George W. Bush is on a roll. The elections at home. The UN Security Council’s 15-to-0 acceptance of a resolution calling for tough inspections in Iraq (which can be interpreted by the get-Saddam wing of the Bush Administration as an easement toward war). What’s next? Osama bin Laden appears at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and turns himself in?
As Bush racks up political successes in the United States and at the UN, he positions himself for making the final call–to war or not. As of this writing, the word out of Baghdad is mixed. Arab diplomats and one of Saddam’s sons indicate the Iraqi dictator is likely to agree to the UN resolution before the November 15 deadline. (You can watch the hourly countdown clock on Fox News Channel.) Yet Iraq’s 250-member parliament in a unanimous vote–surprise, surprise–recommended the UN measure be rejected. Most experts quoted in the papers or interviewed on television say they believe Saddam will begrudgingly accept the resolution.
Assuming Saddam says “send ’em in,” the issue will then become whether Iraq truly meets the strict conditions outlined in the resolution. If Saddam doesn’t tell the UN–and Bush–to piss off, a debate is likely to ensue PDQ over whether Iraq is truly abiding by the terms of the resolution. It’s no secret the Iraq-hawks in the Bush Administration are ready to blow the whistle as soon as the Iraqis delay an inspection team for half-a-minute or produce records that somebody somewhere claims are incomplete. Such instances could well be signs Saddam is not serious about permitting rigorous inspections, or they might be glitches of questionable significance. No doubt, there will be much public argument over all this. And the fellow with the loudest voice in the discussion will be Bush. The UN resolution does reserve for the Security Council the right to review Iraq’s performance. But–as viewed by the White House–the resolution affords the Bush Administration the chance to render its own judgment and to act accordingly, without having to obtain the UN’s permission. Consequently, war or peace will hang on how Bush evaluates what does or does not happen with the inspectors in Iraq.
And Bush’s biases are clear. He has placed them on full display in recent weeks, making it tough to have confidence in his ability to weigh the evidence reasonably. A few days before the elections, at a campaign rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Bush, decrying Saddam, proclaimed, “This is a man who is close to having a nuclear weapon…. This is a dangerous man who cannot stand America because of what we love.”
Regarding the first sentence, the Bush Administration has yet to produce any firm evidence that Saddam is “close” to possessing a nuclear weapon. The source for this? Bush himself. At several other pre-election gatherings, he qualified this assessment, as when he said, “He was close at one time to having a nuclear weapon. We don’t know how close he is today.” Perhaps Bush merely misspoke in Harrisburg when he said that Saddam “was close” to being a nuclear-armed tyrant. But it’s an exaggeration all too in keeping with other statements he has issued. On the campaign trail, he also repeatedly noted Saddam has “had connections” with bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and that Saddam wants to use al Qaeda–or “an al Qaeda-type network”–to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction. This may be so. But his Administration has notbacked up Bush’s assertion with proof.
As for Bush’s description of Saddam as “a dangerous man who cannot stand America because of what we love,” one can only hope he doesn’t believe this simplistic rhetoric. What precisely is it about American passions that ticks Saddam off? The nation’s political freedoms and devotion to capitalism? If so, shouldn’t he also be damn mad at Canada and Costa Rica? Bush, of course, is creating a comic-book version of reality, one that ignores geopolitics. Saddam’s beef with the United States stems from the Gulf War–when the United States, after being something of a friend to him (by providing assistance during the Iran-Iraq war, supplying the building blocks of biological and chemical weapons, and encouraging agricultural and technical commerce) came to the rescue of oil autocracies and kicked Iraq out of Kuwait. Prior to that war, Saddam, who was then pursuing weapons of mass destruction, was not hyped as a threat to the United States by the Bush I and Reagan administrations. This is not to excuse Saddam’s antipathy toward the United States. But Bush’s insistence that the conflict is over “what we love” is another indication he cannot be trusted to judge a complicated inspections-compliance dispute.
Okay, maybe Bush got carried away with the rhetoric. But let’s examine another recent incident in which Bush was asked about an incontrovertible fact regarding the Iraq controversy. At a November 7 White House press conference, a reporter tossed the President the following question:
“Your CIA director told Congress just last month that it appears that Saddam Hussein, ‘Now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks against the United States,’ but if we attacked him he would ‘probably become much less constrained.’ Is he wrong about that?”
The reporter was referring to a letter CIA chief George Tenet sent to Congress on October 7, and he had paraphased it accurately. Bush replied:
“I’m sure that he said other sentences. Let me just put it to you: I know George Tenet well. I meet with him every single day. He sees Saddam Hussein as a threat. I don’t know what the context of that quote is. I’m telling you, the guy knows what I know, that he is a problem and we must deal with him. And, you know, it’s like some people say, ‘Oh, we must leave Saddam alone, otherwise, if we did something against him, he might attack us.’ Well, if we don’t do something he might attack us, and he might attack us with a more serious weapon. The man is a threat…. He’s a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda…. And we’re going to deal with him.”
This is a remark that requires more words to explain than to make. Was Bush unfamiliar with the October 7 letter? How could that be? It had caused a major fuss, spurring newspaper headlines. The Tenet letter was a sharp retort to the claim that Saddam is an immediate threat. It conveyed the CIA’s analysis of the danger Saddam presented in the near term. Had Bush never discussed–or been briefed on–the findings contained in the letter?
With his answer, Bush brushed aside an important part of the Iraq debate. Yes, Tenet had included other sentences in the letter–such as a self-serving explanation of why the CIA had not allowed the release of its conclusions sooner. And another sentence noted that a “senior intelligence witness” had testified at a secret Congressional hearing on October 2 that “the likelihood” that Saddam would initiate an attack using a weapon of mass destruction “would be low.”
The purpose of the letter was to share (belatedly) the CIA’s assessment of what Saddam is likely to do. Notice how Bush, in his reply, emphasized what Saddam might do. Might is a broad concept–and often hard to challenge. Intelligence agencies, though, seek to determine what can be expected, in addition to what is possible. Bush appears to have missed–or intentionally ignored–that not-so-nuanced point. He could have said that he disagreed with the CIA’s findings, or that he believed that Saddam–even if he were not to strike the United States soon–presents a long-term threat and must be confronted before it is too late. Instead, Bush practically denied the existence of the CIA estimate.
Then Bush went further by explicitly stating that Saddam is a danger because he is currently working with al Qaeda. That should have been a stop-the-presses newsflash. (“President Definitively Says Saddam in League with Al Qaeda.”) Yet no media organ I have noticed ran with that story. Is that because they were too busy reporting that Bush, in this post-elections news conference, had been careful not to gloat over the results? Or because they don’t take him seriously when he utters such statements? Either he was delivering an explosive charge without supporting it or mischaracterizing intelligence he had received.
Here is a President who willfully misrepresents–or who is unaware of–important CIA conclusions and who recklessly asserts as a fact that Saddam is now cooperating with al Qaeda. This is not the conduct of a man who is careful and deliberate in his estimation of disputes–nor the actions of a leader who realizes his obligation to be, above all, honest and forthright in offering the case for war. If Saddam does try to thwart the intentions of the UN, American leadership will be required to fashion an appropriate and effective response. Yet Bush will be a referee who cannot be trusted, deciding what fouls warrant death and destruction.