Sen. Ted Kennedy gave another one of his angry speeches this week. With all the gravitas he could muster, he recycled his standard complaint: that the Iraq war was never really about WMDs or the war on terror. It was a "political product" from "Day 1" of the president's administration.
This echoes Kennedy's earlier diatribes, like last fall when he said, "Before the war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie."
Personally, I think Kennedy's an embarrassment to his party. But that doesn't change the fact that he's taken seriously or that he speaks for a large constituency. So let's try to deal with the "Kennedy School's" view of the Iraq war.
First let me admit that I think the failure to find significant evidence of weapons of mass destruction easily constitutes one of the greatest intelligence blunders since Pearl Harbor. There's still a chance we'll find something. But if we do, it will probably be too little, too late to change this basic assessment.
Critics of the Bush Administration are probably cheering, "Finally! Goldberg's stopped drinking the White House's Kool-Aid!"
But hold on. To argue that this was a huge intelligence blunder is to largely let George Bush off the hook for the even-more-popular Bush critique: that he lied to the American people about Iraq.
For Bush to have lied, he had to have known that there were no WMDs, right? It's not a lie unless you know the truth. If you say something you think is true that later turns out to be false, we don't call that a "lie," we call that a "mistake."
You could look it up.
This vital distinction seems to be lost on many smart people. For example, the online magazine Slate has been hosting an interesting discussion among the most respected and prominent liberals who supported the Iraq war. The question before them, more or less, is whether they regret it. Some do. Some don't. Most hold positions awash in shades of gray.
One of those is Kenneth Pollack, the former Clinton NSC staffer and author of the hugely influential book, "The Threatening Storm." Pollack's book was the most coherent and sustained case for the war from any quarter. Slate's round-robin is timed to coincide with a must-read cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic in which Pollack tries to figure out where he - and we - went wrong on WMDs.
Anyway, Pollack tells Slate, "If I had to write 'The Threatening Storm' over again I certainly would not have been so unequivocal that war was going to be a necessity."
In response, George Packer, a prominent liberal hawk, says, "Ken Pollack should be congratulated: How many leading voices on this issue have subjected themselves to such honest criticism? What he got wrong he got wrong because the intelligence was mistaken. What the administration got wrong it got wrong because it didn't care about the intelligence."
This encapsulates pretty much everything that's wrong with even the White House's most respected critics: a nearly total inability to consider the possibility that this administration operated in good faith.
Packer says Pollack's mistake was based on the best intelligence available; however, Bush & Co are a bunch of bloodthirsty ideologues or greedy liars or both.
Unfortunately, there are too many anti-Bush slanders out there to count, let alone debunk, but they are all premised on the "fact" that Bush lied.
But nobody has made a remotely persuasive case that Bush lied. The German, Russian, French, Israeli, British, Chinese and U.S. governments all agreed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The German assessment was even more dire than our own. They were convinced Saddam would have a nuclear weapon by 2005.
Bill Clinton and his entire administration believed Saddam had WMDs. In 2002 Robert Einhorn, Clinton's point man on WMDs, testified to Congress, "Today, or at most within a few months, Iraq could launch missile attacks with chemical or biological weapons against its neighbors" including our 100,000 troops in Saudi Arabia.
The threat - chemical, biological and nuclear - against U.S. territory proper was only a few years away, according to Einhorn. Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder: all of these people believed Iraq had major stockpiles of WMDs.
Were they all "liars" like President Bush? No? Why not?
You can't have it both ways. You can't say Bush lied while others who said the same thing were being honest. The White House was operating with fundamentally identical information to that of Clinton, Pollack and Einhorn. What was different was that this White House needed to deal with the post-9/11 world.
Maybe that clouded Bush's judgment - or opened his eyes. Let's have that argument. I certainly believe mistakes were made (though I still believe the war was right and just). But if you start from Kennedy's premise that the WMD thing was made up, I can't take you seriously.