"By one count, President Bush offered 23 different rationales for this war," John Kerry scoffed last month. Considering that the Kerry campaign claims their man has voted 600 times to cut taxes, there's good reason to doubt the challenger's counting skills. But there's no denying that the Bush administration has offered several different rationales to bolster its case for the Iraq war.
Oh, wait, it can be denied. In fact, it's being denied zealously now that the Iraqi Survey Group has concluded in its final report that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction when we invaded. The president's critics now insist that Bush made only one case for war.
To his critics, it seems, Bush's error is that he offered too many reasons to go to war, except when he offered too few. When the news is that no WMDs have been found, WMDs become Bush's only reason to go to war. Back when the WMD angle had yet to be verified, the problem was that Bush offered too many rationales. Which is it?
Now, receiving as much mail as I do from Bush-haters - rational and irrational - let me anticipate an objection: Bush has offered these various rationales for the war only after it became clear that we weren't going to find WMDs. Every time I write a column about how a democratizing and prospering Iraq is essential for victory in the war on terror, I get a dozen e-mails from anti-Bush readers saying, "If only Bush had made that argument before the war, instead of hinging it all on WMDs, I would believe that he cares about democracy now."
But this is nonsense wrapped in myth inside propaganda. The notion that the invasion of Iraq was justified - and justifiable - solely on the WMD threat is a canard. It's true, the administration did emphasize the WMD issue. But it's also true that the press consistently demanded "one reason" - in Tim Russert's words - to go to war. The WMD case was simply the most compelling one to make. Every allied intelligence agency - including France's and Germany's - was convinced Saddam had WMDs. As were all of the various competing agencies in our own defense-intelligence complex.
When Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair in May 2003 that the administration settled on the WMD issue for bureaucratic reasons, opponents of the war cynically distorted the interview to make it sound like the administration wasn't convinced about the WMD threat. What Wolfowitz was actually saying, very clearly, was that the WMD threat was the most palpable threat - the one that all the professionals could agree on it.