“Gotcha, Mr. President.” This was the consensus of the headlines from nearly every daily newspaper yesterday responding to the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group report on Iraq’s prewar weapons programs. Yes, the report found no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. It also concluded that whatever illicit weapons Saddam Hussein did possess were most likely destroyed just after the 1991 Gulf War in accordance with U.N. sanctions. But were these the findings that the report highlighted in the first line of its Key Findings summary? No. “Saddam [Hussein] so dominated the Iraqi Regime that its strategic intent was his alone,” the summary begins. “He wanted to end sanctions while preserving the capability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) when sanctions were lifted.”
This hardly sounds as if the Iraq Survey Group, headed by Charles A. Duelfer, thought Saddam was cooperating with the international community. The fact is that U.N. sanctions did have a debilitating effect on Iraq and Saddam’s weapons programs. But as the report notes, “Saddam’s primary goal from 1991 to 2003 was to have UN sanctions lifted, while maintaining the security of the Regime. He sought to balance the need to cooperate with the UN inspections — to gain support for lifting the sanctions — with his intention to preserve Iraq’s intellectual capital for WMD with a minimum of foreign intrusiveness and loss of face.” International pressure to lift the sanctions led to the establishment of the Oil for Food program, which Saddam immediately saw “could be corrupted to acquire foreign exchange both to further undermine sanctions and to provide the means to enhance dual-use infrastructure and potential WMD-related development.”
Saddam focused his attention on three members of the Security Council — France, China and Russia — by bribing government officials and business executives with billions of dollars skimmed from Oil for Food. “At a minimum,” the report says, “Saddam wanted to divide the five permanent members [of the Security Council] and foment international public support of Iraq at the UN and throughout the world by a savvy public relations campaign and an extensive diplomatic effort.” Indeed, Saddam’s ploy almost worked: “By 2000-2001, Saddam had managed to mitigate many of the effects of sanctions and undermine their international support,” the report said.
Regrettably, in an election year, the real lessons from Saddam’s decade of duplicity are lost beneath a pile of political motivations and personal interests. While the United Nations turned a blind eye, Saddam cheated and committed mass murder in an effort to achieve his goals. To suggest that “containment” could have been sustained without dire results verges on the delusional. There is a very pertinent lesson in the Duelfer report; too bad no one told the headline writers.