Why Trust George W. Bush?

George W. Bush and his advisers, with their obsessive focus on Saddam Hussein, transformed the 9/11 recall-a-thon into a prep session for war. They have exploited a terrible event for their next crusade. And on their watch, the horror of that day has been used not to lessen the distance between America and the rest of the world but to increase it, as other nations recoil from and fear Bush's march to war.

On Sept. 11, a friend in Milan wrote me a letter full of anguish: "One year ago, everybody here [in Europe] was with the American people, suffering and sympathizing [with them.] As French president Jacques Chirac put it, we were all Americans, New Yorkers, that day. Can the Bush administration be for one minute aware of the solidarity and sympathy capital it has wasted?...People here are more afraid of George Bush than of Saddam Hussein."

Euro-hyperbole? Perhaps. But on the same day, Joseph Wilson, who was charge d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad during Desert Shield and the last U.S. official to meet with Saddam, also sent me an email and observed, "It is criminal that the world now fears American jingoism more than Saddam." Bush has tainted a tragedy.

Presidents get to set the national debate and often the international one. It's not a responsibility enumerated in the Constitution, but that's how the world works. In keeping with Bush's wishes, this week, as in recent weeks, the big debate has been over war against Iraq. So two questions: why war, and why trust George W. Bush and his advisers?

Let's start with the latter. Can the Bush administration be expected to tell the truth about this war to come? Don't laugh. Some rhetorical questions are worth answering. In a recent interview, Vice President Dick Cheney uttered a troubling remark. He stated that when it comes time for the administration to convince Congress of the need to go to war, the White House will not tell Congress all it knows: "There are certain pieces of information that are highly classified and need to remain highly classified."

But longstanding procedures exist that govern the sharing of classified material with Congress. Yes, Congress does leak, as do the White House and the Pentagon. Which is why in rare occasions an administration is allowed to limit the number of need-to-know members of Congress to a bipartisan group of the four ranking members of the House and Senate (sometimes the four ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees are also trusted). For Cheney to say the White House might possess information relevant to initiating a war and not inform any member of Congress is a bold power-grab. To do so might indeed risk a leak. But the Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress and does not state, "In certain instances, the President may say, 'I know more than Congress, but I'm not telling, and, partly based on this information, I am taking the nation to war.'" Cheney seemed to be readying the line often used by national security officials: If you only knew what we know.

If Cheney does try to pull that stunt, ought he be believed? Okay, another rhetorical question for some of you. But let's answer that one as well. As a test case, consider his recent appearance on Meet The Press . Host Tim Russert asked Cheney about the possibility of a connection between al Qaeda and Saddam. Cheney said he did not want "today" to allege that Iraq was tied to the 9/11 attacks, but he added, "There has been reporting that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years. We've seen in connection with the hijackers, of course, Mohammed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occasions. And on at least one occasion, we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center."

What was the point in Cheney saying this but to press the case--nod, nod, wink, wink--for linking Saddam to the evildoers of 9/11? Shouldn't a viewer be able to assume that Cheney would not take liberties with the truth, that he would not mention this meeting unless there was good reason to believe it actually happened? But both The Washington Post and The New York Times have recently quoted US intelligence officers dismissing this report. The Post put it this way: "CIA officials who scrutinized the report's source -- an Arab student not considered particularly reliable who relayed the information to the Czech government -- concluded there was no evidence to support the case."

If the Bush administration is willing to mislead the public about a report discredited by the CIA, it should have no credibility if it claims to possess relevant intelligence too sensitive to show to even four members of Congress. Or if it claims war is the only option.

Which brings us to the why-war question. The White House has been arguing that war is all you need. It has displayed no interest in anything short of a military strike aimed at de-Saddamizing Iraq (as opposed to more restrained military action designed to punish Saddam or to destroy proven weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities). At the UN, Bush discounted any other course, and he and his lieutenants have repeatedly depicted the choice as either a war-to-topple-Saddam or inaction.

Is this an honest portrayal of the policy options? (Another rhetorical question.) The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has made a useful contribution by issuing a report urging an option it calls "coercive inspections." As its president, Jessica Mathews, writes, "the United States' primary goal" should be "to deal with the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] threat."

And to do so, she says, it should push for "a powerful, multinational military force, created by the UN Security Council," which would back up UN and International Atomic Energy Agency inspection teams looking to examine possible WMD sites in Iraq. "The inspection teams would return to Iraq accompanied by a military arm strong enough to force immediate entry into any site at any time with complete security for the inspection team," she explains. If Iraq tried to thwart this force, this international army could then take on Saddam's regime. Mathews argues that inspections can succeed -- as they did in the early 1990s -- and that "the critical element will be that the United States makes clear that it forswears unilateral military action against Iraq for as long as international inspections are working."

The Carnegie Endowment's proposal, based on the premise that Saddam poses a WMD danger in the near-term, relies on the threat of force. But it is an option that seeks to avoid full-out military confrontation. "War should never be undertaken until the alternatives have been exhausted," Mathews notes. Whether this is the best plan or not, it shows the Bush war-mongers are lying when they say there is choice is only between their way (ousting Saddam via military intervention) or doing nothing.

Bush is leaning on Congress to greenlight his war against Saddam -- and to do so quickly. Rather than be rushed, Senators and representatives ought to take time to explore options beyond Bush's get-Saddam-now plan. And they should keep foremost in mind this administration's willingness to stretch the truth and its ability to turn goodwill into fear.

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