Bush Tries to Whitewash History; Portrays Himself as a Victim

It's tiresome to need to point this out at this late date but, yes, George W. Bush and his administration misled the country while making the case for war with Iraq and, remarkably, are still trying to mislead people about it. In a Dec. 1 interview with ABC News' Charlie Gibson, Bush said that "the biggest regret" of his presidency was "the intelligence failure in Iraq."

In other words, his biggest regret wasn't regret over anything he did but rather regret over something that was done to him, a vague "intelligence failure" rather than a misguided decision to invade another country. Bush explained that "a lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington, D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence."

This is, even by Bush standards, a pretty breathtaking revision of history. In fact, very few members of Congress looked at the intelligence -- Thomas Ricks reports in his book Fiasco that just five read the classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction capabilities. But had more members taken the time, they would have found what Spencer Ackerman and John Judis reported back in June of 2003 -- that the Bush administration removed a number of caveats and contrary pieces of evidence from the classified version of the estimate when producing a shorter, unclassified version for public consumption. More curious investigators might have been further interested in the fact, reported in the same piece, that even the more accurate classified version represented a dramatic change in the intelligence community's assessment of the Iraq situation. As Judis and Ackerman observe, when George Tenet offered his January 2002 review of nuclear proliferation issues "he did not even mention a nuclear threat from Iraq."

The main thing that changed over the course of 2002 wasn't anything about the intelligence, it was the fact that the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq. Consequently, a new, more alarmist intelligence estimate was written up. Then a more alarmist redacted version was released to the public. And the administration's public statements were more alarming still. There were real intelligence failures here, but they were and are dwarfed by the policy failure. This failure was driven by administration hawks such as Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Doug Feith who appear to have embraced the deluded conspiracy theories of American Enterprise Institute adjunct fellow Laurie Mylroie (who thanks Wolfowitz in the introduction to her conspiracy-mongering book) and Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes (who followed up his entry into the genre with an authorized biography of Dick Cheney) who placed Saddam Hussein at the center of anti-American terrorism around the globe.

This policy failure persisted, of course, up until the very moment at which the decision to go to war was made. By that moment, though few in the United States ever seem inclined to remember it, whatever intelligence failures may or may not have occurred were irrelevant. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. were on the ground in Iraq, chasing down leads and searching for illicit weapons of mass destruction programs. They found some missiles whose ranges slightly exceeded what Iraq was permitted to have, and the missiles were duly dismantled. And before the invasion began, Mohammed El Barradei of the IAEA and Hans Blix, then a chief weapons inspector for the U.N., were both telling the world that they'd found no evidence of active weapons of mass destruction programs. Both told the administration that if it had additional intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, it ought to hand that information over to the inspectors so they could check it out.

Instead, Bush decided to invade.

The result has been the death of more Americans than were killed on September 11 and serious injuries to thousands more Americans. An unknown number of Iraqis -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- have died in the resulting chaos, and millions have been displaced from their homes. Important American strategic objectives were left unfulfilled in Afghanistan, the once-promising prospects for a diplomatic rapprochement with Iran were scuttled, and North Korea accelerated its own proliferation activities. And all this at a fiscal cost in excess of $100 billion a year for a conflict that will be longer than the Civil War or World War II when it's done. That -- not bad intelligence -- is something to regret.

Meanwhile, one might wonder how Bush is able to get away with such bald-faced deceptions. The answer, unfortunately, goes beyond the fecklessness of the media. As Greg Sargent at the blog Talking Points Memo observes, "many supporters of the war -- Dems and liberal hawks included -- also have a vested interest in pretending that the good intel never existed and those inspectors never said what they said." There were some, of course, like former Sen. Bob Graham and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both former chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who did the work, read the reports, and refused to back the war. But many, such as key Democratic Party leaders including incoming Vice President Joe Biden and incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did otherwise.

In the interests of party unity and moving forward with as strong a team as possible, President-elect Barack Obama has followed up a successful primary campaign based largely on a critique of these Democratic hawks' poor judgment with a spirit of reconciliation rather than an attempted purge. That's probably the right move, but it, combined with many Democratic leaders' bad record on this issue, means that there's no vigorous opposition to Bush's efforts to rewrite history. And that, in turn, is something we may have occasion to regret someday. Perhaps some future president will decide to repeat Bush's mistakes. Then one must fear that future legislators will repeat those of the members of Congress who failed to seriously challenge the president's distortions around Iraq and suffered so little for it personally, while the country and the world suffered so much.

Reprinted with permission from Matthew Yglesias. "Bush's Pity Party," The American Prospect Online: December 4, 2008. www.prospect.org. The American Prospect, 1710 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, 12th Floor, Washington, DC, 20036. All rights reserved.

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