Byron, I don’t think either Feith or I ever urged anyone “to argue that the war was really about eliminating a security threat, and not about WMD.” The point is that WMD was only a part — albeit an important part – of the security-threat case for removing Saddam. More importantly, it was not, by itself, sufficient to do what cried out to be done: establish a coherent nexus between our mission in Iraq and the wider war on terror.
To this day, if you ask what Iraq has to do with the War on Terror, you will get a blank stare from many (if not most) Americans. That is because the administration was overly narrow in emphasizing WMD prior to the war, and neglected to highlight the evidence (which has gotten only stronger over time) that Saddam had been cultivating jihadist groups (including al Qaeda) since the early 1990s. The problem was not just that Saddam might use WMD; it was that (a) he had strong enough ties to jihadist groups that it was plausible that he would supply them with WMD capability, and (b) wholly apart from WMD, it was plausible he would aid and abet jihadist groups in the ways only a state sponsor can — the wherewithal that allows a terror network to project power on the scale of a nation-state.
Post-invasion, when we did not find the anticipated stockpiles of WMD (notwithstanding that what we did find was alarming), the over-emphasis on WMD enabled the Left to concoct a smear that the invasion was unjustified, that it was built on a lie, and therefore that the cause was not righteous. Despite the fact that jihadists had been operating in Iraq long before the invasion and that Osama bin Laden himself was urging Iraq as the central front in a global war, the Left convinced many Americans that Iraq was a foolish ”distraction” from the “real” war on terror in Afghanistan (which war, it bears observing, the Left would also be attacking if there were no Iraq). This happened because the administration refused to engage and refute.
When we didn’t find the WMD in the quantities the intel had indicated would be there, the administration began talking up democracy-promotion as the righteous cause for which we were fighting. No meaningful effort was made to solidify Saddam’s record as a jihadist facilitator. I started warning that this would be a big problem before the 2004 election. Feith’s op-ed makes clear that he was raising the same alarm bells inside the administration:
I thought it was important for national security reasons that the president refute his critics’ misstatements. The CIA assessments of WMD were wrong, but they originated in the years before he became president and they had been accepted by Democratic and Republican members of Congress, as well as by the U.N. and other officials around the world. And, in any event, the erroneous WMD intelligence was not the entire security rationale for overthrowing Saddam. On May 22, 2004, I gave Mr. Rumsfeld a memo to pass along to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the president’s speechwriters. I proposed that the speech “should deal with some basics – in particular, why we went to war in the first place.” It would be useful to “make clear the tie-in between Iraq and the broader war on terrorism” in the following terms: The Saddam Hussein regime “had used WMD, supported various terrorist groups, was hostile to the U.S. and had a record of aggression and of defiance of numerous U.N. resolutions.”
Feith lost. After winning re-election, the administration took the tack that it was “looking forward rather than back.” Feeling itself burned on the WMD front, the administration decided it was a political loser to revisit the multi-layered rationale for the Iraq invasion. Thus it talked about democracy-promotion and refused to engage with critics who assiduously discredited the war as illegitimate. This was a triple-disaster in that (a) Americans don’t care whether Iraq becomes a democracy, (b) since building democracy in an Islamic society is, to put it mildly, difficult, we were sure to suffer set-backs which would enrage the public while occasional successes (like elections) would do little to enthuse the public, and (c) without a coherent tie-in between Iraq operations and the suppression of jihadist terror (which Americans do care about), public support for the war was bound to plummet — and without public support, the forces on the Left that want the U.S. to lose the war would have an increasingly strong hand. As Feith puts it,
The president had chosen to talk almost exclusively about Iraq’s future. His political opponents noticed that if they talked about the past – about prewar intelligence and prewar planning for the war and the aftermath – no one in the White House communications effort would contradict them. Opponents could say anything about the prewar period – misstating Saddam’s record, the administration’s record or their own – and their statements would go uncorrected. This was a big incentive for them to recriminate about the administration’s prewar work, and congressional Democrats have pressed for one retrospective investigation after another.But the most damaging effect of this communications strategy was that it changed the definition of success. Before the war, administration officials said that success would mean an Iraq that no longer threatened important U.S. interests – that did not support terrorism, aspire to WMD, threaten its neighbors, or conduct mass murder. But from the fall of 2003 on, the president defined success as stable democracy in Iraq.This was a public affairs decision that has had enormous strategic consequences for American support for the war. The new formula fails to connect the Iraq war directly to U.S. interests. It causes many Americans to question why we should be investing so much blood and treasure for Iraqis. And many Americans doubt that the new aim is realistic – that stable democracy can be achieved in Iraq in the foreseeable future. To fight a long war, the president has to ensure he can preserve public and congressional support for the effort. It is not an overstatement to say that the president’s shift in rhetoric nearly cost the U.S. the war. Victory or defeat can hinge on the president’s words as much as on the military plans of his generals or the actions of their troops on the ground.