Election May Turn on Report

Times Staff Writer

The costs and benefits of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq loom ever larger as a potential tipping point in the 2004 presidential election after the release of a definitive CIA study this week concluding that Saddam Hussein possessed neither weapons of mass destruction nor active programs to produce them.

Though public support for the war hasn’t been hurt much by earlier studies that found Iraq lacked such illicit weapons, the exhaustive new report from the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group could prove considerably more damaging to Bush.

The study comes as violence continues to plague Iraq. The situation exposes Bush to a potentially dangerous squeeze: mounting losses on the ground combined with mounting challenges to his original justification for the war.

“If the benefits seem smaller and the costs seem higher, that makes the value of [going to war] lower,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The stinging report also arrived as Bush, on the eve of today’s second presidential debate, unveiled an aggressive new speech intended to shift the campaign focus from his record toward the policies and character of his rival, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.


The report from Iraq Survey Group head Charles A. Duelfer -- which flatly contradicts many of the statements about Iraq’s weapon capabilities from senior administration officials before the war -- offers Kerry an opportunity to force the spotlight back onto Bush’s decisions and credibility, as he did in last week’s initial presidential debate.

“As the lead-up to the debate, it is not helpful,” acknowledged one senior GOP strategist familiar with White House planning. “Part of the impact, frankly, will depend on how the president answers [the questions] in the debate.”

The impact may also turn on how effectively Kerry can resolve doubts about his own approach to Iraq and use the report to take the offensive against Bush.

The report echoes several other official studies in concluding that Hussein’s regime did not possess stockpiles of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. But it goes beyond the earlier examinations in its broad conclusion that Iraq also lacked active programs to acquire such weapons.

Contradicting repeated statements by Vice President Dick Cheney, the study found that Iraq ended its “nuclear program in 1991 following the [Persian] Gulf war,” and that there was “no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program.”

In reacting to the report, the administration has highlighted Duelfer’s conclusion that Hussein “wanted to re-create” Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability if international sanctions were ever lifted. On Thursday, Cheney argued that this conclusion justified the invasion by indicating that sanctions could not contain the Iraqi leader indefinitely.

“The findings indicate Saddam Hussein intended to try to evade sanctions, continued his desire to have a weapons of mass destruction program, intended to start a weapons program once the world looked away,” Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manger, told reporters Thursday.

But the report concluded that whatever Hussein’s long-term desires were, he had not taken significant steps in that direction. He feared that any move toward an illicit weapons program, “conspicuous or otherwise,” would undermine his effort to erode support for sanctions, the report said.

And, the report said, Hussein “had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions.”

These stark conclusions could reverberate through the presidential race on several fronts.

One is the escalating Democratic assault on Bush’s credibility. The report collides directly with a long list of statements from the president and his top aides before the war, unequivocally asserting that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or was actively seeking nuclear weapons.

So far, polls have consistently found that most Americans believed that in his prewar charges, Bush was honestly reporting intelligence that proved to be incorrect rather than deliberately misleading the public.

Although the percentage that believed Bush intentionally misled Americans has drifted up in recent weeks, White House aides are confident they can rebut such charges by pointing to comments from Kerry during the same period in which he also alleged that Hussein possessed an “arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.”

During a Wisconsin campaign stop Thursday, Bush did just that.

Even some senior Democratic strategists think Kerry’s previous statements make it tough for him to accuse Bush of deliberately misleading the country before the war, despite the release of the new study.

But some predict Bush may be on less defensible ground by continuing to allege that Iraq’s weapons program represented a threat to the United States.

Responding to the Duelfer report, Bush on Thursday offered little concession to the study’s conclusion that sanctions had essentially derailed Iraq’s unconventional weapons program.

Speaking of Hussein, Bush said, “He retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction, and he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies.”

Kerry on Thursday charged flatly that in his statement, “the president’s not telling the truth.”

Some independent analysts agree.

“On the surface, I find it a misleading statement, because there is so much insinuation in it that it is almost bordering on dishonesty to me,” said David Albright, president of the antinuclear Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “I’m sure the president could defend it narrowly, but I don’t think the average person would take it that way.”

Yet experts like Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, think that the public retains a basic trust in Bush’s honesty that will be difficult for Kerry to shake. “First impressions tend to stick,” she said.

Many observers say the largest threat to Bush in revelations like those in the Duelfer report is that they may cause more Americans to question whether the war in Iraq has been worth the continuing cost in lives and dollars.

With Kerry now arguing that the threat from Iraq didn’t justify invasion -- and “that the sanctions had prevented [Hussein] from being able to reconstitute his [weapons] program” -- the report will test Bush’s success in building support for the war on grounds other than Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Support for the war edged up in polls this summer, as Bush more aggressively argued that deposing Hussein was the first step toward encouraging a spread of democracy in the Middle East that would ultimately reduce the threat of terrorism.

But amid rising violence, recent polls have recorded resurfacing doubt about the direction of the conflict. Kerry and other Democrats are arguing that Bush cannot solve the problems in Iraq because he won’t even acknowledge them -- and they are likely to use the president’s defiant response to the Duelfer report as a new count in that indictment.

The president “is still in denial,” said Madeleine Albright, secretary of State under President Clinton and a top Kerry advisor. “Unless he can admit that this has gone the wrong direction, he can’t fix it.”

Yet on Iraq, doubts about Kerry form a last line of defense for Bush. For all the concern about the president’s course, even fewer Americans believe Kerry has laid out a clear plan for success in Iraq than Bush has, recent polls show. “People right now are deciding whether they can trust Kerry,” Bowman said.

Combined with the fierce violence in Iraq, the conclusions in the Duelfer report could reinforce the widespread unease Bush faces from voters over his handling of the war. But even that may not be enough to carry Kerry to the White House, unless he increases voters’ confidence in his own ability to do better.