Sunday, November 06, 2005

Harry Reid’s hindsight

Harry Reid can shut down the Senate, demanding that the Senate pursue the investigation that it began in the summer of 2003 into the quality and use of pre-war intelligence, but he cannot absolve the Democrats in the Senate for their responsibility for their votes for war. A Senator’s job, along with its six-year tenure and great perks, sometimes demands votes of courage. Not often, but sometimes, a Senator has to make tough votes, and for those they should be held accountable.

Reid’s action suggests that the wool was pulled over his eyes when he voted for the Iraq war resolution in October 2002. However, a cursory look at the history suggests that it is not that simple. There have been many times in our history as a nation when Senators have become swept up in the events of the day and failed to stand up, times when they would look back and see actions that they took that they would change if they could. While the Iraq intelligence on WMD turned out to be wrong, the WMD intelligence failure can neither explain nor condone his vote that day.

The Bush administration came into office with the desire to remove Saddam Hussein from power. No credible observer can suggest otherwise, and Republicans are quick to point out that regime change was the policy of the Clinton administration and of the Senate itself which in 1998 approved the Iraq Liberation Act by unanimous consent.

Within the Bush administration, two factions had differing agendas with respect to Iraq, but they both wanted to finish the job left undone by Bush’s father. For the old school hawks, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, it was unacceptable to let Saddam control the second largest oil reserves in the world. More to the point, the Middle East is a rough neighborhood, and they believed that a good ass-kicking would put everyone on notice that the Clinton years were over, that America was back.

The neocons, on the other hand, were driven by grander notions of building a new, democratic order in the Middle East. As Paul Wolfowitz suggested in Vanity Fair magazine, their central concern was Saddam’s criminal treatment of the Iraqi people and the instability that he created in the region. However, he recognized that the American people would not condone sacrificing American lives without a more urgent threat to the homeland.

The 9/11 provided the rationale for going to war for both camps. President Bush has repeatedly articulated his view that even with 20-20 hindsight, he would have pursued the same war policy for the simple reason that leaving Saddam in power in the post-9/11 world was unacceptable. Why removing Saddam in the absence of an imminent threat was an imperative, while comparably odious regimes in Syria, Libya and North Korea could be left alone is never explained.

So there it is. We know now what we knew then, that the administration was committed to a policy of regime change, by military means if necessary––or preferably in some views.

The selling of the war was artfully done. It rested on three key arguments that extended beyond WMD, which when linked together suggested a credible and imminent threat to the homeland. First, Saddam was developing nuclear weapons. Second, he was linked to al Qaeda. Third, that he was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

Vice President Cheney was the principal salesman for these arguments, the first two by direct suggestion and the third by nuanced innuendo. The President and the Vice President played an elegant pas-de-deux on this subject, where the Vice President would make the positive assertion, the President would deny the direct connection––"We have had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th"––and the Vice President would reiterate his statement––Iraq was the “geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.” The success of this strategy was evident in the fact that by the time the war was underway, 70% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. To this day, the administration denies that this is the case and denies that they made that argument.

But where does this leave Harry Reid? The drumbeats for war were powerful. By the time of the Senate vote, support for the war was a test of fealty to the nation, a litmus test of patriotism. As John Kerry made clear, Democratic Senators voted for the war in part to maintain their credibility on national security matters. But they did not cast that vote in ignorance.

The National Intelligence Estimate provided by the CIA in advance of the Iraq war resolution laid out a highly ambivalent view of the situation. Even as that document was the basis for the case for war, it also left significant open questions. First, while it suggested that Iraq was continuing its WMD program contrary to UN resolutions, it stated that it could not “detect” portions of this weapons program and was relying on third party intelligence. Second, its suggestions that Iraq was embarking on a nuclear weapons program was flatly contradicted by the Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research in the report, who argued that the claims of a nuclear program in process were “highly dubious.” Finally, the NIE concluded that it had little confidence that Saddam would use WMD, that he would engage in attacks against the US homeland, or that he would share WMD with al Qaeda.

Did the CIA spin the intelligence? Perhaps. Did the administration cherry pick the arguments to make the case for war? Without question. Was the administration’s support of war predicated on the NIE? Absolutely not, as evidenced by the frank statements of the President and Vice President that if they had to do it again, they would. After Saddam fell, and no WMD were to be found, Condaleeza Rice continued to assert the party line––"Let us be very clear about why we went to war against Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein's regime posed a threat to the security of the United States and the world"––notwithstanding the fact that the NIE on which administration action was presumably based suggested otherwise.

But Harry Reid wants to claim that he was duped, that he was sold on the war due to manipulated intelligence. That may be a way of getting Democrats in the Senate off the hook, but it is not a fair assessment of the history. The decision to go to war was a judgment made by the administration. They believed in unilateralism and had no interest in UN concurrence. In the face of a powerful and emotionally charged sales job, Harry Reid and the Democrats failed put the facts as they were known on the table and cast their vote based upon those facts.

Was there evidence that Saddam was a conspirator in attacking the United States? No.

Did American intelligence believe he had the capacity or intention of attacking the United States homeland? No.

Did American allies in the region––Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey––support an invasion of Iraq? No.

Did Iraq constitute a clear and present danger that could be confronted in no other way? This was the crux of the argument.

For the hawks, a war was necessary to restore American credibility. For the neocons, it was an opportunity to undermine a dictator and promote democracy.

On the other hand, for the conservative realists, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft and Bush’s father, a discretionary war was utter folly, but they had no vote.

But the question is, what was it for Harry Reid? He had a vote, and it was his decision to make. The world is a rough place, and for a US Senator to claim he was duped just won’t fly. The evidence just doesn’t support it.

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