"Bush lied" is still gospel for Bush critics, even though it has become such a tattered article of faith that it is near total disintegration. The faithful want to believe that President Bush made up his charges about Saddam Hussein's WMD capabilities in order to "mislead" the country into war. The latest shredding of this argument comes courtesy of Gen. Tommy Franks' new book, "American Soldier."
Perhaps the true believers should amplify their charge to "Franks lied," since he believed exactly the same thing about Saddam as the president. Actually, to be consistent, the charge would also have to be "important Arab leaders lied" -- indeed, "most everyone with some knowledge of Saddam's regime lied," in a conspiracy so vast it included war skeptics and everyone up and down the chain of command of the American military.
Franks recounts a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in January 2003. Abdullah told Franks, "General, from reliable intelligence sources, I believe the Iraqis are hiding chemical and biological weapons." Perhaps Abdullah, an opponent of Saddam, wanted to bait us into invading Iraq -- and so presumably "Abdullah lied."
Franks, however, heard the same thing from skeptics about the U.S. policy of toppling Saddam. Days later Franks met with Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt. Mubarak said: "Gen. Franks, you must be very, very careful. We have spoken with Saddam Hussein. He is a madman. He has WMD -- biologicals, actually -- and he will use them on your troops."
Mubarak's warning illustrates how Saddam's alleged possession of WMD could be taken not just as a reason for action, but as a caution against it. Even though he supported it, Franks worried that the initial U.S. strike against what was thought to be the compound where Saddam and his sons were staying would precipitate a retaliatory WMD strike. "We had been receiving," Franks writes, "increasingly urgent intelligence reporting that Republican Guard units in Baghdad had moved south to the city of Al Kut -- and that they had been issued mustard gas and an unknown nerve agent." Franks put U.S. forces in Kuwait on high alert.
Ah, but perhaps the high alert was part of the ruse? If so, it was an astoundingly elaborate one. Saddam's potential use of WMD haunted Franks during the entire military operation. In their march into Iraq, U.S. Marines discovered Iraqi chemical-biological protection suits and field-syringe injectors filled with a nerve-gas antidote. The "Marines lied?" Brig. Gen. Jeff Kimmons, Franks' intelligence director, told him that one communications intercept from a Republican Guard commander "may be the authorization order to begin using WMD." "Kimmons lied?" In the middle of this blizzard of deception was Tommy Franks. "I didn't know on April 2 when our forces would be hit by chemicals or biologicals," he writes, "but I was certain it would be soon."
This fear of WMD influenced Franks' military planning. It prompted him to emphasize speed: Intelligence said Saddam's "troops arrayed around Baghdad were holding WMD, and we could expect them to use those weapons as we closed the noose on the capital -- unless we got there before the Iraqis were ready." Franks didn't mass 500,000 troops on Saddam's border in a rerun of the first U.S. war on Saddam, partly because he feared such troop concentrations in Kuwait would be vulnerable to WMD. If Franks distorted his military plan around a lie -- as the "Bush lied" true believers must think -- he shouldn't have retired with high praise, but been court-martialed.
The real liar in all this, of course, is Saddam Hussein, who didn't come clean about his weapons programs in what was likely an effort at strategic deception to cow his opponents at home and deter his enemies abroad. Any moral opprobrium about the Iraq War should attach to him, not the men who tried their best to deal responsibly with him and his regime -- even if one of those men happens to be a Republican president of the United States.