For the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, the New York Times published an article by Max Fisher headlined “20 Years On, a Question Lingers About Iraq: Why Did the U.S. Invade?”
The article is a fairly cogent summation of the evidence. However, when it was first published, it was undermined by an extremely significant and extremely funny mistake. After inquiries from The Intercept, the paper has changed the original mistake into a fresh, new mistake.
Here’s how the article originally read:
Mr. Hussein had ejected international weapons inspectors, which was seen in Washington as a humiliating policy failure for Mr. Clinton.
When the American leader was weakened by scandal later that year [in 1998], congressional Republicans pounced, passing the Iraq Liberation Act …
One reason this is so funny is because in 1998 the Times accurately reported what happened. The United Nations inspections team, called UNSCOM, was not expelled by Saddam Hussein, but rather was withdrawn by Richard Butler, the head of UNSCOM, after he consulted with the U.S. — about the fact that the U.S. was about to start bombing Iraq, in a campaign called Operation Desert Fox.
Even funnier is that the Times went on to claim erroneously that Iraq had expelled UNSCOM in 1998 at least five times, twice in 1999 and then in 2000, 2002 and 2003. It issued corrections on the three latter articles.
Two decades later, the paper apparently wanted to recapture its youth by being wrong again. The paper has now issued its fourth correction on this subject. Its present-day story currently reads:
Hussein had ejected international weapons inspectors in 1997, which was seen in Washington as a humiliating policy failure for Mr. Clinton.
Then, when Mr. Clinton was weakened by scandal in 1998, congressional Republicans pounced, passing the Iraq Liberation Act …
Wonderfully enough, this is also wrong. Iraq did expel the American members of the U.N. inspections team in 1997. But the rest remained in Iraq until they were withdrawn by the United Nations. All, including the Americans, returned to Iraq eight days later.
You can find this information in a story published when it happened, by a little-known paper called the New York Times.
The corrected text in the 2023 story also leaves out the reason Iraq expelled the (American) inspectors in 1997: Because some of the Americans were conducting espionage against Iraq. Again, you can read about this in the New York Times.
If you just want to chuckle morosely about the inability of America’s most prestigious newspaper to get this story right — even now, after two decades, after the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings in Iraq because of the 2003 invasion — you can stop here. But if you want the details about why this mistake truly matters, please continue reading.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, one of the favorite talking points of its proponents was that Saddam Hussein had expelled the UNSCOM team in 1998. This claim appeared in numerous media outlets, not just the Times.
This little bit of propaganda was popular because of its obvious implication. What possible reason would Iraq have to throw out the U.N. weapons inspectors unless it was hiding something?
Telling the story accurately, however, makes clear why Iraq’s behavior was congruent with having no banned weapons.
The UNSCOM inspections protocol was created by U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, which ended the 1991 Gulf War following Iraq’s retreat from Kuwait. UNSC 687 demanded that Iraq disclose all its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. Harsh sanctions would remain on Iraq until it had verifiably done so. At that point, however, the sanctions would be lifted. Also, Iraq’s disarmament would “represent steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction.”
But President George H.W. Bush immediately announced that the U.S. would ignore all of this, and maintain the sanctions — whether Iraq was or wasn’t disarmed — until Saddam Hussein was forced from power. (You can read about this in the New York Times.) In fact, the sanctions were seen as a way to make life in Iraq so miserable that Iraqis would be motivated to overthrow Saddam.
This stance was later reiterated by President Bill Clinton, as well as his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. What UNSC 687 said didn’t matter; sanctions would remain until Saddam was gone.
Thus Saddam Hussein’s regime had little incentive to cooperate with UNSCOM to begin with. Nevertheless, UNSCOM did an excellent job. We now know Iraq was largely disarmed by the end of 1991. It concealed extensive documentation and some equipment from its WMD programs until 1995, when it was forced to divulge all of it. But by that point, eight years before the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq was essentially clean.
The Iraqi regime understandably believed sanctions should be lifted. As the CIA’s final report on Iraq’s WMD programs put it, “Iraq considered [turning over its remaining material] to be a measure of goodwill and cooperation with the UN.” Internally, the government required WMD scientists to sign a declaration that they wouldn’t hide anything from the U.N., on pain of execution.
At the time Richard Haass, now the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke on a Washington, D.C., panel about the problem Iraqi disarmament presented. “We have to guard,” Haass said, “against the possibility that one day we may not be able to keep the French and Russians in line, that Saddam does comply with so much of the resolutions that the United States can’t sustain the policy … We are clearly in favor of regime change … [but] there’s no reference anywhere in any UN resolution to regime change.”
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration had grown tired of passively hoping Saddam would be overthrown and turned to more active measures to encourage a coup. This included putting American spies on the UNSCOM team who would purportedly be helping to look for WMD, but were actually there to conduct espionage aimed at Saddam’s removal.
Iraq figured this out fairly quickly. Naturally, Saddam and his regime weren’t enthusiastic about it, given that this would inevitably end in his death. Moreover, they now felt there would never be an end to the sanctions. This led to several famous standoffs between UNSCOM and Iraqi security.
For instance, on December 9, 1998, UNSCOM showed up unannounced at Saddam’s Baath Party headquarters and was denied entry. The CIA WMD report found that Saddam was actually there at the time, and that he “issued orders not to give them access. Saddam did this to prevent the inspectors from knowing his whereabouts, not because he had something to hide.”
The U.S. used this type of noncompliance as justification for the Desert Fox strikes, which took place from December 16 to December 19, 1998. Following this, Iraq refused to allow UNSCOM to return until forced to in the fall of 2002.
Providing an accurate history like this makes clear that the WMD issue was always irrelevant to the U.S. government. When we were helping Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s, Iraq’s use of chemical weapons was an embarrassing PR problem but otherwise of no significance. During the Clinton administration, it became a useful PR pretext to keep the sanctions on Iraq and try to overthrow Saddam. Then by 2003, it became a rationale for war.
That’s why the “Saddam threw out the inspectors” error is so pernicious. It leads to other conclusions in the Times article, such as that Saddam “concealed the paltry state of his weapons programs to appear strong at home and deter the Americans.” The evidence for this is, let’s say, extremely dubious. Saddam’s behavior can’t be called wise or good, but it wasn’t some kind of mysterious bluff. Iraq didn’t have WMD, and it kept saying that, over and over again. But Saddam had higher priorities than cooperating with UNSCOM, such as staying alive for the next 20 minutes.
The Times coverage of Iraq and its purported weapons of mass destruction was so atrocious in the lead-up to war in 2003 that the paper eventually had to issue an extensive mea culpa. So you’d like to believe that it now would concentrate on getting it right, at long last. However, that’s clearly a vain dream. It’s inevitable that for the rest of our lives, the Times will intermittently claim Saddam threw out the inspectors. Our only hope to prevent this would be to get reporters at the Times a subscription to the paper.