November 29, 2005
Than a 'Mistake' on Iraq
A line is forming outside the Iraq confessional. It consists of
Democratic presidential aspirants -- Where's Hillary? -- who voted
for the war in Iraq and now concede that they made a ``mistake.''
Former Sen. John Edwards recently did that in a Washington Post
op-ed article and Sen. Joseph Biden uttered the ``M'' word Sunday
on ``Meet The Press." ``It was a mistake,'' said Biden. ``It
was a mistake,'' wrote Edwards. Yes and yes, says Cohen. But it
is also a mistake to call it a mistake.
have a point, of course. They were told by the president and members
of his War Cabinet -- Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld -- that Iraq possessed
weapons of mass destruction. In particular, these three emphasized
Iraq's purported nuclear weapons program. As late as August 2003,
Condoleezza Rice was saying that she was ``certain to this day
that this regime was a threat, that it was pursuing a nuclear
weapon, that it had biological and chemical weapons, that it had
used them.'' To be charitable, she didn't know what she was talking
As it turned
out, neither did Vice President Dick Cheney nor Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney said, ``increasingly, we believe that
the United States will become the target'' of an Iraqi nuclear
weapon, and Rumsfeld raised a truly horrible specter: ``Imagine
a Sept. 11th with weapons of mass destruction'' which would kill
``tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children.'' Imagine
a defense secretary who thought he was propaganda minister.
this trio of braying exaggerators -- all of them still in the
administration -- because they emphasized the purported nuclear
weapons threat. Yet by the time the war began, March 20, 2003,
it was quite clear that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program. All
the evidence for one -- the aluminum tubes, the uranium from Africa
-- had been challenged. What's more, U.N. inspectors on the ground
had found nothing. ``We have to date found no evidence of ongoing
prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq,'' said
the U.N.'s Mohamed ElBaradei. That was on Feb. 14. The next month,
the U.S. went to war anyway.
respective confessions, neither Edwards nor Biden explains why
they were not persuaded by the evidence that Bush & Co. were
exaggerating -- concocting is possibly a better word -- Saddam's
nuclear threat. Of course, that still leaves chemical and biological.
But chemical has been around since April 22, 1915, when the Germans
used chlorine gas in the Second Battle of Ypres. Biological is
a different story, but it's hard to deliver and not all that effective.
Whatever the case, before Sept. 11, Americans hardly feared Saddam's
chemical or biological weapons.
changed all that. The terrorist attacks, coupled with the still-unexplained
deaths of five people from anthrax poison sent through the mail,
unhinged America. Cooler heads in the Bush administration seized
the moment to plump for a war they always wanted while many of
the rest of us -- myself included -- got caught up in an emotional
frenzy. Even after the passions of the moment cooled -- even after
it was clear Iraq was no real imminent threat -- few
of us demanded that Bush back down. The best I could do was whisper
some doubt. On July 25, 2002, I wrote that the Bush administration
would pay dearly if it was, as was then becoming clear, going
to wage war for specious reasons. ``War plans are being drawn
up at the Pentagon," I wrote. ``But explanations are lacking
at the White House."
explanations are still lacking. But so, too, are those from Democrats
who say they made a ``mistake" in supporting the war. What
sort of mistake? It's not a mistake to be misled. But it is a
mistake, if that's even the right word, to lack the courage of
your convictions, to get swept up in the zeitgeist and dig in
your heels even harder -- not as a consequence of hardening conviction
but of accumulating doubt. This is a mistake of great consequence,
a failure of judgment or political courage, and it needs to be
I do not
hold the new war critics to a higher standard than those who led
us to war or who still think it was a dandy idea. But we will
learn nothing from this debacle if the word ``mistake" can
be used like a blackboard eraser just to wipe the slate clean.
This is no different than what Bush is trying to do: The intelligence
was bad, not his wretched judgment. To accept this explanation
does not -- both for the president and his critics -- undo the
mistake. On the contrary, it compounds it.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group