- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

The capture of Saddam Hussein has muted Democratic criticism that President Bush “lied us into war,” but his argument that actual weapons of mass destruction are no different from programs to develop them opens him to a new angle of attack.

Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s presidential bid in 2000, says that despite the national euphoria at Saddam’s capture, the Bush administration “cannot sweep the issue of WMDs under the rug.”

“This was the primary reason given at the time to the American people as the justification for going there,” Ms. Brazile says. “If the administration gets away with lying on this issue, how can we trust them again when America may face a ‘real threat.’ ”

In an interview on ABC’s “Primetime Live” Tuesday, correspondent Diane Sawyer observed that before the invasion of Iraq, the president and high-level members of the administration stated that there was no doubt that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that he was hiding them from inspectors.

“It was stated as a hard fact that there were weapons of mass destruction, as opposed to the possibility that he could move to acquire those weapons,” Miss Sawyer said.

“What’s the difference?” Mr. Bush replied. “If [Saddam] were to acquire weapons, he would be a danger … so we got rid of him, and there’s no doubt the world is a safer, freer place as a result of Saddam being gone.”

In the eight months since the liberation of Iraq, U.S. troops have failed to uncover those weapons, but David Kay, head of the 1,400-member Iraq Survey Group, reports evidence of Saddam’s WMD “programs.”

Mr. Bush said in the “Primetime Live” interview that such programs and actual WMDs are one and the same.

The White House maintains that deposing Saddam was an integral part of the war on terrorism, which intensified Friday with a report that a suicide attack by al Qaeda is planned for New York City.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan says the administration is “concerned about the volume of reporting of threats” in the last few weeks.

“That is why the Department of Homeland Security has sent out several [warning] bulletins over the past few weeks … urging all to continue to be on a heightened state of alert, especially as we enter the busy holiday season.”

Most Democrats, however, still don’t see a connection between Saddam and the war on terrorism, and hint that they will soon begin to focus again on that theme.

A supporter of presidential candidate Howard Dean posted a message on the former Vermont governor’s campaign Web site mocking Mr. Bush’s “What’s the difference” line, and predicted his candidate would echo that theme on the campaign trail.

After the capture of Saddam, Mr. Dean said the deposed Iraqi dictator was never a threat to the United States and that going to war to eliminated him was a mistake.

Bill Buck, spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark, says that questions about Iraq and the president’s “Primetime Live” interview will continue to haunt Mr. Bush as the election approaches.

“I think it’s clearly a problem for the White House, and I think they recognize that it’s a problem for them,” Mr. Buck says. Where the WMDs are “is obviously a question that the Bush administration owes the American people an answer to.”

Mr. Clark believes that the Iraq war “is something that has distracted us from the war on terror, not enhanced it,” Mr. Buck says.

A new opinion poll suggests that the general public doesn’t share that view, and is less concerned about the distinction between actual weapons and programs to build them than Democrats are.

A poll conducted by the organization Public Affairs for the Associated Press shows that by a margin of 2-to-1, respondents think Mr. Bush made the right decision by going to war in Iraq and 63 percent say they approved of the president’s handling of foreign policy and terrorism, up from 54 percent who thought that two weeks before Saddam was captured.

In his weekly radio address, the president yesterday urged Americans to seek out ways to help the needy during the holiday season, and took credit for a rise in volunteerism nationwide. “This holiday season, I ask every American to look for a challenge in your own community, and step forward to lend a hand.”

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