The Crumbling Case for War

It is a little frustrating to write that the main hope is that the American people will be more vigilant the next time a president and his administration put on a full court press on behalf of a dubious war. At this time, however, it is probably the best we can hope for. It is fine to entertain the distant hope that various scandals and evidence of untruths will lead to the downfall or even the widespread discrediting of the Bush administration and its decision to invade Iraq. It is more likely, however, that the effect will be more subtle and cumulative – and it might not happen at all.

Nonetheless, critics of the war on Iraq can be fairly comfortable in the knowledge that most of the decision-making processes leading up to the invasion of Iraq were seriously flawed and that the war was unjustified. Who says so? Most members of the administration now admit it, and a former member has come out (perhaps naively believing that his wealth will shield him from damage) with criticisms blazing. A new study published by the Army War College even concludes that the war in Iraq “was a war-of-choice distraction from the war of necessity against al Qaida.”


The verdict is in. Weapons of mass destruction have not been found in Iraq. No clear (though perhaps a fuzzy and ambivalent) connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida – before 9/11 – has been discovered. Evidence from inside the National Security Council has emerged that top Bush administration officials were determined to wage war on Iraq even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

This was not a “pre-emptive” war, which is one that a country might initiate when it has clear-cut evidence – troops maneuvering or even massing along the border, for example – that some other country has been preparing to attack, so it attacks first. Instead, it could be classified as a “preventive” war, designed to neutralize a potential threat that might or might not emerge in the near future, one that can best be handled by wiping out the potential before it becomes concrete.

Or it could be classified as a war of aggression against a regime that, while thoroughly nasty and possessed of the potential (though not many of the resources) to become a regional threat, did not pose anything resembling a clear and present danger to the United States or its people.


What’s the evidence for all this. Let’s start with the statement at a news conference by Secretary of State Colin Powell last Thursday that “I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection” between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al Qaida.” Powell still defended the war, claiming that “the president decided he had to act because he believed that, whatever the size of the stockpile [presumably of still-undiscovered weapons], whatever one might think about it, he believed the region was in danger, America was in danger and he would act.”

That’s a tacit admission that this was not a preemptive war, and the best face that can be put on it is that it was a preventive war. But however Mr. Powell might try to rationalize it, his current stance is markedly different from the picture he presented to the United Nations last Feb. 5.

In that memorable presentation, Mr. Powell spoke of a “sinister nexus” [an undefined but scary-sounding term] “between Iraq and the al Qaida terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder.”

Without bothering with anything like qualifiers or questions about just how “concrete” the evidence was, Mr. Powell last year said: “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida associates.” He apparently didn’t think it was all that important to emphasize that the evidence then in existence placed al-Zarqawi in the Kurdish-controlled portions of Iraq, in areas where the Kurdish rulers to whom Saddam had granted what amounted to de facto autonomy didn’t control, and that Saddam’s regime did not in any concrete or realistic sense control.

Powell continued, then, “Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al Qaida. These denials are simply not credible.” But now he sings a different tune, acknowledging there is no “smoking gun,” but claiming that there’s no inconsistency between his position now and his position then.

Colin Powell spent a good deal of his hard-earned (although to my mind at least mildly mysterious) credibility to make the case for war last year at the U.N. We’ll see if that credibility vanishes soon. In the meantime, he joins others in the administration, including President Bush himself, who have belatedly acknowledged that the belief in the Saddam-al Qaida link was the result of wishful thinking, and perhaps doctored or “stovepiped” intelligence that serious intelligence professionals didn’t take very seriously.


On Sunday, of course, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill made his splash, as the chief on-the-record source for a new book by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty. “From the very beginning [of the administration, in January 2001, well before the terrorist attacks] there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,” Mr. O’Neill told “Sixty Minutes.”

Specifically, Mr. O’Neill, who as Treasury Secretary was a permanent member of the national security Council, says that the topic of Saddam came up at the first NSC meeting he attended. “It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it,” said O’Neill. “The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this.’ For me the notion of pre-emption [a misnomer, I would argue], that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap.”

Two days later, at the next National Security Council meeting, the discussion of Iraq continued, accompanied by briefing materials. “There are memos. One of them marked secret says, ‘Plan for post-Saddam Iraq,” according to author Ron Suskind.

A few conservative defenders of the administration have tried to make much of the apparent fact that a document entitled “Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield contracts” was not a Pentagon document but was instead a product of Vice President Cheney’s secret panel charged with developing a new energy policy for the United States. That hardly makes the document any less interesting, if true.

Indeed, it might be part of the explanation, otherwise somewhat mysterious except as part of a manic desire to expand executive privilege whenever and wherever possible (always something folks in the executive branch want to do and always to be viewed by suspicion by freedom-loving Americans), for Mr. Cheney’s unyielding (and still successful despite ongoing litigation) effort to keep as much as possible about this panel secret from the prying eyes of mere citizens.

Most of what Mr. O’Neill has wanted to talk about has been what he views as President Bush’s disengaged management style and his (O’Neill’s) disagreement with the administration over how many tax cuts would be a good idea. I would suggest, however, that the information about the determination from the first days of the administration to find a way to get Saddam out of power in Iraq – which apparently included discussion of fairly long-term occupation troops, war crimes tribunals and more – will turn out to be the most significant O’Neill revelations.

It’s not as if those who follow the ways of neocons didn’t know that at least certain elements in the Bush administration have wanted to attack Iraq since a few minutes after the first Gulf War. But “white papers” and open letters from the likes of Bill Kristol and the Project for the New American Century back in 1997 and thereabouts are one thing. A statement from the former Secretary of the Treasury that “regime change” was on the National Security Council agenda from the outset of the administration is another. Maybe.

(Incidentally, it’s a little sad to see Wall Street Journal writer and casual but long-time acquaintance John Fund acting as a hit-man for the administration on the O’Neill revelations. As usual, John does it in an urbane and indirect fashion, characterizing O’Neill as a “relic” of the Nixon-Ford era rather than an evil turncoat. But John’s manifest talents really should be put to better use than carrying water for this administration.)


Then there’s Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision to recuse himself and turn over the investigation of the Valerie Plame alleged leak and “outing” incident to a subordinate, who promptly appointed a special counsel. This was about the president’s statement in last year’s State of the Union address to the effect that he just knew Saddam had tried to procure nasty stuff in “an African country.” The most likely candidate was the former French colony of Niger, to which former ambassador Joseph Wilson had been sent in 2002, returning with a fairly certain report that there was no evidence of Saddam trying to buy “yellowcake” uranium.

Wilson went public with an op-ed piece in the New York Times. Soon White House officials were calling at least six journalists suggesting that Wilson was unreliable and had gotten the assignment only because his wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent working on proliferation issues. It turns out Ms. Plame was an undercover operative, and there’s a law against “outing” undercover types.

Whether a law was actually broken is still an open question. So far there has not even been reliable speculation about who was calling the journalists and whether this person knew Valerie Plame was undercover. But the decision to turn it over to a special counsel suggests that something potentially incriminating has been unearthed.

And the entire episode uncovers yet another – lie is such a forthright word – let’s call it an instance of misleading or creating a false impression by a high administration official, in this case the president himself, who according to some accounts had already been reminded that the “intelligence” on which this allegation was based was shaky at best, and seems to have included clumsy forgeries. Maybe the special counsel can figure out who might have perpetrated that bit of legerdemain.

And British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the chief foreign cheerleader for the war against Saddam, admitted Sunday that he just doesn’t know at this point whether any weapons of mass destruction will ever be found in Iraq. “I believe that we will but I agree there were many people who thought we were going to find this in the course of the actual operation,” he told BBC1’s Breakfast with Frost.

Paul Bremer, the US proconsul in Iraq, last month rejected Blair’s previous claim that the Iraq Survey Group had unearthed “massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories.”

And oh, yes, the Iraq Survey Group, the Pentagon team looking for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons? The Pentagon is withdrawing most of them. That’s pretty close to a tacit admission that those elusive WMDs will never be found.

Perhaps the Carnegie Endowment (which has been right much more consistently than the administration over the last couple of years) is correct that Iraq (with help and prodding from the UN inspectors) simply destroyed most of the weapons after the first Gulf War. That doesn’t mean Saddam might not have still wanted them, and might have had fairly strong intentions to begin a new weapons program as soon as he thought he could get away with it. But so far – no exploding cigar.


Finally (for now) there’s the Army War College, which has published a scathing new report on the bush administration’s handling of the war on terrorism and the “unnecessary” war in Iraq. The report, by Jeffrey Record, a visiting professor at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama – who criticized the Clinton administration during a previous stint with the air war college – is available on the Strategic Studies Institute Web site and through, and is fairly devastating.

The US is biting off more than it can chew and the Army is being stretched beyond sane limits (which may be why the Army decided to publish the piece. “The global war on terrorism as currently defined and waged is dangerously indiscriminate and ambitious, and accordingly … its parameters should be readjusted,” Record writes. The campaign is “strategically unfocused, promises more than it can deliver, and threatens to dissipate US military resources in an endless and hopeless search for absolute security.”

Who needs professional war critics to criticize this war and its rationale? The administration and military professionals are doing a pretty good job themselves.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).