The official rationales for the war in Iraq now lie in tatters. Earlier in the week, the CIA and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conceded that Saddam Hussein had no links to al-Qaida. Yesterday, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney accepted the findings of Charles Duelfer, their chief weapons inspector, that Saddam didn't have WMD after all.
The Duelfer report, President Bush said to reporters on the South Lawn, "confirms the earlier conclusion of David Kay that Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there." Yet, he quickly added, going to war was still the right—the necessary—course of action.
Cheney, speaking in Miami, went further, claiming that the Duelfer report bolstered the case for war. "Delay, defer, wait," he said, "wasn't an option."
Is there any logic to this position? Is it legitimate to acknowledge that the reasons for war were mistaken, but the war itself was still justified? Let's take a close look at their words.
Bush's main point was this:
Based on all the information we have today, I believe we were right to take action and America is safer today with Saddam Hussein in prison. He retained the knowledge, the means, and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction. And he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies.
"He retained the knowledge …"
Alas, knowledge of how to build an A-bomb slipped out as far back as 1946 when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission published the Smyth Report. Hundreds, maybe thousands of physicists throughout the world know how to put together a "nuclear device."
"… the means …"
Actually, the Duelfer report states that Saddam Hussein did not have the means. It concludes that, after the 1991 war, "Iraq's ability to reconstitute a nuclear weapon program progressively decayed." Iraq destroyed its chemical-weapons stockpile in '91, and "there is no credible indication that Baghdad resumed production." The biological-weapons program was "put on the shelf" after the last facility was destroyed by U.N. inspectors in 1996.
"… and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction."
This part is right. On the basis of interviews with Iraqi scientists, Duelfer concludes that Saddam intended to resume his WMD program if the sanctions were ever lifted. Even here, though, Duelfer makes clear that there was no nascent program ready to take off once the gate was lifted. "The regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions," the report says. As for nukes, Duelfer's team "found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program." As for biological weapons, the report notes "a complete absence of discussion or even interest in BW at the presidential level."
Still what Saddam might do after sanctions was a legitimate concern. As Bush said in his South Lawn speech, "The Duelfer report showed that Saddam was systematically gaming the system, using the U.N. oil-for-food program to try to influence countries and companies in an effort to undermine sanctions. He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program, once the world looked away." (Italics added.)
Duelfer's evidence on the corruption of the oil-for-food program is fairly staggering. But what's the proper inference—that the president of the United States needed to use all his diplomatic and economic leverage to ensure that the world did not look away, or that he needed to invade Iraq as soon as possible?
Cheney said yesterday that "the sanctions-regime was coming apart at the seams." But was it? In October 2003, when David Kay (Duelfer's predecessor) released an interim report on the search for Iraqi WMD, he said that Saddam had paid North Korea $10 million for Scud-type missiles, but that the North Koreans didn't deliver because the world was watching transactions with Iraq too closely. (True to form, though, Pyongyang kept the $10 million.) Duelfer's report says Saddam was exploiting loopholes to obtain conventional weapons, but nothing in the way of WMD was getting through.
Back to Bush's comments on the South Lawn about why Saddam's knowledge of WMD was a threat worth going to war for:
"And he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies."
True, he could have. So could have the leaders of North Korea, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and a few other countries—all much closer to building a bomb than Iraq ever was, some of them already nuclear powers. The question is: Did Saddam Hussein have relations with our terrorist enemies or an inclination or motive to give them nuclear secrets? All evidence indicates he did not. The newly leaked CIA report—which had been requested by Cheney—concluded that Saddam enjoyed no such relations, not even with Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al-Qaida lieutenant who had a training camp before the war in the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Northern Iraq.
(One might still justify the war on human-rights grounds. But it is important to note that neither Bush nor Cheney did so yesterday. They argued that war was the right course on national-security grounds alone.)
On the South Lawn yesterday, Bush explained why he was mistaken about Saddam's weapons:
The Duelfer report makes clear that much of the accumulated body of 12 years of our intelligence and that of our allies was wrong, and we must find out why and correct the flaws. … At a time of many threats in the world, the intelligence on which the president and members of Congress base their decisions must be better—and it will be.
There's a breathtaking chutzpah about this attempt to put the blame on the intelligence agencies. It brings to mind the joke about the boy who killed his parents, then pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he's an orphan. Recall that all through 2002, when the White House and Pentagon were preparing to invade Iraq, Cheney and Rumsfeld were annoyed that the CIA was stubbornly failing to find evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program or of a connection between Saddam and al-Qaida. The New York Times reported in October 2002 that Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Doug Feith had set up their own small intelligence shop in the Pentagon to pore over raw intelligence, looking for connections that the CIA had obviously missed. Meanwhile, Cheney was making trips to Langley, applying pressure at the source.
According to a remarkably detailed story in last Sunday's New York Times, there was also much controversy, within the intelligence community, over the administration's only physical evidence suggesting that Saddam might be resuming his nuclear program—his purchase of aluminum tubes, which National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the public at the time could only be used for centrifuges to build a bomb. The Times story reports that, in fact, every intelligence official who really knew about centrifuges—especially in Department of Energy's branch responsible for nuclear-weapons production—insisted otherwise. (It was later conceded by everyone that the Energy officials were right, that the tubes were bought for conventional artillery rockets.)
The intelligence community has its problems, but it's not to blame for this mistake. At worst, it was divided on the interpretation of evidence, as often happens. Bush and his most trusted aides wanted the analysis to tilt in the direction that it tilted. They came down on the wrong side of the divide.
Here's the key point. Imagine it's the fall of 2002. President Bush goes before the Congress and makes the following case: Saddam Hussein is trying to break the sanctions. If he succeeds, he might try to resume his program to develop weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, I ask for your authority to invade Iraq now. Would anyone have signed on?