Washington has shifted into scandal gear. The Administration offers one explanation after another for the President’s discredited claim in the State of the Union address that British intelligence had “learned” Iraq was seeking to buy lightly refined uranium from Niger. Each explanation contradicts the last. None so far is believable. Talk of resignations is in the air. Perhaps it will be George Tenet, who supposedly “threw himself on his sword,” as people keep saying, when he publicly took responsibility for the President’s mistake. (It turns out that the sword must have been made of rubber, since, two weeks after throwing himself on it, Tenet is still alive and well and in charge of the CIA–a CIA that, furthermore, has partially repudiated Tenet’s gesture by disclosing that it had in fact warned the White House that the President’s claim was shaky.) Next it was National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s deputy, Stephen Hadley, who was throwing himself on his sword (rubber or otherwise)–by revealing that he had not passed along the CIA’s warning to his boss Rice. Then there was talk that Rice might have to throw herself on her sword, in order to protect the President. Now the President has said he takes “personal responsibility for everything I say, of course,” but without confirming that the uranium claim was mistaken or disclosing how it got into his speech.
The scandal–which might be called wargate (you only have to remove two letters from “Watergate”), since the cost of the mistake was a war–rightly preoccupies the capital. Yet the problem is not only the fact that Tenet didn’t tell Hadley or that Hadley didn’t tell Rice or that Rice didn’t tell the President, or any other failure or manipulation of intelligence or even flat-out lie (though all these occurred and are important). For the roots of the debacle lie in the policy–it is sometimes called the “Bush doctrine”–in whose name the Administration propelled the country into war. That policy unfolded in a series of bold speeches and documents in the months after September 11. The first step was to designate the American response to the September attack a “war on terror.” By naming “war” (as distinct from police action) as his means, the President put the world on notice that the full, stupendous power of the American military machine would be brought to bear; by naming “terror” (as distinct from the group responsible for the attack, the Al Qaeda network) as the enemy, he signaled that the operations would be global in scope. Next, in his first statement to the joint session of Congress, the President announced that not only “terror” but any regimes that sponsored it would be placed on the list of enemies. Vice President Cheney soon put their number at more than sixty. The first target was the government of Afghanistan, which was duly overthrown.
In the State of the Union speech of 2002, Bush expanded the range of his new doctrine still further. Most important, he incorporated into it the gravest issue that any President of our era has had to face: the danger from nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. Bush named an “axis of evil” consisting of three countries that allegedly were seeking such weapons: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Defining nuclear danger as proliferation–both to new states and to terrorist groups–he asserted that the means to stop it was war. “The United States of America,” he said, employing the classic language of military ultimatums, “will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” With these words, the cause of safety in the nuclear age was subsumed by the war on terror.
Four months later, in a major speech at West Point on June 2, 2002, Bush elaborated the means by which his ambitious new policy would be pursued. The policy of “deterrence” and “containment” had prevailed throughout the cold war. But now, he said, “deterrence–the promise of massive retaliation against nations–means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend.” And “containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.” In this speech, too, the President for the first time made an extraordinary claim: The United States would reserve to itself a global monopoly on effective military power, restricting other nations to nonmilitary activities. In his words, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” Throughout history, the choice between war and peace had been open to all nations. Now the United States was claiming war as its exclusive domain and confining other nations to peace.