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Capital Games | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

The New Republic: Trust Bush, Not CIA

Oh to be swiped by The New Republic --and to be fortunate enough to have a forum in which to reply.

The lead editorial of the October 28 issue chided various reporters--including The New York Times's Michael Gordon and Maureen Dowd and myself--for having "gasped" when CIA director George Tenet declassified the agency's assessment of the threat from Baghdad.

I was indeed one of several journalists--and members of Congress--who considered it significant that Tenet, in an October 8 letter to the Senate intelligence committee, reported the CIA had concluded that "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [chemical and biological weapons] against the United States." The agency eggheads also believed that Saddam Hussein "probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions" and in "assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States," if Washington were about to strike Iraq. In other words, Saddam is not likely to hit the United States or collaborate with al Qaeda, unless the United States assaults Iraq.

As I noted, this is not the picture George W. Bush and his lieutenants have been presenting the public. (Click here to read the column that peeved TNR.) Days before the release of Tenet's letter, Bush characterized Saddam as a "threat...that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America," and he called the Iraqi dictator a "significant" danger to the United States. More recently, Bush has ramped up his anti-Saddam rhetoric and claimed that Saddam hopes to deploy al Qaeda as his own "forward army" against the West and that he "is a man who we know has had connections with al Qaeda." None of that squares with the CIA information.

So what's TNR's beef? In its own words: "What the breathless commentators seem not to have noticed is that Tenet's 'revelation' isn't a revelation at all; CIA dovishness on Iraq is nothing new." [Sorry, the editorial is not available on the magazine's website--so no hot link here.]

What Tenet had conveyed could not be trusted, the magazine asserted, because the CIA is soft on Iraq. Exhibit A: "the Agency's reluctance to confront Saddam dates back to the aftermath of the Gulf war, when the CIA grew opposed to assisting the Kurdish and Shia rebellions against the dictator." This brief history lesson ignores a key fact: the first President Bush decided not to back the uprisings. It was not the CIA's call, and Bush and his foreign policy advisers, for better or worse, feared that the rise of a Shiite state in the south and a Kurdish one in the north would destabilize the area. Thus, Iraqis who had been encouraged to rise up against Saddam were sold out. (See the film Three Kings.) But as journalist Mark Perry notes in his book Eclipse, an examination of the CIA during the first Bush presidency, in early April 1991, before the rebellions were quashed, "a specially trained eleven-man CIA paramilitary team was dropped into northern Iraq. There was still a hope that the Kurds might somehow score a major victory and establish a semi-independent Kurdish state." The CIA team made contact with Kurdish rebel leaders, but it was too late. The revolt was soon put down by Saddam's murderous henchmen.

Other evidence of CIA mushiness on Iraq? In 2000, Frank Anderson, the CIA's Near East Division chief in the early 1990s, called the policy of containment "a magnificent success, or at least, certainly, an acceptable success." But others have said the same--or, at least, agreed with the "acceptable success" evaluation. In fact, the white paper released by Tony Blair on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction noted important accomplishments achieved by the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s and called for further inspections--which certainly can be interpreted to mean the British government believes the containment/inspections policy of the 1990s was no failure and could, if revived and tightened, work again.

The magazine offered other instances of CIA's "wishful thinking" and errors regarding Iraq, most notably that the Agency did not predict Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. But in his book Perry--no symp for the CIA--details how the CIA and other intelligence services did produce intelligence in July 1990 indicating an invasion was coming. Late that month, CIA analysts, studying satellite photographs, saw Iraqi trucks hauling ammunition, fuel, and water to troops deployed on Kuwait's northern border. They interpreted the photos to mean Iraq would enter Kuwait within days. But when presented with this and other material, President Bush said he was not convinced an invasion was imminent and did not want to overreact.

This is not to defend the CIA as always correct and always straight-shooting (hardly). But TNR is being conveniently distrustful of the CIA. In a March 12, 2001, article by Lawrence Kaplan, the magazine cited a CIA study to bolster the case for a ballistic missile defense. Likewise, an April 29, 2002, article by Janine Zacharia positively referenced CIA testimony regarding Syria's development of a long-range ballistic missile. Does hawk-friendly CIA info carry more credibility? Yet an October 14, 2002, editorial took CIA officials at their word when they groused that the White House was mischaracterizing their intelligence regarding the supposed al Qaeda-Iraq connection.

By the way, if I cite the Tenet letter as evidence rebutting Bush's war rhetoric, I am not agreeing to accept all future and past CIA information. But, obviously, when the CIA releases material at odds with the President--which is not a comfortable act--that may well be a sign the analysts actually believe the conclusions.

But forget whether David Corn or TNR has the right take on the CIA. The bigger question is, when Bush says Saddam "is a man who we know has had connections with al Qaeda," what is the source of that allegation? If not the CIA and the intelligence community, then what? The CIA says its intelligence does not indicate Saddam poses an immediate threat of terrorism to the United States. Bush says something else. And it's not as if Bush appears at a campaign rally and remarks, "The CIA doesn't believe this, but I feel it in my bones." He states or implies, "we know." But who is the we--if not the CIA?

In dismissing the CIA's finding on Iraq, The New Republic notes, "None of this means the CIA doesn't have the right to its opinion about Iraq. But that opinion isn't new. And the historical record shows that Langley isn't intellectually or morally infallible. Who thought the antiwar left would need to be convinced of that?"

How kind of TNR to grant the CIA "the right to its opinion." But if the CIA produces only opinions, then what's the point? Let's save on the $30-plus billion devoted to the intelligence community. Let's not bother with intelligence briefings on the Hill. And let's not cite CIA estimates in pursuit of a missile defense system or a hard-line pro-Israel policy. TNR only rushes to question the CIA when its intelligence undermines the argument for war. Is it too much to expect the President's rhetoric to be in sync with US intelligence assessments? If they are not, then the President ought to explain why. After all, the historical record also shows that Bush isn't intellectually or morally infallible. Or does TNR need to be convinced of that?

Bush Officials Exploit Bali Blast

Can George W. Bush be trusted as he further heats up the rhetoric on Iraq?

Two days after a horrific bomb blast in Bali, Indonesia, killed over 180 people--including at least two Americans--Bush, appearing at a Republican campaign rally in Michigan, cited the assault as yet another reason for vigorous prosecution of the war on terrorism. But as he rallied the GOP loyalists, he focused less on al Qaeda (which, naturally, is suspected of being associated with the Bali attack) and more on Saddam Hussein. Bush maintained that the Iraqi dictator hopes to deploy al Qaeda as his own "forward army" against the West, that "we need to think about Saddam Hussein using al Qaeda to do his dirty work, to not leave fingerprints behind," and that "this is a man who we know has had connections with al Qaeda."

Bush and his administration have offered no proof of any of this. In fact, less than a week before the Michigan event, the CIA had released a letter noting that it had no evidence that Saddam intends to commit terrorism against the United States, absent a US strike against him. (Did the President miss the newspapers that day?) The Agency's conclusion is hardly consistent with Bush's claim that Saddam is actively engaged in turning Osama bin Laden's terrorist network into his own private force. And while the CIA, in that same letter, noted--vaguely--that it possesses "solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade," that, too, is a far cry from Bush's assertion that Saddam has had direct ties with al Qaeda. [For more on the CIA letter, click on the link for the previous column at the end of this posting.]

Why doesn't Bush make it easy for himself? If he can show that Saddam has a working relationship with al Qaeda, he could do whatever he wants in Iraq, with or without the blessing of that pesky United Nations Security Council--especially if al Qaeda is stepping up operations, with attacks in Indonesia, Kuwait, Yemen, Morocco, Europe and elsewhere. Forget diddling around about weapons inspection or pretending to be motivated by the need to locate and disarm Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Bush could go straight to regime-change war--and he might be justified in doing so--if he could demonstrate that his claims about Saddam are accurate. If it turns out al Qaeda is blowing up nightclubs around the world and receiving current assistance from Iraq, Bush could resubmit to Congress the blank-check use-of-force resolution and receive unanimous backing--not just the three-quarters support it drew last week. Proof of an operational link between Saddam and bin Laden would blow away the modest-sized antiwar sentiment that now exists. The nation and the international community would unify underneath the White House's get-Saddam banner. Maybe such woolly-headed peaceniks as Bush I national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and retired generals Wesley Clark, Anthony Zinni, Joseph Hoar, and John Shalikashvili--who have all expressed skepticism about W's Gulf War sequel--would finally jump on board.

So why doesn't Bush? The obvious answer is, he can't. And the public should not fall for any attempt on the administration's part to play the if-you-only-knew-what-we-know card. The CIA has already presented the best case it can make (or manufacture) out of the classified evidence available to it. Moreover, as The Los Angeles Times, reported a few days ago, those CIA conclusions where produced in an environment in which "senior Bush administration officials are pressuring CIA analysts to tailor their assessments of the Iraqi threat to help build a case against Saddam Hussein.

The L.A. Times piece, which cited "intelligence and congressional sources," was a blockbuster of a story. (Click here to read it.) The paper reported, "In what sources described as an escalating 'war,' top officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere have bombarded CIA analysts with criticism and calls for revisions on such key questions as whether Iraq has ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network....The sources stressed that CIA analysts--who are supposed to be impartial--are fighting to resist the pressure. But they said analysts are increasingly resentful of what they perceive as efforts to contaminate the intelligence process." The paper's sources wagged an accusing finger at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

If there is the slightest truth to this report, it ought to trigger an outcry and a scandal. Imagine rigging intelligence to shape the outcome of a debate that determines whether American lives are lost (and Iraqi lives are taken) overseas. How foul and sinister can a bureaucrat get? An article of this sort should cause members of the House and Senate to rush before microphones and declare they will not rest until they determine if the allegations hold up. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz should be fired if they are unduly leaning on nothing-but-the-facts analysts. But, as of yet, the Times story has caused no public ripples. I called both the House and Senate intelligence committees and inquired if either intended to investigate whether Bush officials have attempted to doctor intelligence to improve the administration's case for hitting Saddam. Neither responded.

Bush's bluff--if that is what it is--should be called. Nearly two hundred people are killed in a car bombing, and he uses the occasion to whip up support for his war against Saddam. Either he can prove what he said about the Iraqi regime being in league with al Qaeda or he cannot. If he is misleading the public about the threat, he should not be followed into war. Yet Congress has already ceded Bush the power to declare war--perhaps a unilateral war--as he sees fit, and the Democrats' leaders are now saying it is time to move on...to pension reform and small business tax cuts--that is, anything the Democrats can talk about, besides war against Iraq, in the three weeks left before the congressional elections.

It's like Scrabble. If no one challenges Bush's words--false they may be--they still count as if they were real.

CIA Report Refutes Bush's Rhetoric

The Washington Post front-page headline read, "Analysts Discount Attack by Iraq." The New York Times said, "CIA Warns That a US Attack May Ignite Terror." But these newspapers could have reasonably announced, "CIA Information Indicates Bush Misleads Public on Threat from Iraq."

In the past week, President Bush has been on a tear; in speech after speech (many of them on the campaign trail), he has been excoriating Saddam Hussein as a direct threat to Americans. At a political fundraiser in New Hampshire on October 5, he called Hussein "a man who hates so much he's willing to kill his own people, much less Americans." And Bush noted, "We must do everything we can to disarm this man before he hurts a single American." During a primetime speech in Cincinnati two days later, Bush characterized Saddam as a "threat...that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America." He pronounced the Iraqi dictator a "significant" danger to America and said, "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints." He remarked, "we're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using" unmanned aerial vehicles "for missions targeting the United States." And he proclaimed, "America must not ignore the threat gathering against us." At an October 8 campaign rally in Tennessee, Bush remarked, "I've got a problem, obviously, with Mr. Saddam Hussein, and so do you, and that is he poses a threat. He poses a threat to America."

The message is, Saddam is coming, Saddam is coming, and the United States better take the sucker out before he strikes America--meaning, you. But Bush has a problem: the CIA doesn't back him up on this. In fact, it says the opposite.

At a hearing held by the House and Senate intelligence committees on October 8, Senator Bob Graham, the chairman of the Senate panel, read from a letter sent to him by CIA chief George Tenet. In that note, Tenet reported the CIA had concluded that "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [chemical and biological weapons] against the United States." The CIA, according to Tenet, also had determined, "Should Saddam conclude that a US-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions." And the Agency found, "Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."

The bottom-line: Saddam is not likely in the near future to hit the United States or share his weapons with al Qaeda or other anti-American terrorists, unless the United States assaults Iraq. This is hardly the picture the President is sharing with the American public.

Tenet's letter also referred to an exchange at an October 2 secret hearing in which Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, asked a senior intelligence official, "If [Saddam] didn't feel threatened...is it likely that he would initiate an attack using a weapon of mass destruction?" The intelligence official replied, "My judgment would be that the probability of him initiating an attack--let me put a time frame on it--in the foreseeable future, given the conditions we understand now, the likelihood I think would be low."

In all of Bush's dash-to-war rhetoric, where does he refer to this "low" likelihood? Well, he doesn't. And it was telling that this information had to be squeezed out of the CIA. On October 6, the Agency released a white paper on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which maintained that Saddam possessed certain chemical and biological weapons but "probably would not be able to make a [nuclear] weapon until the last half of the decade," unless he could acquire sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad. But this unclassified version of a classified CIA National Intelligence Estimate left out the original's findings on Saddam's views on the use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The CIA, it seems, was trying to keep from the public crucial information: its judgment of what Saddam might do with his arsenal. But members of the intelligence committee had been able to peruse the full NIE, and Graham subsequently leaned on Tenet to declassify this material.

Tenet, good soldier that he is, tried to downplay the significance of the disclosure. In a statement, he said, "there is no inconsistency between our view of Saddam's growing threat and the view as expressed by the President in his [Cincinnati] speech. Although we think the chances of Saddam initiating a WMD attack at this moment are low--in part because it would constitute an admission that he possesses WMD--there is no question that the likelihood of Saddam using WMD against the United States or our allies in the region for blackmail, deterrence, or otherwise grows as his arsenal continues to build."

Nice try. While Bush has raised the specter of a WMD-wielding Saddam bullying his neighbors and Israel, that threat is indeed different from the threat of an Iraqi strike against the United States. Bush is not arguing the nation must prepare for war now--that is, Congress must immediately grant him the power to launch a unilateral and preemptive attack as he sees fit--because sometime in the future Saddam can intimidate Jordan by threatening the use of chemical weapons. Review those quotes above. He is asserting Saddam must be prevented from striking at the United States--an action the CIA deems not probable "in the foreseeable future."

This information from the CIA ought to prompt members of Congress--who are placing aside other matters to debate (so to speak) legislation that would authorize Bush to invade Iraq--to shout, "Time out!" But it's unlikely this piece of awkward news will derail the rush to approve a use-of-force resolution. Besides, the Bush administration, in case it is inconvenienced by this disclosure, is beefing up another of its reasons for war: the al Qaeda-Iraq connection.

In that same letter, Tenet declassified "points for unclassified discussions" on the possible al Qaeda-Saddam link. One point is, "We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade." Another is, "Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression." A third is, "We have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad." And a fourth point is, "We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs."

A link between al Qaeda and Saddam's regime would indeed be troubling--even frightening--and require a response. But the nature of the response should depend on the nature of the connection. Tenet's "points" do not present enough information on which to render a judgment. When did these "senior level contacts" occur and what did they concern? When were the discussions regarding safe havens and reciprocal nonaggression? If all this happened ten years ago and led to no agreements or actions, that would not be reason for attacking Iraq. And what does it mean that al Qaeda members are in Iraq? Al Qaeda has a presence in 60 countries, including the United States. If the CIA knows al Qaeda leaders "sought contacts in Iraq" in order to obtain weapons of mass destruction--and can share that tidbit with the public--can it say whether it knows when this transpired and whether the al Qaeda members succeeded in establishing these contacts? If so, who were their Iraqi contacts? Officials in Saddam's government? As for the training Iraq provided to al Qaeda members, it would be important to understand when that occurred, who supplied the training, and how extensive it was. Given the track record of his CIA, it is difficult not to suspect Tenet was being selective in his release of these "points."

Recently, Representative Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat, was lambasted when he commented, while in Baghdad, that it was conceivable Bush would "mislead" the public in his pursuit of Saddam. Pundits and Republicans howled, and some Democrats complained McDermott had tainted their party. Any campaign consultant could have told McDermott it was politically unwise to utter such an inflammatory statement while in Iraq, the land of the enemy. But McDermott's point--that Bush is willing to stretch the truth to obtain authority to launch a war--has been confirmed. By the CIA.

Now, It's Gephardt's War, Too

I wonder how Barbra Streisand feels.

On September 29, at the fancy Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, she headlined a $6 million fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. With her on the stage was House minority leader Richard Gephardt. As she sang a politics-drenched rewrite of "The Way We Were" ("Mis'ries/seems that's all that fills the news/blame the fellas in the White House/for the way we are"), she interjected comments bashing George W. Bush and the Republicans. At one point she commented, "I find bringing the country to the brink of war unilaterally five weeks before an election questionable--and very, very frightening." This remark echoed a confidential memo a Streisand aide sent Gephardt a few days earlier. In that note, Streisand pressed "Democrats to get off the defensive and go on the offensive." The memo also said, "Many of the industries run by big Republican donors and insiders clearly have much to gain if we go to war against Iraq. Barbra urges the Democrats to publicly convey this message to the American people."

That's hardly the message Gephardt pushed once he left Babs-land and returned to Washington. Three days after the concert, he brokered a deal with the White House that guaranteed passage of a resolution authorizing Bush to launch war on Iraq as "he determines to be necessary and appropriate" in order to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq" and to enforce United Nations resolutions. The Gephardt-backed measure was less of a blank check than the one Bush had sent to Congress. The differences, though, meant little. Under the negotiated resolution, Bush will have to report to Congress that "diplomatic and other peaceful means alone" were not sufficient to thwart Saddam Hussein and enforce UN resolutions. But Bush does not have to issue such a report until two days after he initiates an attack. Gephardt (and the GOP House leaders) are telling Bush, shoot whenever you like, explain later. And once bombs are falling and US troops are in harm's way, how many members of Congress are going to challenge Bush's finding, if they consider it unpersuasive, and then attempt to de-authorize a wartime president? ("I demand you withdraw 100,000 troops and recall the bombers because you misread the last Iraqi communique on the inspections process!")

If war comes, it will not only be Bush's war. It will be Gephardt's war. Other key shareholders will be Democratic Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards, two presidential wannabes who have been pre-running as get-Saddam hawks. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's stake in the enterprise is uncertain as of this writing. He has griped about Bush's politicized rhetoric and raised questions about Bush's dash toward war, but has not opposed the underlying policy. (And Daschle can thank Gephardt, who held his own unilateral negotiations with the White House, for cutting a deal that undermined any move Daschle might have contemplated to limit the use-of-force resolution.) Most Democrats in both the House and the Senate are expected to vote in favor of authorizing Bush to mount a war--even a unilateral one--against Saddam Hussein.

Which means that on the most vital issue of this election season, there is little distinction between the two parties. The Republicans are almost entirely for this war; the Democrats are mostly for it. Whatever happens--good, bad, in-between--Gephardt and the war-enabling Dems will bear responsibility and will deserve to be judged alongside Bush. In fact, some might deserve to be judged more harshly. It is no secret that on Capitol Hill, many Democrats are motivated to vote for the resolution out of political calculation. They do not believe war against Iraq at this time is a good idea, but they fear looking soft or being caught on the wrong side of what might be a popular war. They are hoping to buy security--their own-- with blood.

Bush may be motivated in a similar fashion, but there's a greater chance he truly believes in the mission. Gephardt, too, might buy the ever-shifting national security arguments for this war pitched by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice (rather than the caution expressed recently by retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander; retired General Joseph Hoar, a former chief of the US Central Command; and retired General John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), but since 9/11 he has also adopted the political strategy of embracing the President on foreign policy matters in an attempt to prevent Republicans from hurling the time-tested weak-on-security charge against the Democrats. And against himself. Gephardt, after all, is eyeing a presidential run.

Perhaps when he lies awake at night, counting sheep on a White House lawn, Gephardt can say how much of his support for this war stems from policy concerns, and how much from crass political gamesmanship. But it's tough to see how his stance will benefit him and the Democrats. If the war goes well--and that is a possibility--Bush will receive most, if not all, of the credit and be strengthened for 2004. (Hopeful Democrats might note that Bush I was booted out of office after winning the Gulf War, but Bush II's accomplishments--"liberating Iraq" and "taking out" Saddam--will probably resonate more deeply and for longer than did his father's success in pushing Saddam out of Kuwait.) Me-too Democrats will likely find it difficult to tap the post-war celebration for political advantage. And if the war turns ugly, Gephardt and the other Democratic leaders now leaping aboard Bush's war-wagon will be in no position to complain.

So what's a frightened diva to do? Gephardt is not only not accusing Bush of using diversionary tactics, of practicing arrogant and perhaps dangerous unilateralism, and of greasing the wheels of war-profiteering. He is literally empowering Bush. He fiercely attacks the President on economic and budgetary matters. But he is greenlighting an endeavor that could further derail the federal budget and consume resources for the sort of domestic programs Streisand and Gephardt crave. With their wholehearted support of Bush's prospective war, Gephardt and other Democrats are essentially agreeing with Bush's argument that the nation's number-one priority is the anti-Saddam crusade. Not rising poverty. Not the rising number of Americans without health insurance. Not rising unemployment. Not pension reform. No matter how loud Gephardt thumps the podium on the House floor when he claims these are the real issues of the ongoing congressional campaign.

Gephardt's actions do not remove the war issue from the political table; they add momentum to preparations for war. He has cosigned the current centerpiece of the Bush presidency. In Streisandian terms, Bush said to Congress, "Don't Rain on My Parade," and Gephardt bounded forward with an opened umbrella. This war will be a Republican-Democratic duet.

Tony Blair Makes A Case...For Inspections

After British Prime Minister (and George W. Bush sidekick) Tony Blair issued a 55-page white paper on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction several days ago, The Washington Post slapped a story on the front page headlined, "Blair: Iraq Can Deploy Quickly." The subhead read, "Report Presents New Details On Banned Arms." The New York Times similarly noted, "Blair Says Iraqis Could Launch Chemical Weapons in Minutes." As a counterbalance of sorts, its subhead said, "Sees Nuclear Weapon Capability in 1 to 5 Years."

Both articles conveyed the impression that Iraq is an immediate threat and that Blair supports Bush's dash to war--which in a way he does. But the "dossier" Blair unveiled--based on British intelligence work--made the case for renewed weapons inspections, not war. In the foreword to the report, Blair states, "The case I make is that the UN Resolutions demanding [Saddam Hussein] stops his WMD programme are being flouted; that since the inspectors left four years ago he has continued with this programme, that the inspectors must be allowed back in to do their job properly." If Saddam blocks the return of the inspectors or "makes it impossible for them to do their job," Blair declares, "the international community will have to act." But Blair, Bush's closest ally in the campaign against Saddam, is clearly saying an attempt to revive the weapons inspection program should occur before the United States and Britain wage war against Iraq. That is not how the media characterized his presentation. And it is not the White House position.

Most of Blair's white paper was devoted to detailing threat indicators--noting Saddam's long history of developing and seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iran in the 1980s. It warns that Iraq possesses a useable chemical and biological weapons capability--without being specific about these weapons--and that it can "deploy" (which is not the same as "launch") some within 45 minutes. This may only mean that Iraq can quickly disseminate mustard gas on a battlefield--which would hardly be a surprise. Or a reason to preemptively attack.

The report offers no intelligence insights as to Saddam's intentions and plans. Citing intelligence sources, it says Saddam "believes that respect for Iraq rests on its possessions of these weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them." This is no newsflash. In fact, it undermines the argument that Saddam is a danger because he is likely to share such weapons with others--say, al Qaeda. The report contains no claim that Saddam is near any weapon breakthrough or about to engage in recklessly hostile activity. That is, no reason why an invasion must occur right away.

Regarding nuclear weapons, the report says, "In early 2002, the [British Joint Intelligence Committee] assessed that UN sanctions on Iraq were hindering the import of crucial goods for the production of fissile material [needed for a nuclear weapon]. The JIC judged that while sanctions remain effective Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon. If they were removed or proved ineffective, it would take Iraq at least five years to produce sufficient fissile material for a weapon indigenously. However, we know that Iraq retains expertise and design data relating to nuclear weapons. We therefore judge that if Iraq obtained fissile material and other essential components from foreign sources the timeline for production of a nuclear weapon would be shortened and Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon in between one and two years." Blair, though, offers no evidence Iraq has been able to gather fissile missile from outside suppliers. The paper does maintain "there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa," but no mention of how close Iraq came to succeeding. Nor is there any evaluation of how difficult or easy it would be for Iraq to locate the right sort and necessary amount of bomb-friendly material.

As for Iraq's ballistic missile capability, the report says Saddam wants bigger and longer-range missiles. But it notes that British intelligence predicts Iraq needs at least five years to develop a missile with a range of over 1,000 kilometers, as long as the current sanctions remain effective. "Sanctions and the earlier work of the inspectors," according to the report, "had caused significant problems for Iraqi missile development."

Blair's paper makes the easy case there is cause to fret about Saddam's arsenal and his apparent desire to enlarge and expand it. But it credits the UN weapons inspection program of the 1990s for having restrained, hindered and, in some instances, blocked Saddam's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. "Between 1991 and 1998," the white paper says, "[UN weapons inspectors] succeeded in identifying and destroying very large quantities of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles as well as associated production facilities. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] also destroyed the infrastructure for Iraq's nuclear weapons programme and removed key nuclear materials. This was achieved despite a continuous and sophisticated programme of harassment, obstruction, deception and denial." In other words, inspections can and did work. The dossier notes the inspectors discovered and exposed Iraq's biological weapons program and destroyed the al-Hakam biological weapons facility and "a range of production equipment" for biological weapons. The dossier offers no support for the Bush officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, who assert a new round of robust and unfettered inspections would be pointless and, worse, dangerous (for only providing false comfort).

Blair's paper actually is an argument for intrusive and aggressive inspections, not one for war. Or, at least, inspections before war. In tone, it seems in sync with the war-whipping of the Bush White House, but its facts--and its limited reference to policy options--support the give-tough-inspections-a-chance crowd. Following its release, President Bush praised his British helpmate. Maybe he didn't have time to read it.

Democrats Whine About War Debate

Of late, Democrats have taken to whining that Bush is politicizing the debate over the war on Iraq. Actually, there's not much of a debate to politicize--since most Democrats in the House and Senate seemed either resigned or eager to vote for a resolution authorizing George W. Bush to launch a war when he sees fit. (On the way to that vote, Democrats and Republicans may force alterations in the wording of Bush's proposed blank-check resolution; its thrust, though, is likely to remain the same.) But there's nothing wrong with politicizing this war or any other--if that means asking voters to decide electoral contests on the basis of a candidate's position on the war. The Democrats' problem is that, for the most part, they are unable or unwilling to politicize Bush's rush to war, for that would entail fiercely challenging Bush's demand for the authority to use force against Iraq--which is not the Democratic position.

So instead of worrying about the war, many Democrats fret about the politics. Days ago, Vice President Dick Cheney attended a fundraiser in Kansas for Republican congressional hopeful Adam Taff, who is running against Democratic incumbent Dennis Moore, and he proclaimed that electing Taff would aid the administration's war effort. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat, quickly protested. "I was chagrined," he said, that Cheney would tell people to vote for a Republican because he was a war supporter. "If that doesn't politicize the war," Daschle added, "I don't know what does." And when GOP chairman Mark Racicot observed that a vote against the war "could be fair game in the closing days of the campaign," Democratic National Committee spokesperson Jennifer Palmieri griped, "He's making a veiled threat, outlining how Republicans would use the Iraq vote against Democrats."

In reality, it was not so veiled. But that's not the point. Shouldn't legislators be judged on how they vote on such a crucial matter? The GOP is perfectly within its rights to urge voters to back Republican candidates who support Bush and his war on terrorism and his war on Iraq to come, and to claim that these are the most important questions facing the United States. It is up to the Democrats, if they so desire, to present a different case. That is the essence of politics. The Democrats can argue they care about national security and domestic matters. They can champion a different definition of "national security" than that embraced by the Republicans. They can assert Bush is using a justified or unjustified war to divert attention from the in-the-dumps economy. Democrats who oppose the war can try to persuade voters they know better. That is what an election is about.

War should not be beyond politics. When Karl Rove, Bush's master political strategist, earlier in the year was caught suggesting Republicans could gain from the war on terrorism, Democrats howled. But he was really only saying GOPers should position themselves close to a popular President and a popular war, and let the voters decide. When a computer disc containing a GOP briefing that advised Republican candidates to focus on war was found on a street, Democrats again complained about politicization. But this is not politicization. Perhaps exploitation. It also is what every politician does: emphasize the issue that provides a perceived advantage. But a crucial component of a campaign is debating what topics deserve focus.

There is nothing underhanded about defining an election as one between a party in sync with a president and a war (or two) and a party opposed to a president and filled with some who support those wars and some who do not. The Democrats are upset because, split as they are, they do not believe they benefit from such a comparison. (A case of message envy?) As a party, they cannot ask the voters to spurn GOP candidates who would too readily allow Bush to wage what might be an expensive and dangerous war, for many of their own either endorse that position--such as House minority leader Dick Gephardt--or acquiesce because they fear the political consequences of opposing the war. Bush might have (or probably, or definitely) pushed his war against Iraq during election time for crass political reasons--to squash debate and discussion of economic and health-related issues that tend to benefit Democrats. But many Democrats, too, are dealing with the war in a politics-first manner, with Gephardt and Daschle pushing for a fast vote on Bush's war resolution in order to have a chance to address other subjects prior to the November 5 congressional elections. (Their strategy smells of doom, though. As Representative Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Democratic who's leading two dozen or so anti-war House Democrats, notes, "If talk of war has pushed debate about the economy off the front-pages and out of the leads of the network news, what do you suppose a real war will do?" But the inverse may be true as well. If Democrats were to vote down Bush's war--which isn't going to happen--Iraq would still remain the national discourse's number-one item until the elections.)

On September 25, an angry Daschle took to the Senate floor to blast Bush for politicizing the war. He cited Cheney's war-oriented backing of Taff, Rove's remarks, and the computer disc briefing. But what really ticked him off was Bush's claim that the Democratic-controlled "Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people." Bush, though, was referring to the ongoing dust-up over the homeland security bill, in which Senate Democrats are opposing his attempt to exempt employees of the new Homeland Security Department from various workplace protections. Rather than address that specific dispute, Daschle asserted, "We must not politicize this war."

Bush's remark had been a low blow. But Daschle, who demanded an apology from Bush, was attempting to score points via partisan bickering. He was, in a way, trying to politicize the politics--arguing not against Bush's war, but Bush's politicization of the war.

With the elections looming, the GOP--the war party--is clearly prepared to turn an opponent's national security position into a partisan issue. The Democratic Party--the half-or-more war party--is not. But not because of any noble principle. It simply is not positioned to do so. Which leaves many Democrats set to cry "foul," finding it easier to attack war rhetoric than war itself.

Bush Stonewalls on Pre-9/ll Knowledge

The scene: a hut somewhere near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Al Qaeda Terrorist Number One: I have good news to report.

Al Qaeda Terrorist Number Two: What is it?

AQT1: We have achieved a major breakthrough in learning how the infidels in America intend to pursue their campaign against us. With this information, we will be able to strike again.

AQT2: What is this important information?

AQT1: That the President is briefed by the CIA and other spy services on what they learn of our plans.

AQT2: Now that we know the President is informed by his lackeys we are in a better position to deliver chaos and death upon them. Praise Allah.

Believe it or not, the Bush administration is suggesting that an absurd scenario of that sort is possible. As proof, look at the first page of the report released days ago by the House and Senate intelligence committees' joint inquiry examining September 11. "The Director of Central Intelligence," the relevant passage says, "has declined to declassify two issues of particular importance to this Inquiry." One was the identity of a key al Qaeda leader (since identified by the news media as Khalid Sheik Mohammed). The other was "any references to the Intelligence Community providing information to the President or White House." The report went on, "According to the DCI, the President's knowledge of intelligence information relevant to this Inquiry remains classified even when the substance of that intelligence information has been declassified."

That is, the administration will declassify intelligence information, but it will keep classified the fact that this material was (or was not) shared with the President or anyone else at the White House. The administration's position is that it can tell the public about intelligence reports the government gathered regarding potential acts of terrorism before September 11 without harming national security, but if it must reveal whether these reports were brought to the attention of George W. Bush or his aides, that would endanger the United States. (This is different from the customary Bush White House arguments about executive privilege and preserving Bush's and Dick Cheney's ability to hear frank talk from such crucial advisers as energy industry lobbyists.)

If there were a secrecy-meter for the secrecy-loving Bush White House, this latest move would peg the needle in the red zone. After all, if information that was shared with Bush is made public, how could Bush's awareness (or unawareness) of that information be considered a vital secret? But the administration is indeed maintaining that the country's enemies, as they currently plot against America, could somehow exploit knowledge of Bush's knowledge of past intelligence reporting.

The reason for this silly White House maneuver appears obvious: to avoid further debate on what Bush did or did not know about the prospect of domestic terrorism attacks prior to 9/11--and how he reacted to what he was told. Four months ago, Bush got burned when news reports revealed he had received a general briefing on August 6, 2001, suggesting al Qaeda was aiming to hit the United States. As Bush plans his war against Iraq, administration officials surely do not want a similar distraction. Had they not censored the intelligence committees, such a diversion might have occurred, for on page 23 of the report sits a landmine:

"A briefing prepared for senior government officials at the beginning of July 2001 contained the following language: 'Based on a review of all-source reporting over the last five months, we believe that UBL [Usama bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against US and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against US facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.'"

This was a much more to-the-point briefing than the August 6 one that caused the fuss. But who received it? What intelligence sources was it based on? Most importantly, what did those senior government officials do in response? The report does not say. Yet imagine the reaction if the report explicitly stated that Bush and top White House officials had been told in July, 2001, that a "spectacular" al Qaeda attack was weeks away.

That is the obvious inference. After a recent hearing held by the intelligence committees, a journalist asked Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who chairs the Senate panel, if a reader could assume that prior to being censored the report read "the President and White House officials" in the many spots where it now says "senior government officials." Graham jokingly nodded his head without saying anything. Adopting a more serious demeanor, he said that "if the underlying information has been declassified I see no reason that who received it should be classified. How else do you hold people accountable?"

Precisely. The committees' job is to examine and judge how the government performed prior to 9/11--and tell the public what happened. A significant part of that mission is determining what information made it to the White House and what was done by the President and his aides. But Bush is stonewalling.

Classifying this type of information, Graham remarked, "is new to me....I do not understand how, as a blanket reason, that serves national security interests." Is the White House trying to cover up an embarrassment? a reporter asked. With a smile, Graham replied, "I'm not in the psychotherapy business." He vowed that the House and Senate intelligence committees will continue to negotiate with the White House to declassify this and other material ordered withheld by the administration.

The report overall is a damning document, indicating the national security establishment had plenty of warnings--more so than publicly known before--that al Qaeda was considering using airplanes as weapons. Yet no one in the intelligence community--as it is called--acted seriously on this information. (In one instance, an intelligence agency in 1998 received a report that an Arab group, which later was possibly linked to al Qaeda, planned to fly an explosives-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center. The FAA and FBI were informed; neither took action. Intelligence officials, though, have claimed this report, which originated with a police official in a Caribbean nation, was not deemed credible and that its significance has been exaggerated by the committees.) As the staff report bemoans, "While this method of attack had clearly been discussed in terrorist circles, there was apparently little, if any, effort by Intelligence Community analysts to produce any strategic assessment of terrorists using aircraft as weapons." (The committees' report undermines national security adviser Condoleeza Rice's post-attack assertion that no one could have imagined such an assault.) And the study notes that after CIA chief George Tenet in 1998 declared "we are at war" with bin Laden, "there was no massive shift in budget" and many within the intelligence establishment did not get the message. It shows, sadly, there were many more dots than previously revealed that went unconnected.

The report--the first of several supposedly to come from the committees--went further than expected in demonstrating that the intelligence establishment missed concrete signs of a specific threat and failed to plan for it. But it also revealed--once more--the Bush fondness for excessive secrecy. The President, who likes to champion responsibility, is abusing the classification system to prevent an evaluation of how he and White House officials handled their own responsibilities. A commander-in-chief who hides behind a phony claim of national security hardly deserves public confidence as he preps for war.

De-Saddamization, Not Disarmament

"No sensible person wants to go to war if war can be avoided." So said Secretary of State Colin Powell on September 15. Next time he is at the White House, he should take a good look around.

The day after Powell made that remark, Saddam Hussein offered unconditionally to permit UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq, after a four-year hiatus. His move, as skeptics quickly noted, was predictable. It split the UN which had been moving toward supporting--or yielding to--Bush's get-Iraq demand and gave Arab states and France, Russia and China (three-fifths of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, each with soft-on-Saddam governments) reason to call for slowing down the march to war. Just as predictable was the administration's response, as George W. Bush and his advisers dismissed the offer as an irrelevant ploy. They seemed irritated their express train to war, which was picking up momentum, had encountered a bad piece of track. Rather than slow down and take a look, they decided, let's ignore the bump, full speed ahead.

But if no sensible person wants a war that can be avoided, why not call Saddam's bluff? Bush's supposed aim has been disarmament in Iraq. The administration has sold "regime change"--that semi-polite term for ousting Saddam with military force--as a means for ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Powell, in the past, has raised the prospect that an aggressive, intrusive, unfettered, and robust weapons inspection program could achieve this, while Vice President Dick Cheney has said it could not. But even though Bush cited Iraqi repression and human rights violations during his speech last week at the UN, the publicly-stated concern driving administration policy has been Saddam's development of WMD. After all, is Bush proposing war against other nations that treat citizens brutally and do not allow for religious, political and civil freedom? Say, China, Qatar, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan? What makes Saddam different, we're told, is his development and potential use (which might include sharing) of horrific weaponry.

Inspections address this central point. The Bush administration and its conservative supporters in the punditry, though, have denied this. Testifying before the House armed services committee on September 18, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--after being interrupted by protesters chanting, "inspections, not war"--said, "The goal isn't inspections. The goal is disarmament....You can only have inspections when a country is cooperating with you."

That is not entirely so. Inspections are part of a disarmament campaign, and cooperation is not a black-and-white matter. From 1991 to 1998, UN inspectors faced a tough time in Iraq, for Saddam--big surprise--did not assist them. His government, for example, claimed it had no major biological weapons. Yet the inspectors uncovered such a program. (At the UN, Bush misleadingly attributed this important success to the defection of an Iraqi defector. But the UN inspectors had discovered these bioweapons months before this defection.) The inspectors also learned the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was further along than Saddam's government had acknowledged. With this information in hand, the inspectors dismantled Iraq's capacity to enrich uranium--a crucial step in bomb-making.

The right sort of inspections can lead to disarmament and can inhibit WMD development. During the seven years UN inspectors played cat-and-mouse with Saddam, his regime did not apparently make great strides on the WMD front. Not that Saddam may not have tried. But it's been four years since inspections ended, and none of the go-to-war-now crowd is today arguing Saddam possesses nuclear weapons. If Iraq was months away from a nuclear bomb at the end of the Gulf War in 1991--as the Bush administration and others claim (perhaps rightfully)--then it is clear that those seven years of inspections and dismantlement set him back, for there is no evidence that in the past four years Saddam has achieved what he was once months away from achieving.

Inspections without a cooperating regime did make a difference. As Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted, "In their first five years, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), which was responsible for inspecting and disarming Iraq's chemical, biological, and missile materials and capacities, and the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Iraq Action Team, which did the same for Iraq's nuclear ones, achieved substantial successes. With sufficient human and technological resources, time, and political support, inspections can reduce Iraq's WMD threat, if not to zero, to a negligible level." She defines inspections as "a resumed discovery and disarmament phase and intrusive, ongoing monitoring and verification extending to dual-use facilities and the activities of key individuals." By claiming the choice is between inspections and disarmament, Rumsfeld is being disingenuous. Inspections are aimed directly at disarmament. Regime change may be. But one targets a sometimes hard-to-find bull's eye, while the other seeks to blow up the entire firing range in order to get that red circle.

Why not try the first course, before resorting to blasting away? The White House and the UN should call Saddam's bluff. Send in the inspectors ASAP and test the unconditionality of the offer. It may take a while--months to a year--to scope out Iraq's WMD programs, but it should not take long to determine if Iraq is serious about giving the inspectors free run.

This is the approach backed by Richard Butler, former chief UN weapons inspector. One of the most passionate advocates of Iraqi disarmament, Butler has been a human-rights-oriented hawk on Iraq. During the summer, he appeared before the Senate foreign relations committee and was somewhat supportive of military action against Saddam. After Iraq said it would permit the return of inspectors, Butler remarked, "We don't have to be grateful for what Iraq has done. They are outlaws, they are outside the law; we have to assess carefully a decision by them to come back under the law and this seems to be a step in the right direction....Saying that the inspectors can come back to Iraq without condition is good--that's the first step. But what we really need to see is that inspectors are allowed to do their work when they get there, without conditions; in other words, unfettered access to any place or person that they need in order to do their job, and we won't know that until they get there."

Butler, despite his deep skepticism toward Saddam, views this as an opportunity, not an irritation. The Bush clan ought to do the same. But Team Bush--sometimes Powell, too--seem eager to shoot down any other options but regime-change war. (Other war-lite options include inspections backed by force, as the Carnegie Endowment has proposed, or strikes against WMD sites.) There may be risks involved in permitting Iraq to weasel its way through a round of inspection follies. Perhaps Saddam will gain more time to pursue what the administration fears he is pursuing. But that risk has to be considered along side the risks of military action--especially military action that could end up being mostly unilateral.

The Bush administration doesn't seem much interested in avoiding full-scale conflict. It would rather have a blank-check authorization from Congress than an inspection regimen in place. The White House is bent on regime change in and of itself. Sure, a military attack designed to achieve de-Saddamization might impede Iraq's WMD programs. But it might have many other consequences as well. Clearly, the goal is war, not disarmament. Secretary Powell, call your office.

Bush Tells UN, Make War or I Will

Let us stipulate that Saddam Hussein is a scumbag. He has run a brutal and murderous dictatorship, repressed significant numbers of his people, sought to develop weapons of mass destruction, invaded a neighbor, used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians and Iranians, and defied various UN resolutions. Delivering his Big Speech at the UN on Thursday morning, President George W. Bush covered Saddam's infamy in detail (without noting, by the way, how the Reagan-Bush administration in the 1980s provided Saddam with assistance while he was using chemical weapons during his war against Iran). The President cited the numerous times the UN Security Council has declared Iraq in breach of resolutions ordering it to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles. But Bush presented no heretofore unknown information about the threat posed by Iraq. And he offered no specific proposals on how to deal with the threat--real or hyped. He was making a case for despising Hussein (as if that was needed). But his case for war against Iraq remained vague. His message was, either you do something, or I will. That is, Bush said nothing new.

The speech was a lecture. Claiming he desired a United Nations that is "effective...and successful," Bush tried to guilt-trip the General Assembly into accepting his hardline approach. He argued the UN must do so in order to be taken seriously: "All the world now faces a test, and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?" Worrying about the strength and credibility of the UN is a new position for the Bush administration, which has repeatedly ignored or opposed consensus positions of the UN, such as its support for an international criminal court. (A partial list of these instances appears in the preceding column; click on the link below.)

But Bush signaled that actually he, too, held no true respect for the UN. For in the nut-graph (as a newspaper editor would call it) of his speech, Bush declared that if the UN decides his particular course of confrontation with Iraq--whatever that might entail--is not appropriate, he is willing to defy the body and move against Iraq on his own. "We will work with the UN Security Council for the necessary resolutions," he said. "But the purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council's resolutions will be enforced--the just demands of peace and security will be met--or action will be unavoidable. And a regime that has lost its legitimacy will lose its power." In keeping with his with-us-or-against-us approach to foreign policy, he was telling the UN that its standing depends upon on whether it agrees with him.

Bush mentioned nothing about any effort to revive aggressive and robust weapons inspections in Iraq, nothing about possible stricter sanctions, nothing about military options shy of those designed to achieve regime change (such as strikes against Iraq's suspected WMD facilities, should there be proof these sites present a danger). Bush was dismissive of all paths but war. "We've been more than patient," he remarked. "We've tried sanctions. We've tried the carrot of oil for food, and the stick of coalition military strikes.'" And none of it, he suggested, has worked. So the question hovers, what does Bush expect the UN to do? The only alternative he seems willing to accept is a war to remove Saddam.

Nor did Bush discuss the challenge of what would come after such an event--other than a new Iraq that "can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine." (No word from Bush on the prospects of a "democratic" Saudi Arabia or a "democratic" Jordan.) And he praised his administration's actions in Afghanistan. But the post-war scene there remains a mess, and even Republicans on Capitol Hill have griped that the United States has not done enough in terms of providing security and assistance to that fractured (and fractious) nation. Present-day Afghanistan--which may be an improvement for many Afghans over the time of the Taliban--is hardly a good sales-pitch for war against Iraq.

As far as the public knows, Bush so far has failed to persuade any head of state--but Britain's Tony Blair--that war against Saddam is necessary at this point. He hasn't even won over key advisers to his dad, including former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. His UN address brought nothing fresh to the podium. Bush was not leading; he was pushing.

Bush at the UN: The Charade Before the Crusade

"'Don't worry. We've got a plan. We purposefully let the Iraq issue stay in no-man's-land for a while. But we know what we're doing.' That's what senior people at the White House tell me," the Reverend Lou Sheldon, the chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, informs me while we're waiting for sandwiches. (It pays to favor the Capitol Hill deli fancied by a leader of the religious right.) "I sure hope so," he adds.

There does seem to be a plan in the works. August, as White House chief of staff Andrew Card told a reporter, is an awful time to "introduce new products"--such as a war. So the Bush administration waited until back-to-school week to add the latest lyrics to its beating of the war drums. As part of the run-up to Bush's September 12 speech at the UN--in which, the White House promises, he will lay out the case for confronting Saddam Hussein--the big cahunas of Bush's posse hit the Sunday shows to issue the pre-case for going to war with Iraq.

This whole operation has a fake air to it, for Bush and Dick Cheney have already talked themselves into a corner. Bush has repeatedly cited Saddam as an immediate and direct threat to the United States and the entire world. Cheney has said time is of the essence and that even a revived weapons inspection program in Iraq would not undo this threat. In fact, he argued, a program to monitor and disarm Saddam would only provide a false sense of comfort and allow Saddam more time to become more of a menace. With such rhetoric, the Bush administration has left itself with no option other than a military strike against Saddam.

Meanwhile, Bush and his lieutenants have already been trying to make the case. For months, they have been on the phone and in meetings with European, Asian and Middle Eastern allies, desperately seeking partners for the crusade against Saddam. Only one other leader so far has signed up--British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Most others have publicly distanced themselves from the administration's get-Saddam-now urgings. Is Bush going to say anything much different at the UN than what he and his people have already told the allies?

Bush may have one more chance with his UN speech. But the pre-speech chatter from the administration showed that Team Bush has still not come together on the fine points of its war against Iraq. On Fox News Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that "disarmament is the issue" and that the reason for "regime change" (the administration's euphemism for attacking Iraq) is to "make sure" Iraq is disarmed. Yet when Tim Russert asked Cheney on Meet The Press whether the goal is "disarmament or regime change," Cheney replied, "The President's made it clear that the goal of the United States is regime change." (Guess Powell missed that memo.) On CNN, Wolf Blitzer asked national security adviser Condoleeza Rice if the Iraqi government was linked to al Qaeda. She responded, "There is certainly evidence that al Qaeda people have been in Iraq. There is certainly evidence that Saddam Hussein cavorts with terrorists." Asked if Iraq has been "working with and supporting al Qaeda," Powell said, "We cannot yet make a definitive conclusion that such a thing has occurred." On this subject, Cheney said, "there has been reporting that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years" between Iraq and al Qaeda. He did not elaborate on this vague but provocative assertion.

Powell noted that a "more robust and aggressive" inspection regime would be worth pursuing, claiming the issue was "under consideration." Cheney stuck to his previous stand on inspections but without reiterating his forceful opposition: "I'm a real skeptic." As to why America's allies have left Bush in the lurch, Cheney said, "I don't think they know the same information" as the Bush administration. Powell, though, remarked, "I think they know enough to come to the same conclusion."

Pity the viewer who watched all the interviews. With days to go to the Big Speech, there still was not one set of talking points. But the Bush advisers did agree that Bush intended to pressure the UN to move against Saddam. As Powell commented, in the face of Iraqi violations of UN resolutions ordering Saddam to give up his weapons of mass destruction, "the United Nations should feel offended, the United Nations should feel that something has to be done." Powell said Bush will deliver "a strong message that it's time [for the UN] to do something."

This is Texas-sized chutzpah. The Bush administration has repeatedly told the UN to get lost. A partial list: it opposed the Kyoto protocol on global warming; it boycotted a UN conference held to encourage states to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty, which outlaws nuclear tests; it refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the execution of juveniles; it walked out of a UN conference on racism over fear that the meeting would condemn Israel; it rejected a draft UN agreement to enforce a biological weapons ban that was supported by almost every other participating nation; it opposed a UN initiative against torture that established an inspection process, out of concern this would lead to monitors in US prisons, especially the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay; and it successfully led smear-like campaigns to oust the UN human rights commissioner, Mary Robinson, and the head of the UN agency that overseas the chemical weapons treaty.

The Bush gang has displayed little respect for the UN. Often when the UN has declared a priority, the Bush administration has dismissed the body's concern. Yet now Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says, "I think it is probably not a good thing for the United Nations to be laughed at and sneered at and disobeyed and...to not be significant enough....And for the United Nations to acquiesce in that, it seems to me, is an unfortunate thing."

What if the UN this time around does the spurning? "We'd like to do it with the sanction of the international community," Cheney commented, without defining the "it." Yet he added: "But the point in Iraq is this problem has to be dealt with one way or another." By the way, he said the same regarding Congress. In other words, it would be nice to have you with us, but we don't need you.

So Bush's UN trip is something of a high-risk but mandatory charade. Critics at home and abroad say he has to win foreign support for his campaign against Iraq. His administration has accepted that he needs to take a stab at that, but it is clearly signaling it is willing, if not eager, to saddle up alone. Given Bush's failure to date to convince any head of state other than Blair--and his inability to persuade Republican Senators like Chuck Hagel and Larry Craig and former Bush I officials like Brent Scowcroft and Larry Eagleburger--the UN speech is unlikely to change many minds. But that probably won't matter. The plan will remain the same.

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