The 'Bush lied' crowd is way off base

Michael Barone

6/7/2004 12:00:00 AM - Michael Barone

 As the interim Iraqi government takes office, it is worth looking back, with the help of two recently published books, at the arguments on whether the United States should have taken military action to remove Saddam Hussein.
The "BUSH LIED" crowd keeps trumpeting that we have found no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (We did find sarin in one shell lobbed at occupation forces.) But Bob Woodward in "Plan of Attack" informs us that George Tenet, who announced his resignation as CIA director on June 3, told George W. Bush that the case for Iraqi possession of WMDs was a "slam dunk." That was the conclusion as well of every other competent intelligence agency in the world.

 Tenet was right. Given that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction, indeed was developing nuclear weapons before the 1991 Gulf War, and given that Saddam's regime had not accounted for WMDs he had possessed, any prudent intelligence agency would have to have concluded that he still had them. Moreover, there was no evidence that could have been obtained which would have convinced a prudent intelligence agency that Saddam did not possess them. This argument wasn't made in the run-up to the war because Colin Powell and Tony Blair convinced George W. Bush to agree to a round of United Nations inspections. But the U.N. inspectors couldn't prove that Saddam didn't have WMDs. Given his past behavior, we had no basis for concluding he didn't.

 And we had no way of being sure that he would not arm Al Qaeda with them. That is the conclusion of Stephen Hayes's "The Connection: How Al Qaeda's Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America." It is conventional wisdom around Washington, retailed by Richard Clarke, Sen. Carl Levin and Newsweek. But, as Hayes demonstrates, this conventional wisdom is wrong.

 As George Tenet testified in October 2002, there were contacts going back to the early 1990s between agents of Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Clarke, when he served in the Clinton administration, said the same thing, as did many others in the Clinton administration. Czech officials believe that Sept. 11 hijacker Muhammad Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in August 2001. Hayes also reveals that in January 2000 Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, acting under orders from Iraqi intelligence, accompanied two of the Sept. 11 hijackers to a meeting in Malaysia that the CIA has concluded was a planning session for the assault on the U.S.S. Cole and the Sept. 11 attacks.

 As Hayes is careful to note, some of the evidence of Iraq-Al Qaeda ties is questionable. Intelligence evidence often is. But it is interesting that many who criticize Bush for not "connecting the dots" before Sept. 11 are also criticizing those who connect the dots on Iraq-Al Qaeda ties. These critics seem to believe that Saddam Hussein's regime should have been considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But foreign policy is not bound by the rules of a criminal court, and Saddam's previous behavior entitled us to regard him as guilty until proven innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.

 So put yourself in the position of George W. Bush in late 2002 and early 2003. You must assume that Hussein has or can produce weapons of mass destruction. And you know that Iraqi agents have met with Al Qaeda operatives. You know that both Iraq and Al Qaeda want to inflict maximum damage on the United States. You have had great success in eliminating Al Qaeda operatives, but you know that you haven't got them all. So the only way to protect the United States is to eliminate the regime of Saddam Hussein. It was, as Hayes said at an American Enterprise Institute panel last week, a "no brainer."

 It is interesting to ponder what those who continue to insist that "BUSH LIED" and that there was no danger from collusion between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein would have said if Bill Clinton had done what George W. Bush did in Iraq -- which is consistent with much of Clinton's rhetoric. Almost certainly they would have agreed, as some of them did in the Clinton years, that there was a danger from Iraqi WMDs and Iraqi collaboration with Al Qaeda. That they take the opposite view now is evidence not that they are right but that they are filled with partisan venom.