Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill had barely cleared his throat for his "60 Minutes" interview Sunday night before the "gotcha" e-mail started filling my mailbox.
Anti-war constituents apparently felt vindicated by O'Neill's assertion that President Bush was mapping out strategies for ousting Saddam Hussein soon after taking office and months before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," said O'Neill.
I gathered from the electronic deluge that I was supposed to be shocked by this revelation and writhe like a salted slug in self-contempt and shame for supporting the war in Iraq. To think: Bush knew all along that Saddam was a bad person and wanted to get rid of him.
Also interviewed on the show was Ron Suskind, whose new book "The Price of Loyality: George W. Bush, The White House, and The Education of Paul O'Neill," relies heavily on O'Neill's testimony as well as documentation O'Neill spirited from the White House when he was fired in December 2002.
Suskind said that Saddam was topic "A" for the Bush administration. "From the very first instance, it was about Iraq. It was about what we can do to change this regime."
And his point would be?
The question isn't how could Bush have been so focused on Saddam, but how could he not be? Getting rid of Saddam had been U.S. policy for years and was ratified not by Sept. 11, but by the "Iraq Liberation Act of 1998," which President Clinton signed into law on Oct. 31, 1998.
The Act was predicated upon Saddam's ignoble career highlights, which, briefly summarized, include the:
- 1980 invasion of Iran.
- 1988 relocation and murder of between 50,000 and 180,000 Kurdish civilians.
- 1988 use of chemical weapons against another 5,000 Kurds.
- 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
- 1993 attempted assassination of former President George Bush.
- 1994 posting of 80,000 troops near Kuwait, posing a threat of renewed invasion or attack.
- 1996 beginning of trend to deny weapons inspectors access to facilities and documents as required by the United Nations.
Call me zany, but I'm inclined at this point to stipulate that Saddam Hussein was, indeed, "a bad person." The U.S. policy that evolved from that understanding - that he needed to go - was articulated in the act as follows :
"It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime."
Clinton's focus was on helping Iraqis overturn Saddam rather than on invading Iraq, but that's where Sept. 11 becomes a factor. Simply put, Sept. 11 underscored our vulnerability and the reality that the United States could no longer afford a wait-and-see attitude in an environment of global terrorism. Strategically, the Bush Doctrine is working.
One day Saddam is crawling out of a spider hole, and shortly thereafter Libya's Col. Gadhafi is inviting inspectors over for tea. For a complete list of ripple effects, read William Safire's Jan. 12 column in The New York Times.
And though Bush gets credit for toppling the Iraqi dictator, using force against Iraq as a pre-emptive measure wasn't a new policy. The purpose of Clinton's 1998 Operation Desert Fox was to force Saddam to comply with weapons inspections and to thwart his continuing to develop WMD.
"Mark my words," Clinton said on the eve of the 1998 bombing. "(Saddam) will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them and he will use them."
Clinton subsequently came under fire from congressional leaders for allowing U.S. policy toward Iraq to "drift." In a letter dated Aug. 11, 1999, several congressmen, including Democratic presidential contender Sen. Joseph Lieberman, wrote:
"There is considerable evidence that Iraq continues to seek to develop and acquire weapons of mass destruction. The whole point of Operation Desert Fox was that we could not afford to wait until Saddam reconstituted his WMD capabilities."
In other words, concern about Saddam's unconventional weapons program was consistent and serious long before Bush reached office. As it turns out, we may have been wrong about those programs based on flawed intelligence, but belief in those programs preceded Bush's inauguration.
For Bush not to have looked for ways to oust Saddam or a plan for a post-Saddam Iraq in our new connect-the-dots world would have seemed negligent to irresponsible.