This coming week, President Bush will head to the United Nations to try to rally international support for his Iraq endeavor. After addressing the General Assembly, he is scheduled to stick around to lobby various heads of state–particularly France’s Jacque Chirac and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder–in an attempt to win commitments of troops and money. Bush’s targets ought to view this effort warily. For if Bush’s last speech to the UN is any guide, he can be expected to mangle the truth in order to get his way.
A year ago, Bush kicked off his public campaign against Iraq with a much-anticipated General Assembly address. Shortly before the speech, White House chief of staff Andrew Card quipped, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” And Bush’s appearance at the UN did seem to mark the rollout of his latest product: confrontation with Iraq. It was a launch that just happened to coincide with the emotion-rich first anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
In the speech, Bush fingered Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as the home of the “most lethal and aggressive forms” of dangers threatening the United States and international security. He accurately described the brutality of Hussein’s regime and recounted Hussein’s history of defying UN resolutions. But he also depicted Iraq as an immediate threat that was loaded with chemical and biological weapons and close to developing nuclear weapons. UN inspectors, Bush said, had “revealed that Iraq likely maintains stockpiles of VX, mustard and other chemical agents and that the regime is rebuilding and expanding facilities capable of producing chemical weapons.”
This was sleight of hand. UN inspections had ended four years earlier. How could they have “revealed” the present-day “rebuilding and expanding” of chemical weapons facilities? More seriously, Bush was misrepresenting the findings of the inspectors. The inspectors had not declared that Iraq was maintaining WMD stockpiles. The UN inspection force that searched Iraq in the 1990s–the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM)–had reported that it had dismantled the key facilities Iraq used to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and that it had destroyed significant amounts of chemical and biological weapons. But the UNSCOM inspectors had encountered major discrepancies in the accounting of Iraq’s weapons and WMD material. They found that Iraq could have produced more weapons than the inspectors had uncovered or Iraq had acknowledged. That did not mean, though, Iraq was maintaining large WMD reserves. Bush deceptively turned unaccounted-for material into here-and-now weapons.
On the subject of biological weapons, Bush said that “UN inspectors believe Iraq has produced two to four times the amount of biological agents it declared.” That was an inaccurate description of the inspectors’ view. For example, Iraq claimed it had produced 8,445 liters of anthrax and then had destroyed this supply. The UN inspectors deduced that Hussein’s regime had maintained the production capacity to manufacture 22,000 to 39,000 liters. Had Iraq used its full capacity and produced all that anthrax? The inspectors were not sure. It was a possibility that required further examination. The UN’s WMD-searchers also suspected that 10,000 liters of anthrax had not been destroyed and might still exist. But to the UN inspectors, this was an unresolved question–a serious one–but not an established fact.
In front of the UN, Bush was mischaracterizing its inspectors’ work. In an interview in 2000, Rolf Ekeus, the former executive chairman of UNSCOM, had summed up the 1990s inspections: “UNSCOM was highly successful in identifying and eliminating Iraq’s prohibited weapons–but not to the degree that everything was destroyed….In my view, there are no large quantities of weapons. I don’t think Iraq is especially eager in the biological and chemical area to produce such weapons for storage….Rather, Iraq has been aiming to keep the capability to start up production immediately should it need to.”
That was not the picture Bush presented. Perhaps the UN inspectors had been wrong, and Iraq had managed to hide stockpiles from them. But Bush did not offer evidence of that. Instead, he twisted their findings. And a classified Defense Intelligence Agency analysis conducted at this time said, “There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons, or where Iraq has–or will–establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities.”
During his UN speech, Bush argued that Iraq was taking steps to manufacture nuclear weapons. He pointed to its “attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.” He noted that Saddam Hussein had been meeting with nuclear scientists. But media reports and disclosed US intelligence have since revealed that there was a debate within the intelligence community over Iraq’s use of these aluminum tubes, with some intelligence analysts concluding they were destined for rocket launchers not uranium enrichment. Even after the Bush administration obtained photographic evidence suggesting that the tubes were to be used for rockets, it continued to deny that was an alternative explanation. As for those meetings with nuclear scientists, The Washington Post recently reported that the CIA had concluded these scientists were not likely working on a serious weapons program.
Bush also falsely portrayed the argument against war. “To assume this regime’s good faith,” he said, “is to bet the lives of millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble.” But the influential UN members that opposed a war at this juncture–including Washington’s closest allies–were not assuming Hussein’s “good faith.” They advocated reviving intrusive inspections and pursuing other means before contemplating war. But Bush implied–disingenuously–that weapons inspections would not work. He claimed that UN inspectors had only uncovered Hussein’s bioweapons in 1995 after a senior Iraqi official had defected and revealed the existence of this program. According to Ekeus, the UN inspectors’ discovery of the bioweapons program had come months before this defection.
Certainly, the UN had good reason to worry about Hussein and WMDs. But Bush overstated the case and even misrepresented the UN’s own work in this area. Now, a year later, he returns to the international body, hoping to persuade its members to join his Iraq project as junior partners. Already, other nations are complaining that Bush is pressing them to send money and troops but is not willing to share economic, political, and military responsibility. Bush may have to offer concessions and make promises to get these allies aboard. If he has a hard time winning their trust, he will only have himself to blame.
COMING SOON: David Corn’s new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers, due out September 30). For more information and a sample, check out the book’s official website: www.bushlies.com.