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Fighting words

In this year's State of the Union address, President Bush made no compelling case that he spoke the truth about Iraq last year. Nor did he apologize.


Published January 23, 2004

A year ago, President Bush used his State of the Union address to sound a frightening alarm about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The president told the nation that Iraq had amassed 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin and 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas. He also charged that Saddam Hussein's regime had sought to acquire "significant quantities" of refined uranium and special aluminum tubes whose only practical use was as part of a program to develop nuclear weapons.

And he offered a chilling warning that only one vial from those vast stockpiles of weapons could "bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."

That dire, detailed warning of a looming threat to our national security served as the Bush administration's justification for war in Iraq. Of course, no weapons of mass destruction of any kind have been found there. No anthrax. No botulinum. No VX. In fact, U.S. weapons inspectors have not even found significant evidence of programs that might eventually have led to the development of weapons. And the allegations concerning Iraq's efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program were proved to have been based on fraudulent evidence.

Yet, having staked the reputation of our government on his allegations against Iraq, President Bush hasn't even tried to explain, much less apologize for, the utter lack of evidence to support the stark charges he made a year ago. Instead, the president talked in this year's State of the Union address of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."

Would the nation have been so quick to support the president's call to war on the basis of vague references to Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities"?

And is it any wonder that even those Iraqis who bitterly opposed Hussein are suspicious of U.S. motives now? Leaders of the Shiites, who suffered from decades of oppression under Hussein, don't trust the U.S. plan to select a new Iraqi government through a series of regional caucuses later this year. They demand direct, transparent elections. Leaders of the Iraqi Kurds, who were our allies in the battle to topple Hussein, don't trust U.S. assurances that they will receive an acceptable degree of autonomy under a new constitution.

When the Bush administration's prewar justifications collapsed, its postwar promises were inevitably called into question as well. The president and other administration officials now justify the war on humanitarian grounds: Hussein's horrific crimes against his own people demanded his removal from power. That is a compelling argument, but it is not the one the White House made prior to war. Nor is it one the White House has extended to other repressive regimes, including the other members of the "axis of evil" singled out in last year's State of the Union address. And North Korea and Iran really do have dangerous weapons programs.

The president made it clear Tuesday night that he doesn't think he owes the American people or the world an explanation for the exaggerated claims he made a year ago in building a pretext for war. Since then, hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis have died in that war, and Iraq's future remains uncertain. American credibility has been a casualty, too.

As the president himself said with no apparent sense of irony: "For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible."

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