The Truth about the Lies

Editor's Note: With many Americans still exulting in the military victory in Iraq, it's hard to make a case that the administration's ends don't justify its means. However, the fact the administration has not found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction goes far deeper that whether the White House can be trusted, says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. The lingering WMD question reveals that this administration not only lied to Americans and the world about the reasons it went to war, but did so with a continuing disregard for some of the most fundamental U.S. and international laws. Phyllis Bennis was interviewed by's Steven Rosenfeld.

Hans Blix is retiring as the head of the U.N. weapons inspection teams. In recent days, he's made some statements about the Bush administration's characterizations of the U.N.'s work prior to the war in Iraq. What has he said?

Well the first thing he said that was significant in this recent period was, in an exclusive interview with The Guardian in the U.K., he said that he was the victim of a smear campaign. He said "I was smeared" and he said by "bastards" -- he used that word -- in Washington.

Now when he was pressed about whether he included the members of the U.S. administration in his characterization of "bastards," he said no, that he was referring to former arms inspectors and a former Swedish prime minister, who he didn't name but it was clear who he was referring to, who had spread critical assessments of his work during the whole period.

But what's more significant, I think, is he's also taken the position that the U.S. decision to go to war based on evidence that turned out to be faulty, calls into question the whole issue of under what circumstances a war could be legal? And he comes down squarely on the side of a war is only acceptable if the [U.N.] Security Council has authorized it. Now, given the position that he's coming from, that's a very significant statement.

Why is it significant in that context? Clearly he feels the fact that weapons of mass destruction have not been found, en masse, is, in a sense, a vindication of the U.N. inspection's prior work, right?

Right. I don't think the issue is so much about the prior work. The attack on him from these unnamed "bastards" in Washington -- and clearly [this includes] the members of the administration -- he's presumably too diplomatic to admit it, but there's no doubt the members of the administration were furious with him. And at least on a not-for-attribution basis, were prepared to smear him as he said other bastards did from Washington.

But what's also significant about this is that he referred specifically to earlier occasions in which the use of force had been based on intelligence claims that turned out to be false.

He cited, specifically, U.S. attacks. He cited the bombing of the Chinese Embassy during the Kosovo War, in Belgrade, and said that was the result of false intelligence. He spoke of the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, having been destroyed in the same way, also based on false intelligence. Then he went on to say, and I quote here, "A war was started based on intelligence (referring to Iraq). We still don't know if it was accurate. But it raises the question, on what basis can a war be started?" That's very significant, I think.

What can one do with that question? Or where does one go from here, because clearly that's a legitimate point. But in a certain sense, might makes right with the Bush administration.

Well, might makes might, at least. I don't know if it makes it right. But the power to do things gives them the willingness to do those things, and to claim legitimacy in doing so.

I think what this speaks to is the question of how in the future, as well in the continuing investigation on Iraq -- because we should be clear that this investigation is not over yet -- the notion of resolving whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction has become something far more important than just determining whether there is a remaining threat of a nuclear arsenal left over, or some such thing, as was once claimed.

It's now a question of whether the entire episode of this U.S. war, which was claimed to be waged in the name of weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's links with Al Qaeda, was actually based on completely false evidence: whether that evidence was false when it reached the White House; whether it was cooked by the White House; whether it was both initially false and then cooked, so that all the various players are involved. The possibilities are legion for what this really represents.

But it's extraordinary that we have not seen yet in the United States, even with these statements by Hans Blix; even with the recognition that no weapons of mass destruction have been found; even with the lies of the Bush administration -- including as recently as a couple of weeks ago, when President Bush, with great joy, it seems, announced "we have found the weapons," when he was referring to two laboratories that had been found, in which inspectors have found absolutely zero sign of any actual chemical or biological contaminants.

So this eagerness to move forward with their war, regardless of any actual information, is what's really at stake here. And the question of whether, in the future, weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq, goes directly to this issue.

Those of us who were saying before that the weapons of mass destruction claim was a false claim, that it was a bogus claim -- it wasn't because we never thought there could be any scrap of a weapon. There still could be. There may well be some scraps of some left-over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I'll say that right now just as I said it throughout the run-up to the war. But what we do know is there was nothing that was a viable strategic threat to the United States. That was a lie. That there were viable weapons was a lie.

And the notion that we were right and they were wrong has not yet reached a level of outrage in the U.S. press, or among the U.S. public, it seems, in anywhere close to the level of outrage that it has sparked in the U.K. It wasn't only the American people who were lied to by our president. But it is the whole world that was led down the primrose path of lies and deceit by this administration, claiming evidence that they simply did not have.

We don't know yet, we may never know, whether the evidence was simply ignored, made up or cooked. What we do know is they never had the evidence they claimed to have. We never had to go to war.

Hans Blix may be trying to rescue or restore his reputation, but still the larger question remains of who is going to hold this administration accountable.

Unfortunately, that is where the issue of might and right come into play. The United Nations should be in a position to hold this administration accountable. It should be U.N. weapons inspectors that are on the ground in Iraq, not the U.S. military, led, ironically enough, by a former U.N. weapons inspector from the earlier team -- UNSCOM -- the former director of UNSCOM, David Kay, has now been appointed special advisor to CIA Director [George] Tenet, to be his chief in charge of the weapons search. Why not go to the people who know how to do this?

It was UNSCOM in their first years, from 1991 through 1995, who found and destroyed virtually all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. In the years after that, what UNSCOM found was documents, not any existing weapons after that. That situation remains in place. That's who should be in charge.

The problem is the U.S. has made clear, through its launching of this war without Security Council authorization, that they are not prepared to accept the legitimacy of U.N. rule, despite what the U.N. charter says, despite the U.S. being a signatory of the U.N. charter that says that war is only legitimate, either if it's authorized by the Security Council, which this was not, or if it's a question of direct and immediate self-defense, which this was not.

Given that the U.S. has taken itself completely outside of the parameters and the requirements of international law, we probably should not be surprised that the U.N. is simply not in a position of power to hold the U.S. accountable.

Is anything that might come from Congress too little, too late?

At this point, I think it's very important that Congress move on this. It certainly is too late. It is important that it happen in the context of the increasing power concentration in the executive branch, which we're seeing, which is so dangerous in how this war was launched and waged. So certainly a congressional challenge to that concentration of power would be very important.

It's not sufficient though. This is an assault on the legitimacy of international law as a whole, and it's a matter for the entire world. The whole world is paying the consequences -- the people of Iraq, most specifically -- but the whole world is paying the consequences for this Bush administration move, and it should be international jurisdiction that holds the U.S. accountable.

Any likelihood of that?

No so far. I don't think we can be optimistic about that anytime soon. Member states of the United Nations are terrified. The vote that the U.S. forced three weeks ago, to endorse the U.S.-British occupation of Iraq, endorse the U.S. war belatedly, came as a result of extraordinary U.S. pressure on member states. There is no willingness to stand defiant of the U.S. right now.

We saw with the passage of the new resolution, three weeks ago, we ended an eight-and-a-half month extraordinary moment, in which the U.N. was doing exactly what it was designed to do by its founders: standing against war; standing defiant of an illegal war; preventing that war from going forward.

It delayed the war. It prevented the war from happening when the U.S. wanted it. It prevented the U.S. from waging war with an international imprimatur, an international legitimization, and then it collapsed after eight-and-a-half months of doing the right thing, the Security Council collapsed under U.S. pressure.

The goal, I think, now of those of us who are committed to international law, to internationalism, to the United Nations, is to figure out what it's going to take to make the U.N. able to go back to that position once again.

So we're in an era where might makes right, even if it may not be right. And it doesn't matter if it starts with a bunch of lies, because if you have the biggest military you can just bully your way through.

Absolutely. The question is, are we going to be in a position in this country to hold our government responsible for those violations of international law as much as we hold it responsible for the violations of U.S. law? All of those things are important. If we allow our government to get away with this power grab, both domestically and internationally, we are setting the stage for a far graver loss of democracy, both in our country and around the world, than anything we have seen so far.

Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for

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