Saddam’s McGuffin of Power

In Lord of Rings, the plot revolves around an attempt by all parties to control Sauron’s ring of power. The ring is an item unique in all the world. Whomever controls that one item rules the world.

This plot device of unique item is fairly common in literature and movies. Hitchcock called it a McGuffin. Every character has to be looking for that unique item.

It’s not just fantasy items like magic rings and swords that get that treatment. Technology does too. Most James Bond movies feature some piece of technology so unique that control of it will lead to world domination.

All this would just be of interest to students of fiction, except that for a large section of the population the gut feel for how technology actually works comes from works of fiction. Most people in the contemporary world have no direct experience with researching, creating or manufacturing actual technology. They may use it but they don’t understand how it comes to be. It is very easy for people to think of technological items like nuclear reactors or computers in the same way as they see them portrayed in the movies.

It’s very clear from reading the ongoing debate about the extent of Saddam’s WMDs that most people have absolutely no idea of the technological issues involved. Most people, even major politicians and media figures talk about WMDs as if they were McGuffins. They act as if we expected to find a giant throbbing orb in an underground base under Baghdad that had WMD written on it. They think that WMDs were discrete objects or things that could be located and controlled.

Technology doesn’t work like that.

Technology isn’t about things, it is about people and the knowledge they have. Once a person has solved a technological problem, once he has built something once, recreating it is a relatively trivial exercise. Trying to treat real-world technology like a McGuffin leads to situations were you would seize every item in a warehouse, declare the problem solved, then ride off into the sunset leaving the factory next door running at full production. Even destroying the factory would be only a temporary solution if you left the scientists, engineers and technicians that built the factory in place.

That is why everyone who claimed to be a technical expert that ever said that the U.N. inspections were “working” was lying. The inspection never could have permanently prevented Saddam from creating WMDs. The inspectors could have stripped out every piece of technology even vaguely related to WMDs and all it would have bought us was time. The original inspection regime was only intended to verify that Saddam had voluntarily stopped pursuing WMD programs. Once it became clear, in the ’94-’96 time frame, that he had no intention of stopping his WMD programs, the inspections were a dead letter.

As long a Saddam had his technological cadre it was only a matter of time before they recreated the weapons he had made in the past. Finding a cache of nerve gas shells, some containers of weaponized anthrax spores or something else would have been icing on the cake but was completely irrelevant to the long-term threat posed by Saddam’s regime.

This is just one issue where the popular conception of how technology works in the real world seriously skews a political debate.

11 thoughts on “Saddam’s McGuffin of Power”

  1. The inspections were a mistake to begin with. Other than Iraq, so far as I know there has never been a case of “hostile” inspections in forced disarmament. Disarmament is either done openly and freely (as in many of the former Soviet Republics) or it is done forcibly at the end of a gun and the promise (or actuality) of violence. Sending in inspectors to disarm a country against its will is about like sending a district attorney to do a sherrif’s job.

  2. Robin Goodfellow,

    Well, the theory behind the original inspections was that as part of the cease-fire agreement, Saddam surrendered Iraq’s right to research, manufacture and deploy a list of technologies we lump under WMD’s. The Inspectors were simply to verify he had done so. They were meant to function like auditors, cataloguing the voluntary dismantling of the WMD programs. There were there as much for Saddam benefit as the U.N.’s.

    When it became clear that Saddam was not genuinely interested in disarmament then the clerk/inspectors became superfluous.

  3. Nice attempt to retrospectively move the goalposts. We haven’t found any of the things we said were there. None of the items enumerated by Powell in his U.N. presentation to justify action have been found. Trucks geared to manufacture basic chemical and bacteriological weapons are very concrete and discrete objects that can most definitely be located and controlled. We claimed stockpiles existed and named specific locations. Nothing was found, despite earlier claims by George Tenet that this was a ‘slam-dunk’.

    We never went to war simply because the technology existed in Iraq to make those things, a capability that exists pretty much everywhere. Even in poor, broke Pakistan. We went there claiming that not only did they have the knowledge and the capability, but that there was ongoing production and actual finished product. The latter were our main case for action, not the former.

    The evidence – or rather the conspicuous lack thereof – does indicate that the combination of sanctions and intrusive inspections was effective. That is undeniable. But it also undeniable that this process was not only unsustainable in the long run, but essentially self-defeating: the minute inspections proved Iraq to be in compliance, the sanctions had to be lifted and inspections were to stop and we were back to square one.

    In the meantime, Pakistan, a military dictatorship infested wit Islamists, has produced the real stuff and sold it to every single one of our enemies, including North Korea in early 2003, and we reward them with billions of aid and weaponry. (Speaking of ‘mixed messages’…).

    Last but not least, I am actually quite happy we found nothing and I honestly hope there was nothing in Iraq. While much more attractive from a political standpoint, the alternative would, from a security angle, be quite frightening : large stockpiles and no way of knowing whether we found the whole lot in time or not. Or where those missing shells or warheads listed in the inventory have gone, if not to the highest bidder…Yikes.

  4. The Inspectors were simply to verify he had done so. This is somewhat misleading. From 1991 to 1998 UNSCOM destroyed close to 30,000 chemical devices – rockets, artillery shells etc – 30+ Scud warheads, 500 tons of mustard gas and other nerve agents used during the war against Iran and tons of precursors for things such as VX. And lots of other goodies. Much of it was destroyed by UNSCOM proper, some under its direct supervision.

    UNMOVIC, to my knowledge, did not have such resources but could order and supervise the destruction of anything they found; they supervised the destruction of several dozen al-Samoud missiles a few weeks before the war.

  5. Sylvain Galineau,

    “Nice attempt to retrospectively move the goalposts.”

    That is not what I personally am doing although I can understand how it might appear that way to an external observer.

    My complaint is that people will not look at the WMD issue as firstly a purely technological problem. Most people want to think about politics first and technology last. I argue you need to let the technological realities define the parameters of your political debate. In my opinion this was not done by either side.

    From a purely technological perspective, UNMOVIC could have never involuntarily disarmed Saddam. It just wouldn’t work. Especially, if we are talking about keeping him from producing the small amounts of chemical or biological agents necessary to carry out a terrorist attack.

    “From 1991 to 1998 UNSCOM destroyed close to 30,000 chemical devices – rockets, artillery shells etc – 30+ Scud warheads, 500 tons of mustard gas and other nerve agents used during the war against Iran and tons of precursors for things such as VX.”

    This is a statement of the McGuffin delusion in a nutshell. Destroying extant weapons accomplishes very little, especially since all these weapons are tactical or strategic battlefield systems and not the configurations used for terrorist attacks.

    The only thing UNMOVIC did to slow the use of terroristic weapons was destroy the existing chemical and biological weapons facilitates but Saddam retained most of the technical talent who created the facilities in the first place. The bought nothing but time.

    The war against Saddam was always about the FUTURE threat he poised, largely from terrorist attacks using relatively small amounts of chemical or biological weapons. It was a technological impossibility for an external actor to control his creation of such weapons. Anybody who says otherwise is not being honest.

  6. There is no delusion. Your rationale – that inspectors were mere bean counters who only verified what they were showed – is not supported by the facts; if it was so, how could they have discovered the undeclared nuke/VX/bacteriological programs ?

    Second, there were no inspections for six years yet nothing new was found to have been produced in the meantime, aside from upgrades to conventional missiles. No active labs, no running production facility, no stockpiling of their ouput. If this has nothing to do with the sanctions regimes and the massive amount of stuff destroyed by UNSCOM, please provide an alternative explanation. If possible, one with supporting evidence. Saddam had this ‘technology’ all these past few years yet did not use it. Why ?

    Third, I disagree. The rationale for war was that Saddam was already a threat – if not directly to us, at least to his neighbors, including Israel – by virtue of his producing and stockpiling weapons today. However, none of this was true, as it turned out.

    If anyone who could become a “FUTURE” threat can be invaded regardless of their actually having anything, then Syria, Iran, Pakistan – which could become a very definite threat in case a coup, a not-so-far-fetched scenario – and others are also targets.

    The facts underpinning this part of our argument for war were wrong. Time to move on.

  7. “If anyone who could become a “FUTURE” threat can be invaded regardless of their actually having anything, then Syria, Iran, Pakistan…and others are also targets.”

    That is the Bush doctrine in a nutshell. Attack problem states before that reach a point were they COULD attack us. Iran and Syria are in our crosshairs. Whether we actually invade or destroy their regimes by other means remains to be seen.

    Perhaps, we should approach the technical problem from another direction: If in fact it turns out that Saddam did not have any extant stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons can you provide an evidence back explanation WHY he did not have them? I mean, did he just decide they weren’t worth the hassle? Was he trying to make them but failing.

    What is your explanation for why we did not find the weapons? You can’t say it doesn’t matter because the reason we did find the weapons controls the entire threat assessment. If he hid or exported the capability that tells us one thing. If he couldn’t actually manage their production that tell us another. If he decided to no longer pursue them that means something entirely different.

  8. “Second, there were no inspections for six years yet nothing new was found to have been produced in the meantime, aside from upgrades to conventional missiles. No active labs, no running production facility, no stockpiling of their ouput. If this has nothing to do with the sanctions regimes and the massive amount of stuff destroyed by UNSCOM, please provide an alternative explanation.”

    I tend to think that the sanctions did interfere with Saddam’s desired weapons-making activities. But the sanctions weren’t going to last forever. Our containment partners were already visibly losing interest, and the completely collapse of the containment was not too far off. Once the sanctions were over with, Saddam could restart his weapons program. Worse, if we let the sanctions fizzle out and preserve the illusion that they were still working, we could end up with a nasty surprise the way the French did in 1940. They, along with the British and others had agreements to contain Germany and prevent it from rearming, but as time went on, that plan fizzled out and the Germans were able to rearm with little interference.

  9. And if you want to call that “moving the goalposts”, recall that we were already at war with Saddam Hussein. From 1991 to 2003 we were observing a cease-fire, the terms of which Saddam Hussein violated regularly, and had every right to restart active hostilities any time it suited our purposes.

  10. Shannon, this is not the Bush doctrine as I understand it. To recap, preemption is about attacking someone who is about to hit you. Prevention – the Iraq war – means you do not wait until someone is ready to attack but the existence of a clear, concrete, developing, short-to-mid-term threat is a requirement. At the time, we did have reasons to believe Iraq constituted such a gathering threat. Thus far, and after nearly 18 months of unprecendented acccess to Iraq, its scientists, its facilities and its records, we have been unable to prove it did. Why ? You argue what matters is the technical know-how. So what ? Why wasn’t it used to produce anything concrete during the past six years ?

    Side question : those Iraqi scientists are still there with their know-how. All that has changed is that Saddam no longer gives them orders. But 5 years from now ? Ten years ? What if the first free Iraqi government decides to restart those programs ? What do we do then ? (That would be a fun one…)

    So the overall burden of this question is on you; you proposed a theory; if the facts do not quite check, or if a major fact is left unexplained, it must be revised or amended.

    Example : if inspections were irrelevant and ineffective U.N. bean-counting, at least some Iraqi abilities should have grown unchecked during the 91-98 period, and even more so from 98-03 after the inspectors were expelled. So we should have found even more evidence of such activities than we did 13 years ago when we first started, not less. What gives ?

    Moreover, if inspections were so useless, why is it that the main source of hard data for the National Intelligence Estimate were UNSCOM and UNMOVIC reports ? (See Senate Intelligence Committee report). We can’t have it both ways.

    Overall, it seems you are falling into the same trap the intel community jumped into with both feet; as the the Senate’s Intel Report concisely put it :

    “Although the IC lacked unambiguous reporting of either active WMD programs or a vigorous D&D (Denial and Deception) effort to hide WMD programs, the assumptions that Iraq was engaged in both were tied together in a self-reinforcing premise that explained away the lack of strong evidence of either.”

    Just like some people believed the “missile gap” was large and growing until the evidence was literally up their nose.

    For whatever reasons, and despite ample and increasing evidence to the contrary, you have chosen to summarily reject the possibility that the sanctions-inspections combo might have been more successful than we ever hoped; which, incidentally, would explain both Iraq’s repeated and panicky attempts at stonewalling and delaying UNSCOM, and its inability to recover much of its past abilities after it left. That is the only satisfactory and well-documented explanation today. Everything other scenario I have heard or read is purely speculative.

    I understand it doesn’t fit the accepted prejudice about all things U.N. among conservative/Republican types. But to date, they have been unable to offer a credible alternative.

  11. Ken, we agree on both points.

    As I noted above, the combination of sanctions and inspections was unsustainable in the long run, and ultimately self-defeating. Once the U.N. deemed it got everything it wanted and Iraq was in compliance, all related sanctions and the more intrusive inspection regimes had to stop. And the outcome of that – an uncontained Iraq with Saddam at its head – was just not unacceptable.

    But that is not the case as it was explicitly made by the Administration. We claimed to have very specific evidence. We haven’t found any thus far. And we’d better figure out why; but, imho, it will not happen while people refuse to consider certain possibilities on grounds of ideology or right-wing political correctness such as ‘the U.N. cannot succeed at anything’. Well, guess what : “stuff happens”.

    Kinda like those Airbus airplanes that would never fly and that Euro currency that would never see the light of day….

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