With the presidential election only three weeks away, the fog has finally begun to lift on the overarching issue of this fiercely fought campaign - President Bush's Iraq policy. After six months of partisan rhetoric that left many voters more confused than informed, Americans now have a clear picture of how the Bush-Cheney administration misled the nation to justify going to war.
It was not the political debate between Bush and John Kerry that brought us to this clearing but a recent convergence of official reports by government investigators, CIA analyses, newspaper stories and the statements of administration officials who appear to be finally snapping out of their denial (unfortunately, the president and vice president are not among them).
The president's central argument for going to war was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and posed a clear and imminent threat to U.S. security. That rationale began to crumble soon after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Last week, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, Charles A. Duelfer, issued a report that confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt what most people have assumed for the past year: At the time of the U.S. invasion, Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction or have an active program to develop them. Saddam Hussein had destroyed his stocks of chemical and biological weapons in 1991 and 1992, after the Persian Gulf War, and his nuclear weapons program was virtually nonexistent, Vice President Dick Cheney's claims to the contrary.
So what? Bush and Cheney said they'd do it all over again. Even if there were no WMDs, they are certain that Saddam Hussein had every intention of rebuilding his weapons program after the United Nations lifted its economic sanctions.
"He retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction," the president said on the campaign trail last week. "And he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies."
The president's words were not entirely spin. The Duelfer report did conclude that "Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq's WMD capacity." Nuclear weapons were not his top priority, the report said, although he aspired to have a nuclear capability. Saddam was more interested in developing chemical and biological weapons suited for battle with Iran. "Most senior members of the regime and scientists assumed that the programs would begin in earnest when sanctions ended," Duelfer said. "And sanctions were eroding."
So, in the final stretch of the campaign, Bush finds himself on the political defensive on Iraq, struggling to justify his decision to rush to war and convince voters that a disarmed Saddam was as dangerous as an armed Saddam. Take it from the president, war is hard work, especially when you have to keep coming up with new explanations for why it was necessary to go to war in the first place.
Bush, Cheney and White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice can be forgiven for believing that Saddam Hussein was sitting on a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. They were not alone. The Clinton administration believed it, as did the CIA and most Western intelligence agencies. And so did John Kerry, who voted to give Bush a blank check to go to war. The U.S. military believed it, too, and equipped American soldiers with protective suits and masks to protect them from chemical and biological attacks. But what the Bush team cannot be forgiven for was the way they exaggerated and distorted dubious intelligence and ignored or repressed any analysis that undermined their claim that Iraq was an imminent threat to U.S. security. At the very least, they owed the nation an honest assessment of the Iraqi threat before committing American blood and treasure to a preemptive military strike.
Even now, Bush and Cheney refuse to acknowledge the mistakes and misjudgments that have left Iraq in chaos. Cheney must be the only person on the planet who still believes there were ties between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, slipped off message when asked about the alleged link. "To my knowledge," Rumsfeld said, "I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two."
This is an administration that puts blind loyalty ahead of probing questions and brooks no dissent, even on the momentous decision to go to war.
In George W. Bush's world, being president means never having to admit a mistake or explain himself, even when the cost of his misjudgments is counted in the number of body bags coming home from Iraq.