The great mystery of the 2003 war in Iraq - "What about the WMD?" has finally been resolved. The short answer is: Saddam Hussein's persistent record of lying meant no one believed him when he at the last moment actually removed the weapons of mass destruction.
In a riveting book-length report issued by the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command, Iraqi Perspectives Project, American researchers have produced the results of a systematic two-year study of the forces and motivations shaping Saddam and his regime. Well written, historically contexted, and replete with revealing details, it ranks with Kanan Makiya's Republic of Fear as the masterly description of that regime. (For a condensed version, see the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs.)
It shows how, like Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union, Saddam's Iraq was a place of unpredictably distorted reality. In particular, Saddam underwent a change in the mid-1990s, developing a delusional sense of his own military genius, indeed his infallibility. In this fantasyland, soldiers' faith and bravura count far more than technology or matériel. Disdaining the U.S. military performance from Vietnam to Desert Storm, and from Somalia to the Balkans, the tyrant deemed Americans a cowardly and unworthy enemy.
Also about this same time, Saddam began insisting on only good news, isolating himself further from often harsh realities. As ever-fewer underlings dared to contradict the boss's perceptions, his determined self-deception wreaked havoc outward from the presidential palace to the entire Iraqi government and beyond. The lead author of Iraqi Perspectives Project, Kevin M. Woods, and his four co-authors note, "By the mid-1990s, most of those near the regime inner circle recognized that everyone was lying to everyone else." Deceits were reinforced and elaborated. In the words of an air defense officer, "One [officer] lied to another from the first lieutenant up, until it reached Saddam."
That no one really knew what was going on was symbolized by the widespread credence in the wartime nonsense spouted by the Iraqi minister of information (mockingly dubbed Baghdad Bob by Western reporters) as he regaled the world with glowing accounts of Iraqi victories; "from the point of view of Iraq's leaders, Baghdad Bob was largely reporting what they were hearing from the front." A militia commander confessed to being "absolutely astonished" on encountering an American tank in Baghdad.
The same situation extended to the military-industrial infrastructure. First, the report states, for Saddam, "the mere issuing of a decree was sufficient to make the plan work." Second, fearful for their lives, everyone involved provided glowing progress bulletins. In particular, "scientists always reported the next wonder weapon was right around the corner." In such an environment, who knew the actual state of the WMD? Even for Saddam, "when it came to WMD there was always some element of doubt about the truth."
Iraq's strategic dilemma complicated matters further. Realizing that perceptions of Iraqi weakness could invite attack, from Iran in particular, Saddam wanted the world to think he possessed WMD. But eventually he realized that to fend off the coalition, he needed to convince Western states that his regime no longer possessed those very weapons. As coalition forces geared up for war in late 2002, Saddam decided to cooperate with the United Nations to establish that his country was clean of WMD, as he put it, so as "not to give President Bush any excuses to start a war."
This lucid moment, ironically, fell victim to his long history of deceiving the United Nations; Iraqi steps to comply with the inspections regime had the paradoxical effect of confirming Western doubts that the cooperation was a ruse. For example, intercepted orders "to remove all traces of previous WMD programs" were misinterpreted as yet another ploy, and not the genuine effort they really were.
Saddam's belated attempts at transparency backfired, leading to what the report authors call "a diplomatic and propaganda Catch-22." Monumental confusion followed. Captured senior Iraqi officials continued for many months after the 2003 war "to believe it possible … that Iraq still possessed a WMD capability hidden away somewhere." Coalition intelligence agencies, not surprisingly, missed the final and unexpected twist in a long-running drama. Neither those agencies nor Western politicians lied; Saddam was the evil impostor whose deceptions in the end confused and endangered everyone, including himself.
Apr. 25, 2006 update: I have received many questions about the disposal of the WMD - Syria? Belarus? - and wish to clarify that I purposefully did not deal with this question in the above article (just as the Iraqi Perspectives Project did not). The topic here is exclusively the functioning of the Saddam Hussein regime in relation to the WMD mystery. Any thesis of what was done with the WMD is compatible with the above background explanation.
Also, I should note that I have addressed this question before, in October 2003 at "[Saddam's] WMD Lies," and in January 2004 "Accounting for the Lack of Iraqi WMD."
Finally, it bears mention that The Iraqi Perspectives Report has also been issued as a book by the Naval Institute Press.
Apr. 18, 2007 update: Melanie Phillips provides a powerful sequel of governmental incompetence at"'I found Saddam's WMD bunkers'," only this time it's the U.S. government. In summary:
Saddam's WMD did exist. [Dave Gaubatz] should know, because he found the sites where he is certain they were stored. And the reason you don't know about this is that the American administration failed to act on his information, "lost" his classified reports and is now doing everything it can to prevent disclosure of the terrible fact that, through its own incompetence, it allowed Saddam's WMD to end up in the hands of the very terrorist states against whom it is so controversially at war.
June 24, 2009 update: More information is coming out: "Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein bluffed about WMDs fearing Iranian arsenal, secret FBI files show" runs the headline over a story by James Gordon Meek in the New York Daily News. The information derives from interviews with the Iraqi dictator before his execution.
Saddam happily boasted of duping the world about stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. And he consistently denied cooperating with Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda. … Asked how he would have faced "fanatic" Iranian ayatollahs if Iraq had been proven toothless by UN weapons inspectors in 2003, Saddam said he would have cut a deal with Bush. "Hussein replied Iraq would have been extremely vulnerable to attack from Iran and would have sought a security agreement with the U.S. to protect it from threats in the region," according to a 2004 FBI report among the declassified files. … Asked about WMDs, Saddam insisted: "We destroyed them. We told you. By God, if I had such weapons, I would have used them in the fight against the U.S."
July 2, 2009 update: A Washington Post article on the same interviews stresses a different point, relations with Iran:
Saddam Hussein told an FBI interviewer before he was hanged that he allowed the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction because he was worried about appearing weak to Iran, according to declassified accounts of the interviews released yesterday. ... Hussein, in fact, said he felt so vulnerable to the perceived threat from "fanatic" leaders in Tehran that he would have been prepared to seek a "security agreement with the United States to protect [Iraq] from threats in the region." ...
Hussein's fear of Iran, which he said he considered a greater threat than the United States, featured prominently in the discussion about weapons of mass destruction. Iran and Iraq had fought a grinding eight-year war in the 1980s, and Hussein said he was convinced that Iran was trying to annex southern Iraq -- which is largely Shiite. "Hussein viewed the other countries in the Middle East as weak and could not defend themselves or Iraq from an attack from Iran," Piro recounted in his summary of a June 11, 2004, conversation.
"The threat from Iran was the major factor as to why he did not allow the return of UN inspectors," Piro wrote. "Hussein stated he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq's weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions of the United States for his refusal to allow UN inspectors back into Iraq."
Hussein noted that Iran's weapons capabilities had increased dramatically while Iraq's weapons "had been eliminated by the UN sanctions," and that eventually Iraq would have to reconstitute its weapons to deal with that threat if it could not reach a security agreement with the United States.