The passage of time normally brings historical events into perspective. For the cynic, hindsight is 20/20. For the historian, distance provides clarity.
As the campaign that overthrew Saddam Hussein's brutal regime marks its third anniversary, the passage of time has confirmed that military force is still a blunt instrument, even in the age of stealth technology and precision munitions. It is far easier to destroy than it is to build, and the destruction no matter how carefully planned and executed will always carry with it tragic, unintended consequences.
Building a democratic society in Iraq has proven far more difficult and far costlier than optimistic expectations. Saddam's dictatorship brutally enforced a system of ethnic apartheid. Removing that dictatorship uncorked the pent-up grievances and passions from decades of atrocities.
And a ruthless and lethal guerrilla insurgency that was poorly anticipated has replaced the conventional forces U.S. and allied troops crushed in a matter of weeks.
If time has clarified these traits of post-invasion Iraq, then it has also illuminated the reasons why President Bush made the difficult decision to go to war in the first place.
The media and the public are only now gaining access to a trove of official U.S. and Iraqi documents and tapes, much of it seized during the early days of the invasion. These sources make clear the reasons most major intelligence services came to the conclusion that Saddam continued to possess proscribed weapons of mass destruction and why U.N. weapons inspectors would never be able to locate them. They should finally put to rest the hysterical distortion that Bush lied to push the United States into war.
The U.S. military's Joint Forces Command engaged in a two-year project to analyze hundreds of thousands of documents and the transcripts of interviews with dozens of Iraq's political and military leaders.
The USJFC partially declassified its study last month. Researchers Kevin Woods, James Lacey and Williamson Murray provide the first in-depth analysis of the USJFC findings in an article for the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, now available online.
"Saddam's Delusions: The View from the Inside" makes abundantly clear why the Bush administration believed Saddam had WMD and could use them again because Saddam's own regime believed it had WMD and could use them again.
Up high, the researchers draw the following conclusion:
"When it came to weapons of mass destruction, Saddam attempted to convince one audience that they were gone while simultaneously convincing another that Iraq still had them. Coming clean about WMD and using full compliance with inspections to escape from sanctions would have been his best course of action for the long run. Saddam, however, found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having WMD."
Fearful of the consequences of delivering bad news to Saddam, Baathist leaders gave false assessments to their dictator and to one another about weapons programs. A footnote to "Saddam's Delusions" suggests that in the months following the fall of Baghdad, senior Iraqi officials in coalition custody continued to believe that Iraq still possessed a WMD capability.
While these dissonant messages confused Iraqi leaders, they confirmed to intelligence analysts the continuation of a decade of deception. In 2002, U.S. intelligence intercepted an order to remove the words "nerve agents" from "the wireless instructions." Another revealed instructions to "search the area surrounding the headquarters camp and for any chemical agents, make sure the area is free of chemical containers."
Three years ago, these orders were reasonably interpreted as evidence of Saddam's shell game with weapons inspectors. The consensus belief now is that they were intended to remove any residue left over from WMD programs abandoned years earlier.
Bush did not lie. American intelligence was mistaken, with good reason. And it's even more clear today than it was three years ago that the blame for the tragedy in Iraq falls on a single person: the homicidal dictator who used WMD in the past and wanted the world to believe that he could do so again.