Seymour Hersh, Leo Strauss and Victory in Iraq

David Tucker

May 1, 2003

The famous—or simply notorious—investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has just published an article arguing that the Department of Defense twisted intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. Hersh’s argument is simple. Defense insisted that Iraq had lots of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We have not found any. Therefore, Defense must have been distorting the intelligence to support the administration’s policy of changing the regime in Iraq.

Supporters of President Bush have counterattacked, noting that Hersh has often been wrong in the past, and will likely be proven wrong this time. Indeed, they happily note, some evidence of Iraq’s WMD program emerged just about the same time that Hersh’s article appeared.

Hersh has often been wrong in the past and he may be wrong this time but his article points to a real problem for the administration, one that is not solved by the discovery of "some evidence" of WMD in Iraq.

The administration, with help from the intelligence analysts in Defense, justified the invasion of Iraq as part of the war on terrorism: Iraq supported terrorists and might give them some of its WMD. Last fall, President Bush spoke of "a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, and is capable of killing millions." Today, the President’s supporters are happy to note in justification of the invasion that we have found what appears to be a well-sanitized mobile biological weapons lab.

What about the massive stockpile? If it turns up, the war will appear to be justified. If it does not, then we must ask what happened to it. If it was there, and has been dispersed outside Iraq in response to the invasion, then the invasion will have made things worse. Intelligence analysts outside of Defense argued that Saddam was most likely to give WMD to terrorists if the United States attacked Iraq. Otherwise, he had no reason to. As Hersh’s article hit the streets, or the computer screens, a military officer in Iraq in charge of hunting for WMD told a reporter that he and his colleagues were concerned that in fact WMD had been dispersed outside of Iraq. If the stockpile was not there, then we must wonder what motivated the administration and the intelligence analysts in Defense to think it was.

This is where Leo Strauss, an academic dead now for over two decades, comes in. In his article, Hersh appears to suggest that Strauss’s academic style of reading below the surface of a text may have led people in Defense, some of whom were students of Strauss, to see more in the intelligence than was there. On a radio interview show, he argued that Straussians believe in telling noble lies and suggested that Defense’s reading of the intelligence about WMD and terrorists in Iraq was such a lie.

This is far-fetched. Not all those involved at the Department of Defense were students of Strauss, but all were willing to make the Administration’s case about Iraq. In focusing on Strauss, Hersh missed the real story.

Several of those at Defense most strongly in favor of invading Iraq were part of a team that advised the government of Israel in the mid-1990s. The team argued that Israel needed a new strategy. The strategy they proposed argued that "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions." This strategy has now become America’s.

To the extent that we do not find evidence of "a massive stockpile" of WMD in Iraq or evidence of something other than mere "contacts" between Iraqi intelligence officers and various terrorists, it will appear more and more that the purpose of invading Iraq was to make Israel safe.

In America, the argument can be made that making Israel safe is an acceptable strategic objective for the United States on the assumption that Israel’s interests and our own are identical or nearly so. In the Muslim world, of course, where our support for Israel is a grievance, this argument will seem less reassuring. Since the Muslim world is the source of the terrorism most threatening to us, failing to find in Iraq the massive stockpile of WMD and the cooperation with terrorists that we said justified our invasion will reveal the invasion to have been an effort to make Israel safe, increasing the grievance felt over our support for Israel. If over time this increased grievance leads to more terrorism, then it will be harder to argue that the invasion of Iraq was a sensible way to conduct the war on terrorism. It is prudent for the Bush administration not to declare victory in Iraq yet.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.