Never has such a delicious word been loaded with as much historical baggage.
During his 2003 State of the Union (SotU) address, President George W. Bush made the following statement:
“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The primary reason that President Bush said this is a convoluted tale straight out of a John Le Carré or Frederick Forsyth novel. The disinformation alluded to in the SotU was disinformation in itself, as members of his White House, ex-Italian spy agency SISMI figures, and rogue CIA and Pentagon analysts had created forged documents using letterhead and stamps stolen from the Niger embassy in Rome the night of January 1, 2001 to create an official order from Iraq for 500 tons of yellowcake uranium to be delivered by Niger mining operations.
The narrative that the Bush administration was assembling was that Saddam Hussein’s leadership in Iraq was jeopardizing the stability of the Middle East and the safety of all countries around the world because he was (1) restarting the Iraqi nuclear weapons effort, (2) had a biological weapons capability, and (3) was actively encouraging the training of Al Qaeda personnel in the country.
The first of these arguments was made by pointing to some aluminum tubes that Iraq had ordered and spreading the idea that they were suitable for (1) making centrifuge tubes used to purify uranium from yellowcake to more fissionable material or (2) making short-range rocket casings. Well, the >100,000 aluminum tubes never reached Iraq as they were successfully indicted by American officials. Additionally, there was no evidence presented by the Bush administration that other components used in making gas centrifuges were on order from anywhere.
The other element here was the yellowcake order from Niger. A dossier of numerous documents, apparently showing communications between Iraqi and Niger governments, mysteriously were delivered to the ex-SISMI agent Rocco Martino, who had been fired from SISMI for a variety of performance issues. The person who delivered them to Martino was not known to him. Martino then sold them on to French intelligence, who sent them on to British – and perhaps other – intelligence services, who then shared them with the U.S. or they were directly shared with the U.S. and British intelligence were simply cited in the SotU to give some “it wasn’t us!” cover to the administration.
To acquire affirmation of the deal, the Bush administration sent Joseph Wilson, ex-U.S. ambassador to Niger to see if he could substantiate the origin of the documents and their existence in Niger records. He could not. Instead, he told the Bush administration the truth, which annoyed them. For reasons that still elude me, this resulted in I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff, telling Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist who was considered politically conservative, that Ambassador Wilson’s wife, Valerie Wilson (née Plame) was a CIA agent. Novak published Valerie Wilson’s role in the CIA, effectively ending her career as a covert agent for the United States. Why? Apparently, just to kick Ambassador Wilson in the yarbles. Libby was later indicted on five Federal charges of lying, obstructing justice, and the like, although his 30-month prison term was immediately voided by President Bush.
As for restarting the Iraq nuclear weapons effort, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released an amended report in March 7, 2003, eleven days before “shock and awe” campaign was initiated by the “coalition of the willing.” The IAEA weapons inspectors left Iraq on March 19, 2003. The following is text directly from the conclusion of the IAEA weapon inspectors’ report:
- There is no indication of resumed nuclear activities in those buildings that were identified through the use of satellite imagery as being reconstructed or newly erected since 1998, nor any indication of nuclear-related prohibited activities at any inspected sites.
- There is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import uranium since 1990.
- There is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import aluminium tubes for use in centrifuge enrichment. Moreover, even had Iraq pursued such a plan, it would have encountered practical difficulties in manufacturing centrifuges out of the aluminium tubes in question.
- Although we are still reviewing issues related to magnets and magnet production, there is no indication to date that Iraq imported magnets for use in a centrifuge enrichment programme.
(British spelling of “aluminum” and “program” retained from the original text)
That pretty much takes care of the second leg of the three-legged U.S. invasion of Iraq argument.
The third leg is the biological weapons capability argument. On February 5, 2003, the Bush administration sent Secretary of State General Colin Powell to the United Nations General Assembly to present arguments for interruption of President Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction campaign in Iraq. Along with his speech, Secretary Powell held up a vial of white powder during his speech and indicated that it was weaponized anthrax bacteria. Here is the complete speech Secretary Powell made to the U.N.:
This element of the story was discredited by the Iraq Survey Group, a group of at least 1,400 inspectors from the U.K., Australia, and the U.S. led by veteran weapons inspector David Kay, in his October 2, 2003 report to both houses of the U.S. Congress. In the final report, completed by Charles Duelfer on September 30, 2004 – one year later than the initial report to intelligence committees, he indicated that…
“The former regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions. Neither was there an identifiable group of WMD policy makers or planners separate from Saddam” tasked to take this up once sanctions ended.
In other words, there were no WMD and at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to halt Iraqi WMD programs, there was no discernible strategy to rebuild the WMD capability destroyed in the First Gulf War (1991) and constrained by the IAEA weapons inspection program in place since then.
Since the U.S. invasion, there have been tens of thousands of Iraq casualties (dead and wounded; verified numbers are difficult to obtain) and millions of Iraqis have fled ongoing violence in Iraq to surrounding countries. Iran, a country dominated by Shiite clerics, has made a strategic alliance with Iraq’s new Shiite-centric government, leading to the disenfranchisement of the Sunni population and Sunni politicians. Some portion of the Sunni population have joined ex-Ba’athists, expelled from the Iraqi government and army by Ambassador Paul Bremer shortly after his arrival in Iraq, and formed Daesh (aka ISIL or ISIS), ravaged Syria (another Shiite-dominated country allied with Iran) and Iraq, not to mention been implicated in attacks in other countries. And Iraq, once dominated by a brutal Sunni strongman who imprisoned, tortured, and killed his opposition and gased Kurdish tribes in the north, is still in chaos, thirteen years and counting after the U.S. invasion.But Hussein was our brutal strongman. His weapon systems? Almost entirely sourced from the U.S. in the 1970s through ’90s as a (1) bulwark against “radicalized” Iran and (2) a stop-gap against USSR expansionist policy in the area. Most of the strongmen in the area have enjoyed American backing. Saudi Arabia? Jordan ? Iran (during the Shah’s reign)? Syria (Assad)?
But Hussein was our brutal strongman. His weapon systems? Almost entirely sourced from the U.S. in the 1970s through ’90s as a (1) bulwark against “radicalized” Iran and (2) a stop-gap against USSR expansionist policy in the area. Most of the strongmen in the area have enjoyed American backing. Saudi Arabia? Yemen? Kuwait? Egypt? Jordan ? Iran (during the Shah’s reign)? Syria (Assad)? About any “…stan” after the USSR reverted to its pre-imperial states (Uzbekistan, Krygzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, all with brutal dictators)? All were or are ruled by military dictatorships who Hoovered up as much foreign aid as possible and placed it directly in their own bank accounts. All had separate purchasing agreements with western weapon systems manufacturers so that (fill in the blank of the country U.S.-affiliated countries wanted to hold in check) would not make inroads in the region.
And Hussein, awful person that he was, did the job for us until U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie gave Hussein a nod and a wink about possibly invading Kuwait in 1990. Before that? There was the U.S.-backed Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), which resulted in 105,000-200,000 Iraqis killed, another 400,000 wounded, 70,000 prisoners taken by Iran and, on the Iranian side, another 200,000-262,000 dead, about 400,000 wounded. And a stalemate. The astute reader will note that this war started soon after the Iranian students took U.S. Embassy hostages (1979) and Ayatollah Khomeini assumed leadership in Iran. Oh, and Hussein’s gasing of the Kurds? Conducted using American chemical weapons.
The takeaway for all of this should be that it is rare that a single incident involving relations between countries can be reduced to an isolated incident. As a parting example, a significant source of Iranian aggression in 1979, leading to the exile of the Shah to the U.S., was the result of a 1953 CIA-backed coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq, democratically elected (and idiosyncratic) prime minister of Iran. The Shah, vigorously pro-western, spent the next 26 years suppressing Shiite clerics who dared to argue with his lifestyle (lavish) or political approach (authoritarian). In 1979, it boiled over. Or you can go back further and look at how the petroleum industry was initiated in Iran in the first decade of the 20th C. Or you can look at how Britain and Russia attempted to play The Great Game in Iran (as well as the rest of the region) starting back in the 1600s. Your choice, but nothing is as simple as it seems. In any country you name.
All, in some way, because of some forged documents regarding yellowcake. It is the latest and perhaps the definitive example of the law of unintended consequences ever visited on a country and maybe the human race. Let’s all make sure this sort of nonsense doesn’t happen again. To anyone.
And let’s not even start on Marie Antoinette’s “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!”
Yellowcake story: http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2006/07/yellowcake200607
Timeline of Iraq-related events: http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/30/world/meast/iraq-weapons-inspections-fast-facts/