Bush the Believer
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 22, 2003; Page A17
Is George Bush the Iraq war's "useful idiot"?
The phrase was coined by Vladimir Lenin to refer to gullible communist sympathizers who swallowed whole the party line. They believed what they were told, and what they were told was mostly lies.
It could be somewhat the same with Bush. He may well be the last person to believe that the Iraq war was waged virtually in self-defense. He believes that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. He believes Hussein had other weapons of mass destruction and that he was linked somehow -- don't ask how -- to Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and the events of Sept. 11.
The evidence is nowhere to be found. No weapons of mass destruction have turned up. An advanced Iraqi nuclear program seems to be, well, not so advanced. The evidence for it is either bogus or so tenuous as to be far from convincing. Ties to al Qaeda -- "bulletproof evidence," in the words of Don Rumsfeld -- have not been proved and never made much sense anyway. Al Qaeda is not well disposed toward secular leaders.
What evidence exists suggests, in fact, that the United States was hankering for a war no matter what. Intelligence -- no matter how fragmentary or inconclusive -- was shaped, molded and goosed until it could be used to prove that Hussein had to be taken out swiftly. The bogus uranium from Niger is a mere detail in this regard -- a smoking gun, yes, but one in the hands of White House aides for whom truth meant less than impact.
The real mystery is whether Bush himself realized how weak the evidence for a preemptive war was or was being manipulated by a cadre of disciplined administration aides who long had sought a war with Iraq. These are some of the very same people who in 1998 wrote a letter to President Clinton arguing that America should abandon containment, "removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power." Ten of the 18 signatories -- including Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz -- are now in the Bush administration and were among the most vigorous proponents of war. Rumsfeld, Bob Woodward tells us, argued at the first Cabinet meeting after the Sept. 11 attacks for war on Iraq.
They may have been right then and they may be right now -- and in my view, a pretty good case can still be made for the war. But that's not really the case Bush made. Instead of arguing that down the road Iraq might have a nuclear weapons program or that eventually the United Nations would lose interest in maintaining sanctions, he raised the rhetorical danger to one of virtual imminence: Hit Iraq quick -- before Hussein could hit us.
That was a bogus argument. The war could have waited. But Bush could not. My guess is that his tendency to see things in black and white and an un-Clintonian determination to eschew micromanaging led him astray. The president "is not a fact-checker," an administration aide told the media last week in explaining why Bush used weak evidence in his State of the Union message.
But neither is Colin Powell. Yet he went over the evidence carefully, discarding some of it before he made his own presentation to the United Nations. Powell might have suspected what Bush apparently did not -- that some administration officials were so intent on war they were cooking the books.
The proposals contained in the 1998 letter to Clinton were either bold or reckless, depending on your point of view. Whatever the case, Bush essentially adopted them. But in choosing an unconventional course, he persisted in using the conventional language of self-defense. In fact, he opted for a discretionary war, one waged not so much to preempt terrorism -- although that was part of the mix -- as to reorder the Middle East.
Had Bush made the same case for war that his aides did in 1998, that could have been debated. But it was a hard case to make, because Hussein really and truly did not pose an imminent threat to the United States. He posed a distant or theoretical threat -- and not really to America but to our interests and allies.
Now Bush stands abandoned by events. No weapons of mass destruction. No nuclear program. No links to al Qaeda. His judgment and his competence are being questioned -- his honesty as well. But the president is no liar. More likely, he is merely an uncritical man who believed what he was told. Lenin knew the type.