The Happy Error

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David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.

Thank God for those phantom Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Politically, they are a nonissue. Morally, they are an amazing piece of luck. Strategically, they are a guide to the future. The missing WMD were not merely an honest mistake; they were a providential mistake.

Saddam Hussein was the slaughterer of his own people, benefactor of Palestinian terrorism, enemy of the United States. But political realities here and abroad meant that all we could do was draw a bead on the man and tell him, in effect: Make our day. And he was so stupid, he did.

When do the informal, uncodified rules of international politics allow a foreign nation to invade, occupy and rebuild a monstrous tyranny? How does a dictator qualify for mandatory relocation? Not merely by unspeakable savagery to his own people. Not even by posing a threat to the prospective invader. He must be seen to pose a threat.


Truth is invisible without marketing, and WMD were Saddam’s idea for an advertising theme. He had used poison gas to great effect, murdering Kurds and Shiites by the thousands. And now, thanks to WMD he seemed to have but didn’t -- perfect justice! -- Saddam qualified for invasion. We took him out, Iraq rejoiced and the world breathed easier. Without those phantom WMD, he would still be lording it over his helpless, bleeding people, still be bribing Palestinians to murder Israelis, still have his blood-filthy sadist’s hands at humanity’s throat.

“But the administration’s ‘honest mistake’ duped us into thinking there was some sort of urgency to this war.” Perhaps, but are you examining things from the standpoint of a macroeconomist or a human being? No doubt “urgency” takes on a new coloration when you are next in line to be fed into the wood chipper. When congressional Republicans finally get around to holding hearings on Iraq under Saddam, when the broken survivors of his regime talk to us day after day, BBC-style sneers will disappear from all over the planet.

The president has a political problem, I guess, but he will handle it easily. Yes, I can hear him saying, I was wrong -- the buck stops here; I told you there were WMD in Iraq and there aren’t. I’m not going to blame the CIA or its director, George A. Tenet, or anyone else. It was an honest mistake, and I made it in good faith. I’m sorry. I apologize. And now some questions for my Democratic opponents. Are you glad we freed Iraq? Or do you wish we hadn’t? And those phantom WMD let us do it, right? And that’s the real issue, isn’t it? -- not WMD; the ex-tyranny of Saddam.

WMD by themselves without Saddam could never have induced us to invade. France has loads of them, a.k.a. nuclear bombs, and we don’t plan to invade France. (Not at the moment.) Saddam by himself without WMDs is just as evil as Saddam with tons of them. But luckily he convinced us he had them, which made it possible for us to march in and take him out with the trash.

So, the real mistake was not President Bush’s, not British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s. It was Saddam’s. It might have been a little smarter under the circumstances, what with the U.S. pointing its military in his face, not to play games with the United Nations. To suck in that ugly, leering arrogance just this once. He could easily have made the U.N. inspectors welcome, in which case the world would still be eating out of his hands. And Saddam would still (O melancholy thought for the unhappy captive!) be siccing rabid dogs on unfriendly generals and driving nails into the skulls of Shiite clerics to his heart’s content, just like old times, if only he had swallowed his pride and played along. What a lesson for aspiring young dictators.

But the phantom WMDs made it possible for us to strike the swaggering sadist down, to overthrow one of the greatest evildoers of the 20th century, which is saying a lot.


Imagine how happy Franklin D. Roosevelt would have been if Adolf Hitler had given him a pretext to go to war at Britain’s side in 1940 or ’41. FDR did everything he could to shake a pretext loose. He extended U.S. naval protection against Germany halfway across the Atlantic; he sent Britain weaponry and military missions. Tragically, Hitler refused the bait.

Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, whereupon Britain declared war on Germany at last, in the cause of Polish freedom. But when Germany finally surrendered, it turned out that Polish freedom had not been preserved after all. Stalinist puppets now ruled in Warsaw. That was a tragedy -- but hardly meant Britain might just as well have skipped World War II. The disappearing WMD, which Saddam (evidently) thought he owned but didn’t, are something like a comedy. But their absence doesn’t mean we could have skipped the liberation of Iraq.

What happens now? We institutionalize the phantom-WMD maneuver. It was all a mistake, but it worked beautifully.

The end of the Cold War brought big changes to the moral universe. Any nation has a duty to alleviate suffering. Any totalitarian dictatorship is a threat to world stability and therefore to the United States. Yet the Hippocratic Oath applies: If forcibly removing a tyrant generates more net suffering than leaving him, leave him.

The end of the Cold War greatly expanded our scope of action and, therefore, our moral obligations. How do we react to our new, expanded duties? Today there are lots of tyrannized nations we could liberate without provoking world war. But we can’t march into them all, all at once. What procedure do we follow?

The Bush method. We publish an official list of tyrants we consider it our moral duty to overthrow. The implied next sentence is obvious: Give us an excuse and we’ll do it. Play games with the U.N.; show us your true colors. Meanwhile, we might pray for the strange, accidental wisdom to make another providential mistake.