As veteran readers of this column will recall, I based my support for the invasion of Iraq strictly on the universally accepted belief that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction and was actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons. This was in keeping with the longstanding principle that America should risk the lives of its fighting men and women only when a “vital interest” of this country is at stake – as it most certainly would have been, if the aforesaid belief was correct.
Now it appears that the belief was mistaken, from which it follows that that particular justification for the war was lacking. President Bush, and many others, have cited other justifications: that we were morally obligated to free Iraq from the murderous tyrant who had ruled it for 30 years; that Saddam was at the center of the turmoil in the Middle East and that democratizing Iraq would transform the region for the better; etc. Such arguments are plausible, and convincing both to “national greatness conservatives,” who approve of the use of American power in almost any circumstance, and Wilsonian liberals, who favor its use for idealistic reasons, preferably when no “selfish” American interest is involved.
But neither of these excuses, nor any other save the “vital interest” test, has ever appealed to me, and I accordingly conclude that the attack on Iraq was not justified.
But it is only fair to ask what we would have expected an American president to do if confronted with the information on which the world’s intelligence services agreed in 2003? If Al Gore had been elected, he would no doubt have dithered ineffectually – and Saddam would still, for better or worse, be in power. Bush took his oath to defend this country more seriously, and acted, on the basis of the best information available, to protect it while there was still time. Saddam was ousted, and we are in the second year of a painful process whereby Iraq is being cleansed of jihadists and set on the road to democracy.
Under these circumstances, I cannot say he was wrong. But this is an election year, and the Democrats can be counted on to condemn him if it is humanly possible. Hence the charge that Bush (who somehow allegedly knew the truth about the WMDs) “lied us into war.”
Now, it is true that the president said, “If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.” But it was Bill Clinton who said that, on Feb. 17, 1998. Was he lying too?
A cruel fate has decreed that such support as there was for the theory that George W. Bush was lying is collapsing just as the Democrats are packing their bags to head to Boston. Not a single investigatory committee, here or abroad, has concluded that he knew the CIA’s assertions about Iraq’s WMDs were untrue. Even such a minor error as the famous “16 words,” in which Bush charged that Iraq was shopping for uranium in Niger, has turned out not to be an error after all. Britain’s Butler Commission has explicitly found that the charge was “well founded,” and our own Senate Intelligence Committee concurs. Diplomat Joe Wilson, who earned his 15 minutes of fame by saying otherwise and writing a book about it, is trying lamely to explain his accusation.
Perhaps America – though certainly not Iraq – would have been better off if we had never invaded Hussein’s domain. But the president acted on the best information available – information that we now know was seriously wrong. Does it follow that the governance of this country, in the midst of a global war against terror, ought to be handed over to a party that can be depended on to look for easy ways out of difficult decisions?
You can bet that Bush has learned his lesson. And you can also bet, unfortunately, that the Democrats are more convinced than ever that the safest thing to do is … nothing.