Whose credibility gap?

Posted: Jul 21, 2003 12:00 AM

So awfully nice to know, as the media and certain Democratic presidential candidates would have us believe, that Saddam Hussein never, ever tried to buy uranium in Africa. The claim to the contrary -- specifically, that the British government learned the now-deposed Iraqi dictator sought uranium in Africa -- first came to public attention during the last State of the Union address. It was one point among many bolstering the president's case to use force to disarm the maniacal dictator, who, if memory serves me, was still using a decade's worth of United Nations disarmament orders to line his favorite camel's stable stall.

But now the word -- make that, The Word -- is that the sentence about uranium in the president's 4,000-plus word speech was "false intelligence," as ABC's Claire Shipman put it, and "wrong," according to NBC's Brian Williams. "The president campaigned for the job, in part, on the notion that he was the anti-Clinton, a man who said what he meant and meant what he said, no sentence parsing needed," said CNN's Aaron Brown, opining about the president's uranium statement. "Square that with today and critics who say you've got a bonanza for sentence parsers and at least the makings of a credibility gap."

A bonanza for sentence parsers? The makings of a credibility gap? Never mind that both Tony Blair and Jack Straw adamantly vouch for the uranium claim -- insisting that British intelligence relied on secret information independent of now-discredited forgeries. And never mind that the U.S. government hasn't denied the British claim, but rather has been unable to corroborate it.

The fact is, the American media have summarily condemned the single sentence about uranium as a "hoax," as New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof put it, and "part of a broad pattern of politicized, corrupted intelligence," according to his colleague Paul Krugman -- who, not incidentally, went on to do a little politicizing and corrupting of his own by inflating the original claim that Saddam Hussein had merely "sought" uranium (a verb that conveys a built-in sense of failure) into "the case of the bogus uranium purchases."

Bought, sought or nought, I confess that African uranium and Iraq never inserted itself, ore-like, into my own memory deposits. As I listened to State of the Union in January, I was more concerned with such facts as that the International Atomic Energy Agency had, as President Bush put it, "confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb." Also more memorable was Mr. Bush's reference to mounting evidence that Iraq, once upon a time home to arch-Palestinian terrorists Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas, had a soft spot for Islamic terrorists, including Al Qaeda -- a reference made vivid by subsequent reports about Jordanian Abu Murab Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda chemical expert believed to have fled Afghanistan in 2002 to receive urgently needed medical attention in Iraq.

Which could be why reports about the president's citation of the British uranium story haven't led me to question whether we have again met "the standard of impeachment" -- as Democratic presidential candidate Bob Graham rather grotesquely worried in a recent speech. Nor would I demand that some assortment of unnamed administration officials ("they know who they are") resign, as Democratic candidate Howard Dean has already done. After all, war was made on Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to heed international pressure to disarm his arsenal of mass destruction -- an arsenal that not only the Bush administration concluded it possessed, but, as the Washington Post editorial page recently noted, "the Clinton administration, as well as every major Western intelligence service" did as well. In an era in which Iraq's interests and capacities were converging with those of anti-Western Islamist terrorists, such disarmament was reason enough for war.

All of which is to say that whether Saddam Hussein did or did not seek uranium in Africa, war would still have been the answer. Had Bush officials deleted all 16 words of the uranium reference from the president's speech, the history of the invasion would probably read no differently. As former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer explained, whether Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa, "it doesn't change the fact that they were seeking to reconstitute a nuclear program." Meanwhile, unless British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his foreign minister, Jack Straw, have decided to sign off on a lie, the British uranium claim is actually for real.

So much for the makings of the credibility gap the Aaron Browns and Howard Deans see forming -- unless, of course, the credibility gap they talk about is the one that swallows up their own reputations.