- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

The pursuit of weapons of mass destruction ultimately destroyed Saddam Hussein and his regime. And not finding those same weapons will at least embarrass President Bush and could do real political damage to his administration. For the time- being, attention centers on intelligence and whether it failed or was manipulated into declaring Iraq an imminent danger necessitating immediate military action. But the central issues should concern judgment and accountability in making the decision for war as well as the plans for peace, and not only the intelligence that informed both.

The truth is that Iraq’s pursuit and use of WMD in the past made a convenient and convincing partner to a broader strategic vision that, before September 11, 2001, lay dormant within the administration. After September 11, Mr. Bush rightly became preoccupied with safeguarding America from future terrorist attacks that almost certainly would employ WMD. Anthrax-laden letters mailed to members of Congress among others soon confirmed his worst fears about the inevitability of terror combining with WMD.

Mr. Bush’s fixation with this mission gave purpose to (and some would say redeemed) his presidency. Meanwhile, others in his administration saw that act of terror as the catalyst for transforming the strategic landscape of the Middle East. Iraq was not the perpetrator of September 11. Indeed, links with al Qaeda were suspect. However, done cleverly, deposing Saddam had profound implications beyond striking a blow against terrorism, preventing access to Iraqi WMD and ridding the world of a very bad man.

The argument was simple. Post-Saddam, democracy would be imposed in Iraq and thus in a region otherwise resistant to it. That act would pressure Arab and Islamic states towards political modernization and form the basis for finally making real progress in resolving the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And a regime change would chasten other potential enemies. The intent was not kept secret by proponents in and out of government.

This was “one-stop” strategic shopping at its best. And it seemed feasible, especially to Mr. Bush’s senior advisors who had a part in ending the Soviet “evil empire” a decade earlier. Afghanistan was the proving ground. The dramatic and swift military success in routing Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and the Taliban demonstrated that high risk could yield great reward. Hence, it was no accident that Iraq drifted into the administration’s gun sights.

There were, of course, good reasons for ending Saddam’s rule, all raised before the war — gross violations of international law and human rights; willful disregard for UN resolutions; challenging the legitimacy of international diplomacy and law; illegal use of WMD and other crimes against humanity. These however did not justify the president’s insistence on the immediacy of military action that was reinforced by the strategic vision of the so-called neoconservatives on his team.

In the end, the judgment was that Saddam possessed, had used, and, unless stopped, would provide WMD to terrorists, making the danger clear and present. And installing a democratic regime to create a viable post-Saddam Iraq would have highly salutary effects. It will take time to assess these judgments, particularly the second. Yet both should be the standards for measuring accountability.

Congress, too, bears responsibility and some accountability. Members who voted in support of the war relied on the administration’s evidence of Iraqi WMD. Thus, there is little appetite for a real investigation on what the administration knew or did not know, at least while the hunt for WMD is on. Finding WMD would vindicate the White House’s rationale for war in a single sound bite.

Congress also has said little about the administration’s reluctance to reveal North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as Congress was voting to authorize force to prevent Saddam from obtaining the very same weapons Pyongyang declared it already possessed. And, so far, few in Congress have challenged the administration’s plans for rebuilding Iraq or questioned whether this effort will truly bring fundamental strategic advantage. As a result, Congress remains almost as unaccountable as Saddam’s WMD.

As long as the economy does not deteriorate and a massive terrorist attack against the United States does not reoccur, President Bush seems politically bulletproof. Saddam’s evilness is enough for many Americans to dismiss any errors in judgment over Iraqi WMD. That is not true in Europe. But how many electoral votes does Europe have?

Judgment and accountability, however, are too important to be deferred indefinitely. We learned that long ago in Vietnam. If Iraqi WMD are not found, there may be good reason to explain or to excuse the decision for war. Regardless, the crucial issue still remains over whether the war will transform both Iraq and the region’s political landscape. WMD provoked the war. And failing to exploit the peace will provoke worse. It is the latter for which the administration and Congress must be judged and held accountable.

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