Deconstructing Kerry’s Case Against President Bush: Part One

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

Now that we’ve heard in two debates the Kerry-Edwards case against President Bush, we should look critically at the Democrats’ position. Kerry’s most important charge is that Bush mishandled the war in Iraq: that it was (and presumably still is) “the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time,” a formulation first used by Howard Dean, who has consistently been against the war in Iraq. This charge has various components: 1) that Bush misled Americans about Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) and misrepresented the ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda, creating a false cause for war; 2) that he failed to plan adequately for the aftermath of the shooting war; 3) that he failed to bring the allies on board and indeed alienated them; and 4) that the war against Hussein is a distraction from the war against terror and the hunt for Bin Laden.

Whatever the reasons for Bush’s mistakes—manipulation by a neocon cabal, the need to gratify corporate sponsors like Halliburton, or a personal vendetta against Hussein—to Kerry this error in judgment gives more than sufficient grounds for turning the President out of office. No doubt we will hear about other issues such as the economy, the tax cut, or Social Security, but Iraq will remain the centerpiece of the Kerry campaign, as Bush’s major source of voter support is based on his handling of the war on terror. Upon closer analysis, however, these positions of Kerry collapse into inconsistency, partisan distortion, and fundamental incoherence. In Part 1 we’ll take a look at the first two charges: that the President misled the nation about Iraq’s WMDs and ties to Al Qaeda, and that he failed to plan for the aftermath of combat operations.

Bush misled the nation about Hussein’s WMD program

This charge is extremely weak, for the simple reason that the President articulated during the debate: he was looking at the same intelligence that Kerry looked at. Indeed, everyone from the Europeans to Congress to the United Nations believed Hussein had some WMDs and was eager to develop more. Kerry himself repeatedly identified Hussein as a threat that needed to be removed because of the possibility that he could acquire WMDs. It’s instructive to recall some of the Senator’s statements (conveniently located on this topic before his conversion on the road to the Democratic Convention:

“Face the Nation,” September 23, 2001: “[I[t is something we know—for instance, Saddam Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, and there is some evidence of their efforts to try to secure these kinds of weapons and even test them.”

“Face the Nation,” September 15, 2002:  “I would disagree with John McCain that it’s the actual weapons he [Hussein] may use against us, it’s what he may do in another invasion of Kuwait or in a miscalculation about the Kurds or a miscalculation about Iran or particularly Israel. . . . He may even miscalculate and slide these weapons off to terrorist groups to invite them to be a surrogate to use them against the United States.”

Kerry’s position on the threat Saddam posed in regards to WMDs to this point was consistent with his earlier judgment. On “This Week,” February 22, 1998, Kerry said, “[Saddam] can rebuild both chemical and biological. And every indication is, because of his deception and duplicity in the past, he will seek to do that. So we will not eliminate the problem for ourselves or for the rest of the world with a bombing attack.” This meant, as Kerry put it, “we have to be prepared to go the full distance, which is to do everything possible to disrupt [Hussein’s] regime and to encourage the forces of democracy,” which the Senator specified included sending in ground troops.

So Senator Kerry, based on an interpretation of the same intelligence available to the administration, the United Nations, and everybody else, believed that Hussein was eager to possess WMDs and likely to use them if acquired. It is thus disingenuous now to suggest that the President somehow knew what everybody else didn’t know: that the intelligence was faulty or unreliable. Moreover, this whole debate about reliable and unreliable intelligence misses the significance of 9/11, which made it brutally clear that we could not wait for unimpeachable evidence before we acted. The same people criticizing President Bush for acting on sketchy intelligence in the invasion of Iraq are criticizing him for not acting on even sketchier intelligence before 9/11.

Remember, too, that the only reason we now know that Hussein didn’t have WMDs is because we went into the country and found out for sure—the only way left to decide the issue after 12 years of Hussein’s duplicity and shell-games with U.N. inspectors. Kerry now tries to salvage his vote to grant the President the authority to invade Iraq by claiming that such authority was contingent on continuing “diplomacy” and further U.N. inspections: on “This Week,” in October of 2003, Kerry said, “They [the President and his advisers] rushed to war. They were intent on going to war. They did not give legitimacy to the inspections.”

Yet there are several problems with this position, not the least being that it contradicts Kerry’s comments to Chris Matthews in February 2002. In response to Matthews’ question, “Can we get this guy [Hussein] to accept inspections of those weapons of mass destruction potentially and get past a possible war with him?’ Kerry answered, “Outside chance, Chris. Could it be done? The answer is yes. But he would view himself only as buying time and playing a game, in my judgment. Do we have to go through that process? The answer is yes. We’re precisely doing that.” Even after the start of the war, Kerry maintained this position: in May 2003 he said, “I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity, but I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein, and when the President made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him.”

Back then, Kerry understood that 12 years of the U.N. inspections game had not settled the question and assured us that Hussein would not be a threat at some point, and that inspections for another six months or another year were unlikely to learn any more than had been learned in the previous 12 years. By October of 2002, when Kerry voted to give the President the authority to invade Iraq, it was clear that the “process” he had recommended had still not answered the questions about Iraq’s WMDs. So he voted to give the President the authority to use force. This vote was consistent with comments he had made in the previous months: “I agree completely with this Administration’s goal of a regime change in Iraq,” he said in July 2002, because “Hussein is a renegade and an outlaw.” That September in a New York Times op-ed he wrote, “If Saddam Hussein is unwilling to bend to the international community’s already existing order, then he will have invited enforcement.”

Quite simply, inspections were never going to settle definitively the issue of Iraq’s WMD capabilities. As Kerry understood before the Democratic primaries, Hussein was a master of deception and stalling. Moreover, we know now that the corruption of the U.N. oil-for-food program had put $10 billion in Hussein’s pockets. Even if all his WMDs had been destroyed (and not packed off to, say, Syria) he retained the capability of restarting these programs fairly quickly, as Iraqi scientist Mahdi Obeidi has written in his book The Bomb In My Garden regarding Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. Given that regime change in Iraq was not in the national and economic interests of veto-bearing U.N. Security Council members China, France, and Russia; given that billions in cash was pouring into Iraq despite sanctions; and given Hussein’s proven desire to acquire such weapons and his record of having used them, the President, and Kerry too, judged rightly that post 9/11, we could not roll the dice and assume that Hussein was contained or could be in the future.

Bush has misled the nation on the ties between Hussein and al Qaeda

Despite the media’s distortion of the 9/11 Commission’s assertion that there was no “collaborative relationship” between Hussein and al Qaeda into an assertion that there was no relationship whatsoever, significant evidence shows that there were enough contacts to raise concerns for the future, as Stephen F. Hayes has documented in numerous articles for The Weekly Standard and in his book The Connection.

More important than the past, however, is what the future may have brought if Hussein had stayed in power. The continuing contacts could have ripened into active collaboration, given the shared aims of Hussein and al Qaeda, aims that would have negated whatever antipathies existed between the Islamist and the secular Baathist, just as today we are seeing coordination in Iraq between the Islamist terrorists and the Baathist remnants that are attacking Iraqis and U.S. troops. Remember that Kerry himself raised the possibility of future collaboration when he speculated that Hussein “may even miscalculate and slide these weapons off to terrorist groups to invite them to be a surrogate to use them against the United States.”

Once again, 9/11 changed the whole calculus of judging possible threats: we now have to see the converging elements before they coalesce into an actual attack. The Vice-President touched on this point, albeit briefly, during the Vice-Presidential Debate when he said that in Iraq there was the “nexus” of elements that represented a threat: a rogue regime, evidence of contact with terrorists, a track record of possession, development, and use of WMDs, a lack of reliable knowledge of what was going on in Iraq, and the previous 12 years of failure on the part of diplomacy and inspections. Kerry himself understood this link between terrorism and a rogue regime like Hussein’s in his comments to Larry King in December of 2001: “I think we clearly have to keep the pressure on terrorism globally. This doesn’t end with Afghanistan by any imagination. And I think the President has made that clear. Terrorism is a global menace. It’s a scourge. And it is absolutely vital that we continue, for instance, Saddam Hussein.”

In sum, before the Democratic Primaries and the success of Howard Dean’s anti-war candidacy, John Kerry was in line with the administration’s view that, as Kerry put it in December 2001, Hussein “is and has acted like a terrorist” and so had to go, which is why he voted to authorize the President to use force to eliminate Hussein. His current criticism of the President reflects his attempt to gain political traction from the violence and disorder in Iraq, and thus appeal both to his pacifist Democratic base and to those Americans who are disturbed by the insurgent attacks and continuing U.S. casualties.

President Bush failed to plan adequately for the aftermath of the shooting war

While there may be some merit to criticizing the administration for not anticipating and preparing for what happened in Iraq after major combat operations ceased, the debate over what should have happened is at this moment pointless and certainly does not help us achieve our aims right now in stabilizing Iraq. Planning for the future, particularly in the fast-moving chaos of armed conflict, is notoriously uncertain and dependent on contingencies many of which appear obvious only after the fact, and most of which depend on assumptions that turn out to be incorrect. Some correct assumptions were made in Iraq: sabotaging of oil refineries and facilities, for example, was prepared for and in fact didn’t happen with the frequency that was predicted. Other assumptions were incorrect because they failed to take into account the sheer irrational self-destructiveness of human nature and Iraqi society. Who, for example, would ever have thought that some Iraqis would destroy their children’s vaccines just to loot the refrigerators they were stored in?

Harder than criticizing what was done wrong, however, is stating what should have been done instead. Senator Kerry’s main contribution in this regard is to say there should have been more troops. But more troops on the ground would in turn have had consequences perhaps equally unpleasant and politically unpalatable—more civilian and U.S. casual casualties, for example, and more targets for insurgents and terrorists. The problem of looting perhaps could have been solved by shooting on sight several hundred looters: but what would have been the Senator’s response to the photographs and video of the dead that no doubt would have filled our media? Likewise with the charge that we shouldn’t have disbanded the Iraqi Army. But what makes us think that an intact Iraqi Army would have been a force for stability rather than disorder, or a locus for the reconstitution of the Baathist regime? What would critics have said if today cities like Falluja and Najaf were occupied not by insurgents but by Iraqi Army forces?

The task of overthrowing a tyrannous regime and then rebuilding a society long mired in political and social dysfunction is monumental, filled with unpredictable events and consequences. Sometimes the choice is not between the good and the bad, but between the bad and the worse. But the analysis and critique of the effort is a task to be done later, not while we are still engaged in achieving the goal and in fact the jury is still out on whether or not our efforts will be successful. To pretend that there was some obviously better way that the President ignored out of stubbornness or allegiance to neocon military theory is nothing but partisan Monday-morning quarterbacking and scapegoating. But it gives Kerry a seeming explanation for his politically toxic (to hardcore Democrats) vote in support of the war: he can say he voted for aproperly planned war, not the bungling war the administration waged.

On these two points, then—WMDs and links to Al Qaeda, and the planning for the aftermath of combat—Kerry’s position in the first instance contradicts the public record of his own earlier correct estimation of Hussein’s danger, a contradiction made necessary by the success of programmatic anti-war candidate Howard Dean; and in the second represents nothing more than pointless partisan scapegoating and hindsight carping.

©2004 Bruce Thornton

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