Straightforwardness would defuse WMD issue

Posted: Jan 28, 2004 12:00 AM

By now you've no doubt heard that David Kay, America's top WMD bloodhound, has returned from Iraq to declare that Iraq had no significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction immediately prior to the war.

Kay may still turn out to be mistaken; some WMDs or WMD components may have been smuggled out to Lebanon or Syria as some, including Kay, believe. We may find a container buried in the sand somewhere. But even the White House has switched from saying we "will" find WMDs in Iraq to saying "we might."

In other words, if we go by the best information available right now, it appears that George W. Bush was substantively wrong when he told the country that Saddam had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and that Saddam was well on his way to developing a nuclear weapon.

This is a hugely important fact with grave consequences for the United States and the world. Unfortunately, very few of our political leaders seem willing or able to deal with it in a straightforward manner.

The Democrats deeply deranged by anti-Bush fever insist on making the most damning - and implausible - charge possible: that Bush willfully lied to the American people about Iraq.

As I've tried to demonstrate in this space before, the idea that the president lied to the American people hinges on - at least - one almost impossible fact: that George W. Bush knew for a certainty that the intelligence agencies of America, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Australia, as well as the United Nations and countless independent experts were all wrong.

Virtually all of the anti-Bush conspiracy theories - most of which contradict each other - depend on the "Bush lied" thesis. But Bush's critics won't let go of this idea, disqualifying themselves from the deadly serious task of dealing with what went wrong.

"Clearly, the intelligence that we went to war on was inaccurate, wrong," David Kay told Tom Brokaw in an interview. "We need to understand why that was. I think if anyone was abused by the intelligence it was the president of the United States rather than the other way around."

For one reason or another - politics and pride no doubt chief among them - the administration refuses to lend credence to this alternative explanation of events. Just this week, while meeting with the president of Poland, George Bush responded to Kay's comments by saying he still has "great confidence" in the intelligence community.

That's awfully compassionate of him, but if what Kay says is true then Bush most emphatically should not have great confidence in the CIA and other intelligence agencies that seem to get things continually wrong.

Remember in 1991 the agencies were stunned to discover how advanced Iraq's nuclear program was. Just in the last year, they were shocked by how advanced Iran and Libya's nuclear and/or WMD programs are. This isn't the sort of stuff we can afford to be getting wrong these days. People need to be fired.

Now I can sympathize with the White House and Congressional Republicans. The prospect of an investigation into why the intelligence was so wrong would no doubt be a carnival of political grandstanding in an election year. Why invite that kind of chaos when you don't have to? Answer: Because it's the right thing for America. And just because a bunch of self-serving presidential wannabes are for it, doesn't mean you have to be against it.

Meanwhile, the president's most shrill critics should keep in mind that if they don't make a constructive effort to get our intelligence agencies in order the two most likely consequences will be 1) a horrendous WMD attack on the United States and/or 2) another Iraq-style war.

The potential for scenario No. 1 is obvious. If we don't have the ability to reliably spot threats on the horizon, those threats will sail right over the horizon - and into our laps. The possibility for another war should be clear as well. If we're not sure about the threat from an Iran or North Korea, many Americans would rather err on the side thwarting it on their turf than absorbing it on ours.

Indeed, those are just some of the points Bush should be making in his defense. In the post-9/11 world, when the Iraq sanctions regime was falling apart, President Bush had two basic options: put his faith and trust in his own and his allies' intelligence agencies or in the promises of a truly warmongering madman who'd twice before pursued nuclear weapons and used other WMDs on his own people. Maybe Karl Rove doesn't think so, but I think that Bush made the winning, and right, choice.

For the record, I never considered the WMD issue to be that critical to the case for toppling Saddam. President Bush, however, did. Running away from it will only strengthen the resolve of his critics and weaken the country in the process.