We were almost all wrong,” David Kay, the former U.S. chief weapons inspector in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. After months of searching, Kay has concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD). What Kay discovered—or didn’t discover—makes clear that the much maligned UN inspection system and sanction policy of the 1990s worked. Saddam was unable to reconstitute his WMD programs. In refusing to cooperate fully with UN inspectors, the dictator apparently was carrying on a game of bluff and bluster, hoping to intimidate both internal opponents and external foes by pretending that he still possessed such weapons.

Kay rightly called U.S. prewar intelligence a massive failure, and urged Congress to conduct an independent investigation to determine exactly how intelligence services could have gotten things so wrong. That’s a sound idea, one President George W. Bush had resisted, but now is heeding. Bush has said he will issue an executive order creating an independent bipartisan commission to investigate U.S. intelligence failures. How broad the commission’s mandate will be and whether it will report in a timely fashion remain to be seen. Many questions need to be answered. Democrats are eager to learn if the Bush administration exaggerated the Iraqi threat, while the president will be keen to broaden the focus of the investigation beyond Iraq to other situations in which U.S. intelligence has proved unreliable.

Kay has rejected the idea that President Bush owes the country an explanation for these astounding errors. He thinks it is the intelligence services that owe Bush one. Yet Kay’s confidence in Bush’s lack of culpability may be as unfounded as the inspector’s prewar certainty about Iraq’s WMD.

For one thing, Vice President Dick Cheney continues to peddle unfounded assertions about Saddam’s nonexistent weapons. Cheney is also reported to be playing a large role in the creation of the investigative commission. That, at least on the surface, appears to be a conflict of interest. In the run-up to the war, both Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld established their own intelligence vetting operations to circumvent resistance at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the State Department. Will those operations be scrutinized by the commission? They should be. There have been numerous reliable reports about the administration’s meddling in the evaluation of intelligence as well as determination to go to war. Former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill has said that overthrowing Saddam was an administration priority well before 9/11. A damning report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (see “The Truth & Iraq,” January 30, 2004) documented many instances in which the administration exaggerated or misrepresented intelligence about the nature of the threat posed by Iraq. At least at this point, Kay’s contention that all the blame rests with the CIA is dubious.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq was not a war of necessity, but of choice. President Bush made that choice, and he placed American prestige and credibility on the line in doing so. The reason the president gave for going to war has proven fallacious. It is scandalous that Bush thinks a rhetorical switch from justifying the war because of Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” to now justifying the war because of Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities” will satisfy the American people. He owes the nation an explanation for his actions.

David Kay insists that the failure to find WMD is much more than a “political gotcha” question. He’s right. The consequences are fundamental and far-reaching. In laying out the reasoning behind the war on terrorism, the president asserted that the risk posed by WMD in the hands of terrorists was so great that it necessitated unilateral U.S. military action whenever and wherever the U.S. perceived a threat. The intelligence fiasco in Iraq demonstrates why such a policy is inherently unstable, even incoherent. Preemption sounds straightforward enough, but it carries with it far more risks than benefits, as the situation in Iraq shows. The terrorist threat is not tied to a nation-state or a particular region, and in most circumstances it cannot be countered simply by waging war. Moreover, waging war everywhere is not a possibility, and even if it were, it would be no solution. We now live in a world of potential danger and great insecurity, but it remains a world where terrorist threats are best defeated by increased international cooperation rather than unilateral action.

Bush refused to level with the American people about this uncomfortable truth. Instead, he assured the nation that we could vanquish all our enemies on our own. He appears to have thought that a massive show of force, whether justified or not, would intimidate potential adversaries while winning for him the abiding gratitude of the American people. Yet, as polls showed before the war, the American people did not want to go to war precipitously or without firm international support. They were right. As a recent report from the Army War College put it, “The global war on terrorism as presently defined and conducted is strategically unfocused, promises much more than it can deliver, and threatens to dissipate U.S. military and other resources in an endless and hopeless search for absolute security.”

Kay’s testimony shows that the very premises of Bush’s war on terrorism are wrong. Let’s hope the commission’s investigation will help make that fact even clearer.

February 3, 2004

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Published in the 2004-02-13 issue: View Contents
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