Oren and Solomon: Duelfer 5 Years Later: Words of Mass Distraction

Ido Oren and Ty Solomon write in a guest op-ed for IC:

Five years ago, Charles Duelfer, Head of the Iraq Survey Group, presented to Congress the final report of his 1200 member team, which concluded that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction when it was invaded by the United States in 2003. Because the danger posed by WMD was the Bush Administration’s chief justification for the Iraq war, the failure to discover the illicit arms provoked a fiery political scandal. The ensuing debate revolved around the following question: did the Bush Administration intentionally distort the truth about Iraq’s WMD, as the administration’s harsh critics charged, or did the WMD fiasco result from an unintentional if grave “intelligence failure,” as the administration’s more moderate critics would have it? Alas, the debate sidestepped another equally important question: what role did the use of the phrase “weapons of mass destruction”—a phrase that few Americans were familiar with prior to 2002—play in the successful marketing of the war to the American people? Did this ominous phrase merely describe an Iraqi threat or did its incantation rather create and magnify the threat?

Consider the following excerpt from a speech delivered by President Bush in Fort Hood, Texas, on January 3, 2003:

“The Iraqi regime has used weapons of mass destruction. They not only had weapons of mass destruction, they used weapons of mass destruction. They used weapons of mass destruction in other countries, they have used weapons of mass destruction on their own people. That’s why I say Iraq is a threat, a real threat.”

This statement illustrates two key features of the way in which “weapons of mass destruction” was used to mobilize public support for the Iraq war.

First, note that the specific weapon the Iraqi regime actually used “in other countries” (Iran) and “on their own people” was poison gas; yet the president employed the more abstract term WMD—an expression that in the public’s mind was commonly associated with that ultimate weapon of terror: the nuclear bomb. Although the president’s usage of the term to allude to chemical weapons was technically in accord with a definition of WMD adopted by the United Nations in 1948 (WMD = atomic, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons), it was largely inconsistent with the typical usage of this phrase—to the extent that it has been used at all—by the American media. From the 1950s to the 1980s the media used “WMD” rather infrequently; on those occasions in which it has appeared in the press, the phrase has only rarely been associated with weapons other than nuclear arms. Neither the poison gas employed by the Egyptian army in Yemen in the 1960s nor the “Agent Orange” widely used by the United States in Vietnam was depicted as “weapons of mass destruction.” Most significantly, in contrast to the Bush Administration’s rhetoric in 2002–03, in the 1980s the American press did not employ the term WMD in its reporting on Iraq’s chemical warfare against Iran and the Kurds. Although the frequency of “weapons of mass destruction” in the press rose somewhat after the phrase was inserted into the 1991 UN resolution that established the weapons’ inspection regime in Iraq, familiarity with this term remained largely confined to specialists. Only during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq did this expression become a household phrase.

Because chemical weapons are nowhere nearly as destructive as nuclear arms (which Iraq never had or used), and because the American public, to the extent that it heard the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” before 2002, typically associated it with nuclear arms, the administration’s frequent declarations that Iraq had, or used, “weapons of mass destruction” rhetorically magnified the Iraqi threat.

The second feature of the rhetoric of WMD illustrated by the president’s Fort Hood speech was its repetitiousness. Beginning with the January 2002 State of the Union address, the president and senior administration officials uttered this term multiple times in most of their public appearances. The U.S. media echoed and amplified the administration’s WMD rhetoric—in the twelve months preceding the war, the frequency of the term’s appearance in the press had increased almost tenfold. Even the acronym WMD has become so ubiquitous that by the time the war broke out many journalists no longer felt compelled to spell it out. The American Dialect Society selected “weapons of mass destruction” as its 2002 “word of the year.”

The incessant incantation of “weapons of mass destruction” by the Bush Administration and the ricocheting of this phrase through the echo chamber of the mass media emptied it of any specific meaning. Just as the repetitive structure of many liturgical texts serves to divert the worshipper’s mind from his worldly situation and to affirm the axioms of his belief, so did the ceaseless incantation of “weapons of mass destruction” make Americans take the existence of these weapons as an article of faith, distracting the American mind from the realities of the Middle East. And just as the chanting of a mantra lifts the chanter above material reality and promotes the actualization of the idea being uttered, so did the chant “weapons of mass destruction” create the Iraqi threat as much as it described such a threat.

About the authors: Ido Oren is associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and the author of Our Enemies and US: America’s Rivalries and the Making of Political Science. Ty Solomon is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Florida.

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6 Responses

  1. Wasn't that around the same time as people suddenly started calling him Saddam, instead of Hussein or Saddam Hussein? I remember thinking, hold on, since when are we on a first name basis with this guy?
    Still, at the same time the word Palestine was allowed back into the vocabulary, so it wasn't all bad times.

  2. Note, too, how often the Bush Administration not only used that phrase multiple times in speeches, but worked the phrase "mushroom cloud" into the same speeches.

  3. Just noticed that the US (FBI) has now extended the definition of "Weapons of Mass Destruction" to include "explosive bombs", home-made variety – even with no radioactive, bacterial or chemical-warfare components? link to edition.cnn.com

  4. Now Obama is using the same method to threat Iran. Are we going to wait and see Iran being turned into another Iraq? (Without Bush, mind you)

  5. As a matter of fact, NPR reported yesterday evening that an indictment had been lodged against a Denver, Colorado man accused of manufacturing "weapons of mass destruction" (ie., bombs of some sort) utilizing hydrogen peroxide and other ingredients purchased from Home Depot and a beauty parlor supply outlet. I believe the federal criminal Code itself defines "weapon of mass destruction" that broadly.

    Thus, as popular language usage has evolved, it appears fair to say that not all weapons of mass destruction are improvised explosive devices, but all IEDs have magically become weapons of mass destruction. Semantics transforms substance, right before your very eyes.

    Bill from Saginaw

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Regarding the recent "WMD" indictment against the Afghanistan-born man from Denver who allegedly devised a homemade bomb, it is based on legislation passed by Congress in 1994 as part of a huge, omnibus anti-crime bill. The law–classified as title 18, section 2332(a) of the US criminal code–outlaws the use, attempt, or conspiracy to use "WMD" against any person or federal property in the United States, as well as against U.S. nationals or federal property overseas. Curiously, the definition of “weapons of mass destruction” provided by this piece of legislation was far broader than its common definition in the discourse of the foreign policy bureaucracy. According to Section 2332a, the term WMD is defined as not only chemical, biological, and radioactive weapons but also as conventional destructive devices. Under this legislation US prosecutors have indicted the perpetrators of the 1995 Okalahoma City bombing, Richard Reid (the "shoebomber"), and other terrorism suspects. On some occasions, prosecutors pressed WMD charges against suspects who had nothing to do with terrorism. For example, a few years ago a disgruntled patient from Pennsylvania who sent a Chicago doctor a primitive mail bomb (that was easily disarmed by a water cannon) was convicted of "WMD" charges. Thus, at the same time that the US government was warning us about the existential threat posed by Iraq's WMD, other federal agencies were pressing WMD charges against a hapless guy who put a harmless primitive bomb in the mail.

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