"By one count, President Bush offered 23 different rationales for this war," John Kerry scoffed last month. Considering that the Kerry campaign claims their man has voted 600 times to cut taxes, there's good reason to doubt the challenger's counting skills. But there's no denying that the Bush administration has offered several different rationales to bolster its case for the Iraq war.
Oh, wait, it can be denied. In fact, it's being denied zealously now that the Iraqi Survey Group has concluded in its final report that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction when we invaded. The president's critics now insist that Bush made only one case for war.
To his critics, it seems, Bush's error is that he offered too many reasons to go to war, except when he offered too few. When the news is that no WMDs have been found, WMDs become Bush's only reason to go to war. Back when the WMD angle had yet to be verified, the problem was that Bush offered too many rationales. Which is it?
Now, receiving as much mail as I do from Bush-haters - rational and irrational - let me anticipate an objection: Bush has offered these various rationales for the war only after it became clear that we weren't going to find WMDs. Every time I write a column about how a democratizing and prospering Iraq is essential for victory in the war on terror, I get a dozen e-mails from anti-Bush readers saying, "If only Bush had made that argument before the war, instead of hinging it all on WMDs, I would believe that he cares about democracy now."
But this is nonsense wrapped in myth inside propaganda. The notion that the invasion of Iraq was justified - and justifiable - solely on the WMD threat is a canard. It's true, the administration did emphasize the WMD issue. But it's also true that the press consistently demanded "one reason" - in Tim Russert's words - to go to war. The WMD case was simply the most compelling one to make. Every allied intelligence agency - including France's and Germany's - was convinced Saddam had WMDs. As were all of the various competing agencies in our own defense-intelligence complex.
When Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair in May 2003 that the administration settled on the WMD issue for bureaucratic reasons, opponents of the war cynically distorted the interview to make it sound like the administration wasn't convinced about the WMD threat. What Wolfowitz was actually saying, very clearly, was that the WMD threat was the most palpable threat - the one that all the professionals could agree on it.
But that doesn't mean that Bush didn't offer numerous other rationales before and after the war. In major speeches he touted the importance of democratizing the Middle East. Administration officials pointed out that Saddam was the only world leader to applaud 9/11, and that he was a major source of funding for suicide bombers in Israel. They argued that removing Saddam would have a positive impact on the peace process. President Bush made a masterful case to the United Nations that, in the post-9/11 world, the world body could not afford to let a dictator - one who had gassed his own people and invaded a neighbor - flout its countless resolutions with impunity.
These rationales don't add up to 23, but who cares if they do? What important decisions have you ever made in your life that have depended on a single variable. We don't buy cars for a single reason. (Oh, it's blue! I'll take it!) Why should we launch a preemptive war for a single reason?
Of course Bush has emphasized other rationales now that we know there were no WMDs. What else is he going to do? Should he say, "Oops," and leave Iraq to disintegrate into civil war, which will plunge the region into chaos? Or should he emphasize the other - completely legitimate and consistent - rationales for this war? If we had found WMDs, Bush would still be fighting to democratize Iraq. That we haven't found them makes that task all the more important.
The fact is that all wars have complex and changing justifications. The bloodiest war in our nation's history was begun as an effort to preserve the American union. The motives behind the Civil War are endlessly debated, but this much is beyond dispute: As the war dragged on - and as a chorus of naysayers bitterly denounced Lincoln's determination - the president resolved to make freedom and individual rights central struggles of the conflict.
Those who scold President Bush for breaking "the rules" - for changing the way he makes his case for a just war - must also explain how Lincoln was wrong. They must explain how the Cold War, begun as an exercise in Realpolitik, did a disservice to those whom it eventually freed from tyranny. I, for one, will be delighted if one day we can see the Iraq war in this grand American tradition of "changing rationales" after the fighting began.