When a woman at the St. Louis debate asked him to recall three mistakes that he had made as president, George W. Bush could remember none except a few appointments that he did not want to identify.
What do you bet the list includes all those commission and task force people who have unmasked every deception his administration used to go to war in Iraq and the major blunders in prosecuting the war?
It would start with members of the 9/11 commission and surely it would include the successive heads of the Iraqi survey group, David Kay and Charles Duelfer, who headed a team of 1,625 inspectors who spent two years and $1 billion examining 1,700 sites where Saddam Hussein might have been hiding weapons of mass destruction or storing information about them.
Duelfer reported without reservation last week that all of the weapons had been destroyed in 1991-92 and that all the facilities and programs had been destroyed by 1998. Iraq in 2003 was not an imminent threat to anyone.
Bush insisted during the debate that "everyone" believed in 2003 that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or, in the case of nuclear weapons, a program that was well on the way to producing them. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had said that Iraq could build a nuclear device in 10 years.
But while the administration may have persuaded much of Washington and the country that secret intelligence indicated that such weapons existed, the people who were in the best position to know said otherwise.
The U.N. weapons inspectors in 2002-03 were suspicious but they said they had found nothing to suggest that such weapons existed except the dictator’s coyness and deceptiveness. Scott Ritter, the American captain who headed the Iraq weapons inspection team from 1991 to 1998, had insisted all along that all the weapons and programs had been destroyed and were not being reconstituted. But the Pentagon had put out the word that Ritter was disloyal and maybe a pervert. No one would carry his views by the fall of 2002.
This is what Ritter said long before the invasion: "By 1998 [Iraq’s] chemical weapons infrastructure had been completely dismantled or destroyed by UNSCOM . . . The biological weapons program was gone, the major facilities eliminated . . . The long-range-ballistic missile program was completely eliminated. If I had to quantify Iraq’s threat, I would say [it is] zero." He knew because he had done it. Duelfer’s exhaustive report last week ratified everything that Ritter had said, almost to the letter.
Cheney and Bush brazenly claimed that Duelfer’s tome actually supported them because it said that Saddam had been subverting the U.N. oil-for-food program and that if he could ever get U.N. sanctions lifted Saddam intended to restart the weapons programs. Therefore, they said, they had to order the invasion instantly without waiting either for inspections to be completed or for Iraq to prevail at the U.N.
That is the weakest logic in the history of American foreign policy. Follow what Duelfer actually said. He believed that Saddam intended to restart the programs if the U.N. ever lifted sanctions. He had no evidence but he inferred it from Saddam’s own words. Saddam’s concern was (not the United States) but his great enemy Iran, which he believed would invade Iraq if it believed he was unprepared. He said he would do whatever was necessary to deter that invasion, which Duelfer inferred to mean that he would rebuild his chemical programs.
Saddam had used biological and chemical weapons to help repel the Iranian hordes in the nine-year war. Indeed, Duelfer, echoing the speculations of others like Ritter, Kay and U.N. inspection chief Hans Blix, said Saddam had been coy about his chemical and biological weapons before the American invasion because he did not want the Iranian mullahs to know what he assumed that the U.S. actually did know, that he had no weapons and no way to make them.
Bush was saying last month that while he acknowledged that Iraq had no weapons, the sanctions and inspections were not working, and that was the reason he ordered the invasion.
What he could mean, not working? Iraq had no WMD and no way to make them, its military machine was virtually destroyed, the whole nation was in shambles and more than one million were dead from starvation and disease all as a result of sanctions.
Finally, by this week the president was down to this: If he had not invaded, he said, Saddam could have given the knowledge about how to make mustard gas and other chemical agents and nuclear bombs to terrorists, who could then make the weapons and attack the United States.
So here is what George Bush and Dick Cheney now tell the families of the 1,100 American troops who already have died and the 8,000 soldiers who will carry the wounds of war through life: Your sorrow and pain and the hundreds of billions of dollars of the nation’s wealth and its sacred honor are worth it because we have prevented a tyrant from sharing chemical knowledge that any 12-year-old anywhere in the world can get over the Internet in one evening’s surfing.