When history repeats itself

Posted: Jul 25, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- About the time two of the world's most repulsive bullies were being handed over to Allah with the compliments of the 101st Airborne, another of the Democrats' hapless presidential contenders endeavored to demonstrate his foreign policy perspicacity.

Addressing the Bar Association of San Francisco, the Hon. Richard A. Gephardt, derided the Bush administration for its "chest-beating unilateralism." "Foreign policy," he pronounced, "isn't a John Wayne movie, where we catch the bad guys, hoist a few cold ones and then everything fades to black." He droned on about President George W. Bush's "utter disregard for diplomacy." Meanwhile, the news was that Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay (known to contemporary wags as Ebay and Amway), had been cornered and dispatched John-Wayne style.

Gephardt's ill-timed outburst has its historical parallel. On Dec. 7, 1941, just as the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor, an anti-war senator rose up to address a huge meeting at Pittsburgh's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. Speaking to the isolationist America First Committee, Sen. Gerald P. Nye savaged President Franklin D. Roosevelt for creating hostile relations with Japan and siding with the British, whom he called cowards, unwilling to endure casualties. Halfway through his speech, Nye was informed that the Japanese had an hour before announced "a state of war between it and the United States and Great Britain." Unfazed, Nye simply rattled on against Roosevelt. When asked afterward about the Japanese declaration, Nye responded, "It sounds terribly fishy to me."

Increasingly, the actions taken by the Bush administration in the war on terror sound "terribly fishy" to partisan Democrats and to their friends in the media. The critics are particularly suspicious of the White House's use of intelligence.

The media's inflamed stories show once again their lack of proportion and, for that matter, memory. They also show that so pathetic is the condition of many Democrats they will exploit American foreign policy for their own partisan gain. On the face of it, the stories that Washington and London doctored intelligence estimates are preposterous. Who can believe that the Bush administration made false claims about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction to justify sending in an army that would inevitably find there were no weapons of mass destruction? Who can believe that the administration would confect a scheme that was bound to be exposed?

Apparently, Dr. Howard Dean believes it. So, apparently, do some of the other born blanks now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. But then, they also believe that President George W. Bush is as stupid as President Ronald Reagan. Yes, Reagan too was accused of putting intelligence to political purposes, namely to end the Cold War. So, Bush mobilized the nation to send in an army to find weapons that he knew were not there. Apparently, Dr. Howard Dean believes that Bush expected the American people not to care if the weapons were not discovered. Is the Hon. Gephardt this far out?

The campaigning Democrats underestimate not only the president but also the American people. The story that Bush doctored intelligence estimates is another of those news stories that we call a Black Cat News Story. A Black Cat News Story is a shocking new story that crosses a politician's path supposedly to jinx his career forever. It is almost always a story without substance, but through constant fortissimo repetition, it hexes the politician.

It is also a story that pleases partisan opposition. The story puts me in mind of the horror stories created after Pearl Harbor by the likes of Sen. Nye. According to these fantasies, President Roosevelt left the Pacific fleet vulnerable to Japanese attack so that he could join the British in World War II. Historians found that this story, like the Black Cat News Story now being used against the Bush administration, was without substance. Nonetheless, cranks still believe it, and those who believe President Bush knowingly relied on false intelligence to send hundreds of thousands of pilots, sailors and soldiers halfway around the world on a false mission are cranks.

Intelligence estimates are rarely totally factual. They always contain error. That is the nature of intelligence. We shall not know what happened to Hussein's weapons of mass destruction for a long time. We do know that he had the grisly stuff and that he used it on Iranians and on his own people. We have evidence right now that he possessed contraband weaponry. The United Nations arms inspectors even admit it. The burning question raised now is precisely what the American and British intelligence community developed as unassailable fact. It is an ignorant question.

The distinguished British historian Paul Johnson avers that intelligence information is always shaky. "One never gets to the bottom of such estimates," he tells me from his London library. "It includes assertions and counter assertions" from one intelligence bureaucracy to another. "Reading intelligence reports is like reading a detective novel containing no final chapter. All you can do is weigh intelligence reports and guess. You can never be absolutely certain that the reports are completely sound."

Of course, Johnson is right. Yet we certainly have enough information even now to recognize that our overthrow of Hussein was justified. All the cranks are achieving is the discrediting of a thoroughly admirable effort. The Bush administration acted properly with the support of a prudent citizenry. Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose politics I generally oppose, acted heroically without much support at home. He is the first politician I have seen in years who carried out the dictates of his conscience to the peril of his political career. His achievement will be honored by history.