Bush's imperative category
What is a WMD?



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Despite the release of the presidential commission's intelligence report, the big question, the question that grips us all, remains unanswered: during the march to war did President George W. Bush and his lieutenants mislead the American people or lie to them regarding Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)? Or put more charitably, did the president and his cabinet ministers make a genuine effort to relay accurate, non-propagandistic information to the American people regarding the proposition that Iraq possessed WMDs and thus constituted a threat to American security?

Now, among the cognoscenti such questions about U.S. foreign and military policy are ludicrous and permit but one answer: the president of the United States always aims at the good and would never resort to propaganda, deception, or lying to implement an unpopular or evidentially challenged policy. Someone else must have made a "mistake." That is the unstated premise, the article of faith, that sets a definite limit on rational discourse, however learned, if one is to remain a member of the Washington elite with the rights and privileges that such membership entails.

However, as outsiders we are permitted to consider the historical reality, indeed the ancient certitude, that politicians sometimes resort to half-truths, propaganda, and outright lies to enact controversial policies. It is the intellectual freedom granted us by our obscurity that allows us to consider the possibility that President Bush and his advisors were less than forthright in making the case for war.

In what follows we will avoid a pitfall that commonly plagues investigations of presidential malfeasance: an obsession with providing an ironclad case for prevarication. We will eschew also a lengthy excursion through arcane intelligence dossiers, official notes and speeches, and the transcripts from the Sunday talk shows — as necessary as all of that may be when scholars are amassing their evidence and hammering together an airtight case. Rather, we will seek a simple and elegant line of inquiry to highlight possible presidential misconduct with respect to the WMD question and leave it to the intelligent reader to draw whatever moral lesson or inference appears warranted.

A single and curious piece of verbal data provides the starting point for our investigation, namely, that President Bush and his advisors, in building their case for war, deliberately and repeatedly referred to chemical and biological weapons as weapons of mass destruction and, more important, lumped them together with nuclear weapons in that same category. The point is so obvious a quote will not be provided. However, the skeptical reader is encouraged to do a Google search to check on the claim. For our purposes, however, we will take the above as an established part of the public record.

What's the problem? The problem is that no one with even a passing knowledge of the history of warfare or military science would refer to chemical weapons as WMDs because, well, they are not weapons of mass destruction. (The same may even apply to biological weapons.) Chemical weapons are relatively ineffective devices that have never caused anything approximating mass destruction. Indeed, to call Saddam's old stockpile of mustard gas a WMD is to call the humble gun a super-WMD, for the gun has claimed far more lives, maimed far more people, and caused far more physical destruction than all the chemical weapons employed in the history of modern warfare. Such a characterization is an evident absurdity. Hence, it seems that a logically sound definition of "weapon of mass destruction" precludes classifying chemical (and possibly biological) weapons as WMDs and by implication puts the Bush administration on shaky ground for insisting otherwise.

The difficulty is even more apparent when chemical and biological weapons are classified, under the rubric of WMD, alongside nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are true weapons of mass destruction — weapons that can cause and have caused massive destruction and horrific death tolls. However, chemical weapons (and perhaps even biological weapons) fail to rival the prosaic machine gun in destructive power and lethality. Clearly, nuclear weapons — devices with the demonstrated ability to destroy entire cities in a single attack — require a separate category, a category that sharply delineates them from chemical weapons. Apparently, the Bush administration failed to grasp this important reality or refused to admit it if it did grasp it. Remarkably, all parties in the debate do admit, now, that Iraq never possessed nuclear weapons.

Thus, there seem to be two verbal problems worthy of further investigation: (1) the president and his advisors constantly and willfully used the term WMD to describe chemical weapons although such a classification is fallacious. And (2) the president and his advisors repeatedly grouped chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in the category of WMD though such a grouping seems inaccurate prima facie. Unfortunately, such errors provided the rhetorical foundation for the administration's case for war.

There you have it, a simple line of argument that suggests possible bad behavior on the part of the president and his advisors. What remains to be demonstrated is whether the president and his staff knew that the use of "WMD" in describing chemical agents was inaccurate and whether grouping nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons was false. I leave it to the reader to decide that weighty question for himself.

And I leave it to the reader, as well, to decide whether the president, his administration, or his more vocal supporters were less interested in truth than in propaganda, fear-mongering, or lying to the American people.

April 29, 2005

Joseph Audie is a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics and a believer in the perennial philosophy, best propounded by the Dumb Ox.

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