- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

The Democrats think they have finally found an issue against President Bush that has political traction: The 16 words in his State of the Union address that said Saddam Hussein “sought” nuclear material in Africa.

This was one of president’s many justifications for going to war in Iraq to topple Saddam’s repressive regime. But it turned out that the intelligence information the CIA had to back up his claim was phony and Mr. Bush’s critics — some of whom are running for his job — believe that this, plus the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, will help them win back the White House in 2004.

The issue, the Democrats say, raises questions about Mr. Bush’s credibility and whether he exaggerated claims or deliberately misled the American people to strengthen his case for war. But there are a host of reasons why this issue will have no more traction than the other issues Democrats raised against Mr. Bush over the past 2 years.

First, the fact that the document the CIA possessed turned out to be a forgery does not mean that Saddam was not trying to obtain the means to build nuclear weapons. Intelligence sources here and abroad maintain that he has been seeking such materials for a long time.

Intelligence data comes into the CIA from a wide variety of sources, not all of which prove to be reliable or true. The black art of disinformation is part and parcel of the spying business, too, and analyzing what is true, possibly true or not true is a difficult business.

Second, British intelligence has independently verified that Saddam has tried to buy nuclear materials. And Mr. Bush referred to the British report in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address after personally receiving assurances from Prime Minister Tony Blair that the information was solid.

That claim was made in a public dossier in September, and Mr. Blair has repeatedly defended it, saying that it was based on “independent intelligence.”

“I stand by entirely the claim that was made last September,” he told the House of Commons last week.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw underscored Mr. Blair’s statement, telling a parliamentary committee that the government had “reliable intelligence which we had not shared with the U.S.” of Saddam’s efforts to buy nuclear materials. That’s pretty strong evidence.

Third, Iraq’s program to develop nuclear weapons was one of many justifications the administration made for bringing down Saddam’s regime.

There was evidence that Saddam and his henchmen were helping to finance, harbor and train terrorists. Known terrorists and their money men were seen coming and going from Baghdad by intelligence operatives. Saddam had invaded two of his neighbors, Kuwait and Iran. He had used chemical weapons against his own people. He had tortured and killed thousands of Iraqis. While the evidence of weapons of mass destruction remains elusive, we have found mass graves throughout Iraq.

Though we had differences with our European allies over the war, not one of them would disagree with the assertion that Saddam’s regime was a dangerous, destablizing force in the Middle East that had biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

Liberating the Iraqi people from this megalomaniac was a noble cause that is already reaping dividends for the United States and the Middle East. A new democracy is about to be born in Iraq. To some extent, it has helped jump-start the peace process between Israel and Palestine. It has also triggered new protests for democratic reforms in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

But the Democrats, who have been on the defensive for sometime on national security, only see Iraq in terms of a desperately needed campaign issue, and their charges are becoming increasingly hyperbolic.

No one has been more irresponsible in his rhetoric than Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who is frustrated that Americans are not flocking to his late-blooming presidential candidacy. Mr. Graham has accused Mr. Bush of engaging in a massive cover-up, and he suggested last week that if it turns out that Mr. Bush deliberately misled the country on Iraq, it could be an impeachable offense.

But the American people, God bless them, see the debate over Iraq much differently. A Washington Post poll released last week found that seven in 10 Americans believe the war “helped improve the lives of the Iraqi people.” Six in 10 said “it contributed to the long-term security of the United States.”

Americans do not want us to get bogged down in a long occupation in Iraq, and they are divided on the importance of finding weapons of mass destruction. But few want us to pack it up and come home, either. Three out of four continue to support our presence there, including 60 percent of the Democrats.

To be sure, there are a lot of important questions to be asked about how we should handle the post-war situation in Iraq. But this is not the time to play politics when the lives of so many American soldiers are still on the line.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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