With one sentence during a very direct, factual and effective speech on Thursday at Georgetown University, CIA Director George Tenet put the Iraq monkey squarely on the back of George W. Bush.
"Let me be clear," Tenet said. "Analysts differed on several important aspects of these programs and those debates were spelled out in the estimate. They never said there was an imminent threat."
During Sunday’s interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press, the president conceded he has been surprised that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. While continuing to portray Saddam Hussein as a "madman," and the invasion justified in light of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, the president seemed to acknowledge that the debate will ultimately hinge on perceptions of him, not Saddam.
"There is going to be ample time for the American people to assess whether or not I made a good call, whether or not I used good judgment," the president said.
Notwithstanding the president’s shifting rationale for war, the major problems we confront in Iraq have much less to do with the quality of intelligence than the decisions that President Bush made about whether to invade and how we went about it militarily and diplomaticly.
Let’s establish certain facts up front:
• The world, including the United States, is better off with Saddam out of power;
• Saddam was a brutal dictator who inflicted terrible pain and suffering on his people for more than 30 years;
• Saddam was consistently interested in weapons of mass destruction; and
• Saddam would have used any kind of mature capability he obtained.
That said, the needless challenges we face now – ongoing casualties, the spiraling cost of occupation, the unanticipated insurgency and the loss of international credibility – have everything to do with how the administration approached this "war of choice" and presented its case: there was an imminent threat and stockpiles existed; the United Nations was part of the problem; we didn’t need or couldn’t wait for allies; our soldiers would be treated as liberators; and reconstruction would soon pay for itself.
Since those claims were made, no weapons of mass destruction have been found; more than 500 soldiers have died; civil war is a real possibility; and we will undoubtedly spend more than $250 billion before stability is restored.
George Tenet said in his Georgetown University speech that Saddam did pose a direct threat to U.S. allies and forces in the region and for that reason, it was useful, even though imperfect, to have U.N. inspectors in Iraq. But he was also clear that Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon, nor did he represent the imminent threat the administration claimed.
The net effect of Director Tenet’s presentation is that we know we had a problem with Saddam. But we also know that we had time before launching a military attack to let inspectors complete an adequate investigation; allow the international community to agree to the use of force; acquire more allies; and give the Pentagon more time to plan for post-conflict challenges. And the intelligence we knew before going in and understand today has not changed dramatically since 1998.
Sept. 11 didn’t materially change the existing case against Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush did – all by himself. Left unsaid was any mention linking Saddam to al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden.
"How long do you let material breach, deception and denial go on before you risk the kind of surprise that I could never fully and 100 percent predict?" asked Director Tenet, posing the key question at the heart of the disagreement over Iraq.
Not forever certainly, but a few months could have made a big difference internationally. But that was not fast enough for the president, who put us in our current predicament because he did not trust the United Nations; saw international support as an impediment; and naively planned for a cake walk; even as we now make the first major troop rotation for what will be a long and difficult stay in Iraq.
What George T. told George W. was, "Don’t blame this on the intelligence."
P.J. Crowley, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a retired Air Force colonel and served on the National Security Council staff and in the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.
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