I’m outraged. I can’t believe the president would try to distract attention from his domestic problems by attacking foreign regimes based on suspect intelligence. He should be impeached!
Actually he already was. I’m referring of course to Bill Clinton, who in 1998 bombed terrorist bases in Afghanistan, a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and various sites in Iraq in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky mess.
The evidence that the Sudanese plant was actually making nerve gas for Osama bin Laden -- as Clinton claimed -- was subsequently discredited. Yet Democrats rushed to his defense. “We believe the president acted correctly and responsibly,” House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said in a joint statement.
It’s worth recalling this 5-year-old incident as the controversy over President Bush’s radioactive State of the Union speech sputters on.
Politically opportunistic Democrats are invoking preposterous comparisons with Watergate because of the president’s statement that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Democrats smell blood because the administration has admitted that its own findings about Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium in Niger were based on forged documents. But it’s quite a leap to go from faulty information to charges that the president deliberately lied. The real problem is that intelligence seldom provides certainty; it can only offer hints or clues that policymakers have to interpret as best they can.
That’s precisely what Bill Clinton and his national security advisors did in 1998. In August, after Al Qaeda bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, they launched preemptive attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan because they didn’t want to risk having poison gas released in the New York City subway. Even though the evidence was hardly conclusive that the Sudanese plant was working for Bin Laden, they decided to err on the side of safety. Based on the same precautionary principle, the administration bombed Iraq a few months later, even though there was no hard proof that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
And they were perfectly right to do so. Just as Bush was right to finally end Hussein’s nightmarish reign.
This administration never pretended that it had firm intelligence that Hussein was about to attack the United States. What it had was a long track record of duplicity and depravity on Hussein’s part that no one can deny. Given this history, Hussein’s failure to fully account for his weapons of mass destruction to the satisfaction of U.N. weapons inspectors constituted a casus belli.
The decision to go to war was not based on 16 words in the State of the Union. In fact, that address was delivered more than three months after both houses of Congress had already authorized Bush to take military action against Iraq. Lest we forget, that resolution was endorsed by Democratic Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and John Edwards and Rep. Dick Gephardt, all of whom are now carping that they were deceived by the president. They must have been pretty clairvoyant to have been deceived by a claim that Bush had not yet made.
The reason Bush didn’t mention uranium prior to the vote is now pretty obvious -- the story didn’t stand up to close scrutiny. So why put it in the State of the Union? As the White House now acknowledges, that was a mistake, but hardly a catastrophic one. Those 16 words were carefully hedged. Bush didn’t claim that Hussein tried to get uranium in Africa; he claimed that the British government said he had. Which is perfectly true.
The British government is still sticking by its story, which, according to London newspapers, was based on information provided by French intelligence.
If the charge here is that Tony Blair and George W. Bush were “cooking the books” to justify a half-baked attack on Iraq, it’s hard to see why Jacques Chirac’s spooks would want to stir the sauce. France, I seem to recall, wasn’t too enthusiastic about removing Hussein.
What about the Democrats? Have they concluded that the war was all a big mistake and we should hand Iraq back to Hussein? I think not. In other words, they want to launch ad hominem attacks on the president while basically supporting his policies. Isn’t that what they accused Republicans of doing in the 1990s?
A leading senator was absolutely right when he fumed: “I find it outrageous. What have we come to? What in the hell is going on here? These guys seem like they are possessed by their desire to undo this guy.”
No, that’s not a Republican defending Bush today. That was Joseph Biden defending Clinton in 1998.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power” (Basic Books, 2002).