TCS Daily

An Antietam Moment

By Duane D. Freese - July 28, 2003 12:00 AM

The deaths of Saddam Hussein's heirs apparent -- Uday and Qusay -- gave the Bush administration a much-needed Antietam moment.


An Antietam moment is something all good politicians know about. It's about using a successful event to make important policy points. Abraham Lincoln suffered through more than a year of military losses until a victory -- actually a repulse of an invasion of rebel forces into Maryland -- allowed him to make his most important policy pronouncement of the war: the Emancipation Proclamation. As William Safire's delightful historical novel Freedom made clear, it not only gave true moral purpose to the war but helped forestall any British or French intervention on the side of the South.


The Bush administration has hardly lacked its victories in the war on terror, as Lincoln did in the Civil War. But for three months since the fall of Baghdad, the administration has become mired in a tangle of accusations and innuendo about the reasons for attacking Iraq and its effect on the war on terrorism.


A brilliant military victory in Iraq and the removal of a loathsome dictator who killed his own people and funneled money to terrorists is being portrayed by some as a failure because weapons of mass destruction haven't turned up yet and Ba'ath Party remnants daily attack U.S. troops there. A 16-word passage in President Bush's State of the Union address about British intelligence indicating that Hussein was seeking to buy material for building a nuclear bomb has, in particular, been cited as at least an exaggeration by the administration and at worst a lie.


Democratic presidential aspirants Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean have in essence taken on the mantle of anti-war Democrats back in Lincoln's day and said the war against Iraq was unnecessary. Another candidate, Rep. Richard Gephardt, went so far as to say that George Bush "has left us less safe, and less secure, than four years ago."


Not all Democrats are playing those cards. Former President Clinton, for example, answering a question on CNN's Larry King Live, said of the State of the Union statement:


"First of all, the White House said -- Mr. Fleischer said -- that on balance they probably shouldn't have put that comment in the speech. What happened, often happens. There was a disagreement between British intelligence and American intelligence. The president said it was British intelligence that said it. And then they said, well, maybe they shouldn't have put it in.

"Let me tell you what I know. When I left office, there was a substantial amount of biological and chemical material unaccounted for. That is, at the end of the first Gulf War, we knew what he had. We knew what was destroyed in all the inspection processes and that was a lot. And then we bombed with the British for four days in 1998. We might have gotten it all; we might have gotten half of it; we might have gotten none of it. But we didn't know. So I thought it was prudent for the president to go to the U.N. and for the U.N. to say you got to let these inspectors in, and this time if you don't cooperate the penalty could be regime change, not just continued sanctions.

"I mean, we're all more sensitive to any possible stocks of chemical and biological weapons. So there's a difference between British -- British intelligence still maintains that they think the nuclear story was true. I don't know what was true, what was false. I thought the White House did the right thing in just saying, 'Well, we probably shouldn't have said that.' And I think we ought to focus on where we are and what the right thing to do for
Iraq is now. That's what I think."


So much for the Bush deception claims. And Thursday, the administration moved directly to get out of its defensive posture and play a little offense.


In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Vice President Richard Cheney laid out clearly and explicitly the reasons the administration went to war and what it had to do with the war on terror.


He noted that the National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 had said the following:


"We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of U.N. Resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions. If left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."




"...all key aspects -- the R&D, production, and weaponization -- of Iraq's offensive [biological weapons] program are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War."


And that the intelligence community had "high confidence" in the conclusion that:


"Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to U.N. Resolutions."




"...the Intelligence Community also had high confidence in the judgment that - and I quote: 'Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.'


"Ladies and gentlemen, this is some of what we knew... Knowing these things, how could we, I ask, have allowed that threat to stand?"


The answer, of course, is obvious.


So, President Bush went to Congress and to the United Nations. And both bodies agreed that the time had come for Saddam Hussein to fully comply with all relevant resolutions as he agreed to do at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. And Congress -- including Rep. Gephardt and other now-critical presidential candidates, Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry -- supported going to war if Hussein didn't comply.


And as Cheney pointed out, Hussein didn't. So the president acted and removed Saddam. And things in Iraq are still messy. But that's what has happened after regime change in any war. The South was a mess for decades after the Civil War, too.


As Cheney noted, "Critics of the liberation of Iraq must also answer another question: what would that country look like today if we had failed to act? If we had not acted, Saddam Hussein and his sons would still be in power. If we had not acted, the torture chambers would still be in operation; the prison cells for children would still be filled; the mass graves would still be undiscovered; the terror network would still enjoy the support and protection of the regime; Iraq would still be making payments to the families of suicide bombers attacking Israel; and Saddam Hussein would still control vast wealth to spend on his chemical, biological, and nuclear ambitions. All of these crimes and dangers were ended by decisive military action. Everyone, for many years, wished for these good outcomes. Finally, one man made the decision to achieve them: President George W. Bush. And the Iraqi people, the people of the Middle East, and the American people have a safer future because Saddam Hussein's regime is history."

Richard Gephardt has a hard case to prove that America is less secure today with Saddam out of power in Iraq, the Taliban out of control in Afghanistan and al Qaida on the run throughout much of the world.

If 9/11 taught us anything it's a lesson that critics of the war in Iraq have yet to grasp: The best defense is often a good offense. As a study out July 24 noted, more than $30 billion invested in intelligence prior to 9/11 didn't provide all the information needed to thwart the attacks that took more than 3,000 lives.  But then omniscience has never been a human strong suit - even if presidential candidates, as opposed to former presidents and existing ones, seem to think they have all the answers.


The task for the administration now is to display the same resolution as Lincoln did -- and go on the offensive. If it does, the Bush administration in the war against terror will not only enjoy this Antietam moment but a Richmond one, as well.


Meanwhile, those Democrats who nitpick and otherwise display irresolution will suffer a McClellan moment of their own in 2004 -- in honor of timid Union General George, who failed to follow up his defensive victory at Antietam with an offensive effort, thus getting fired by Lincoln and then going on to lose to him in the election of 1864.


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