"In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," President Bush announced Thursday night. "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001." In the wake of that dark day, Bush recalled, "I pledged that the terrorists would not escape the patient justice of the United States." Saddam Hussein's defeat caps "19 months that changed the world," Bush concluded. "The war on terror is not over … but we have seen the turning of the tide."
In Bush's telling of the story, it all fits together. The war on terror gives meaning to the battle of Iraq. And the battle of Iraq demonstrates tangible success in the war on terror.
Except it doesn't. The two stories—Iraq and al-Qaida, the battle and the war—have never really meshed. Bush keeps saying they're the same thing. But saying doesn't make it so.
Remember Saddam's weapons of mass destruction—the ones whose concealment justified the invasion of Iraq? A week ago, the Washington Post reported that 38 days after entering Iraq, the United States had "yet to find weapons of mass destruction at any of the locations that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell cited in his key presentation to the U.N. Security Council in February." We hadn't even "produced Iraqi scientists with evidence about them." The only thing Bush said we had learned from interrogating Saddam's scientists was that "perhaps he destroyed some, perhaps he dispersed some."
What about Saddam's links to terror? Bush repeated Thursday that the Iraq war had "removed an ally of al-Qaida." Really? According to the Post, U.S. officials "have not turned up anything to support Powell's claim to the Security Council that 'nearly two dozen' al Qaeda terrorists lived in and operated from Baghdad." A Los Angeles Times investigation of the al-Qaida affiliate touted by Powell found "no strong evidence of connections to Baghdad" and concluded that the group lacked "the capability to muster a serious threat beyond its mountain borders." Saddam didn't even "control the region where the [group's] camps were located."
What does Bush have to say about the absence of evidence on these two points? "This much is certain," he observed in his victory address. "No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more."
Well, that's true. No terrorist network will get weapons from Pat Moynihan, either. That doesn't make his death essential to the war on terror.
Saddam was a tyrant, butcher, and serial aggressor. He jerked around the U.N. Security Council for 12 years, and the council did nothing about it. Even if all his biological and chemical weapons were destroyed years ago, his refusal to prove it—as he had pledged to do—by turning over records and personnel defied any hope of enforcing nonproliferation rules for gross offenders. Something had to be done, and Bush did it.
But don't tell us this was a triumph in the war on terror, Mr. President. Don't tell us the defeat of a secular dictator has turned the tide against a gang of religious fanatics. And don't talk about patience. You inserted a battle that could have waited into a war that couldn't, precisely because you lacked—or thought we lacked—patience for the slow, diffuse, half-invisible struggle against the people who hit us on Sept. 11. You wanted a quick, clear victory, and you got it. But don't flatter yourself. You haven't changed the world in 19 months. You've only changed the subject.