Warring on the war

Posted: Nov 05, 2005 12:05 AM

Global warming alert: There was so much hot air floating around in Washington this week that we might want to check and see if temperatures worldwide climbed suddenly. Sadly, though, that additional heat didn’t generate any actual light.

It all began on Nov. 1 when minority leader Harry Reid took to the floor of the Senate to -- what else -- denounce the president. He used the indictment of I. Lewis Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, as a convenient starting point.

“The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really about: how the administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq and attempted to destroy those who dared to challenge its actions,” Reid intoned.

This, of course, ignores the direct statement of Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor who brought the charges against Libby. “This indictment is not about the war. This indictment’s not about the propriety of the war,” Fitzgerald announced on Oct. 28.

That would be clear enough for most of us, but not for Reid. So he generated fireworks by invoking something called Rule 21. The Senate was cleared, the doors locked, the television cameras shut down. All, supposedly, so the senators could discuss the Bush administration’s use of intelligence in the days leading up to the Iraq war.

Reid claimed success. “Finally, after months and months and months of begging, cajoling, writing letters, we’re going to be able to have phase two of the investigation regarding how the intelligence was used to lead us into the intractable war in Iraq,” he announced.

Of course, the Libby case is irrelevant to that discussion. Even if he had been attempting to mislead lawmakers about the war, he wouldn’t have succeeded. Remember that Libby’s been indicted for something he supposedly did in mid-2003. Congress voted to give the president the authority to attack Iraq a good six months earlier, in Oct. 2002. So if Libby had wanted to influence lawmakers, he was a few months late.

As for the “phase two” Reid mentioned, it was coming anyway. “Our staff told the Democrat staff just two days ago that, as of this next week, we are going to finish phase two,” Sen. Pat Roberts, chair of the Intelligence Committee, told CNN. “We hope to get it done before Nov. 14.”

What this is “really about” is politics, not intelligence. Back in 2002, some 29 Senate Democrats voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. The proposal breezed through 77-23. No doubt that some of those Democrats voted the way they did because they believed Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

A lot of us were wrong about WMD. We assumed he had them and was hiding them -- why else would he have spent years obstructing inspectors? And intelligence agencies around the world said Saddam was working on WMD. “Everybody got it wrong,” as Sen. Roberts put it. “It was an assumption train that after the inspectors left, Saddam Hussein would probably reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction. That evidence or that intelligence was wrong.”

Even without WMD, Saddam was no boy scout. “Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who has tortured and killed his own people, even his own family members, to maintain his iron grip on power,” one senator noted in 2002. “He used chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds and on Iranians, killing over 20 thousand people.” That, by the way, was Sen. Hillary Clinton. Other leading Democrats, in the Senate and the Clinton administration, made similar comments between 1998 and 2002.

For his part, Harry Reid voted for the war in Iraq, explaining, “I know this nation would be justified in making war to enforce the terms we imposed on Iraq in 1991, if we have to.” Thus Sen. Reid’s stunt this week was mostly about was changing the subject. “Alito [President Bush’s recent nominee to the Supreme Court] had his day,” a Democratic leadership aide told Dana Milbank of the Washington Post. “We’re going back to our story.” And that story is, apparently, that they were hoodwinked into supporting the war in Iraq.

A month ago it seemed as though a crack-up was coming within the right, since some senators were sure to support Harriet Miers (the president’s first choice for the Supreme Court) and some were sure to oppose her as unqualified.

Now, though, that’s history. In the Senate we seeing global cooling -- at least in the relations between newly united conservatives and newly nervous liberals. “For the next year and a half, I can’t trust Sen. Reid,” announced majority leader Bill Frist.

That’s all to the good. We could use less pretentiousness about “my esteemed colleague” and more robust debate about the future of our country. All stunts aside, that would force both parties to figure out what they stand for and how they’re going to accomplish their goals. As one Democratic senator famously said not so long ago, “Bring it on.”