Politics & Policy

Between Tenet’s Lines

A typical CYA D.C. memoir.

“Intelligence professionals did not try to tell policymakers what they wanted to hear, nor did the policymakers lean on us to influence outcomes.

That’s just one of many inconvenient sentences in former CIA Director George Tenet’s memoir, At the Center of the Storm. It’s inconvenient because it runs counter to the central anti-Bush narrative of the last five years — that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney cooked the intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion. But you can be sure that such inconvenient truths won’t get much play in the fog the book is already generating, at least not from Bush’s critics or the bulk of the media. Full disclosure: I’ve only read some chunks of the book and watched interviews. But from what I can tell, a White House press flack could — and no doubt will — cull numerous quotes from the book that ultimately support Bush.

For example, Tenet argues that the rationale for war was “never a question of a known, imminent threat; it was about an unwillingness to risk surprise” from enemies like Saddam Hussein in the wake of 9/11. Tenet says former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s presentation before the United Nations reflected the best intelligence available. He says that the studied opinion among experts was that those infamous aluminum tubes were best suited for nuclear centrifuges and that the controversial allegation that Iraq sought “yellowcake” uranium from Niger was hardly central to the intelligence community’s belief that Iraq was seeking nuclear weapons.

Indeed, Tenet argues that the collective opinion of the intelligence community in 2002 was that, if Hussein could get access to his domestic supply of uranium — unreliably sequestered by international inspectors — he could have had nuclear weapons as early as 2007.

In other words, this supposedly anti-Bush book holds that were it not for the war, Hussein might have nukes today. And had he succeeded in getting fissile material from some third party, he could have had a bomb within a year of obtaining the material.

But none of this matters. Nor do Tenet’s splashier indictments of Cheney and other administration officials. People have made up their minds. Recollections, arguments, rationalizations, recriminations ,and all the other ingredients of the typical cover-your-behind D.C. memoir will have little effect. The only thing that can change people’s minds about the war is the war itself.

On road trips, once you’ve concluded that the driver has taken a wrong turn, no amount of assurances from the driver or quotes from guidebooks will convince you otherwise. The only thing that can change your mind is the wisdom of hindsight that comes from arriving at your destination and deciding the voyage was worthwhile after all.

That is the key distinction between supporters and opponents of the war. Opponents believe that we’ve reached the end of the road. The adventure is over, and it won’t get any better. So it’s time to come home. Defenders of continuing the war believe that we have a ways to go and that the effort can — and must — be salvaged. After all, few mainstream critics of the war dispute that if Iraq could be saved and eventually democratized, the war would have been worth the painful price. Rather, they argue that the U.S. can’t rescue anything worthwhile from the mess it has made and that our continued presence will only make things worse.

For some, this view is adamantine. Senate Majority Leader Harry “the war is lost” Reid recently declared on CNN that even if Gen. David Petraeus were to report his efforts in Iraq were working, Reid wouldn’t believe him. And, keep in mind, Reid speaks glowingly of Petraeus.

Reid is typical of the antiwar, anti-Bush partisans who will simply use the nearest weapon at hand to demolish the president’s credibility or the legitimacy of the war. And so they will reach into Tenet’s self-serving version of history and grab whatever is useful, ignoring the points mentioned above. And just as the tidbits I’ve provided will persuade no one to change his mind, the efforts of the antiwar crowd will be fruitless as well.

There is more to the cliche that history is written by the victors than an insight into historiography. If Democrats win the fight over withdrawal, the story of the Iraq war will come to an end, and their view of the war as a monumental blunder will become the winning interpretation because that prophecy will prove self-fulfilling. If — and it is a mighty big if — Bush and Petraeus can turn Iraq around, the decision to invade Iraq will be vindicated. At which point Tenet — the consummate Beltway survivor — will likely offer a new memoir claiming he was right all along, just for different reasons.

© 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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