TCS Daily

The Politics of Iraq

By Doug Bandow - July 26, 2004 12:00 AM

The 9/11 Commission has issued its final report and, to no one's surprise, found manifold intelligence mistakes. The Clinton and Bush administrations share responsibility for those failings, but cannot be fairly blamed for the terrorist attacks of September 11. Washington's most important task now is to improve its ability to gather, analyze, and act on often obscure and fragmentary information regarding enemy actors.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration's response to the equally gross intelligence failure involving Iraqi WMDs leaves little reason for confidence. Indeed, though President Bill Clinton's commitment to doing the popular thing politically was legendary, President George W. Bush has proved to be his match. The latter may be even more devoted to turning everything, including intelligence failures, to his political advantage.

The day after Saddam Hussein appeared in the dock in Baghdad, a story appeared in the Washington Times headlined "Bush Backers See Trial Taking Focus off WMDs," with one unnamed source telling the newspaper: "Put aside the WMDs, and go look at the mass graves."

The administration's strategy is clear. After taking the U.S. into war based on a falsehood, don't fix the intelligence process. Instead, get Americans to forget the falsehood.

Playing the humanitarian card just won't do. The administration was unconcerned about mass graves before September 11. There were no plans to oust Hussein and end his tyranny even as his security forces continued to arrest, torture, and murder people.

Moreover, after building up U.S. forces and preparing for war, President George W. Bush offered to call off the attack if Hussein went into exile. Hauling Hussein into court and creating Western-style democracy were dispensable objectives.

And the administration has done nothing about millions of dead in Congo, starvation and civil war in Sudan, continuing oppression in Libya, and ongoing Russian brutality in Chechnya, to name just a few humanitarian catastrophes around the globe. North Korea's Kim Jong-il continues to kill in peace while Washington negotiates possible aid packages.

In fact, humanitarianism was but a throwaway line as assorted administration officials made their case for war with Iraq. President Bush called Hussein's human rights abuses troubling, but said he doubted that they constituted a cause for war. In an interview last year Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz admitted that the internal consensus was that humanitarian concerns did not warrant risking American lives in battle.

Since there were sharp administration divisions over the existence of operational ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, Wolfowitz observed, only fear of presumed Iraqi possession of WMD unified the administration. So, he explained, it served as the centerpiece of the administration's case, for both domestic and foreign audiences.

Indeed, the administration went all out to scare the American people into its corner despite evidence that was far less conclusive than officials admitted. For instance, before the war President Bush said that "the threat from Iraq stands alone," since that nation's "weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant." He visualized "mushroom clouds" when talking to the American people.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was quite specific in his presentation to the UN Security Council. "Saddam Hussein could have produced 25,000 liters" of anthrax and had accounted for none of it. "Saddam Hussein has never accounted for vast amounts of chemical weaponry: 550 artillery shells with mustard [gas], 30,000 empty munitions and enough precursors to increase his stockpile to as much as 500 tons of chemical agents."

Added Secretary Powell, Iraq had stockpiled "enough agent to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets." Secretary Powell calmly asserted "Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons" and asked: "when will we see the rest of the submerged iceberg?"

Powell was not alone in making such claims. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of "large, unaccounted-for stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons -- including VX, sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gas; anthrax, botulism, and possibly smallpox."

President Bush claimed that "we found biological laboratories." Secretary Powell pointed to unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, which "are well suited for dispensing chemical and biological weapons." In fact, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fl.) said that the administration used a classified briefing to claim that Iraq had the capability of hitting American cities with UAVs.

Alas, all of these claims have proved to be false. Not one appears to have had the slightest bit of truth. Of course, maybe someone will eventually find something. And Hussein seemed to preserve program elements in the hopes of a future revival. But that isn't the same thing.

Said David Kay, who ran America's Iraq Survey Group: "It clearly does not look like a massive, resurgent program, based on what we discovered." Charles Duelfer, former deputy director of the UN inspections program, said: "It will probably turn out, in my judgment, that there are no existing weapons in Iraq, and that mildly surprises me." Kay added: "information found to date suggests that Iraq's large-scale capability to develop, produce, and fill new CW munitions was reduced -- if not entirely destroyed --during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Fox, 13 years of U.N. sanctions, and U.N. inspections."

Yet until now, instead of working to revamp U.S. intelligence operations, administration officials have done little. They apparently hope that American voters will simply forget. And the President's supporters think the trial of Saddam Hussein will help promote mass amnesia.

In fact, the administration seems to be positioning itself to manipulate coverage of the trial to improve the way it plays in America. At Hussein's hearing, U.S. officials ordered pool reporters to disconnect their audio equipment when the former dictator was speaking. All-too-aware of how Slobodan Milosevic won sympathy in Serbia by challenging his foreign accusers, perhaps the President's aides plan to mute as much of Hussein as possible.

Misuse of the proceedings wouldn't be such a concern if administration supporters weren't talking about making political mileage out of the trial. But with the President's poll ratings having already fallen as people came to disbelieve the administration's WMD claims about Iraq and believe that the war's costs have exceeded its benefits, administration desperation could easily grow as November approaches.

We didn't need the 9/11 commission report to know that U.S. intelligence failed when it came to assessing the capabilities and intentions of the al-Qaeda network. How to best respond remains a valid matter for debate. But the administration must accept responsibility for its mistakes and join that debate. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely for officials who so far have attempted to avoid being held accountable for their erroneous WMD claims and mistaken war against Iraq.

The American people must make clear that such behavior is no longer acceptable. We can no longer afford politics as usual, whether conducted by Democrats or Republicans.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including the forthcoming The Korean Conundrum: America's Troubled Relationship with North and South Korea (Palgrave/Macmilylan).


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