Jewish World Review June 2, 2003 / 2 Sivan, 5763

Jim Hoagland

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Clarity: The Best Weapon | Did the Bush administration trick the public and America's allies about the intelligence it had gathered on Iraq to clear the way for war? And was the CIA a reluctant but complicit partner in that exercise?

That case is being made explicitly by those who accuse the White House and the Pentagon of mounting an "intelligence hoax" on unsuspecting citizens and foreign leaders. It is also framed implicitly by a growing number of media reconstructions that portray wartime stories of heroic rescue and intense diplomatic maneuvering for peace as so much Bushist propaganda.

Count me as an opponent of news management, spin and deception. But also count me as a skeptic on accusations that Bush strategists pulled off a great scam on Iraq. That underestimates the awareness and discernment of both the American public and U.S. allies. It is disingenuous to look back now and say that support for the war was built primarily on a belief that weapons of mass destruction would be found soon after battlefield victory.

Some critics now saying just that originally blasted Bush for offering too many reasons for going after Saddam Hussein instead of relying on one overriding cause. The very multiplicity proved -- or so it was asserted -- that regime change was the real motive for the war, not weapons of mass destruction, humanitarian intervention or terrorist links. Now the same people are shocked that they got it.

Three weeks before the war began, a representative Time/CNN poll reported that 83 percent of their sample said "the most compelling reason to disarm Hussein is that he has wantonly killed his own citizens." "Saddam's cruelty" was the top reason for action, followed by 72 percent who felt that a war "would help eliminate weapons of mass destruction."

There was a mosaic of valid reasons for removing Hussein, and most Americans understood and approved of that mosaic. Feigning shock on behalf of "duped" citizens who were fairly clear-eyed about what they were getting into takes some doing.

Nor did war opponents Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder base their decisions about whether Iraq possessed programs to produce biological, chemical or nuclear weapons on Secretary of State Colin Powell's powerful presentation at the United Nations. Nor was there ever any significant disagreement within the CIA over the intelligence on weapons programs. Controversy was over terrorist links.

The French president and German chancellor were briefed by their own intelligence chiefs and given assessments that closely matched the conclusions of Powell's presentation, reliable sources tell me. The argument with Washington, as French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin made clear at the time, was over the best way to find and get rid of the weapons -- not whether they existed. If Bush was wrong, so were Chirac and Schroeder.

Or is it possible they were right and, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld now suggests, Hussein destroyed his stock of terror weapons before the war started? That seems a stretch.

But consider this: If the Iraqi dictator ditched his terror weapons, he was never able to admit it in a convincing manner. He originally manufactured them, at least in theory, to fight the Kurds, Iran and then the United States. He would have given up valuable ambiguity by making a transparent and truthful declaration, as the United Nations demanded right into last December. He was condemned to live -- and then be destroyed -- by his lies.

It is more probable that the extensive concealment mechanisms that Powell spotlighted in his U.N. remarks worked, and that weapons remain hidden in Iraq. It is both urgent and important for the Bush administration's credibility in any future international crisis that the search for these unconventional weapons be expanded, extended and professionalized.

Facts are stubborn things, as the spin masters who took liberties with the tale of Pfc. Jessica Lynch's capture and rescue are discovering. Detailed reconstructions by the BBC and the Associated Press make clear that the injured prisoner of war could have been removed from the Nasiriyah hospital without a shot being fired.

But that involves some retrospective clarity. At the time, the rescue team had to suspect that it was being led into a trap. So it came with full force for an operation that was captured on video. The dramatic precautions were necessary. The Pentagon failed seriously in the aftermath by not moving quickly and aggressively to correct a public record full of distortions and embellishments. Fairly or unfairly, that will help undermine the administration's credibility on larger questions.

The American public has shown a steady ability to sort through news, propaganda and self-serving embellishment, usually without mistaking any or all of them for unalloyed, revealed "truth." You won't find truth in that pure a form in a newspaper or an intelligence report.

You find truth only in common sense -- in the process of comparing and analyzing information yourself and then applying your life experiences to it to see where, how or even if it fits into the larger scheme of things. Americans by and large did and continue to do just that about Bush and Iraq. He should give them credit for that, and refrain from any embellishment.

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05/27/03: Talk plus muscle on North Korea
05/22/03: The war isn't over
05/19/03: Europe on its own
05/14/03: Globalization's evil offspring
05/12/03: No time for mixed messages
05/05/03: The case for patience on North Korea
04/30/03: Eroding Principles
04/28/03: Wars tailor made
04/25/03: De-Baathification, root and branch
04/21/03: Victims of civic passivity
04/14/03: Three miscreants
04/11/03: Saddam's final mistake

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