Donald Trump, Iraq Demagogue

Donald Trump, Iraq Demagogue
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Perhaps you believe, as do a slight majority of the American people, that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake. You may also believe, as I do not, that Donald Trump’s willingness to avoid the clichés and rigidity that embody modern politics earns him a pass for slandering Mexicans, Muslims, women, journalists, the handicapped, and U.S. Navy pilots shot down over Vietnam.

But Trump is now spewing nonsense about Iraq that demonstrates why the mere thought of him as commander-in-chief is so appalling. He’s been saying such stuff for years, but it’s come to a head the last few days as Trump tries to protect his lead in the polls in the looming South Carolina presidential primary.

In Saturday night’s debate, the real estate tycoon invoked his singular rhetorical style to pronounce the U.S. military involvement in Iraq “a big fat mistake.” He then added that George W. Bush and his top advisers deliberately took the country into war under false pretenses.

“They lied,” Trump said. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction—there were none. And they knew there were none.”

If this were true, it would have been an impeachable offense, possibly an international war crime. In regurgitating conspiracy theories usually heard in the fever swamps of the far left, Trump reminds us that any globe is round—and that the baying hounds on the extreme right and extreme left often meet on the dark side of the moon. The frequency of the assertion doesn’t make it any more plausible. It’s really absurd on its face.

First of all, here’s who would have had to be in on this vast plot to subvert democracy (in addition, of course, to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney): Colin Powell, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee. All these agencies and individuals and groups were convinced Saddam Hussein had amassed either chemical or biological weapons and was still pursuing a nuclear program.

Why did they believe this? Because on March 16, 1988, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi Air Force jets dropped mustard gas and other unknown nerve agents on the border town of Halabja after it was taken over by Kurdish rebels. An estimated 5,000 people, most of them women and children, died. Residual health effects for the survivors lasted for years.

In the years after the Halabja massacre and before the U.S. invasion, Saddam ended his long war with Iran and launched a new one against Kuwait. The Iraqi Army may have expended most of his chemical arsenal against Iran by that time, but the world didn’t know that. Even a decade later, during the 2003 U.S. invasion, at least one Iraqi division was deployed into the field with hazmat suits. (Iraqi commanders likely knew the Americans wouldn’t use chemical or biological weapons, so they may have believed other Iraqi units possessed them.)

As for Iraqi nuclear ambitions, Saddam was apparently never close to achieving a nuclear weapon, but that program was also shrouded in secrecy—at Saddam’s insistence. His regime gave U.N. weapons inspectors the runaround for years. In hindsight, this seems to have been a bluff aimed at forestalling potential aggression from Iran. Although it backfired spectacularly, Saddam fooled almost everyone.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Jacques Chirac both urged George W. Bush not to invade Iraq. But they didn’t doubt Saddam possessed WMD. That same assumption was almost universal in the United States, even among prominent opponents of the invasion. Ted Kennedy and 22 other senators who voted against the Iran war resolution didn’t question whether Iraq had forbidden weapons. They just didn’t think it justified the invasion of a sovereign nation. (Sen. Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the invasion; Bernie Sanders, then in the House, voted against it.)

If Donald Trump thinks that Bush and top administration officials were lying about WMD, he must think the same thing about Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and nearly the entire Clinton administration, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Between 1998 and 2002, nearly every nationally prominent Democrat in the country publicly expressed similar certitude on this issue. Some of them opposed the 2003 invasion; some supported it. But none expressed doubts that Saddam possessed or was pursuing these kinds of weapons.

“One way or the other, we are determined to deny Iraq the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them,” President Clinton said on February 4, 1998. “That is our bottom line.”

Two weeks later, in a speech at the Pentagon, Clinton offered this chilling assessment. “Someday, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal. And I think every one of you who's really worked on this for any length of time believes that, too.”

The following day, at a town-hall meeting at Ohio State University, Secretary of State Albright answered a skeptical questioner by invoking WMD: “It is a question of whether there is a proclivity to use them,” she said. “Saddam Hussein is a repeat offender.”

“He will rebuild his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and someday, some way,” added National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, “I am certain he will use that arsenal again, as he has 10 times since 1983.”

Pelosi said Saddam had been developing weapons that threatened every other country in the region, adding that “he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process.”

These Democrats weren’t saying anything controversial. They were reflecting a bipartisan national will that echoed official U.S. policy. That policy, regime change in Iraq, was an actual law—The Iraq Liberation Act—signed by Bill Clinton on October 31, 1998.

This was the environment inherited by George W. Bush when he took office. The September 11, 2001 attacks only upped the pressure on Saddam, especially after Iraq became the only Arab nation not to condemn them. Weeks later, Bush received a letter signed by nine members of Congress, including John McCain and two Democrats, noting that U.N. inspectors hadn’t visited Iraq in three years.

“There is no doubt that since that time, Saddam Hussein has reinvigorated his weapons programs,” the letter said. “Reports indicate that biological, chemical and nuclear programs continue apace and may be back to pre-Gulf War status.”

In time, those reports would prove to be erroneous. But when Donald Trump acts as if this was always obvious he’s being disingenuous. There has always been little logic to the claim that government officials “knew” Iraq did not possess WMD. If they “knew” such weapons didn’t exist, what did they think would happen after none were found? Nor is WMD the only reason the U.S. went to war. Although the Bush administration certainly emphasized that angle, especially when seeking U.N. approval of the invasion (which was received), it was hardly the only rationale offered by the president.

George W. Bush made more than 150 speeches and public comments between his State of the Union address in 2002 and the March 19, 2003 announcement of the invasion. In almost all of them he cited multiple reasons for his tightening vise grip around Saddam’s regime. These include Saddam’s habit of invading his neighbors, including Iran and Kuwait; his support for international terrorism; his depredations against the Kurds; his violation of U.N. sanctions; his hostility toward Israel, which included missile attacks on civilians; his destabilizing influence in the region; his frightful crimes against his own people that included “rape rooms,” a phrase Bush invoked.

The human rights dimension was the one that seemed to motivate Bush the most. On two occasions, he recalled that Saddam had conspired to assassinate a former U.S. president, namely, his own father. This brings us full circle: Donald Trump’s apparent motivations for smearing George W. Bush is that the 43rd U.S. president has the temerity to campaign for his brother. Trump represents a new school of historical revisionism. Call it History by Personal Pique.

Even an accurate recollection of the facts, however, does not absolve the Bush administration of blame for policies that led to the spiraling disintegration of the Middle East. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq—and its faulty implementation—coupled with President Obama’s decisions to pull out of Iraq, along with his dithering in Syria and Libya, have clearly destabilized the region.

Jeb Bush and his fellow 2016 Republican presidential candidates not named Donald Trump may not want to face this reality. They keep invoking Ronald Reagan as if to say that the 40th president was himself an interventionist by nature. This is inaccurate. I co-authored a book with my father, acclaimed Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, comparing Bush and Reagan. We make the case that Reagan wouldn’t have seriously considered invading Iraq. Yet casually accusing Bush of bad faith is another matter. When Trump does so, it has the feel of calculated misdirection. The reason? He’s the one lying about Iraq.

Trump has asserted frequently that he publicly opposed the 2003 invasion.

Here is how he phrased it in last Saturday’s debate:

“I’m the only one on this stage that said, ‘Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.’ Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn’t a politician, fortunately. But I said it, and I said it loud and clear, ‘You'll destabilize the Middle East.’”

This is a concoction. Trump is not on record has ever having said any such thing before the Iraq invasion. It’s not easy to prove a negative: What if Trump opposed the invasion, but somehow kept that opinion to himself? That would be possible. But Trump makes it easy to detect when he is lying because he has what poker players call “a tell.” In his case, when questioned about dubious claims, Trump’s habit is to cite non-existent news stories to back him up.

When asked last September for evidence that he had opposed the invasion, he said, “You can check it out, check out--I’ll give you 25 different stories.” He was referring to news accounts. Neither he nor his campaign ever backed up this bluster by citing a single news item on this point. That’s because they do not exist. The most thorough search for them was conducted by James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic—long before Trump decided to run for president. In his coverage of the political run-up to the war, Fallows looked for every prominent American opposed to the war. “And I am not aware of his having said anything, nor has anyone provided any evidence that he did so,” Fallows wrote this week. “I believe he is completely making this up.”

By 2004, a year into the endeavor, Trump did turn against the Iraq War, as did several of the Democratic senators who voted to authorize it. That’s called hindsight. As for what he thought before the invasion, there is something in the record. It’s Trump’s 2000 book, “The America We Deserve.”

In one passage, he criticizes the carefully calibrated airstrikes the Clinton administration had carried out trying to disrupt Saddam’s WMD programs. Utterly insufficient, proclaims Trump, who suggests that the best course of action is to settle the Iraq problem with finality.

“After each pounding from U.S. warplanes, Iraq has dusted itself off and gone right back to work developing a nuclear arsenal,” Trump wrote. “Six years of tough talk and U.S. fireworks in Baghdad have done little to slow Iraq’s crash program to become a nuclear power. They’ve got missiles capable of flying nine hundred kilometers—more than enough to reach Tel Aviv. They’ve got enriched uranium. All they need is the material for nuclear fission to complete the job…”

He continued, “That’s what our last aerial assault on Iraq in 1999 was about. Saddam Hussein wouldn’t let UN weapons inspectors examine certain sites where that material might be stored. The result when our bombing was over? We still don’t know what Iraq is up to or whether it has the material to build nuclear weapons. I’m no warmonger. But the fact is, if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion.”

In last Saturday’s Republican debate, Trump lashed out at others in addition to the Bush family, notably Ted Cruz. “You are the single biggest liar,” he said after Cruz called Trump a liberal. “You are probably worse than Jeb Bush.”

Trump went on in this vein for a while and has repeated it on the campaign trail in South Carolina this week. “Ted Cruz is a liar,” he said in one network interview, flashing his toothy grin, but not in mirth. “I think he’s a very unstable person. I have never had somebody take something you believe in and say the exact opposite.”

Such comments about his fellow candidates raise an obvious question, at least in my mind: How does Donald Trump shave each morning—and how does he check and see if those bright teeth are whitened to his satisfaction and that famous comb-over is just so—without looking in the mirror?

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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