Season of Cynicism

Some will argue that the events of this week are encouraging cynicism about their leaders among the American public. What is much more striking is the cynicism displayed by the leaders when they were in the midst of selling a policy of invading an internationally-recognized sovereign country that had neither invaded nor threatened its neighbors (recently) and posed nothing remotely resembling an imminent threat to the United States.

The first, and perhaps most significant, bit of news about administration failures this week came in the form of a very long New York Times piece on Sunday, headlined "How White House Embraced Disputed Arms Intelligence." It focused on the famous aluminum tubes Iraq had ordered and stockpiled, which any number of administration spokespeople touted as solid evidence that Iraq was frenetically rebuilding its nuclear weapons capability.

These tubes, according to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in an appearance on CNN on Sept. 8, 2002, were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs." She famously (or should that be notoriously?) continued, "We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

At about the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney told a group of Wyoming Republicans that those aluminum tubes constituted "irrefutable evidence" that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

Holy War in Administration

It turns out, however, that not only was the evidence that the aluminum tubes were intended for a nuclear weapons program far from irrefutable, but almost all of the top nuclear and weapons experts in the administration and intelligence community didn’t believe that was their likely function at all. According to the Times article, "The experts at the Energy Department believed the tubes were likely intended for small artillery rockets."

Condoleezza Rice’s staff had been informed of this opinion almost a year before her CNN appearance. The Times article wasn’t able to conclude with certainty whether she knew personally of the dispute among experts – it turns out that it was a junior CIA analyst who first floated the nuclear theory – but it did make a general statement that should stand as a severe condemnation of the administration as a whole.

"Senior administration officials repeatedly failed to fully disclose the contrary views of America’s nuclear scientists," Times reporter David Barstow wrote. "They sometimes overstated even the most dire intelligence assessments of the tubes, yet minimized or rejected the strong doubts of nuclear experts. They worried privately that the nuclear case was weak, but expressed sober certitude in public."

Behind the scenes, according to one congressional investigator, a "holy war" was being waged within the administration over what to do and say about the aluminum tubes. The hawks, of course, who according to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill had wanted to take out Saddam from the first days of the administration long before 9/11, won out.

Vice President Cheney was told by the CIA that covert action would likely not be enough to effect "regime change" against Saddam Hussein, that "it would take an invasion, which would require persuading the public that Iraq posed a threat to the United States," as the Times story put it. So began the effort to jigger the intelligence to make the weakened dictator of a weakened third-rate country halfway around the world pose a severe threat to the lone superpower whose military budget equals that of the next 13 countries. Cheney and his staff pressed intelligence officers at every level, in a range of agencies, for whatever scraps of half-baked information might contribute to building the case.

Profound Cynicism

It is difficult to overstate the profound cynicism that had to inform these efforts. Most of those charged with building the case had to know that Saddam was seriously weakened after defeat in Gulf War I, years of weapons inspections (even if these were imperfect or flawed), years of economic embargo during which Saddam seems to have used the ill-gotten money he skimmed from the UN Oil for Food program more to build palaces than weapons, and years of constant bombing by British and U.S. warplanes. They probably also knew, if they reflected honestly for more than a moment, that even a Saddam Hussein at the height of his potential strength posed no imminent threat to the United States itself (although he might well have posed a threat, beyond paying off a few suicide bombers, to Israel).

Yet these laborers in the bureaucratic and political vineyards, knowing that even if the rosiest war scenarios turned out to be true that a certain number of U.S. military personnel would be killed and many more would be wounded and/or maimed for life, worked overtime to build a case that could be sold to the American public that war with Saddam was absolutely necessary. Do their consciences ever bother them? Do they have consciences?

It may well turn out that Iraq is better off in the long run with Saddam out of power, although the current escalating violence suggests that the final verdict can’t be rendered yet. And at an emotional level few people who cherish freedom can be sorry that brutal dictator is no longer in power.

But is the world safer now? The evidence suggests that his mythical weapons programs didn’t make it all that dangerous in 2002. It is certainly not safer for the National Guard troops who never expected to serve for long stretches in a guerrilla or insurgency environment (though to be fair, that was a possibility when they signed up) or for service members close to retirement who have been forced to stay in-country due to stop-loss orders (again, in the fine print of their contracts) that force them to stay in harm’s way past the time when they could have otherwise retired. If it is true – and it almost certainly is – that the invasion of Iraq has served as a recruiting poster for Iraq and drawn hundreds or thousands of Muslims to become radicalized, then the world is less safe now than it was before the invasion of Iraq.

There was no shortage of people making these kinds of arguments during the run-up to the war. Although the Democratic Johns chose to believe the same flawed – or politicized – intelligence in September 2002 when they voted to give the president the authority to use force if necessary, plenty of respectable critics weighed in on the insufficiency of the evidence back then.

But there was President Bush, on Oct. 7, 2002 saying, "If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today – and we do – does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?”

It turns out that it would have made a great deal of sense.

Bad Week for War-Whoopers

The Times story was just the beginning. All in all, it has just not been a good week for proponents and defenders of the decision to invade Iraq, although the president and vice president still say they’d do it all over again knowing what they know now. What is done cannot be undone, but the lesson for ordinary Americans should be clear.

The next time government officials and others beat the war drums, it would be prudent to resist the normal patriotic impulse to fall in behind them and instead examine claims with heightened skepticism. This was hardly the first instance of exaggerating threats, choosing to ignore countervailing evidence, or selling only the rosiest of scenarios during the public relations run-up to a war or escalation of a conflict. You can be sure – absent actual troops massing on a border or flotillas (from where?) preparing to invade the United States – that the next campaign will include plentiful exaggeration and deception.

Bremer Speaks Out

Some people were surprised when news drifted out that L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for the occupation of Iraq until the handover of semisovereignty at the end of June, complained that we never had enough troops on the ground, "at the beginning and throughout" the occupation. Although he says he still supports the decision to invade Iraq and supports President Bush’s reelection, he now says he asked repeatedly for more troops to contain the violence.

Mr. Bremer’s decision to go public with his implicit criticism might be explained by an article by an anonymous current State Department employee in the online magazine Salon. The official said everybody knows Colin Powell will not stick around as secretary of state for a second Bush term (if there is one), Mr. Bremer is a possible candidate for the job, and neoconservatives who consider him unreliable have already begun trashing him, trying to create the public impression that it was not bad neocon policy, but bad Bremer decisions that led to the fiasco in Iraq. Mr. Bremer may simply be defending his reputation.

According to the latest "anonymous," State is in a dither over the prospect of Powell’s leaving and State, the last outpost (though a relatively weak one) of relative sense in the administration, would be headed by a neocon or a neocon tool. "Not since Vietnam, however, has the U.S. diplomatic establishment viewed the future with such a degree of alarm. Retired U.S. ambassadors and diplomats have raised their own public concerns in signed public statements about the direction of U.S. foreign policy – but that concern pales compared to the quiet revolt brewing against a neocon takeover at Foggy Bottom."

Duelfer News

As if all this weren’t enough to dampen the spirits of war-whoopers, the other news, reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee by the Iraq Survey Group, headed by Charles Duelfer, is more damaging. After 18 months, the group has found that Iraq’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons has "progressively decayed" since 1991, and U.S. inspectors found no evidence of "concerted efforts to restart the program." The findings on chemical and biological weapons were similar.

To be sure, the report noted that Saddam Hussein "aspired to develop a nuclear capability" and probably would have restarted programs to develop nukes, as well as chemical and biological weapons, when (if) UN sanctions were lifted. But that wasn’t what American leaders told the American people during the propaganda prelude to the invasion.

It isn’t as if the case needed it any more, but the prewar case for war has been almost fatally undermined. Not only was the invasion of Iraq not a preemptive war, but a preventive (or "preventative," as some writers put it) war, a type of war not sanctioned by international law or just-war theory; the evidence didn’t even suggest that a preventive war was even close to necessary or prudent. The "grave and growing threat" that might have materialized sometime down the line was almost entirely the stuff of fantasy.

It makes little difference whether top administration officials were consciously lying or had convinced themselves. The important thing is to remember, next time a buildup for a possible war is underway, that official rationales have a way of not always being reliable.

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).