Can loonies run for president? Senator Bob Graham is evidently trying to corner their vote by suggesting that Bush should be impeached for lying about Iraq before the war. “Would not a president who knowingly deceived the American people about something as important as whether to go to war meet the standard of impeachment?” Graham asked.
The controversy over Bush’s statement in his prewar State of the Union speech is doubly spurious. First, because Bush did not lie when he said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The British did and still believe that Iraq was trying to buy 500 tons of “yellowcake” from Niger that it could have tried to enrich to nuke-grade uranium. The National Intelligence Estimate that Bush saw reflecting the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community cited this and other reports that Iraq was seeking nuclear materials.
So where’s the beef? Did Bush get carried away describing the threat from Iraq? What Bush’s critics are essentially charging is that Bush has been fighting the war against terrorism so aggressively that he had to fudge intelligence assessments to get his way.
But even if this were a fudge, and it barely qualifies as that, it was a microscopic one compared to the grand fudge of which it was a part: the effort to base the legitimacy of the war on Saddam’s quest for WMDs. And why did Bush do that? Because he decided to bend over backwards toward his anti-war critics in seeking U.N. approval for the war, and this seemed to be the only, if ultimately fruitless, avenue to gain such approval.
The grand fudge was not a lie either. Saddam’s regime fully qualified for membership in the “axis of evil,” which Bush essentially defined in the same speech (January 2002) as “the world’s most dangerous regimes [seeking] to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” In an important piece in the Washington Post (June 29), former UNSCOM chief Rolf Ekeus explained that the primary WMD threat from Iraq never consisted of the rusty drums full of chemicals that the U.S. has been vainly searching for, but the know-how to produce weapons quickly when the key components were in place.
“The combination of researchers, engineers, know-how, precursors, batch production techniques, and testing is what constituted Iraq’s chemical threat its chemical weapon,” writes Ekeus. Regarding nukes, the Iraqis “lacked access to fissile material [which Bush warned they were seeking] but were advanced with regard to weapon design.” Saddam’s rampant violation of the binding U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring him to disarm were the most obvious legal casus belli.
The WMD threat was also directly connected to the war against terrorism. Even today, Ekeus argues, Iraqi scientists who are free to hook up with terrorist groups are a greater threat than the unemployed Russian experts that the West has tended to be concerned about. But the fact that the WMD threat was ample justification for Saddam’s removal and the best shot for persuading the U.N. does not mean it was main reason. It wasn’t even the runner-up. My ranking would be One: 9/11, Two: freedom, Three: WMD.
September 11 was the most serious terrorist attack against the United States in its history. America has a right and an obligation to defend itself. Bush rightly defined the goal of that defense as the elimination of state-supported terrorism. Saddam Hussein was a linchpin of the terrorist network, whether or not he happened to work with al Qaeda. It is no coincidence that network came out to fight for him during the war, more than his own army, and is reportedly working to destabilize Iraq today.
After the war, in his victory speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush said, “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11, 2001 and still goes on.” He should have couched the war in such terms from the beginning, but he evidently thought that doing so would detract from his WMD-based case at the U.N.
But who is really at fault for that strategy, Bush or those who dismissed any link between Saddam and the war against terrorism and demanded a U.N. stamp of approval?
The “war against terrorism” is a euphemism for a simply described project: ridding the world of regimes that back terrorism, either by removing them or convincing them to get out of the business. Though the U.S. is often seen, somewhat enviously by Israelis, as pursuing this goal in a no-holds-barred fashion, it is not. The entire Iraq debate was proof that even the U.S. cannot always say what it was doing.
It is a mark of the perfidy of the West that the U.S. must sneak around and obfuscate about what is a plainly justified campaign of self-defense. It is in the interest of no law-abiding nation that terrorism should continue to be the undeniable instrument of national policy for a handful of regimes. The U.S. should have been able to walk into the U.N. Security Council on September 12 and demand that all such nations everyone knows who they are be utterly cut off from civilized discourse, much as the apartheid regime in
South Africa was.
Yet even today, the U.S. is having trouble convincing Russia to cut off Iran’s nuclear program, or convincing European nations to put Hamas on their terrorist lists. No one even thinks of imposing so much as a trade embargo against terror-supporting countries.
In his Lincoln speech, Bush also touched on the second reason for the war: “Everywhere that freedom arrives, humanity rejoices; and everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear.” If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to mean anything, the world must stand for freedom. Freedom should be a goal of international law, not just its byproduct. But freedom is also necessary for security, since only tyrannies protect themselves with terrorism.
Bush’s problem was not the weakness of his case against Iraq, but of too many cases to choose from. If he is to be faulted, it is not for over-zealousness in pursuit of regime change, but for not pressing this cause with even greater consistency and self-assurance.
— Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post. This first appeared in the Post and is reprinted with permission.