The media and Democrats are rushing to thrust, with a twist, the verbal dagger into the Bush administration over the gotcha in the speech. The administration so richly deserves acerbic criticism over its bellicose invasion of a sovereign Iraq and its subsequent botched attempt at nation-building there. But the real question is why it took so long for the criticism of administration duplicity to be exposed and debated. This question goes to the heart of culture of the nations capital.
Many Washington reporters, policy analysts and politicianseven Republican onesknew before the invasion of Iraq that the administrations multiple reasons for going to war were shaky. For example, in a speech on October 7, 2002, President Bush stated flatly, Iraq could decide on any given day [my emphasis] to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints. But a National Intelligence Estimate from the U.S. intelligence community, released on October 2, contradicted the presidents statement. The estimate said that Saddam Hussein was likely to use chemical and biological weapons, or give them to terrorists, only if Baghdad feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regimethat is, the administrations very policy. The full estimate was only declassified recently but, at the time, the then-chairman of the intelligence committee pressured and succeeded in compelling CIA director George Tenet to make public that conclusion.
Similarly, another administration assertion made to connect the unrelated war against Iraq with its justifiable war against al Qaeda was an Iraqi link to the group. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his speech to the United Nations, each claimed that the Bush administration had strong evidence of the link. But most intelligence experts, while acknowledging some contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda over the years, discounted any significant cooperative relationship between the religious radicals of al Qaeda and one of the corrupt, secular governments that al Qaeda was committed to overthrow. It was also widely known in Washington circles before the war that the evidence for that claim was shaky.
Some ex-generals associated with the administration in one way or anotherfor example, Brent Scowcroft and Anthony Zinnihad the courage to speak out against the imminent war. But their criticisms echoed down the empty canyons of the nations capital as reporters, analysts and politicians hid in the bushes as Bushs war juggernaut roared ahead. Even when the emperor has no clothes (in the wake of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, this phrase may be less metaphorical and more literal), he will not be criticized in Washington if he is popular outside the beltway. And, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, President Bush was immensely popular with Americans. But now that a chink has developed in the emperors armor, the media and Democratic politicians are piling on by discovering materials that were already publicly known before the invasion. If the current chaos in Iraq does not improve, more and more examples of administration trickery will undoubtedly drip, drip, drip into the public discourse.
But I guess the cliché better late than never would apply here. Increased media scrutiny, and intelligence community pique at the CIA Directors falling on his sword for the presidents twisting of the truth, has resulted in many leaks that have recently exposed further administration deceptions to justify the war. For example, the shocking truth was that the U.S. intelligence community gathered very little new information on Iraqs weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs after the U.N. inspectors left in 1998 and had no high-level spies in Saddam Husseins inner circle to provide up-to-date information on such weapons programs (according to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials). Yet, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in remarks made shortly before the Presidents State of the Union speech, described the administrations intelligence on Iraqs WMD programs as current and convincing. It is a case grounded in current intelligence, he told New Yorks Council on Foreign Relations, current intelligence that comes not only from sophisticated overhead satellites and our ability to intercept communications, but from brave people who told us the truth at the risk of their lives. We have that; it is very convincing. Not anymore.
It is a shame that as the republic confronted the grave decision to go to war, the debate on the issue in Washington could not have been more honest and informed. If the media and Democratic and Republican skeptics had provided any help to the minority of vocal critics of the Bush administrations Iraq policy, the nation might have been able to avoid the current quagmire that is likely to sap the countrys strength for years to come.