During the Vietnam War, questions about the credibility of the U.S. governments version of the Gulf of Tonkin incidentthe event that triggered deep U.S. involvement in the conflictdid not become a major issue until the war started going badly. In the last few months, the same has happened in Iraq. As the chaos in Iraq subtly eroded the presidents popularity, the media, pundits and even normally cautious presidential candidates finally found the courage to question whether the administration hyped the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The administrations latest admission should cause the already yawning credibility gap to widen further into criticism about putting American soldiers at risk unnecessarily in faraway lands.
At a recent public forum, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the administrations policy in Iraq, listed three reasons for the invasion: concern about Iraqs drive to obtain WMD (that is, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons), Iraqs links to terrorism, and Saddam Husseins despotic regime that violated human rights.
By Wolfowitzs own acknowledgement before the war, Saddams evil regime was not, by itself, a justification for the invasion. Also, in the lead-up to the conflict, the administration did not emphasize that rationale as much as the first two reasons. Only after the war, when no WMD were found, did getting rid of an evil regime come into its own as a main justification for war.
And at the public forum, Wolfowitz was spinning the WMD justification a bit from what the administration originally argued. Prior to the war, many officials from the administration maintained that the threat posed by such Iraqi weapons programs was so imminent that international weapons inspections had to be terminatedeven though the Iraqis appeared to be cooperatingand military actions rapidly initiated. In fact, Vice President Dick Cheney claimed that the administration believed Iraq had reconstituted nuclear weapons. Even if some evidence of Iraqi weapons or weapons programs is eventually found, the threat was hardly imminent enough to invade the country. It appears that weapons inspections during the 1990s had deterred or at least impeded Iraq from making much progress on reconstituting chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. In fact, an Iraqi scientist buried components for developing WMD until sometime in the future when inspections had ended. Continuing inspections would have undoubtedly sufficed in containing Iraqs weapons programs.
More important, even in the worst case that Hussein had WMD ready to deliver, he did not do so under the most trying circumstancesfacing a land invasion that would remove his regime from power or kill him. So during normal peacetime conditions, Hussein would have been unlikely to use such weapons against a superpower with thousands of nuclear warheads.
So the final justification that remained standing was Saddams support for terrorism. For the most part, administration officials carefully fashioned an implied link between 9/11 and Iraqnever saying directly that Hussein was directly involved. For example, on September 8, 2002, Cheney said, Come back to 9/11 again, and one of the real concerns about Saddam Hussein, as well, is his biological weapons capability.
But recently Cheney has been less prudent. He alleged that the administration didnt know if Hussein had a role in the September 11th attacks, but then in the same interview said that succeeding in stabilizing and democratizing Iraq would be a major strike at the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11. And he also accused Iraq of providing training and expertise in bomb-making and chemical and biological warfare to al Qaeda. Yet professional intelligence analysts have always maintained that any connections between the Hussein regime and Iraq were superficial.
After Cheneys free-wheeling comments, we can interpret the blunt comments by the president and other high-level administration officialsthat no evidence exists of a connection between 9/11 and Saddam Husseinas an attempt at damage control. The administration, stung earlier by intense public criticism that it hyped the threat of Iraqi WMD to justify war, wanted to avoid a repeat performance.
Yet if no link exists between Hussein and 9/11, the collapse of the last and most important pillar supporting the rationale for the war could bring the roof down on the administrations policy toward Iraq. Over time, the administrations implied association between the two has convinced almost 70 percent of the public that the link is real. But now when Americans ask why their sons and daughters lives and truckloads of their tax dollars have been lost in a remote land, what does the administration have left to tell them?
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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