We don’t know, says the Bush administration.
And we don’t care, says the public.
That seems to sum up the matter of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Bush crew still hasn’t uncovered evidence that its prewar pronouncements about WMD were on (or close to) the mark. Nor has it been able to explain why the Pentagon did not move expeditiously during and after the war to secure suspected WMD sites, particularly nuclear facilities that were known to hold large quantities of radioactive material that could be of value to anyone seeking to build a nuclear or dirty bomb.
The Pentagon did announce it had found several tractor trailers that it concluded were mobile biological weapons labs. But not a spot of biological agent had been found on them. Two former UN weapons inspectors–David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, and a scientist who asked not to be identified–told me that even if these trailers had been thoroughly scrubbed, there should be trace residues that would indicate what was done in them. Moreover, these trailers–as threatening as they might have been–were hardly the bulk of Bush’s case against Iraq.
Still, Bush has not had to answer the tough questions regarding WMD. Such as, where are they? No wonder: last week, The Washington Post published a front-page story–“No Political Fallout for Bush on Weapons”–that reported polls showed Americans “unconcerned about weapons discoveries.” If the public doesn’t care, it’s not likely Republicans will be rushing to hold congressional hearings to grill Bush aides on this subject. The war, the Post noted, was supported by over 70 percent of the public.
But the postwar may be a different matter. Last week, Democratic and Republican senators began criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of postwar Iraq. At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democratic, whacked Paul Wolfowitz, asking the deputy defense secretary, “When is the president going to tell the American people that we’re likely to be in the country of Iraq for three, four, five, six, eight, ten years, with thousands of forces and spending billions of dollars? Because its’ not been told to them yet.” (Biden supported the war.) Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, noted, “We may have underestimated or mischaracterized the challenges of establishing security and rebuilding Iraq.” Senator Richard Lugar, who chairs the committee, remarked, “I am concerned that the administration’s initial stabilization and reconstruction efforts have been inadequate.” In a Washington Post op-ed, Lugar gently jabbed at Bush: “Clearly, the administration’s planning for the post-conflict phase in Iraq was inadequate.” He estimated the US occupation will last at least five years and observed that the final tab may hit $100 billion.
No one in the Senate yet is throwing bricks at a White House occupied by a popular president. But the screw-ups in postwar Iraq are becoming an unavoidable topic for legislators. The senior Democrats and Republicans on both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International relations Committee have requested that the General Accounting Office examine the entire US occupation in Iraq: the security efforts, the relief programs, the awarding of contracts, the economic plan, and the political rebuilding. This request was a sign that senators and representatives in both parties have become frustrated with the slow flow of information from the Bush administration on its postwar endeavors. (The Bushies not sharing? What a surprise.)
The turmoil in Iraq has also prompted Democratic presidential candidates–including those who supported the war–to swing harder at Bush. Writing for The Boston Globe, Senator Joseph Lieberman, who twice in the op-ed identified himself as an advocate of the war, griped, “In Iraq, shock and awe is giving way to stumble and fumble. Weeks after a brilliant military victory, the Bush administration is failing to secure the peace.” He also complained that “many of the most sensitive facilities in Iraq–sites we believed to house weapons of mass destruction–were left unprotected and were looted after the fighting ended.” He might have been stretching things. It is clear that nuclear materials were grabbed by parties unknown, but there is no public indication that actual WMDs were in Iraq and snatched.
Senator John Edwards has blasted Bush’s postwar policy as “confused and chaotic,” urging the White House to further involve the United Nations and NATO in reconstituting Iraq. “Most disturbing,” he commented, “nuclear, chemical and biological facilities have been left unprotected and have been ransacked–not only destroying possible evidence about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, but presenting a real threat such materials will end up in the hands of terrorists.” Senator John Kerry, who raised questions about the war but ultimately backed it, took a different tack. He wrote to Bush requesting that he “instruct the Secretary of Treasury to identify Saudi Arabia as a primary money laundering concern [for terrorists] under the authority provided” in the USA PATRIOT act. In doing so, Kerry was implicitly criticizing the commander-in-chief of not doing all he could to neutralize the evildoers. (Is the Saudi connection an Achilles’ heel for Bush? The Bush clan–including former President Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker–have long had business dealings in Saudi Arabia, and one cannot do business there without cozying up to the autocrats. So how tough can Bush get with the Saudis?)
Interviewed on CNN, Representative Dick Gephardt, another Democratic fan of the war, defended Bush’s prewar assertions about WMD. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this,” he said. “It’s going to take time.” Gephardt did remark that he wished “the president would talk more about the various reasons that terrorism is upon us and what we need to do….He keep saying we’re going to get ’em. We all want to get ’em, but there are a lot of other things we need to do to prevent them from doing acts of terrorism.” This was a milder rebuke those hurled by his 2004 competitors.
The two main war-critics in the race for the Democratic nomination have issued postwar reproaches in keeping with their different styles. Representative Dennis Kucinich hit the House floor and asked, in a raised voice, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Indeed, what was the basis for the war? We spend $400 billion for defense. Will we spend a minute to defend the truth? The truth is this administration led America into a war with such great urgency. Yet, it is still refusing to account to the American people for its false and misleading statements.” And former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has argued that the jury’s still out on the war because a possible outcome might be an Islamic fundamentalist state in Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, Dean said of Saddam Hussein, “We got rid of him. I suppose that’s a good thing.” He took plenty of flak for that suppose. But he has stuck to his stance that war was a “diversion,” noting “we’re not safer today than we were before Saddam Hussein left.” He has not, though, made a big issue of the postwar trauma. A hunch: after kick-starting his campaign as a foe of the war, he may well be attempting to move on by pushing other aspects of his candidacy, such as his pitch for expanded healthcare coverage.
The complaints about Bush’s handling of postwar Iraq have hardly reached a crescendo within the Democratic Party or beyond. But there are stirrings. The Shi’ites aren’t the only ones restive. Democratic presidential candidates are eager to find national security-related ground upon which they can challenge Bush the Conqueror and Protector. And independent-minded Republicans have started fretting about what’s to come in Iraq.
The primary reason the United States invaded and occupied Iraq–WMD–may already be old news. But the costly mess in Iraq isn’t going away anytime soon. Perhaps there will be more of a debate on the postwar than the war itself.