War stories

By Carne Ross

Financial Times

Published: January 29 2005

Nearly two years after the United States and Britain invaded Iraq, the world remains polarised over the war. Supporters thought the war necessary, while many opponents believe a false case was deliberately manufactured for it.

This allegation has been reinforced by the discovery of a putative intellectual justification for such deceit, the idea of the “noble lie” propagated by the late University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss, one of the strongest intellectual influences on the neo-conservatives. According to Strauss, elites in liberal societies must sometimes create “myths” to hold those societies together, for fear that they would otherwise collapse through selfishness and individualism.

One such myth is the enemy, the threat, the identification and combating of which forces the society to cohere and unite. Once that enemy was the Soviet Union and communism; today it is al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

This is a big allegation and it is a toxic dispute, poisonous to both domestic and international reputations, cause of both angry accusation and equally bitter rebuttal. But perhaps another part of the Iraq story - that of sanctions - can help throw light on the argument.

It was a story in which I was intimately involved: I was, from 1998 to 2002, the British “expert” on Iraq for the UK delegation to the UN Security Council, responsible for policy on both weapons inspections and sanctions against Iraq. My experience in those years and what happened subsequently is in part why I recently resigned from the Foreign Office.

Opponents of sanctions argued that they were unjustified and caused immense human suffering in Iraq. Iraq had demonstrably disarmed; the weapons inspectors’ endless probings and questions were nugatory. The counter-arguments were plausible: Iraq had failed on many occasions to co-operate fully with the weapons inspectors, leaving important questions unanswered; Hussein obstructed the operation of the UN’s oil-for-food programme, which was designed to lessen the humanitarian suffering. In northern Iraq, where the UN, and not Hussein, fully controlled the programme, all indicators showed the positive benefits of the programme in health, sanitation, education and the like.

It was my job to cull and collate the innumerable statistics, reports and testimonies in support of this latter version of the story and to deploy them in speeches and debates in the Security Council. On the other side of the table, the diplomats opposing sanctions - led by Russia and France - could cite myriad reports detailing the suffering under the sanctions regime and the inequities of the oil-for-food programme. They could provide convincing arguments that the north received an unfair share of oil-for-food funds. Like me, they could deploy an arsenal of facts and details to validate their version of “the truth”. But, oddly, they often cited the very same reports that I did, for the UN reports provided ammunition for both sets of arguments.

It was, of course, a complex story that we managed to divide into two distinct and opposing narratives. The atmosphere between the delegations on the Security Council was aggressive and adversarial, as it remained until - and after - the invasion. Political divisions were allowed to degenerate into personal animosities. The Council, its chambers and corridors became a diplomatic battlezone where the more we fought, the more we entrenched our positions into competing blacks and whites. Thus were we able to obscure the more complex, deeper and more important truth, perhaps even the truth.

This was only slowly revealed to me by the many humanitarian workers, UN officials and ordinary Iraqis, including opposition members, who actually lived and worked in Iraq rather than those who wrote or read reports about it. Their human testimony was in the end infinitely more eloquent and convincing, in the main because all of them, without exception, said the same thing. And this was that there was undoubted human suffering in Iraq, of a quite appalling scale, and that not enough was being done - by anyone - to address it. Put this question to a British minister today and he or she will tell you that we tried to ease the impact of sanctions, but it is clear now, and frankly it was clear then, that it was much, much too little, too late. We - the US and UK - could have done a great deal more. Meanwhile, the Russians, French and others in the Security Council could have done a lot more to help control illegal smuggling by Iraq (the main sustenance of the Hussein regime and itself something that reduced the funds for humanitarian supplies) and to support the weapons inspectors.

This example illustrates how governments and their officials can compose convincing versions of the truth, filled with more or less verifiable facts, and yet be entirely wrong. I did not make up lies about Hussein’s smuggling or obstruction of the UN’s humanitarian programme. The speeches I drafted for the Security Council and my telegrams back to London were composed of facts filtered from the stacks of reports and intelligence that daily hit my desk. As I read these reports, facts and judgments that contradicted “our” version of events would almost literally fade into nothingness. Facts that reinforced our narrative would stand out to me almost as if highlighted, to be later deployed by me, my ambassador and my ministers like hand grenades in the diplomatic trench warfare. Details in otherwise complex reports would be extracted to be telegraphed back to London, where they would be inserted into ministerial briefings or press articles. A complicated picture was reduced to a selection of facts that became factoids, such as the suggestion that Hussein imported huge quantities of whisky or built a dozen palaces, validated by constant repetition: true, but not the whole truth.

It is clear from the evidence available that something similar went on with the question of Iraq’s weapons. This neither confirms nor fully refutes the “noble lie” thesis of deliberate deceit. But, rather, it suggests a more complex and subtle, and if anything more disturbing, story.

Here the basis of evidence was not UN, NGO or other reports on sanctions or sanctions-busting, many of which suffered their own peculiar biases and flaws, but a resource that is unavoidably unreliable, namely secret intelligence. Particularly after inspectors were withdrawn in late 1998, the available intelligence on Iraq was severely limited. Whatever Hussein had or did, he concealed under roofs or underground, and there is no aircraft or satellite camera yet invented that can penetrate there.

Both the US and UK were thus forced in large part to rely on that most unreliable reporter of facts - human beings (or “humint” as it is known). In addition, there was the expert knowledge of the many inspectors who had visited Iraq’s WMD sites and had spoken with Iraqi officials and scientists. Despite these difficulties, the picture that emerged in the late 1990s and into 2002 was reasonably consistent.

This was that Iraq was not rearming to any great extent, that there were still questions about its disposal of past stocks of weapons but, in summary, that the policy of containment was working. Inevitably, there were unanswered questions - unconfirmed reports of attempted imports of dual-use materials that might be used to produce WMD and possibilities that the unaccounted-for dozen or so Scud missiles might still exist and be reassembled (not one has been found postwar). But there was nothing that would suggest significant rearmament or intent to attack Iraq’s neighbours, let alone the UK. The Butler report gives a similar account.

Yet, by September 2002, both the US and UK governments were claiming that Iraq was a significant threat, citing clear and authoritative intelligence evidence of rearmament and attempts to acquire nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The US government went further, suggesting that Hussein, al-Qaeda and 9/11 were somehow connected. Bush began to juxtapose al-Qaeda and Hussein in adjacent sentences, never quite claiming a proven connection, but deliberately implying some kind of link. The implication, still repeated to this day by members of the Bush administration, was refuted by the 9/11 Commission. Even at the time of the war, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) let it be known publicly that there was no foundation to this suggestion.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn cites a number of studies where scientists with different paradigmatic views observe different patterns in the same data - what he calls a switch in the visual gestalt. For example, looking at a contour map, a student sees lines on a paper, a cartographer a picture of terrain. Only once trained will the student see the same as the cartographer, even though the data he is observing have not changed.

Both the British Prime Minister, to the Butler review, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have admitted publicly (long after the war) that what changed before the war was not the evidence of Iraqi weapons but, in the new post-9/11 light, the appraisal of that evidence. The Prime Minister told the Butler review: “after September 11th it took on a completely different aspect... what changed for me with September 11th was that I thought then you have to change your mindset... you have to go out and get after the different aspects of this threat... you have to deal with this because otherwise the threat will grow... “

This rings true and is understandable. An event of the horror and magnitude of 9/11 should have changed our appreciation of the dangers of WMD and non-compliance with international law. It represented, for good or ill, a paradigm shift in the way our leaders saw the world. But it appears that not only did the appraisal change but, crucially, so did the presentation of that appraisal, and the evidence justifying it, to the public.

There were no doubt other factors at play. There is a tendency in government to see intelligence material as being at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of information. Awash with information, government reifies the skill of abstracting the core from the mass (indeed it is a skill tested in the entrance exams when you join, for instance, the Foreign Office). Unlike the voluminous flow of diplomatic telegrams, memos and open-source information that hits computers on desks across government every day, intelligence arrives in slim folders, adorned with colourful stickers announcing not only the secrecy of the information therein but the restricted circulation it enjoys. The impression thus given, a product of these aesthetics, is of access to the real thing, the secret core denied to all but the elite few.

History gives an interesting example of this phenomenon, namely the case of the Zinoviev letter. In 1924, Britain’s Foreign Office was sent a copy of a letter, purporting to come from Grigori Zinoviev, the president of the Soviet Comintern, addressed to the central committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The letter urged the party to stir up the British proletariat in preparation for class war. The letter then appeared in the press, causing immense political and diplomatic repercussions. It was a major embarrassment for the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and the governing Labour Party. The opposition Conservatives won the general election four days later. Relations between Britain and the Soviet Union soured, and Anglo-Soviet treaties were abandoned.

Only in 1999, when the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook ordered an investigation of Britain’s official archives, was it confirmed that the Zinoviev letter was a fake. The fake was believed as genuine by the Foreign Office, the archives revealed, because it came from the Secret Intelligence Service (this an observation from the Foreign Office’s own archival investigation).

An additional factor in Iraq was also that many of the human sources of intelligence had an understandable interest in exaggerating what they were reporting, not least because they wanted to encourage the overthrow of a regime they hated. The role of the Iraqi National Congress, the key Iraqi opposition group before the war, in providing “humint” is now well-known. But, interestingly, the Butler inquiry discounts this factor, instead pointing to the SIS’s failure to properly validate its sources, the long reporting chains and the sources’ lack of expertise on what they were reporting.

Back in the capitals, there is meanwhile an invisible undertow at work on the civil servants who collate and analyse this information. If ministers want a particular story to emerge, it has a way of emerging: the facts are made to fit the policy. It takes a brave if not foolhardy civil servant to resist this tide. This is not to claim that there was some secret cubicle in Whitehall (or Washington) where evidence of Iraq’s weapons was deliberately fabricated, but something more subtle. Evidence is selected from the available mass, contradictions are excised, and the selected data are repeated, rephrased, polished (spun, if you prefer), until it seems neat, coherent and convincing, to the extent that those presenting it may believe it fully themselves.

All of these reasons will have contributed to a considerable bias in the information that the government received and the analyses then produced on Iraq’s WMD. All of these reasons should have inspired caution; any assessment based on such information should have been heavily caveated. But, as the Butler report relates, instead of transmitting these caveats in its public presentations, such as the infamous Number 10 dossier, the government left them out. What was broadcast to the public was in effect not the summit of a hierarchy of information but a selection from a spectrum of information, a spectrum that ranged from the well-established to the highly speculative, and the selection came from the wrong end. Just as I once produced one-sided arguments to justify sanctions by ignoring all contrary evidence, the government produced a highly one-sided account of inherently unreliable information.

Of course governments in all democracies present one-sided accounts of policy. Economic statistics are always presented with the positive numbers in the forefront, the negative sidelined to footnotes or ignored. Civil servants are highly skilled in slanting information in this way. But there should be limits. When seeking to justify military action, the government has a duty to tell the whole truth, not just a partial account of it.

Something else was going on too. As the drums of war beat louder in Washington, both the US and UK governments became more strident in dismissing containment or other alternatives to all-out invasion. Bush declared sanctions as full of holes as Swiss cheese; the Prime Minister even once, bizarrely, argued that military action was preferable to the distress caused by sanctions. Sanctions were crumbling, the public was told (and still is today). These governments gave the impression that all alternatives had been exhausted; war was the only option.

This was not in fact the case. There was a viable alternative. Effective action to seize Hussein’s illegal financial assets and block oil smuggling would have denied him the resources which sustained his power. Sanctions on the regime, and not its long-suffering people. This alternative was, unfortunately, for many years before the war never pursued with the necessary energy or commitment. The reasons for this are not immediately obvious.

Such a policy would have required consistent pressure across the region, applied to all of Iraq’s neighbours. And, for different reasons in each case, it wasn’t pursued with sufficient vigour. Senior envoys and ministers only rarely or half-heartedly mentioned smuggling in bilateral contacts, thereby implying toleration. Gradually it came to be understood that certain of Iraq’s neighbours were “allowed” to import illegal oil, undermining attempts to deal with even the most egregious sanctions-busters.

Meanwhile, back in the Security Council, any attempt we made to propose collective action against smuggling was invariably blocked by France or Russia, on the alleged grounds that there was insufficient proof of the smuggling, or that such action might further harm Iraq’s people. I lost count of the number of times we inserted provisions for sanctions-monitoring units, or other exhortations for action, into draft Council resolutions, only to have diplomats from these countries strike them out in negotiation (as veto-wielding permanent members, their acquiescence was essential to every dot and comma). The US and UK governments now like to claim that this was the reason sanctions failed (when in doubt, blame the French); some even claim that the UN itself connived at corruption to benefit Hussein (an allegation for which so far there is scant evidence). But, in truth, we too exerted precious little energy to enforce controls. While in New York we argued ourselves hoarse in negotiation, Washington and London rarely lifted the diplomatic equivalent of a finger to pressure Iraq’s neighbours to stem the illegal flows.

An effective anti-smuggling policy would have required an over-arching and long-term strategy, addressing problems - ranging from illegal bank accounts to cross-border oil smuggling - in a variety of different areas. Such a strategy was never implemented. Instead there were piecemeal and ineffective efforts.

I suspect that the reason for this perhaps lies in the universal human truth that what can be left until later usually is, until it is too late. The policy was difficult, complex and unfashionable, demanding extensive study to master and discuss, a luxury busy ministers and senior officials do not enjoy. It was never the first or most glamorous priority, so it was allowed to slide.

In the end, when contrasted with the complexity and uncertainty of the alternatives, war may have seemed simpler. In the strange way that governments are swept along by events without properly stopping to think, war came to be seen as the only viable course, a current strengthened in Britain no doubt by the clear determination in Washington, now amply chronicled in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, to pursue conflict.

It would undoubtedly have taken considerable political and diplomatic effort to corral Iraq’s neighbours and other states into this alternate course. It would not have had the binary clarity of winning or losing a war (though this war seems neither won yet, nor lost). But this effort would have certainly been less than that of going to war, and it had the real potential to remove the regime by cutting away the funds that sustained it. Above all, this approach would not have incurred the sacrifice of Iraqi and British and American, and other, lives.

If Iraq was not a threat and not collaborating with terrorists, why did the Bush and Blair governments go to war? Several plausible explanations have been offered by others: the US administration’s need, after 9/11, to demonstrate its power - anywhere, anyhow; a “mission civilatrice” to democratise the world by force, an impulse given strength by the vigorous and forceful lobby of the Iraqi opposition. But less credible, given the record on sanctions, is the claim that the welfare of the Iraqi people was the primary concern.

Another possible explanation lies in the more sinister motives of oil and its control. The prospect of Iraq’s huge reserves (the second largest in the world) hung in the air throughout policy deliberations in the years before the war. It was well-known that Hussein had allocated all the massively lucrative post-sanctions exploration contracts to French, Chinese, Russian and other non-US and non-British companies (and it bothered the companies a lot, as they would tell us). It is hard to believe that the immense potential for money-making and energy security did not exert some pull in the decision to invade, but the evidence for a Chomskyan sort of conspiracy led by Big Oil is hard to come by. But again, we do not know, because we have not been told. Instead we were given not the “noble lie”, but the somewhat less-than-noble half-truth. The full answer will perhaps be revealed by the chief protagonists in years to come. For now, all we can know for sure is that the empirical reasons these governments have given so far simply do not add up.

Perhaps, therefore, a non-empirical reason is at the heart of this. They did it because they thought it was right. Hussein was a bad man, a potential danger in the future (if not today). And this, if true, is a legitimate reason, or at least arguable. Unfortunately, it is neither the primary reason both governments gave the UN or their peoples for going to war (though Bush alludes to it with ever greater frequency, and Tony Blair has begun to do the same), nor is it justifiable in any canon of international law (although perhaps it should be).

And here we return to Leo Strauss: not to the “noble lie”, but to his belief in “natural law”, a fundamental, sometimes religious (though Strauss, I read, was an atheist) sense of right and wrong, a right and wrong superior to all other laws- including, it seems in this case, international law. Both leaders have said in the past that they believe in such rules, as I suspect do most of us in some way. And it is perhaps the readiness of electors, especially in the US, to accept this reasoning that lies behind the curious phenomenon that, although the evidence that these governments misled their populaces is now clear, neither Bush nor Blair appears likely to pay any long-term political price for it.

In the recent presidential elections the allegation of lying, noble or otherwise, and the decidedly ambiguous course of the resulting war, did not turn the people against their chosen president. His “natural law” argument - that it was right to remove Hussein - sufficed, even when the empirical evidence didn’t. Tony Blair is no doubt hoping the same will be true when Britain goes to the polls.

Political theorists of the 21st century have much to feed on in this analysis: it is a story rich in paradox and contradiction, from which it is hard to divine rational inferences or laws. The governments did not manufacture lies, but neither did they tell the truth, even when they thought they did. These half-truths, moreover, bore no relation whatsoever to the real truth of what was actually going on in Iraq (no terrorists, no WMD). And in the end, the electors, in the name of whose security and safety the whole exercise was undertaken, do not seem to care much either way. In this picture, it seems that neither Strauss nor Plato (who in fact originated the “noble lie”) nor anyone else is much guide. Things seem altogether less ordered and coherent than any logical analysis would have it. The key actors claim to have agency, to make rational decisions, but in fact are swept along by forces they cannot grasp. Laws of democracy and morality give way: the law of chaos instead must hold sway.

Here may be the biggest misperception of all, though not a lie, since it is hardly conscious. This is a misperception - a fiction, if you like - in which governments and governed collaborate alike, for to believe otherwise is too uncomfortable. And this is that governments, politicians and civil servants are able to observe the world without bias and disinterestedly interpret its myriad signs into facts and judgments (indeed, in the Foreign Office, telegrams are divided into these two very categories: “Detail” and “Comment”) with an objective, almost scientific rigour. The story of what these two governments observed, believed and then told their populations about Iraq suggests an altogether more imperfect reality.

Carne Ross recently resigned from the senior management structure of the British Diplomatic Service. He is now director of a new diplomatic consultancy, Independent Diplomat.