Was Saddam bluffing about wmd’s?

Those who believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (wmd’s) before the 2003 invasion are now citing the host of Western leaders from various parties and countries who publicly charged Iraq with possessing chemical and biological weapons and working on a nuclear program. This list includes Bill Clinton, Hans Blix, and Tony Blair as well as various neoconservatives. If these people were all making up evidence, the conspiracy was amazingly broad and well-organized.

But it needn’t have been a conspiracy, or anything deliberate and insidious.

Saddam had powerful incentives to bluff the world into thinking that he had wmd’s. After his defeat in Kuwait, he was in serious danger of being invaded or destabilized by Iran, which might have wanted to avenge the terrible Iran-Iraq war and save Iraqi Shiites from this godless Sunni. Shiites and Kurds within Iraq always wanted to revolt, and the threat of Saddam’s wmd’s was a deterrent. Saddam had less to fear from Israel, Turkey, and Syria, but he was clearly paranoid enough to expect an invasion from any of these neighbors during the 1990s. The perception that he had wmd’s was his best defense.

To be sure, this perception could bring an invasion from us?the invasion that actually happened. But Saddam may have felt that we were the least of his worries, especially given the US resistance to sustaining casualties.

Furthermore, although I have no inside knowledge of the Western “intelligence community,” I know that groups of highly skilled people can make mistakes. Certainly, very smart academics have been wrong en masse. I can easily imagine that the prevailing opinion within the Western intelligence agencies was wrong, because any such group can err, and there were special obstacles in this case: Iraq’s deliberate efforts to deceive, a fear of underestimating threats, the inherent difficulty of detecting a covert weapons program, and the absence of checks that help make academic research comparatively reliable (especially peer review, tenure, and the public citation of sources).