I was guardedly in favor of invading Iraq, because I believed our president’s confident claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and his collaboration with Al Qaeda.
With his occupation of Iraq teetering on the brink of strategic catastrophe and his reasons for invading discredited, President Bush has offered us no sign that he has learned from his mistakes, no course correction, and all too much robotic repetition of rhetorical platitudes.
My original headline posed a different question: "Presuming Guilt: Did Bush Set the Stage for Abu Ghraib?" Then came the videotaped beheading of 26-year-old American civilian Nicholas Berg. That ghastly demonstration of our enemies’ thirst for American blood may, a hard-line friend suggests, lead many Americans to "see Abu Ghraib as an ugly fraternity hazing." Be that as it may, the whole horrible tableau of news from Iraq wrenched my attention to the question posed by my revised headline.
Democrats are in full cry about what Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer calls President Bush’s "egregious deception in leading us to war on phony intelligence." Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asserted in October: "Before the war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie." Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who voted to authorize the war, says, more cautiously, that Americans were "misled," especially by Vice President Cheney.
Underlying the debate over the aftermath of the Iraq war is a question that, in the long run, looms larger than all of the others: Is President Bush’s foreign policy making Americans safer — or less safe — from the danger of being obliterated by nuclear-armed terrorists?
President Bush’s pre-war exaggerations of the strength of the intelligence that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program and large stockpiles of biological and chemical arms were neither "lies" nor as far from being true as partisan critics suggest. His now-infamous assertion in his January 28 State of the Union address — that the British government "has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" — would have been quite accurate had he crossed out "has learned" and inserted "believes." More recently, Bush could have repaired the damage to his credibility by taking responsibility for any overstatements or errors about details, while carefully explaining why the case for war was and remains strong.
Did the Bush administration deliberately mislead the nation and the world when President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and others so confidently suggested, as their casus belli, that Saddam Hussein had hundreds of tons of banned chemical and biological weapons and a program to build a nuclear bomb?
There is no shortage of second-guessing about the war in Iraq, and no shortage of causes for concern. While the conduct of our military ensures eventual victory and should make us proud, the hope of a relatively painless liberation, with grateful Iraqis dancing in the streets almost from day one, has proved too optimistic. The mangled bodies of women, children, other civilians, and combatants are piling up. News photos of horrifying mistakes are bringing hatred of America to unprecedented levels around the world. We may be losing the hearts and minds of Iraqis whose loved ones and neighbors become "collateral damage" and whose lives we have so far changed very much for the worse.
President Bush asserts that America has the "sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security" and does not need a new vote of the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned that "to go outside the Security Council and take unilateral action … would not be in conformity with the [U.N.] Charter." Russian President Vladimir Putin and many others have agreed that such an attack would be illegal.
Lots of smart people think that invading Iraq over the objection of, say, France would be a huge mistake. I can’t be confident that they are wrong, because the most important question-whether we will be in greater danger if we invade than if we don’t-turns on inherently speculative and debatable calculations and prognostications.