Whether or not George W. Bush is elected on November 2 (or selected in a post-election legal scuffle), the defining sin of his administration will remain unchanged: He launched a war of choice on the basis of an inaccurate and misleading threat assessment. It is now beyond question that the United States faced no pressing danger from Iraq on March 19, 2003, nothing that necessitated what is supposed to be an action of last resort. A narrow win for Bush — or even a landslide victory — will not alter this. Bush has spent much of the campaign ducking responsibility for making a bad call; he has hailed the war with ever-shifting justifications. And he has been fortunate that the election did not seem to become a straight-out referendum on the war. Over half of the public, according to polls, did conclude the war was a mistake. Yet a majority of likely voters told pollsters they considered Bush better able than John Kerry to handle the mess in Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism. Guiding the nation to war in obvious error ought to ensure a president’s defeat. But (political) life is not that simple post-9/11. And no matter the final choice of the undecided swing-state voters, it will still be necessary to remember (that is, not forget) that Bush committed the biggest presidential blunder of modern times.
So once more for the record — before facts are supplanted by election results — let’s review some undeniable propositions.
1. Bush is commander in chief.
2. It is the job of the commander in chief to judge threats to the nation.
3. Bush said that Saddam Hussein’s regime — because it possessed significant amounts of biological and chemical weapons and a revived nuclear-weapons program and because it was “dealing” with al Qaeda — was a “direct,” “immediate” and “gathering” threat.
4. Iraq did not have biological or chemical weapons or a revived nuclear-weapons program. (The recent Duelfer report noted that Iraq’s WMD programs were decaying — not gaining ground — in the years before the invasion.) According to the CIA and the 9/11 Commission, Iraq had no operational relationship with al Qaeda.
5. Bush did not evaluate the threat accurately.
6. Primarily on the basis of this erroneous evaluation, Bush launched an elective war that was not supported by the United Nations or most of the United States’ major allies.
7. Over 1,100 American GIs and many — though uncounted — Iraqi civilians have been killed during this war, which has resulted in a chaotic post-invasion period costly in terms of life, money and U.S. credibility.
Case closed. Or it should be. Bush has two possible explanations for his conduct. I screwed up, or they screwed up. No shocker, he and his allies have selected the latter, with the they being the intelligence agencies.
Bush himself has not explicitly pressed that argument. He has tried to change the channel. He has re-defined the war in Iraq as chiefly a crucial component of a global crusade to export democracy and freedom, a project he paints as necessary for the security of the United States. He also has depicted the war as a critical part of his overall strategy to go “on the offense” against terrorists. (What terrorists? you ask. Well, there are plenty of anti-American terrorists in Iraq now.) And Bush still insists that Saddam Hussein was a “gathering” threat — without explaining what was so “gathering” about this threat (given that Iraq had no WMD stockpiles or active WMD programs). He has conceded — begrudgingly and briefly — that the prewar intelligence on WMD in Iraq was flawed. But he has said precious little on the subject, expressing no indignation, regret or even curiosity in public about what went wrong. He has left it to his allies in the commentariat and in Congress to assert that he was victimized by the intelligence community.
This is a cover story. And it should not be permitted to gain a foothold in the national discussion. The intelligence community did indeed overestimate the prewar intelligence. But Bush repeatedly exaggerated the overstatements. For instance, the CIA in October 2002 concluded that Iraq had an active biological-weapons program. (The CIA was wrong; the bioweapons program was mostly moribund, according to the Duelfer report.) But Bush that month told the public Iraq had biological-weapons stockpiles. There is an important difference between stockpiles and an R&D program. Another example: The intelligence community noted that Hussein had no nuclear weapons but might develop a nuclear bomb by the end of the decade — if Iraq was left unchecked (and it was plenty checked at this time). Yet Bush claimed that Iraq had revived its nuclear-weapons program (sticking to this position even after inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency had declared Iraq’s nuclear program kaput), and he said — in an act of fact-free fearmongering — that the United States government couldn’t be sure that Iraq did not already possess a nuclear weapon.
Bush did not bother to share with the public the actual findings of the intelligence community. He hyped the material. Had he taken the step of actually examining the intelligence, he would have learned that many key findings were disputed among the intelligence analysts. But, as the White House has conceded, Bush did not read the 90-page National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq — the intelligence community’s summation of its best intelligence on Iraq and WMD — before deciding to invade Iraq. Bush has said he does not read newspapers. But not read the NIE? That was dereliction of duty.
In addition to rewriting history (the U.S. invaded Iraq for democracy’s sake, not because of WMD) and scapegoating the spies, the Bush camp has relied on another myth: Before the war everyone believed Hussein had WMD. This chorus has been sung by Bush aides since the smoke began clearing in Iraq. But it’s simply not true. In February 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that due to sanctions, Iraq had not “developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction.” That summer, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice declared that Hussein was not a major threat. Before the war, several former weapons inspectors — including Scott Ritter — questioned Bush’s claims about Iraq’s supposed WMD. Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector, challenged the administration’s assertions. The Defense Intelligence Agency produced a classified report saying there was no evidence of chemical-weapons stockpiles (although there was evidence of conventional munitions such as the 380 tons of explosives the Bush administration failed to safeguard and are now missing).
If you mention any of this, Bush defenders whip out a list of quotes from John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, who each had proclaimed Hussein a threat before the invasion. But this they-said-it-too defense elides two essential points. First, Kerry and most of the other Democrats stated that they wanted to see the inspections process pursued further before any war was initiated. If they followed the administration’s lead and overstated the threat, it was a less serious mistake because they were willing to explore other options short of war. Two, it was Bush’s responsibility — more than anyone else’s — to get it right. And he did not.
There is much Bush has done wrong as president: tilting his large tax cuts toward the rich, ignoring the threat of global warming, doing little to address job losses, blocking stem-cell research, not planning adequately for the aftermath of his invasion of Iraq. But nothing compares to starting a war that need not have been started. It has become cant of the left that Bush lied us into war. (As the author of The Lies of George W. Bush, a best-seller, I suppose I can claim a share of the responsibility for this.) But it is important that Bush’s mendacity not be transformed into merely a bumper-sticker slogan. It is much bigger than that. The most disturbing lesson of Bush’s first (and perhaps only) term is that it is not too difficult for an American president and a small group of aides to flimflam the public on the most consequential matter there is. Whatever happens on Election Day, it is crucial that the American public realize that this can — and did — happen here.