WASHINGTON -- Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas is an old-fashioned conservative and a loyal Republican who happens to be the current chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. That's why his Landon Lecture last week at his alma mater, Kansas State University, is a remarkable document. While benefiting from the most highly classified information, he is expressing the concerns of ordinary conservatives and Republicans.
The lecture paid sincere tribute to George W. Bush for the "courage to act" after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and in this election year Roberts is not sniping at the Republican president. Nevertheless, the former Marine officer from Dodge City, Kan., is blunt in addressing two overriding problems in the war on terror: lack of accountability in the intelligence community and a messianic desire to recast the world in the American image.
These are precisely the concerns I have heard all over the country from people who call themselves Republicans and are distraught about the U.S. adventure in Iraq. They ask questions. Who is responsible for the false forecast of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that was the immediate cause for war? Are we really intent on planting democracy throughout the Arab world? These skeptics are not about to vote for John Kerry for president, but they are very unhappy.
Roberts, unlike the previous Republican Intelligence chairman (Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama), is not calling for CIA Director George Tenet's dismissal. But he showed in his Kansas State lecture that he is concerned about the lack of accountability on two major counts:
"Almost three years after 9/11, no one in the intelligence community has been disciplined, let alone fired. Almost two years since the publication of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that declared Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was reconstituting his nuclear program, no one has been disciplined or fired."
While not mentioning Tenet by name, Roberts nailed the director of Central Intelligence with this telling comment: "Rarely is any intelligence case a 'slam dunk.'" In Bob Woodward's new book "Plan of Attack," Tenet is quoted declaring weapons evidence in Iraq to be a "slam dunk." These are not complaints of a backbencher but the considered statements of a committee chairman whose long committee inquiry is due for completion this week.
Roberts's broader criticism goes beyond intelligence failure to the U.S. mission planting the seeds of democracy on Arab soil. "In fighting the global war against terrorism," he said, "we need to restrain what are growing U.S. messianic instincts -- a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy -- by force, if necessary." While stressing U.S. willingness "to use force unilaterally if necessary," he called it "time for some hard-headed assessment of American interests."
Roberts has the sense of history that the Bush policymakers seem to lack. Dating back to his days as a Marine officer, he has studied the misadventures of Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia in dealing with the same people who are proving so troublesome for the Americans more than 80 years later.
As a loyal Republican and strong Bush supporter, Roberts is torn. His president is under incessant assault from Democrats seeking to leverage the public discontent with Iraq into a general election victory, and for this reason, Roberts comes to Bush's defense. In his Landon Lecture, he suggested "we may transform the world for the better" in fighting the war against terrorism.
But Bush can be faulted for lack of interest in accountability and for succumbing to messianic pretensions of spreading democracy, even though Roberts does not single out the president. The questions remain whether any official ever will pay for the intelligence failures and whether the difficulty of nation building in Iraq is a lesson learned.
Roberts is not alone among Republicans. The GOP's top two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- have their own misgivings. These Midwestern Republicans know their constituents are concerned about what has sent the nation into Iraq and what comes next. But how does George W. Bush adjust to these realities while fighting a shooting war and campaigning for re-election?