- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Controversy over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), real or imagined, refuses to go away. As a consequence, instead of focusing on the judgments of the Bush administration that led to a second Gulf war and its planning for a peace that remains chaotic, allegations of intelligence failure fillthepolitical agenda. But judgment counts, too, and probably much more.

Supporters and critics of the administration and its policies for transforming the strategic landscape of the GreaterMiddle East agree on the general proposition of an intelligence failure.ToBush supporters, the intelligence community was responsible for failing to provide the White House with accurate information even though the decision for war seemed justified on other grounds.

Critics accused the Bush team of manipulating intelligence for an elective war to remove Saddam Hussein that now looks as if it did not have to be fought in the first place. Meanwhile, congressional committees and two national commissions are investigating Iraq, its WMD programs and intelligence leading to the war and whether September 11 was also a failure of intelligence to anticipate those attacks.

Sen. Howard Baker’s famous inquiry during the Watergate hearings of “what did the president know and when did he know it?” is relevant today. Intelligence, as CIA Director George Tenet rightly tells us, is imperfect. It often will be right. It also can be very wrong. But what about the judgment of the nation’s elected leaders in taking America to war? Did the president exercise the right judgment in pursuing war against Iraq and in preparing for peace? Did Congress do the same in carrying out its duties, especially oversight?

Presidents are not above manipulating facts and data to justify action. Franklin Roosevelt was a master. After World War II began in September1939,FDR promised to keep the nation clear of the conflict in Europe. Running for an unprecedented third term in 1940, FDR appreciated the powerful isolationism gripping the country. Yet, FDR understood the forces that were drawing America into the war against Hitler.

FDR had been preparing the country for war since the late 1930s. Three large shipbuilding bills laid the keels for Navyshipsthat would win the war. The draft and “lend-lease” bill to keep Britain afloat were passed by single votes in 1941. FDR’s judgment was clear: Negotiate the dangerously narrow path between public attitudes and international reality. That path was abruptly altered by the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. FDR found himself at war, but with the wrong enemy and in the wrong ocean.

Hitler resolved the president’s quandary by declaring war on America two days later. In the years since, controversy over failing to react to the available intelligence prior to the Japanese attack and allegations of whether FDR knew of the attack beforehand and took no action have swirled. Almost certainly, the Japanese really surprised us, and FDR’s priority was always in Europe. Several parallels with Iraq are clear.

If September 11 and flawed analysis on Iraq’s WMD were indeed intelligence failures, the nation must know the reasons why. If failure was due to not reporting the warnings to appropriate authority, or that higher authority rejected or manipulated the process to justify its own ends, harsh corrective measures are needed. If, in retrospect, there were “connectable” dots, then the intelligence community must take appropriate actions to prevent future failure.

Ultimately, judgment counts most. Most Americans supported the decision to send forces into Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda and the Taliban. Iraq is a separate matter. If intelligence were manipulated and that can be proven, the administration will face serious consequences.

The judgment of the Bush administration should be evaluated along three distinct lines. First, did the administration exercise good judgment in going to war when it did? Second, did the administration exercise good judgment in preparing for the peace? Third, and most importantly, will the Greater Middle East be transformed for the better by what the war, and now the peace, bring in Iraq? Full answers to these questions will come only in time, probably well after voters decide the November election. And Congress cannot be excluded from this review.

If President Bush wins the election and Iraq goes well, he could become another FDR in successfully taking a reluctant nation to war. If he loses, his successor will have these responsibilities.

If Mr. Bush wins and Iraq is not going well, then a fundamental policy course alteration would seem inevitable. In that case, the findings of the investigations and commissionscouldbe instrumental in convincing the president to make that correction. Still, ‘tis a pity that judgment about all this remains suspended until well after the fact and perhaps when it is too late to make any difference.

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