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Debacle in Iraq
A spate of recent books and articles shows that all this could have been prevented — from the dishonest rationale for war to the arrogant, incompetent occupation

FOUR MONTHS AGO, Florida Today, a midsize Gannett paper that serves Brevard County, published a startling piece of information. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said that the previous fall, during the run-up to the congressional vote authorizing force to remove Saddam Hussein from power, an administration official secretly told about 75 senators that Iraq was capable of attacking the United States with airborne poisons.

"Nelson said the senators were told Iraq had both biological and chemical weapons, notably anthrax, and it could deliver them to cities along the Eastern seaboard via unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones," wrote staff reporter John McCarthy. The article added that Nelson — who ultimately voted in favor of the authorization (and who wouldn’t under those circumstances?) — declined to reveal the identity of the administration official who gave the classified briefing.

Nelson dropped this bombshell during what McCarthy described as a half-hour conference call with reporters. Yet McCarthy was apparently the only one who chose to write about it. Nor was McCarthy’s story picked up nationally; a search of LexisNexis suggests that it fell into a black hole. I hadn’t heard of it until last week, when I read John Dean’s new book, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush (Little, Brown). Dean mentions the story on page 141, and cites McCarthy’s article in the footnotes. I found a copy of it via Google on a Web site aptly called "Unknown News."

The revelation that the White House had sought to terrify senators with phony warnings about unmanned airplanes spraying anthrax along the East Coast should have been a major story, needless to say. Certainly it helps explain why Congress voted so overwhelmingly to allow George W. Bush to go to war. As Dean writes, "It was a frightening prospect for legislators whose offices had been closed down with less than half a thimble of anthrax spores. It was also totally false."

The anthrax-bearing-drone story has particular resonance right now. A little more than a year after the US and Britain invaded Iraq, coalition forces find themselves beset by a two-front war in a country where they were supposed to be welcomed — as Vice-President Dick Cheney once explained to Meet the Press host Tim Russert — "as liberators." In Fallujah, the US is fighting what are generally described as a combination of Sunni Muslims and loyalists of Saddam Hussein. In Shiite Muslim areas such as the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, the Americans are up against supporters of a radical cleric named Moqtada Sadr.

As of early this week, a fragile cease-fire appeared to be holding in Fallujah. Moderate Shiite clerics have intervened to defuse the confrontation with Sadr. But it is increasingly obvious that the Bush administration’s grand Iraqi experiment has gone badly astray. There are no weapons of mass destruction. There were no ties to Al Qaeda, although there almost certainly are today, now that we’ve plunged the country into chaos. And the vision of transforming Iraq into a decent, democratic island of stability has given way to the mute testimony of those American contract workers, killed, burned, and suspended from a bridge in Fallujah, while men and young boys danced and celebrated for the cameras (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, April 9).

Every war has its bad moments, of course, and Iraq could still turn out all right, as hopeless as it might seem today, two and a half months before for transferring sovereignty to the Iraqis. We’d better hope so: American and Iraqi lives depend on it, as do the future of the Middle East and our relations with the Muslim world. Yet it is now blindingly obvious, if it wasn’t before, that this war was a tragic mistake.

If 2003 was the year of the Bush-bashing manifesto, defined by books such as Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men (first published in 2001), and Joe Conason’s Big Lies, 2004 is emerging as the year of the big-think, insider takedown of Bush. In addition to Dean, who was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel (and who did a stint in prison for his role in Watergate), there is Hans Blix, head of the UN weapons-inspection team, whose Disarming Iraq (Pantheon) is a calmly rendered indictment of Bush and Cheney’s lust for war; Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism adviser to three presidents, including Bush, whose Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (Free Press) shows that the White House’s obsession with Iraq may have led officials to overlook the threat from Al Qaeda; and Ron Suskind, a journalist who tells the story of Bush’s first treasury secretary in The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill (Simon & Schuster), which reveals that Cheney was openly talking about taking down Saddam less than two weeks after taking office.

It’s too late to undo the war in Iraq. But it’s not too late to start asking what went wrong, and demanding answers.

AT THE OUTSET of Worse Than Watergate, Dean says that his goal is to write a "polemic." Yet much of what he offers falls flat: Bush’s insider trading of Harken stock (and Cheney’s of Halliburton stock), the contemptible and largely successful efforts to drop a veil of secrecy over their administration, and Cheney’s lies and stonewalling over his heart problems. None of this reflects well on Bush and Cheney, of course, but since these charges have not resonated with the broader public in the past, it seems unlikely that they will now.

Thus it is the Bush-Cheney White House’s pathological desire to go to war with Iraq that is the most powerful part of Worse Than Watergate. The Bill Nelson revelation is offered almost as an aside. The heart of Dean’s argument is that the congressional authorization — far from being the "blank check" that war critics such as former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean have claimed — actually had some stringent and important conditions attached to it, and that Bush simply cast them aside.

According to John Dean, the resolution required Bush to certify that diplomacy had failed, and that there was no longer any way other than war to resolve the "continuing threat" posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Bush also had to certify that war against Iraq was consistent with the ongoing struggle against terrorism, specifically "the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." Needless to say, it was Bush who walked away from the diplomatic efforts that the UN was still engaged in over Iraq’s alleged WMD. As for ties between Iraq and the terrorists of 9/11, there weren’t any, despite Bush and Cheney’s numerous insinuations to the contrary.

So how did Bush get around these conditions? The tack he took was so cynical that Dean seems scarcely able to believe it. Included in the original authorization were a few "whereas" clauses specifying that Iraq had WMD and ties to international terrorism; the language had been inserted at the suggestion of the White House. Then, when the time came for Bush to certify that the conditions for war had been met, he simply regurgitated that same language. "Bush, like a dog chasing his tail who gets ahold of it, relied on information the White House provided Congress for its draft resolution; then he turned around and claimed that this information (his information) came from Congress," Dean writes incredulously.

Nor does Dean overlook such lowlights as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s disingenuous WMD presentation to the UN, and the White House’s blowing the cover of CIA operative Valerie Plame to punish her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who’d gone public with his view that the administration knew its claim that Iraq had attempted to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger was probably false. This, Dean argues, was worse than Nixon’s persecution of those on his so-called enemies’ list, "because it was immediately life-threatening and damaging to national security."

Bush’s ongoing lies about Iraq’s WMD capabilities and ties to Al Qaeda, Dean asserts, constitute an attempt to deceive Congress — an "impeachable offense." He notes that Nixon, already impeached for the Watergate cover-up, barely avoided yet another article of impeachment over his extending the Vietnam War into Cambodia, and got off the hook only when it came out that he had secretly informed a few key congressional leaders. Dean quotes James Iredell, a future Supreme Court justice, speaking at the Constitutional Convention of 1787: "The president must surely be punishable for giving false information to the Senate." Not anymore, apparently.

Measured against Dean’s self-described "polemic," Hans Blix’s Disarming Iraq is nuanced and understated. Blix emphasizes a point that is all too often overlooked: he, too, believed that Iraq was harboring WMD, mainly because Iraqi officials had failed to account for the weapons they were known to have possessed in the early ’90s. But the Iraqis were cooperating, fitfully, with the inspections process in late 2002 and early 2003; and Blix was confident that recalcitrant Security Council members, even France, would eventually support the use of military force if Iraq refused to comply with what the international community demanded of it. Blix writes that "if there had not been hopeful results by, say July 2003, ... it seems likely that a majority in the Security Council might have been ready to authorize armed action, which could have started with UN legitimacy after the summer heat — and revealed that there were no weapons."

Blix’s tome is a bit of an eye-glazer. Here is a not-atypical sentence: "More troublesome was the sixth preambular paragraph of the draft resolution." But his calm tone and fair-mindedness make his argument all the more devastating. To Blix, the United States was not irretrievably committed to war. But, given the assumptions the White House had made, and given the open contempt for the inspections process shown by Cheney in particular, war became an inevitable consequence of the huge American military build-up and the concomitant need to invade before it became too hot to fight.

"Like others," Blix writes, "we suspected that a deadline was set for somewhere before the spring. If the U.S. soldiers would have to wear protective suits against chemical weapons, the fighting in hot weather would be horrible. When I had met Tony Blair in London in January he had mentioned that if there were a continued lack of ‘honest cooperation’ from the Iraqis, serious decisions might have to be taken around March 1. At their meeting of January 31, Bush and Blair said the issue of Iraq was coming to a head in a matter of weeks, not months."

Blix’s depressing conclusion: containment worked, but Bush and his fellow travelers wanted something else.

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Issue Date: April 16 - 22, 2004
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