David Kay's surprising exit interview confirms that the old conventional wisdom -- that Iraq had an advanced and growing WMD program -- has given way to a new conventional wisdom: that the Iraqi program was to a remarkable extent smoke and mirrors. It is increasingly unlikely that new discoveries will change this assessment, so it makes sense to take stock of what the new conventional wisdom tells us about the old, and vice versa.
We should begin by discarding the self-serving rush to judgment of partisans. Democrats have gleefully claimed that since the Iraqi WMD program was (apparently) not as advanced as the Bush administration claimed it to be, the neoconservatives in the Bush administration must have deliberately lied. Despite its popularity on the campaign primary trail, this conspiracy theory is so nutty that Bush defenders have just as gleefully avoided tougher questions and contented themselves with knocking it down: How could even the all-powerful neocons have manipulated the intelligence estimates of the Clinton administration, French intelligence, British intelligence, German intelligence and all the other "co-conspirators" who concurred on the fundamentals of the Bush assessment?
But focusing on that extreme charge distracts us from recognizing some less obvious lessons that are clearer now with hindsight. Here are four:
The alternatives confronting the Security Council in March 2003 were not viable. If eight months of largely unfettered investigations could not provide a smoking gun to prove the existence or nonexistence of a stockpile, certainly Hans Blix would fail as well. The alternatives some advocated -- I thought six more weeks of Blix inspections would have been a good compromise in March 2003 -- would have left us just as uncertain. Even giving Blix another year would have left us groping in the dark. Remember that the new conventional wisdom is built on the absence of discovery (something that Blix could have provided easily) and on the corroborating testimony of people who no longer have reason to fear Saddam Hussein (something that Blix could never have provided).
Intelligence failure was inevitable given the nature of the Iraqi regime. The new conventional wisdom is that Hussein wanted us to think he had a more advanced WMD program than he thought he had, and that Hussein himself thought he had a more advanced WMD program than he really had. If Hussein could be deceived in a country where he had absolute power, where he regularly punished betrayers by slipping them through human shredders or having their wives raped in front of them, then any external intelligence service was going to be deceived as well. The intelligence community accurately reported that Hussein was hiding things, that he was pursuing WMD programs, that senior members of the Iraqi military-industrial complex were convinced Iraq was pursuing WMD. Given Iraq's record, it would have been heroic to connect those dots into the picture we now think we see, namely, that it was mostly Iraqi actors deceiving each other and everyone else.
Intelligence failures beget intelligence failures. The intelligence community has a sorry record of assessing just how advanced an incipient WMD program really is. In fact, there is a striking pattern. In each of these cases, new evidence turned out to rebut the established consensus of the intelligence community: the Soviet Union in 1949, China in 1964, India in 1974, Iraq in 1991, North Korea in 1994, Iraq in 1995, India in 1998, Pakistan in 1998, North Korea in 2002, Iran in 2003 and Libya in 2003. In each of these cases, the WMD program turned out to be more advanced than the intelligence community thought. Iraq in 2003 may be the only exception (though there is reason to believe that North Korea is, like Iraq, exaggerating its nuclear progress).
Intelligence cannot substitute for political judgment. Coercive diplomacy, the alternative to war, requires political judgment under conditions of uncertainty, a fact lost in the increasingly rancorous partisan debate. The critics who are bashing President Bush for pushing a hard line on Iraq are also bashing President Bush for not pushing a hard enough line on North Korea. Ironically, the president is doing everything in North Korea that he was accused of not doing in Iraq: building an international coalition to support pressure on North Korea; not taking North Korean claims at face value; weighing carefully the costs of military action; and so on. The bottom line is that the hard cases -- North Korea, Iran and, yes, Iraq -- are hard cases precisely because the easy options have been tried and proved wanting.
If the current Kay exit interview had been available in March 2003, it's unlikely that the administration would have pressed for war. But since the war case rested on multiple pillars -- dealing with a problem now before it became an unmanageable problem later, recognizing that Hussein could not be trusted in the long run, recognizing that the war on terrorists involved getting tough on the causes of terrorism (stunted political development in the Middle East), recognizing that the status quo policy on Iraq was responsible for creating the conditions that gave rise to al Qaeda in the first place -- it is possible that reasonable people would have still advocated war.
So by all means, let us have a full investigation into the intelligence failure (though let us not expect one during a presidential campaign). But let us not think that much better intelligence would have been achievable or conclusive in helping us decide how to deal with Hussein.