Unlike King Saul, President Bush knew that he was not consulting with the Witch of Endor when he called on Helen Thomas at his famous news conference last week, but the result might have been the same.
Saul heard what he did not want to hear from the banished witch, which was that the Philistines would defeat him. Bush knew that the 85-year-old White House correspondent, who has called him the worst president in history, would ask a nasty question and be downright pesky about it. And he squashed her, cutting her off sternly when she tried to force him to answer her question, to the delight of his attending advisers, who obviously had counseled it.
The media played it up as a great Bush PR triumph. The curmudgeonly Thomas has never been popular in White Houses or the press corps owing to her shrewish questioning of presidents and press secretaries and her chiding of the media for not holding presidents and their spokesmen to account for their lies and dodges.
But the question she put to the president was the most vital one of this young century, and what she got was a flagrant lie. None of the media reported it as such, but history will record it that way. Thomas noted that thousands of Americans and Iraqis had died and far more wounded for life, and she wanted to know the real reason that Bush “wanted” to invade Iraq since all the reasons that he had previously given proved to be unwarranted.
It was a particularly relevant question in light of the latest of a string of secret Downing Street memos written by aides to Tony Blair on the two leaders’ conversations leading up to the war, which have gotten scant attention in this country since they came to light. While publicly proclaiming that war depended on the actions of Saddam Hussein, Bush was telling Blair that he was going to war on March 10 whatever happened. (The United States invaded on March 19.)
Bush talked about painting an American U-2 reconnaissance plane in United Nations colors so that when the Iraqis fired at the plane it would give the two leaders a trigger to invade. Other nations, Bush said, might be brought around to supporting the war and voting for a war resolution at the United Nations. Bush had to invade without the resolution.
“I didn’t want war,” Bush responded to Thomas. He said after the 9/11 attacks he was going to make sure that “we didn’t provide safe haven to an enemy.” He began to talk about hiding and training al Qaeda recruits. Thomas tried to interrupt to point out that she asked about Iraq, not Afghanistan. After repeated interruptions, Bush finally added, “I also saw a threat in Iraq.” He recalled that the UN Security Council resolution called on Saddam Hussein to disarm. “And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him,” Bush said.
It was a variation of his previous explanations that he went to war because Saddam would not allow UN inspectors in the country to check for weapons of mass destruction.
Memories seem short, so let’s review. From the front pages of American newspapers:
On Nov. 27, 2002, nearly four months before the invasion, UN weapons inspectors re-entered Iraq. Saddam insisted that he had eliminated all unconventional weapons and had no nuclear program, although we now know that some of his generals assumed that he was lying, maybe because they trusted the Bush administration, which said he was.
On Feb. 27 Iraq agreed to destroy its little stockpile of al-Samoud 2 short-range missiles, which inspectors said slightly exceeded the range limits imposed after the first gulf war on some test firings. The next day, UN inspectors filmed the destruction of the first four, and it continued until the inspectors had to flee ahead of U.S. bombs.
The first week of March, UN inspection chiefs Mohammed elBaradei and Hans Blix, in an extensive report, said they had easy access to all potential sites and did not believe unconventional weapons existed any longer nor was there an active nuclear program, which the chief U.S. inspector, Capt. Scott Ritter, had already concluded and which American inspectors after the invasion verified. ElBaradei and Blix said they would like documentary evidence of the destruction of the weapons and hoped to get it through interviews with Iraqis who were in charge and actually did it.
Blix’s brief mention of a drone caused a flurry in Washington. The Bush administration said Blix underplayed the drone because it could deliver some of that (nonexistent) 500 pounds of deadly sarin gas on Israel. Reporters got to examine the drone and described it as a laughably crude thing that was little better than a child’s kite.
On March 16, Bush and Cheney ridiculed a request from European nations for a one-month delay for inspections to show more results.
On March 17, Bush gave Saddam 48 hours to leave Iraq with his sons. Word went to Kofi Annan at the UN, and he ordered the inspectors to get out immediately.
On March 19, the bombs fell.
History and theologians treated the Witch of Endor more kindly than they did King Saul.