Bush’s Presidency at Risk Over Iraq Outcome, Not ‘Lies’

Posted September 24, 2003 at 2:30pm

What Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said about President Bush’s Iraq policy — that it was “made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically” — was extreme, but many Democrats evidently believe it. [IMGCAP(1)]

I’ve talked to a number of them who think that either the war itself or its timing was designed to divert attention from Bush’s domestic shortcomings or to keep the national focus on war and terrorism, to Bush’s political advantage.

If the charge could ever be proved, it would be grounds for impeachment. It would certainly be a high crime or misdemeanor for a president to plot a war for his personal political advantage.

Those who hold such a belief clearly can’t prove it. They can cite White House aide Karl Rove’s pre-Iraq statement that Bush’s fighting the war on terror would help GOP candidates, but Rove was talking about an effect, not a cause.

Not only can the charge not be proved, but it’s also beyond belief that any president would stage a war to win an election. That it is believed is a mark of how much some Democrats loathe Bush. They will accuse him of anything.

So why did Bush go to war? I think for exactly the reasons he stated — that, after Sept. 11, 2001, as president he could not risk having Saddam Hussein, this sworn enemy of the United States, pass weapons of mass destruction off to terrorist groups.

It was a sincere belief, born of a deep sense of responsibility in Bush that, if he could help it, a Sept. 11 should never happen again.

Whether Bush made the right decision, on the right evidence, and then overstated what evidence there was — all of this is open to debate, along with the question of whether he should have gone along with a United Nations majority and pushed for weapons inspections instead of going to war.

More important politically, though, is how it all turns out. Last fall, before the war, I wrote that Bush was betting his presidency on success in Iraq. When Baghdad fell, I thought he’d won his bet. That was dead wrong.

Bush now has his presidency riding on his ability to control the post-war aftermath and move Iraq toward democratic self-rule.

There seems little question that his critics are right to say that his administration underestimated the difficulties and did too little advance planning.

But to return to recriminations about the pre-war, it is charged — by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), for instance — that Bush “knew or should have known” that Iraq had no WMDs and therefore got the United States into the war by “lies.”

It’s true, Iraq may have had no WMDs. On the other hand, every major intelligence service on the planet believed ahead of the war that Iraq did have them. The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously that he account for them and hand them over.

If WMDs are never found in Iraq, I submit, it’s evidence of catastrophically bad intelligence — principally in the United States, but also in France, Britain and elsewhere — not bad faith.

Bush surely took a worst-case position on the weaponry — on evidence of a nuclear program, for instance — and he probably did so to “sell” this war to Congress and the American people. But did he “lie”? I don’t think so.

Democrats also charge that Bush claimed that an attack on the United States was “imminent.” He didn’t. The whole idea of the Bush doctrine, “pre-emptive war,” is to prevent your enemy from ever getting to the place where he can hit you.

Then there’s the question of Bush’s alleging Hussein’s ties to al Qaeda or the Sept. 11 attacks. If there were no ties — and, say, Osama bin Laden and Hussein hated each other more than they hated the United States — then the whole premise of Bush’s war was dead wrong.

And, it would be wrong if it turns out Hussein had no WMDs to give to al Qaeda. But everyone believed he had WMDs and it was reasonable for Bush to assume the worst — that Hussein would forge an alliance with bin Laden to use his terrorists as a delivery vehicle.

And, though the administration has not publicized it, there is evidence — cited often in The Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal — that the CIA has evidence of Hussein/bin Laden links, including Iraqi payments to al Qaeda.

Democrats now make a major case of the idea that Bush acted too hastily, going to war in March instead of following advice from France and others to keep inspections going.

But inspections would have found nothing — nothing may have existed — and Bush would have had to withdraw 150,000 troops from the region, undermining all pressure on Iraq.

So, I think that Bush had reason to fight the war. But the jury is still out on whether it was a wise decision. It would not be a wise decision if it proves that Iraq cannot be tamed, if Arab democracy proves simply an impossibility at this stage of history, or if the costs in lives become too great for the American public to tolerate.

For now, while asking hard questions, Democrats are going to unite with Republicans in paying what Bush estimates it costs to “win” the post-war. That’s good.

For 2004 election purposes, Democrats can legitimately charge, as some do, that “this was the wrong war at the wrong time for the wrong reason,” without accusing him of “lies.”