Cheney was right

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

By John Podhoretz

Dick Cheney was right! You'll have to read on a bit to find out how and why.

Five days after the Senate Intelligence Committee stated flatly that Bush administration officials didn't pressure CIA analysts to spin intelligence reports on Iraq, an official inquiry chaired by the former chief of Britain's civil service has said the same about British intelligence and Prime Minister Tony Blair's government.

To sum up: Bush didn't lie. Blair didn't lie.

Oh, and both reports agree that Iraq was trying to figure out ways to acquire yellowcake uranium from Africa -- which Saddam Hussein could only have sought for the purpose of building a nuclear weapon.

As is true of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, the British inquiry (called the Butler report after Lord Butler, who led it) only bolsters the rhetorical posture of those who believed the only reason to go to war with Iraq in 2003 was because Saddam possessed stockpiles of illegal weaponry.

Many of us argued at the time and argue now that Saddam Hussein had to be taken out because he posed a "grave and gathering threat." The two most important people in the world who made such an argument were Tony Blair and George W. Bush. The words I've just quoted are the president's, who never said Saddam posed an "imminent threat." Look. If Saddam Hussein had presented an immediate and instantaneous threat to the United States, Bush wouldn't have worked carefully to articulate the premises of the "pre-emption" doctrine. No nation needs a "preemption doctrine" to protect itself against an imminent threat.

The president and Tony Blair instead argued for a "pre-emptive" action against Saddam Hussein to take him out before he could do incalculable damage to his neighborhood and to the West. The British inquiry's findings are highly critical of the country's intelligence apparatus, but they support the premises of the pre-emptive war. Saddam Hussein may not have had stockpiles of outlawed weapons -- or at the very least, as Blair said yesterday, he didn't have WMDs "ready to deploy" in case of war, as we had thought.

But whether or not Saddam had destroyed the substantial stockpiles we know for certain he once did have, it seems beyond question that he was hungry to produce more.

Echoing the findings of former chief weapons inspector David Kay, the British report says that Saddam "had the strategic intention of resuming the pursuit of prohibited weapons programs, including if possible its nuclear weapons program, when United Nations inspection regimes were relaxed and sanctions were eroded or lifted. [And] in support of that goal, [Iraq] was carrying out illicit research and development, and procurement activities, to seek to sustain its indigenous capabilities." He wanted a nuclear weapon. He had tens of billions of dollars at his disposal, courtesy of the corrupt Oil-for-Food program, to make his wishes come true -- with more and more to come as the U.N. sanctions against him continued to erode.

Now let's flash back, shall we, to a speech many now consider notorious. That was Vice President Dick Cheney's address on the Iraqi threat on Aug. 26, 2002, which was the opening salvo in the Bush administration's relentless case for removing Saddam from power.

"We know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," Cheney said -- words that caused bloggers on the left and others to demand Cheney's resignation last year.

Well, Cheney's argument has now been validated by the findings of both the Senate Intelligence Committee and the British report. The Butler inquiry forthrightly defends the intelligence on Saddam's pursuit of uranium in Africa -- just as Blair did last summer after the Bush White House's utterly incomprehensible decision to disavow the 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address on the matter.

Cheney's August 2002 speech features a serious engagement with and refutation of the arguments against the war.

"I am familiar with the arguments against taking action in the case of Saddam Hussein," Cheney said. "Some concede that Saddam is evil, power hungry and a menace, but that until he crosses the threshold of actually possessing nuclear weapons, we should rule out any pre-emptive action. That logic seems to me to be deeply flawed. ... What he wants is time and more time to husband his resources to invest in ongoing chemical and biological weapons programs and to gain possession of nuclear weapons." Post-war findings about Saddam's weapons programs and pursuit of uranium offer some validation for Cheney's words.

What these post-war findings do not do -- what they can't do -- is make an unambiguous case for the pre-emption doctrine.

An unambiguous case for preemption can never be made once the doctrine is invoked and a preemptive war is fought.

Everybody probably agrees that, theoretically, we should have gone to war against al-Qaida before 9/11 to prevent it from happening.

But if we had done so, we never would have known we had succeeded in saving the lives of 3,000 people. The World Trade Center towers would still be standing, their destruction as unimaginable as it was in the minutes before that destruction occurred.

Instead, there would doubtless be arguments about the "mess" we had made of Afghanistan, and about how there was little or no evidence except for cellphone chatter that al-Qaida really had the capacity to inflict major wounds on the American mainland.

We can never know what the world was spared by the ouster of Saddam Hussein. This fact will always allow skeptics to stand in opposition.

But the findings of both committees really do require skeptics to examine some of their premises. They can say the war was unnecessary, and wrong. They can even say, because of the intelligence failures, that it was fought under false pretenses. I do not think they would be right to say or argue such things, but I can understand how they would do so.

It is now, however, officially and unmistakably beyond the pale to argue that Tony Blair and George W. Bush deceitfully led their countries to war.

John Podhoretz is a New York Post columnist.

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