Bush Aides Backtracking on Iraq

How to understand the sudden outbreak of candor among Bush administration officials (or former officials) about Iraq in the past couple of days?

In the vice presidential debate on Tuesday evening, Dick Cheney said, "I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11." Well, maybe not in so many words, but Cheney hinted around about this sort of thing relentlessly.

Consider this from an appearance on Meet the Press:

"If we’re successful in Iraq, if we can stand up a good representative government in Iraq, that secures the region so that it never again becomes a threat to its neighbors or to the United States, so it’s not pursuing weapons of mass destruction, so that it’s not a safe haven for terrorists, now we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11." [NBC, Meet the Press, 11/14/03]

It is hard to read this statement in any other way than that Cheney mistakenly thought Iraq was the "geographic base" of al-Qaeda. So why is Cheney backtracking now? It is because before, he could get away with saying these things despite their falsehood, because no one was seriously challenging him and the press did not want to get out ahead of a major political figure. But now it is the election season, such that the press can always find a legitimate counter-voice. In this situation where you cannot depend on a monopoly over official information, it starts to become dangerous to lie outright, because you know an opponent will call you on it and maybe weaken your credibility.

On Monday, remarks of L. Paul Bremer were released. AP reports that he said of the looting in April-May 2003,

"’We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness,’ Bremer said during an address to an insurance group. It released a summary of his remarks in Washington. ‘We never had enough troops on the ground,’ Bremer said, while insisting that he was ‘more convinced than ever that regime change was the right thing to do.’"

CNN notes some backtracking:

"Bremer attempted to clarify his comments in a statement released Tuesday, saying his remarks referred only to ‘the situation as I found it on the ground, when I arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, and when I believed we needed either more coalition troops or Iraqi security forces to address the looting.’"

The problem is that a statement like "we never had enough troops on the ground," if it is what he said, cannot possibly refer only to May 2003. It seems to be a more honest evaluation of Bremer’s year in Iraq

Bremer’s remark clearly puts the blame for the Iraq quagmire squarely on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the two architects of the new Pentagon policy of "small force wars." Both were harsh to Gen. Shinseki for daring to suggest that pacifying Iraq would require 300,000 troops. Actually, this is already a low estimate. Calculating on the basis of the situation in the Balkans, some security specialists at the National Security Council estimated in the spring of 2003 that 500,000 troops would be needed. In contrast, Rumsfeld forced the Joint Chiefs of Staff to accept an invasion force of only 100,000, which was good enough to win the war but not enough to secure the peace.

Why did Bremer speak out now in the middle of the election season? It may just have been an error of judgment on his part. He was speaking to an insurance association in West Virginia, and may not have intended his remarks to become public. As for the substance of his original statement, it is clearly an attempt on his part to begin shifting some of the blame for the Iraq debacle from himself onto other players, chiefly Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Bremer’s place in history, not to mention any future career in Washington, depends on his ability to convince analysts that he was not principally at fault for how things went bad in Iraq

I remember there being rumors that Bremer pressed Washington for more troops in the summer of 2003, to no avail, so he could be settling scores on that rebuff.

Then there was this amazing admission by Rumsfeld at a news conference:

"QUESTIONER: My name is Glenn Hutchins. Mr. Secretary, what exactly was the connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda?

"RUMSFELD: I tell you, I’m not going to answer the question. I have seen the answer to that question migrate in the intelligence community over the period of a year in the most amazing way. Second, there are differences in the intelligence community as to what the relationship was. To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two."

Why did Rummy suddenly have this episode of conscience? It may well be a sign of a rift with the neoconservatives in the Pentagon. They made him look like a fool, and he seems happy to repudiate them. I suspect he is setting up the neoconservatives to take the fall, after the election, when he will ask for their resignations. And it won’t be pro forma.