Making Saddam’s day

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Somewhere, probably in Iraq, Saddam Hussein is gloating. He can only be gratified by the feeding frenzy of recriminations, second-guessing and political power-plays that are currently assailing his nemeses: President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The hysteria surrounding charges that faulty British intelligence about one aspect of Saddam’s nuclear weapons program — and a Bush 2003 State of the Union allusion to it — may even be emboldening Saddam to believe the unimaginable: He might yet survive (physically and perhaps politically) the current pair of U.S. and U.K. leaders, just as he did their predecessors in the wake of Operation Desert Storm.

It is hard to believe that Americans of any political persuasion would actually want to gladden the heart of so vile a tyrant as Saddam Hussein, let alone to encourage those who seek his return to power. This is particularly true in light of the evidence of his regime’s odious predations that has come to light since Iraq’s liberation.

Unfortunately, such is the extent of the animus toward this president (especially among Democrats running to succeed him and their party’s left-wing base for which they are competing) that a concerted effort is being mounted to savage his reputation. The focus of this partisan attack, not surprisingly, is Mr. Bush’s stewardship of the one portfolio that has thus far seriously impeded efforts to unseat him — namely, his outstanding performance as wartime commander-in-chief.

Toward that end, Democratic critics and journalists either sympathetic to their agenda or simply savoring the prospect of fresh grist for the reportorial mill have been desperately spinning the story that Mr. Bush misled the nation during his annual address to Congress last winter. The specific charge is that he knowingly dissembled by quoting a finding of British intelligence services to the effect that Saddam had sought to purchase uranium yellowcake in Africa. Some go so far as to contend that this act amounts to an impeachable offense.

Such hyperbole, of course, ignores the fact that the president’s statement was actually correct. The Brits had indeed concluded that Saddam went uranium-shopping in Africa — a practice utterly consistent with his pattern of seeking to import from wherever he could weapons of mass destruction-related technology, materials and know-how. Indeed, Britain continues to stand by this assessment based on multiple sources, notwithstanding the dubious provenance of one particular document that purports to confirm a specific uranium sale to Saddam’s Iraq by Niger.

The hysteria also obscures a noteworthy admission by CIA Director George Tenet. On Friday, he revealed that the official U.S. National Intelligence Assessment on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction published in October 2002 “cited reports that Iraq began ‘vigorously trying to procure’ more uranium from Niger and two other African countries, which would shorten the time Baghdad needed to produce nuclear weapons.” Since such reports were not universally accepted as authoritative by every component of our intelligence community, however, Mr. Tenet apologized for allowing reference to them to appear in the State of the Union address.

Most significantly, the president’s critics seem determined to ignore the reality that virtually everyone who had monitored Saddam’s activities since the first Persian Gulf war (notably, the United Nations and the French, German and Russian intelligence services, the U.S. Congress, most of the Democratic presidential contenders, etc.), had concluded that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was seeking to increase their numbers and lethal capabilities. In light of Saddam’s declared desire for revenge against the United States and his ties to terror, this was a legitimate source of concern in the post-September 11 strategic environment, whether Saddam had indeed augmented his 550 metric ton uranium stockpile with yellowcake from Niger or not.

In short, the overheated rhetoric about the 16 words concerning Saddam’s shopping sprees in Africa tucked into the State of the Union’s lengthy discussion of his weapons programs amounts to much ado about not very much. Actually, it is rank partisanship of the most unseemly kind.

Unfortunately, the current fandango cannot be written off as merely a domestic political cat fight — tawdry but the sort of thing to be expected in the course of an election season. It would be an international setback of the worst kind if it also has the effect of stiffening resistance toward the U.S.-led interim authority in Iraq; inviting further attacks on our military personnel; increasing the reluctance of allies to participate in Iraq’s rebuilding; and intensifying efforts to sabotage progress being made in rebuilding a functioning Iraqi society and economy.

The mischaracterization of the substance and import of the State of the Union address is bad enough. The hyperbole now being unleashed impugning the president’s credibility and integrity seems calculated to undermine his leadership at a critical moment.

It is all too reminiscent of the left’s past, highly divisive attacks on the authority of the U.S. government — especially those associated with the Vietnam War. Now, as then, signs of declining popular appreciation of the legitimacy and necessity of the efforts of our armed forces will erode their morale. Similarly, the enemy will be encouraged to believe that additional, murderous assaults on Americans and their Iraqi partners will improve the chances for a restoration of something like the previous order.

Scurrilous attacks on Mr. Bush’s case for war may gratify his partisan foes even as they make Saddam’s day. But they are highly unlikely to make Iraq more stable or secure — or the world a safer place.

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