Monday, May 16, 2005

Bush Sold the War on WMDs, Not Regime Change

With embarassing new revelations on WMDs emerging, and Bush poll numbers slipping, the president's supporters in the press argue that he actually sold the war to the public on the basis of freedom for the Iraqis, not on a WMD threat to Americans. A look at Bush's final messages to the public and to Congress just before the war began prove otherwise.

Ever since it became apparent, almost two years ago, that Saddam Hussein held no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—-the most prominent reason offered by the Bush administration for going to war against him—-defenders of the U.S. invasion and occupation in the media have flailed away, attempting to uphold the president’s honor.

First they claimed the weapons would still be found in Iraq. Months later, bitterly disappointed, they reluctantly admitted they had been proven wrong, but suggested that the WMDs must have been spirited out of the country, to Syria, or maybe in Michael Moore’s backyard.

When that fantasy went nowhere, they claimed that, well, that wasn’t Bush’s only, or even his main, declared point in going to war-—he had highlighted others, such as getting rid of a brutal dictator and bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. That’s what he was really after. He did not sell the war to the American people and the press primarily on the chemical, biological and nuclear WMD threat.

We’ve read this argument more and more often in the press and among online pundits in the wake of the Iraqi elections. Even so, the latest Gallup polls find that 57% of Americans still feel the war is “not worth it” and 50% believe the president “deliberately misled” them on WMDs. But what about the explanation that Bush's case for the war really didn't rise and fall on WMD?

I haven’t seen many editorials exploring this rationale, or articles that actually went back and looked at what Bush actually said in the days before going to war, so I decided to do it.

To test the pro-warriors’ argument that Bush, highlighted other issues, particularly regime change, at least as much as he was pushing the bogus WMD threat., I went back and studied the president’s address to the nation on March 17, 2003, in which he famously gave Saddam 48 hours to get out of Dodge City, or else.

Doing this, I half-expected to find that Bush’s defenders would be proven correct. In my memory, just before the war, the White House did indeed begin to de-emphasize the WMD and mushroom cloud imagery, after United Nations’ inspectors in Iraq failed to find anything. Alas, this was not the case at all.

Bush’s key March 17 address, in printed form (available at www.whitehouse.gov), runs 27 paragraphs. For those keeping score at home, exactly 18 of those paragraphs mention or emphasize the WMD threat. Five raise the “freedom” issue.

And the WMD warnings receive much higher priority; Bush does not “bury the lead.” The first four paragraphs discuss nothing but WMDs, in 10 separate sentences. Only after that, in one short paragraph, does Bush mention that Saddam’s regime “has a history of reckless aggression in the Middle East” and has “deep hatred” of America. He then linked Saddam to al-Qaeda, another charge now widely discredited.

Then it was back to WMDs for eight more paragraphs, before mentioning a “new Iraq that is prosperous and free.”

Walking down memory lane here, it is tempting to quote Bush assertions, such as “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised” and “Today, no nation can possibly claim that Iraq has disarmed,” but I will not stoop to that.

But surely the president mentioned regime change and freedom for the Iraqis in his formal letter to Congress the following day, outlining why he was justified in going to war?

Well, no. All he listed was the “continuing threat” posed to the U.S. by Iraq, Saddam’s failure to comply with U.N. resolutions on WMD, and Iraq’s links to international terrorists “including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” Even Vice Prresident Cheney has now given up on the 9/11 link.

Today, with the so-called “Downing Street Memo”-—the July 2002 British document which suggests that the U.S. was determined to go to war and would “fix” intelligence on WMD to support that goal--finally gaining wide press attention, Bush’s vulnerability on the argument for war grows even greater. Is the press ready to join that debate in earnest?

As someone intimately involved in this controversy once said, “Bring it on.”

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