Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Michael Barone Dispels Myths

Michael Barone reminds us how they myths that the media have accepted about how we went to war against Iraq are just that, myths.
For large swathes of the mainstream media, the debate is over. In their view, George W. Bush misled the nation about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, his officials manipulated the intelligence and cherry-picked items that supported their views and there was an "intelligence failure" on the issue of whether Iraq had WMD programs.

But all these points are false. Bush accurately reported what the intelligence agencies, not just our own but those of other countries, reported. Neither Bush nor his leading officials manipulated the intelligence, according to both the bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the bipartisan Silberman-Robb Commission on intelligence. And the so-called "intelligence failure," I would argue, was not a failure at all -- and if the conclusions of the intelligence agencies were wrong (and remember that we don't know for sure whether Saddam spirited WMDs out of the country), that only reflected the inherent limits on the intelligence craft.

Put yourself back in the frame of mind of administration officials and citizens generally in the months before our military action in Iraq. We knew some things for certain. Saddam's regime had developed and used WMDs before. It had a nuclear weapons program that, we found after the 1991 Gulf War, was farther along than we thought. Saddam had repeatedly refused to cooperate with inspections and had violated resolution after U.N. resolution.

In those circumstances, Saddam was not entitled to a presumption of innocence. To the contrary, any responsible American president would have had to assume that he was continuing to develop and might be prepared to use WMD. Bill Clinton was acting responsibly when he so assumed in the late 1990s. George W. Bush was acting responsibly when he did so in 2002 and 2003.

And, indeed, we were told in September 2004 by weapons inspector Charles Duelfer that Saddam retained the capacity to start up WMD programs at any time. But it also appears that those programs were not active during the run-up to March 2003. That information was unknowable at that time, however. What intelligence information could have convinced us beyond a reasonable doubt that Saddam's WMD programs were dormant? Information from someone high in the regime? Quite possibly disinformation. The failure of inspections to locate WMD installations? They were easy to hide in a large country. A sworn affidavit from Saddam himself? You've got to be kidding.

The precise facts were unknowable, and so decisions had to be made on the facts that were known -- all of which pointed to Saddam's developing WMDs. Intelligence agencies in the past overestimated the time it would take regimes -- the Soviet Union, China, India, Iraq -- to develop nuclear weapons. Under the circumstances, it was prudent to act on the assumption that WMDs would be developed sooner rather than later.
There were no good choices with Iraq just as there are no good choices on Iran. Life is like that for leaders. But it doesn't help to make decisions based on myths from the past.