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Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Blair too calls for WMD inquiry

A reporter based in London contacted me today asking whether I thought Tony Blair's call for a commission to investigate the WMD intelligence would satisfy his public and the war critics.

Here's my reply (it was an email exchange, and I've edited a little):

An inquiry into pre-war WMD intelligence may not help Blair much more than the Hutton investigation already should have. After all, unlike his counterparts in the Bush administration, Blair has now been cleared of charges that he inflated intelligence. The current question is whether the intelligence itself was sound. Hutton avoided that specific point.

If the inquiry proceeds quickly, and reaches "bureaucratic" conclusions (i.e., the intelligence agencies did a good job based on what was available, but they need more money and human agents in places like Iraq), then a new inquiry might bring closure that will allow Blair and Britain to "move on." Critics may not be fully satisfied, but the public would probably be forgiving.

However, Blair's long-term popularity has been partly based on technocratic skills. He made the trains run on time, as the saying goes. If his technocrats failed on something so important as war and WMD, then Blair's political strengths might be weakened significantly.

In the US, the congressional majority and the weapons inspector (David Kay) are both blaming the intelligence agencies for failure. However, Bush officials still face charges by critics (Democrats and former intelligence officers like the State Department's Greg Thielmann) that they "cherry picked" worst-case scenarios and thereby inflated the threat for public consumption.

It remains possible that new revelations in a US inquiry could travel across the Atlantic and damage Blair as well. That seems unlikely, but it could happen. Much will likely depend upon whether the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans is carefully scrutinized.

One other wildcard in these investigations is the pre-war work of the IAEA and the failure of the US and UK to acknowledge their conclusions. ElBaradei testified in March 2003, "After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapon program in Iraq." In this speech, he dismissed the aluminum tubes and disclosed the forged documents about uranium imports from Africa. At the time, lots of war critics thought it devastated the case for war.

If this IAEA work should become a major issue in the UK again, because of the failure to work within the UN process, the issue will not go away and Blair will continue to face dissent. Unlike Bush, Blair faces the defection of his political base, which would tend to be skeptical about the use of force, pro-UN, and supportive of arms control inspections.

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