The Washington Times

I guess we should consider Sen. Edward Kennedy’s op-ed in The Washington Post Sunday the state-of-the-art in sober, Democratic anti-war criticism of President Bush. The piece is noteworthy not for the shrillness of its tone or the harshness of its judgment – the senator left that to the wrecking crew on the Democratic campaign trail and their overheated comrades at MoveOn.org, et. al. – but for its elegiac, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone. The problem is that his own relatively sober description of events simply doesn’t support the charge of dishonesty that is the essence of Mr. Kennedy’s case against Mr. Bush.

A lesser Democrat than Mr. Kennedy, for example, would have claimed that former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s comments in his as-told-to memoir proved that the Bush administration had decided to remove Saddam Hussein soon after taking office. But, of course, this isn’t true; there was an ongoing, very public debate from the 1990s forward, in which a number of Bush officials participated when they were in private life during the Clinton administration, about what to do about Saddam.

Opinions then were very divided. Through September 11, I was a supporter of the containment policy designed to keep Saddam in his box. I changed my mind then not because of any suggestion that Saddam was involved in the attack, but because, suddenly, it looked altogether too dangerous to tolerate the potential combination of chemical or biological or [one day] nuclear weapons and a shadowy non-state group of no fixed address with every determination to hit the United States with whatever it could get its hands on. Others, of course, disagreed, believing all along that Saddam had to go.

Unsurprisingly, the debate carried on within the Bush administration. And commendably, that’s all Mr. Kennedy really claims: “The debate over military action began as soon as President Bush took office.” Actually, it continued.

The senator went on: “The events of Sept. 11, 2001, gave advocates of war the opening they needed. They tried immediately to tie Hussein to al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld created an Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon to analyze the intelligence for war and bypass the traditional screening process. Vice President Cheney relied on intelligence from Iraqi exiles and put pressure on intelligence agencies to produce the desired result.”

What tied Saddam to al Qaeda was simply this: the danger of a terrorist organization’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction capabilities from him. The reason that seemed like a serious possibility at the time was that the United States intelligence community and the foreign intelligence services with which the United States cooperates were unanimous in their belief that Saddam possessed quantities of chemical and biological weapons. In fact, that assessment was consistent from the mid-1990s on.

The Office of Special Plans didn’t invent this conclusion, nor was the first anyone heard of it sometime after the vice president started talking to Iraqi exiles. I have no doubt that in marshaling its public case, the administration highlighted the most menacing aspects of the intelligence on Saddam’s programs. If you believed what the intelligence community unanimously believed about Iraq, and you were worried about al Qaeda getting its hands on something even nastier than jetliners, and you thought the best solution was pressure on Iraq to the limit of regime change, that’s exactly what you’d do.

Mr. Kennedy complains somewhat mildly, again in comparison with his fellow Democrats, about the administration’s supposed misuse of the war for domestic political advantage. He attributes the administration’s decision to raise the profile of its discussion of Iraq in September 2002 to the desire to aid Republicans in the November congressional elections. “The shift in focus to Iraq could help Republicans and divide Democrats,” he wrote.

That may be, but shouldn’t Democrats have raised some warning flags? Shouldn’t they have warned that the unanimous intelligence reports on WMD might be all wrong? And also warned that after the swift military victory on the ground, which would surely be achieved without the humanitarian emergency and the refugee crisis the administration was wasting its time planning to deal with, we would then surely face a running counterinsurgency? But they didn’t know any of that, and neither did anyone else.

In any event, it’s a bit mysterious why Mr. Bush, hell-bent for war, should hold off bringing up the subject before an election in order not to “divide” his political opponents. And besides, the real problem for Democrats in the 2002 election was not Iraq, but Congress’ failure to finish homeland security legislation. This the Bush White House did effectively exploit.

Mr. Kennedy’s conclusion is this: “If Congress and the American people had known the truth, America would never have gone to war in Iraq.” What he doesn’t say is that if Western intelligence services and the Bush administration had known the truth, we wouldn’t have gone to war. Not that Mr. Kennedy is obliged to grant the administration the benefit of that doubt when, for sufficient reasons of state as well as for political reasons, the administration hasn’t asked for it.