- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Will the Bush administration ever win the global public relations battle over the war in Iraq? Short of finding an Iraqi laboratory in a cave deep underground — complete with scientists stirring vats of anthrax and the bubonic plague while humming “Hi, ho. Hi, ho. It’s off to work we go” — it’s hard to imagine. Critics of the war will likely continue to find ways of discrediting the war post facto. Some things never change.

For instance, back in April, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, critics of the war latched onto the great calamity of the supposedly looted artifacts from Baghdad’s National Museum of Antiquities. This became an international cause celebre when it could not be demonstrated that the United States and its allies were killing masses of Iraqi civilians during military operations — for the very good reason that extraordinary care was taken in the planning of the campaign to avoid such a tragedy.

From scholars in the Middle East and Europe to UNESCO bureaucrats to our own homegrown U.S. critics, an outcry arose about this crime against civilization. Needless to say, the blame was pinned on the U.S. military, not for a moment on the putative looters.

But guess what? The reported theft of the museum’s 170,000 priceless antiques actually did not happen. What did happen was that museum director Donny George told certain reporters that the museum had had a total of 170,000 pieces — which was somehow taken to mean that 170,000 had been stolen.

According to a report released on Saturday by the U.S. Customs Service and the State Department, however, of the 8,000 important exhibits of the museum, a mere 47 are missing. Some had been taken home for safekeeping by the museum curators, and are now being returned. A great many, 179 boxes full, had been hidden away for years in the vaults of the Bank of Iraq. Mr. George has even stated that the number of missing pieces from the museum’s main collections is actually not 47, but 33. Don’t hold your breath for the world press to run corrections on their front pages, though.

No, the front pages are nowadays filled up with accusations against the Bush administration for going to war on flimsy or politicized intelligence estimates of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Intelligence officers, speaking anonymously to The Washington Post, have claimed they came under pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to politicize their reports, and a declassified CIA report leaked to CNN suggests that evidence was not as firm as presented by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell before the war.

These really are serious matters. The reliability of U.S. intelligence is crucial for the kind of world we live in. If we are to meet the challenges presented by North Korea and Iran, to name but two, the intelligence on which the U.S. president acts must be the best it can be. In due course, an accounting of what has been found in Iraq, and what has not, must be done. And if U.S. intelligence failed, congressional committees should indeed investigate.

CIA estimates are certainly not infallible. The fall of the Berlin Wall, for instance, came as much as a surprise to the intelligence services as to anyone else. So did Pakistan’s first nuclear test explosion. But it must be stressed that U.S. estimates of Saddam’s chemical and biological arsenals were widely shared by intelligence services the world over, in Britain, at the United Nations, even in France. To pretend otherwise is, as stated by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Sunday, “revisionist history.”

Even Sen. Carl Levin, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and someone who has recently taken to calling for congressional hearings, expressed confidence that Saddam had the weapons in a letter to the Clinton administration back in 1998. chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix was convinced they were there.

So far, the Bush White House has stood by its story. Inaccuracies in the reports of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush regarding Iraq’s purchase of uranium from South Africa, an attempt that failed, do not invalidate the whole mountain of evidence amassed. Furthermore, the mobile chemical weapons laboratories postulated by Mr. Powell in February seem to have been found.

The American people deserve straight answers, but we should not rush to judgment. Nor, unfortunately, should we expect the critics to be silenced, no matter what we find. It might even be interesting to see what they will come up with next.

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