It would be astonishing if anyone who has read the Bob Woodward book, Plan of Attack, and watched the public hearings of the 9/11 Commission still does not understand why President Bush invaded Iraq.
The commission, under the watchful eye of the media, is inspecting every bit of information that went to the president before 9/11, and dissecting his reaction and that of his administration to fearful but ambiguous warnings. His critics assert that the president should have acted when he was told, in a briefing on August 6, 2001, that bin Laden wanted to attack within the United States. The fact that the warning did not specify where, when, or how does not impress them; they relish the use of the words “hijacking” and “buildings” in the written CIA briefing on that date.
Under these circumstances, one should expect that the president’s toughest critics would be praising him for the steps he took after hearing from his CIA director–as reported by Bob Woodward–that whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was “a slam dunk.” Indeed, the questioning by the 9/11 Commission, and the reaction of the media and the president’s critics, shows that warnings far less specific than this can have enormous political consequences if ignored.
Imagine for a moment that you are the president of the United States. The country has just suffered the horrific attack of September 11 and the head of the intelligence community has just told you that Saddam Hussein has WMDs. It’s unclear, of course, whether Saddam and Osama bin Laden are allies, but you don’t really know. The CIA cannot tell you, just as they could not tell you–on August 6, 2001, or any other time–where bin Laden was going to attack within the United States.
On one hand, you can assume that Saddam was–in the phrase of so many of the sophisticated people–”in a box.” In this case, you do essentially nothing. You hope that you can somehow pressure Saddam into accepting U.N. inspectors again, and if he does you can hope that the inspectors will find and destroy his WMDs. But if these steps are ineffective–and that is the likely outcome–there should be no adverse consequences; Saddam is securely in his box.
Or you can assume the worst–that Saddam will provide a haven for the terrorists you were in the midst of throwing out of Afghanistan. If he does, you realize, he acquires a delivery system for his WMDs so credible that the United States and the rest of the world–especially Israel and the volatile Middle East–will be living for the foreseeable future under the threat of attack. People tell you that Saddam would never do this, since he would be subject to massive U.S. retaliation, but you reason that it would never be possible to demonstrate–to the satisfaction of most Americans, let alone world opinion–that Saddam or Iraq was behind another suicide attack by al Qaeda.
It appears that President Bush, in making his Iraq decision, contemplated exactly this scenario. Woodward quotes him: “The worst thing that could happen would be to allow a nation like Iraq, run by Saddam Hussein, to develop weapons of mass destruction, and then team up with terrorist organizations so they can blackmail the world. I’m not going to let that happen.”
Now let’s go back to the work of the 9/11 Commission and the media coverage it has engendered. Imagine that the president chose the first course–to do nothing except try to get Saddam to accept U.N. inspectors again–and that there has been a catastrophic Sarin gas attack in the New York subways. Some future 9/11 Commission is now reviewing what happened, and they find that after being chased out of Afghanistan terrorists in bin Laden’s network found refuge in Iran, Syria and Iraq. They also find that the president was told by his CIA director in March 2002 that Iraq had WMDs, which of course included stocks of Sarin gas, and that after this warning the president had done nothing more than urge the U.N. to enforce its previous resolutions and Iraq to accept inspectors–neither of which had come to pass. The commission also found that after a recent effort to enforce the no-fly zone, Iraq had sent word to the United States that it would “punish” such violations of its air space and sovereignty.
Given the reaction in the media and elsewhere to the revelation that the president was given an ambiguous warning about bin Laden on August 6, 2001, one can only imagine the ferocity of the reaction to these hypothetical revelations–all of which are far more plausible than the possibility, on August 6, 2001, that five suicidal maniacs would crash a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center. Could a president under these circumstances have avoided the eternal condemnation of Americans, and possibly even impeachment, if he had not acted on the knowledge that–for certain–Saddam had WMDs?
It is probably too much to expect that the president’s critics will see the glaring contradiction between their apparent horror at the revelations of the 9/11 Commission and their opposition to the president’s invasion of Iraq. Politics is not a rational business, and we should not expect to encounter sweet reason in the trenches of political warfare, but it is to be hoped that the American people–looking only for someone who will protect them without question and without equivocation–will see this contradiction for what it is.
–Peter J. Wallison is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was White House counsel to President Reagan in 1986 and 1987.