George Tenet has a very mixed legacy. On the one hand, he presided over the two biggest intelligence failures of this era — 9/11 and the WMD debacle in Iraq. On the other hand, his CIA did devise and carry out brilliantly an astonishingly bold plan to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. Tenet might have just left it at that, gone home with his Presidential Medal of Freedom, and let history judge him.
Instead, he’s decided to do some judging of his own. In his just-released book and in hawking it on television, Tenet presents himself as a pathetic victim and scapegoat of an administration that was hell-bent on going to war, slam dunk or not.
Tenet writes as if he assumes no one remembers anything. For example: “There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat.”
Does he think no one remembers President Bush explicitly rejecting the imminence argument in his 2003 State of the Union address in front of just about the largest possible world audience? Said the president, “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent” — and he was not one of them. That in a post-9/11 world, we cannot wait for tyrants and terrorists to gentlemanly declare their intentions. Indeed, elsewhere in the book Tenet concedes that very point: “It was never a question of a known, imminent threat; it was about an unwillingness to risk surprise.”
Tenet also makes what he thinks is the damning and sensational charge that the administration, led by Vice President Cheney, had been focusing on Iraq even before 9/11. In fact, he reports, Cheney asked for a CIA briefing on Iraq for the president even before they had been sworn in.
This is odd? This is news? For the entire decade following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was the single greatest threat in the region and therefore the most important focus of U.S. policy. U.N. resolutions, congressional debates, and foreign-policy arguments were seized with the Iraq question and its many post-Gulf War complications — the WMDs, the inspection regimes, the ceasefire violations, the no-fly zones, the progressive weakening of sanctions.
Iraq was such an obsession of the Clinton administration that Clinton ultimately ordered an air and missile attack on its WMD installations that lasted four days. This was less than two years before Bush won the presidency. Is it odd that the administration following Clinton’s should share its extreme concern about Iraq and its weapons?
Tenet is not the only one to assume a generalized amnesia about the recent past. One of the major myths (or, more accurately, conspiracy theories) about the Iraq War — that it was foisted upon an unsuspecting country by a small band of neoconservatives — also lives blissfully detached from history.
The decision to go to war was made by a war Cabinet consisting of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld. No one in that room could even remotely be considered a neoconservative. Nor could the most important non-American supporter of the war to this day — Tony Blair, father of new Labor.
The most powerful case for the war was made at the 2004 Republican convention by John McCain in a speech that was resolutely “realist.” On the Democratic side, every presidential candidate running today who was in the Senate when the motion to authorize the use of force came up — Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd — voted yes.
Outside of government, the case for war was made not just by the neoconservative Weekly Standard, but — to select almost randomly — the traditionally conservative National Review, the liberal New Republic, and the center-right Economist. Of course, most neoconservatives supported the war, the case for which was also being made by journalists and scholars from every point on the political spectrum — from the leftist Christopher Hitchens to the liberal Tom Friedman to the centrist Fareed Zakaria to the center-right Michael Kelly to the Tory Andrew Sullivan. And the most influential tome on behalf of war was written not by any conservative, let alone neoconservative, but by Kenneth Pollack, Clinton’s top Near East official on the National Security Council. The title: The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq
Everyone has the right to renounce past views. But not to make up that past. It is beyond brazen to think that one can get away with inventing not ancient history but what everyone saw and read with their own eyes just a few years ago. And yet sometimes brazenness works.
© 2007, The Washington Post Writers Group