Duelfer report appears in the same week as The Bomb In My Garden, a memoir by Saddam Hussein's chief nuclear physicist. Between them, or taken together, the two bodies of evidence enable two quite different yet quite compatible conclusions. The first is that the Saddam regime was more disarmed than perhaps even its leadership knew. The second is that it would have been very unwise to proceed on any assumption except that of its latent danger.
One can almost hear the deep breath drawn before the next sentence:
This may seem like an attempt to have it both ways, but consider: We only know all of this, about the Ba'athist weapons programs and their erosion and collapse, because of regime change. Up until then, any assumption that all the fangs had been removed would have been a highly irresponsible one. It would have involved, quite simply, taking Saddam Hussein's word for it.[6]
A more wretched case made for fraudulent war (and in hindsight at that) I have never before read. (Recall: Hitchens is a self-professed disciple of Orwell.) 'Taking Saddam's word for it'? It is as though he has persuaded himself that years of UNSCOM inspections consisted of little more than Q&A, entirely dependent on the honesty of the respondent. To return to the words of Scott Ritter:
We have the United Nations record of Iraqi disarmament from 1991 to 1998. That record is without dispute. It's documented. We eliminated the nuclear program, and for Iraq to have reconstituted it would require undertaking activities eminently detectable by intelligence services.[7]
Some threat. The plain truth is rather more revealing. The UN's best chances of ensuring that Saddam Hussein remained defanged were torpedoed in 1998 when the US unilaterally violated the terms of inspections that were working and sent the inspectors to an off-limits Ba'ath party HQ in Baghdad. Once they were refused entry, the Americans then unilaterally withdrew the inspection teams. Both these developments occurred without sanction from the Security Council. This was basically Iraq's Tonkin incident. Ever since, it has been the policy of the US to blame Saddam for the 'interruption' that 'necessitated' the invasion.

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1 Hitchens, 'This Was Not Looting', Slate, 15 March, 2005.
2 Hitchens, 'Long Live Labor', Slate, 25 April, 2005.
3 Hitchens, 'Chew on This', Regime Change, p. 55
4 Report published late October 2004 in The Lancet. This figure's likelihood of accuracy is estimated to be 90% based on data taken from clustered sampling. Robert Fisk attests to the same complaint on the ground from ordinary Iraqis concerning their safety in a post-Saddam Iraq. Fisk, whom Hitchens himself described (C-Span interview, 11 November 2001) as 'one of the best of the middle east reporters, if not the best', was pithy in his summation: 'We have gotten rid of a dictatorship and replaced it with total anarchy.' (Democracy Now interview, 1 October, 2004)
5 Ritter, Scott and William Rivers Pitt. War on Iraq, Allen & Unwin, Australia. 2002, p. 26
6 Hitchens, 'The Buried Truth', Slate, 8 October 2004.
7 Ritter, Scott et al. War on Iraq, p. 28