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The price of bluffing

I have no idea how events in Iraq will eventually play out. I fervently hope that this tortured country can move to a more peaceful direction but the current violence and mayhem makes such a prospect seem pretty distant. One thing that has always struck me is how Saddam has never gotten sufficient blame for bringing the current mayhem on to his own country. So it is interesting to read this smart passage by Russell Roberts over at the Cafe Hayek blog:

I don’t understand how the failure to find weapons of mass destruction makes the war unjustified. It’s not like Bush made up the idea of WMD. Saddam Hussein is the guy you ought to be mad at. Saddam Hussein acted as if he had or was working on nuclear capability. He’s the guy who employed nuclear scientists. He’s the guy who convinced the UN that he wanted nukes. He’s the guy who resisted weapons inspections. He’s the guy who said you can look over here but not over there. Why did he do all these things? Either because he actually had nuclear capability or was close to it, or because he wanted to fool people into thinking he was more important than he was. He managed to fool Bill Clinton, the United Nations, George Bush and Israel into thinking he had a desire for WMD. It appears now to have been something of a ruse. Probably. Should Bush have ignored the behavior of Saddam on the grounds that the whole thing was probably a hoax to enhance his self-image? I don’t think so. That certainly turned out to be a mistake with Osama. His talk wasn’t cheap.

Exactly. 20/20 hindsight is all very well, but it is not much use in making credible foreign policy.

27 comments to The price of bluffing

  • I’m fairly certain the the idea that it was a bluff was brought up by the mainstream media at the time (not sure which media, just that it was mainstream enough for me at the time).

    That said, I do see your argument regarding the correct basis for foreign policy.

  • Ted


    A very good post. Thank you.

    If you were to believe the media at face value, the Iraqis would come across as passive victims, terrorised by a virulent, powerful insurgency.

    I was there 2 weeks ago. Nothing could be further from the truth. My impression : dangerous, yes, but a country in transition. The population are active and enraged at the murder of their fellow citizens – far from passive. In certain suburbs of Baghdad and certain towns the situation is definitely unsafe. However the vast majority of the country is pacified and if 90% of the media was focussed on boring stories like rebuilding schools, homes, etc , we’d get a better picture.

    Iraqis are a tough, impressive people. They will emerge with a democracy and they will guard it with their lives. That will be easier when the house of Assad falls and the mullahs collapse – all of which will happen in the next 5-7 years.

    It’s no surprise that our media masters try to educate us that the disaster in Iraq is unrelated to years of terrifying dictatorship. We all need to keep in mind that the mainstream media actively look to blame first world countries for the disasters that other nations suffer. If you were to watch the BBC’s coverage of the Pakistani earthquakes, the implied message is that these countries are suffering while we are prospering : and that we should shoulder the blame for what has happened to these people. In my opinion, to not feel the pain and suffering of these people would be inhuman – however we are not responsible for what has happened to them. My anger is directed at their religion, at their inability over generations to move forward, to take on new ideas, to innovate, to exchange new ideas and concepts with people different to them : and behind it all is always the same thing – authoritarian, undemocratic, corrupt government. Poor leadership has screwed these people up over generations and that is what needs to be fixed : not me, or you.

    Iraq is a broken country that desperately wants to be fixed. Its people are a strong, intelligent group that will see it through, for their kids. Some of the first Iraqi Fulbright scholars are about to be picked, apparently. The transition will take time and there are people who live in wealth that do not want that to happen. But it will.

  • Chris Harper

    More to the point, in the leadup to the war France, Russia, Germany and Syria, the leading naysayers, all accepted that Saddam had the weapons. The argument was exclusively how to deal with Iraq over this perceived fact, not about the fact itself.

    The claim “Bush lied” applies just as much to Schroeder, Chirac and Putin.

  • Pete_London

    Chris Harper

    It’s undeniable that France, Russia, Germany, Syria and many others all accepted that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. There was no dissent on this point at the UN in the run up to the war. So those who ask of Bush and Blair: “Where are the weapons?” are either not being intellectually consistent or more likely (IMO) exercising a selective memory.

    One quibble; for some the question was how to deal with Saddam Hussein’s threat, for Chiraq and others the question was one of how to stymie efforts to oust him.

  • Jacob

    Is WMD (real or imaginary) the ONLY possible reason or justification for the war to topple Saddam ?

    What about his two wars of agression that produced a million deaths ? What about him butchering his people, and gassing Kurds (and Iranians) ?

    I don’t know how Iraq will turn out, however, it’s difficult to imagine how it could be worse than under Saddam. I hope Ted is right.

  • Sylvain Galineau


    It’s not the only possible reason, but ask Darfuris how effective we are when the problem is not alleged to affect or threaten us…

  • Chris Harper


    The issue re. the WMDs is precisely the points you raised. Saddam agreed to the inspectors as part of the peace settlement following the Gulf War. His failure to comply simply meant that the second Gulf War was in fact a resumption of the original fight. It was not Gulf War 2.0, merely GW 1.1. The second round of a single war.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Jacob asks a fair question. Of course, WMDs were not the only reason. There were – contrary to what the peaceniks like to claim – links between Saddam and islamist terror groups. His regime offered shelter to some of the al-Q operatives. He paid money to the families of Palestinian bombers.

    And of course he used chemical weapons against the Kurds, invaded two neighbouring states without provocation, attacked Israel, destroyed the Marsh Arabs…..the list goes on and on. The more I think about it, the harder it is to resist the conclusion that the moral, legal, and military justification for getting rid of his regime was overwhelming, notwithstanding the risks.

  • rosignol

    Is WMD (real or imaginary) the ONLY possible reason or justification for the war to topple Saddam ?

    It depends on how seriously you take what passes for ‘International Law’, the foundation of which is the treaties of Münster and Osnabrück, more commonly referred to as “The Peace of Westphalia”.

    Central to those documents (which were written back in 1648, and resolved several of the continental wars going on at the time) is the concept of national sovereignty. This (theoretically) restricts how much other governments are allowed to interfere in another nation’s affairs. Unfortunately for human rights enthusiasts and the citizens of certain nations, a government butchering it’s own citizens is considered an internal matter, in which case meddling is not allowed, at least not overtly.

    However, Iraq had consented to treaties that precluded it from building nuclear weapons (the Non-Proliferation Treaty), as well as the ceasefire agreement that ended hostilities after Iraq invaded Kuwait- enforcing those agreements was legally possible without causing major problems for the protocols and precedents that define modern foreign relations.

    So in a strict legal sense, yes, failure to comply with the NPT and the ceasefire agreement was the only legal basis compatible with the Peace of Westphalia for invading Iraq, deposing Saddam, etc. It’s also a huge part of why the Bush doctrine of pre-emption caused such a fuss in foreign-relations circles- traditionally, an ‘imminent threat’ or an overt act are required before war can be declared.

  • “He managed to fool Bill Clinton, the United Nations, George Bush and Israel into thinking he had a desire for WMD”

    Sorry, but the idea that a desire for WMD (actual or apparent) is a casus belli, is truly ridiculous.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Julius, not just a desire, but a track record of actually trying to make them. Consider that Iraq built a weapons-grade facility at Osirak (thankfully bombed by the Israeli Air Force in 1981). Ditto his use of chem weapons against the Kurds; ditto the discovery of centrifuges after the 2003 invasion.

    Desire, coupled with a track record of behaviours, does form part of a causus belli. Context is key.

  • Pete_London

    Julius Blumfeld

    The Baathist regime’s non-compliance with a string of UN resolutions was the casus belli. Blair’s need to sell the war to his party and others, and hence his emphasis on WMDs, 45 minutes, etc obscures this.

  • Chris Harper


    The basis was that Saddam, in not cooperating with the weapons inspectors in ensuring that ALL WMD programs were terminated, broke the terms of the cease fire. This, and not the presence, real or otherwise, or even the desire, for WMDs was the cause of the resumption of hostilities.

    The original casus belli was the invasion of Kuwait, not, I repeat not, the desire on SD’s part for WMDs.

    If you start a war, lose, sign a cease fire, and then break the terms of that cease fire, it is YOU, and not the other guy, who has resumed hostilities.

    So it was with Saddam; The US, Britain and the rest of the allies simply responded to the reality of Iraq’s resumption of the war.

  • Chris (and others):

    One can debate the legalities, although if you read the Attorney General’s advice at the time (disclosed a few months ago), it is clear that he was very concerned that the breach of UN resolutions regarding inspections, was insufficient to make the war legal under international law.

    The real point is that nobody (not Blair, not Bush’s advisors. not anybody except some dupes amongsts the American public) seriously believed that Sadam had WMDs, let alone that he was going to use them against the West. The issue of WMD was a cover for the war -which was waged for ideological reasons – viz the goal of reshaping the middle east along western (big L)iberal lines.

    To his credit, Perry and others on this blog recognise this; and do not seek to justify the war by reference to WMD, but rather on the grounds that it was a good thing for Western Governments to have intervened to remove Sadam, because this increased overall freedom in Iraq .

    I vehemently disagree with Perry et al on the whole notion that such interventions are desirable, necessary or effective (let alone consistent with classical liberal principles). But at least that debate addresses the real issues. The WMD debate does not.

  • Pete_London


    I agree with Perry’s view also. But that stated casus belli was the Baathist regime’s failure to comply with UN resolutions – fact.

    The real point is that nobody (not Blair, not Bush’s advisors. not anybody except some dupes amongsts the American public) seriously believed that Sadam had WMDs, let alone that he was going to use them against the West.

    Precisely wrong. There was no dissent at all in the UN Security Council that the regime had WMDs. You are yet another person who has allowed this fact to slip from your memory. You could also ask the Kurds if they ever saw any evidence for the regime’s WMDs.

  • Pete:

    I am talking about the position at the start of the current war; not the position at some earlier time. There is no evidence that Sadam had chemical, biological or nuclear weapons when the current war began. Nor did anybody in power seriously think he did.

  • rosignol

    Julius, your assertion is unprovable without telepathy, and substantially contradicted by statements made at the time.

    All that was known is that Mr. Blix had failed to find weapons, and that there were substanial stocks of chemical weapons that Iraq had admitted to possessing, but could not or would not account for.

    If you have evidence to the contrary, present it.

  • Chris Harper

    Well, my position has always been that I didn’t give a toss whether WMDs were found or not. taking out Saddam was the right thing to do. The man is a pathological mass murderer and belonged in a in institution for the criminally insane, not the Presidential Palace.

    However, at the leadup to the war there was not a government on the planet which did not believe that SH had the things. The entire discussion was how to deal with that perceived fact. Any claim that this was a Blair /Bush invention simply has no basis in reality. I simply cannot accept your implied conclusion that Chirac and Putin were American dupes. After all, these guys even had the invoices.

  • Jacob

    “It depends on how seriously you take what passes for ‘International Law’, …..”The Peace of Westphalia”. ”

    So Saddam was a serious and exemplary adherer to the International Law and Treaty of Westphalia ….
    He had a deep respect for the sovereignity of all his neighbors ….

    No infraction here, no justification for intervention ….

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Chris Harper writes: “these guys had the invoices (for WMDs)”.

    Absolutely. Which makes a nonsense of Julius Blomfeld’s assertion that only a few “dupes” thought he had weapons. The reasons for supposing he had, or was close to getting, WMDS was held by a lot of people, including the French and the Russians.

    I personally did not think the prime reason to get rid of SH was to turn Iraq into a democratic state, though that is an outcome to be welcomed. I believed, and still do, that the man presented the whole region and in the longer term, us, a serious menace. Some people, including classical liberals, give the impression that SH was a harmless if eccentric old geezer in a military tunic. He was a bit more than that!

  • Mary Contrary

    Julius, and others:

    If only Blair and his ilk had a bit more integrity and the courage of their convictions we really wouldn’t need this argument.

    Blair only made so much of the WMD argument (and the 45 minutes nonsense) to avoid having to rely on the Tories to support a vote in Parliament for war. Bush never made so much of it; while it was a part of his case, the main reason given was that Saddam was a bad man that needed desposing (conversely, this was a part of Blair’s case, just never the main point).

    At the same time, Bush and Blair were indeed certain, on the advice of their intelligence agencies, that Saddam had short-range missiles capable of carrying a chemical payload. Politically it was impossible to say why our spooks could be so certain, but the answer is well known nonetheless: because we sold them to him.

    Unfortunately, just as Blair can never seem to admit either the real reason for the war, nor the real reason he thought Saddam had such weapons, neither does the so-called anti-war lobby admit that the real reason is a fair reason. Most absurdly, this lobby also tries to claim that the fact that we armed originally Saddam makes toppling him unjustified, while simultaineously denying that he had the weapons that they’ve just agreed we sold him!

    Oh what a tangled web we weave…

  • Rosignol:

    “Julius, your assertion is …substantially contradicted by statements made at the time.”

    You mean the pronouncements of Blair et al? Well as the actress said to the bishop …..

  • Chris Harper


    “You mean the pronouncements of Blair et al?”

    If under “et al” you are including Chirac, Putin, Schroeder and Assad, then absolutely.

  • There were many actual reasons for the war and, of course, many reasons stated. And they did not match up very well. Mere possession of WMDs actually serve as a good reason not to go to war, or at least as a reason to suprise the enemy. Amassing troops in the tiny country of Kuwait for months before an invasion doesn’t strike me as the pre-war plan of a military that is overly concerned about an “imminent threat” of WMDs. A more appropriate and honest argument would have been to explicitly state that the WMD case for war was pre-emptive and nothing beyond that. But they lied or were seriously mistaken about the actual threat. And it doesn’t matter if they were working on the best knowledge available; their PR campaign sold the war as a sure thing to fix a sure problem. And that’s a good reason not to believe the PR campaign any further. At least, they are way too overconfident in their competence. And this is to speak nothing of the other justifications, their value or their truth.

  • Richard Buckley

    What a sensible post. It’s even possible that Saddam thought he actually had WMDs.

  • rosignol

    Most absurdly, this lobby also tries to claim that the fact that we armed originally Saddam makes toppling him unjustified, while simultaineously denying that he had the weapons that they’ve just agreed we sold him!

    Well, the chemical weapons were largely built with the assistance of a German company (google ‘Karl Kolb’ if you want the details), and making too big of a deal out of that would embarass Schroder, and the vast majority of the conventional stuff (including the Scuds) came from the Soviet Union and it’s clients. So it’s not surprising that we didn’t hear much about where Saddam actually got his kit in the lead-up to war.

    The inability of leftists to recognize evil on the left is disturbing.