The scandal that wasn't

Posted: Jul 18, 2003 12:00 AM

For months, liberal Democrats have been fumbling and stumbling -- attempting to get out from under a huge boulder labeled "soft on defense." Now, they think they've found the key: Transform the nearly flawless liberation of Iraq into a scandal.

"He's going down," sang Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe in reference to the now-famed "Niger" sentence in the president's State of the Union address. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., has called for impeachment hearings. Someone needs to get these fellows some valium.

This must surely be the thinnest excuse for scandal-mongering since Nancy Reagan bought new china for the White House (with private funds). What is the president's supposed gaffe?

Out of a total of 1,080 words in the speech dealing with Iraq, here are the offending ones: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

It seems that the CIA cannot independently confirm this information because the fellow they sent to check it out, Joseph C. Wilson IV, sat "drinking sweet mint tea" with several people in Niger but found no evidence. Wilson may not have tried very hard. As Clifford May documents in National Review Online, Wilson was a vociferous opponent of the war in Iraq, a contributor to the left-wing magazine The Nation and keynote speaker for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a group that opposed not only the war against Saddam but sanctions and the no-fly zones, as well.

OK, but we now know that the report about Iraq seeking uranium from Niger was false, and that makes it a scandal that it appeared in the State of the Union, right? Wrong. The British continue to stand by their intelligence.

So what is all this fulminating about "what did the president know and when did he know it?" Even if this one piece of evidence, a tiny thread on a huge quilt, turns out to have been inaccurate, so what? There was a mountain of other evidence.

This is reminiscent of the jury in the O.J. Simpson case ignoring notebooks full of incriminating evidence because a leather glove failed to slide smoothly onto O.J.'s hand.

Where is their sense of proportion? Oil-rich Iraq was building a nuclear reactor in 1981 when Israel interrupted the effort. After the Gulf War, coalition forces learned that Iraq was much further along in its nuclear program than had been believed before the war. In the 1990s, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iraq had an advanced nuclear weapons program and was working on five different ways to enrich uranium.

Iraq became suddenly friendly with Niger a few years ago. Niger has little to sell, except uranium. Iraq blocked U-2 surveillance flights, coached its scientists on what to say to inspectors and threatened those who might be inclined to tell the truth with death for themselves and their families.

Looking at the evidence as a whole, the Niger story is more likely true than false. The only issue seems to be that the CIA cannot absolutely prove it to be true. But even the Democrats who opposed the war never questioned that Saddam possessed WMDs. In fact, some used their existence as an argument against going forward, urging that a WMD attack against our troops was virtually inevitable.

The truth is that the Democrats, particularly those who would like the nomination for president in 2004, are desperate to discredit the Iraq war and the Bush presidency. At every stage, they have predicted disaster. The Arab street would erupt, thousands of Americans would be killed, Israel would be pulled into the conflict, civilian casualties would be horrendous, oil wells would burn for decades, block by block fighting in Baghdad would demoralize our troops and so on.

While the war was in progress (a lightning war that liberated a nation the size of California in three weeks), the liberal press carped daily that things had gone badly off track. Rumsfeld hadn't sent enough soldiers. The troops were stretched too far from their supply lines. We'd underestimated the Iraqi will to fight. We were in a quagmire.

When it was over and, just as the administration had predicted, the Iraqi people blew horns, threw flowers and danced in the streets, the liberals discovered the Iraqi museum, and wept for the 170,000 looted artifacts. That turned out to be a lie. Now they've found the Niger business.

They cannot forgive President Bush for his success.