- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

A so-far fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq has put the Bush administration on the defensive, but Republican strategists say Democrats won’t be able to exploit the issue for political advantage in November.

Democrats have seized on a statement by David Kay — who resigned last week after leading the search for banned weapons in Iraq for seven months — that he doubts WMD ever will be found there.

But in testimony yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Kay made it clear that he thought President Bush made the right decision when he ordered the invasion of Iraq.

“It is my belief that regardless of political party, after [the September 11 terrorist attacks], the shadowing effects of that horrible tragedy changed, as a nation, the level of risk that all of us were prepared to run,” Mr. Kay said. “As I look back on the evidence, I understand [Mr. Bush’s] decision.”

Before the war, however, the Bush administration definitively stated that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was hiding WMDs. Nine months after the fall of Baghdad, the search of Iraq still hasn’t validated that declaration, Mr. Kay told senators.

Lately, the president and his spokesmen have spoken of WMD “components” and “programs” and pointed to Mr. Kay’s confirmation that Saddam was in violation of U.N. resolutions requiring him to account for the WMDs he had possessed and used in the past two decades.

Republican consultant Allan Hoffenblum said Saddam’s defiance of the U.N. resolutions is a sufficient justification of the war in the eyes of most voters — and the Bush-Cheney re-election team knows it.

“All the surveys I’ve seen so far shows that most Americans think the weapon of mass destruction in Iraq was Saddam Hussein, and they are quite happy to see him gone, whether or not WMD are found,” Mr. Hoffenblum said.

A CNN/Gallup Poll released Jan. 14 showed that 59 percent of respondents thought that “all in all” liberating Iraq was “worth it.”

P.J. Crowley, director of national defense and homeland security for the Center for American Progress, said Mr. Kay is “trying to put the best face” on prewar intelligence failures in order to help the president. But Mr. Crowley, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, said the public ultimately will hold Mr. Bush accountable.

“It’s hard to blame the intelligence community when the White House itself has already admitted that it stretched [its rhetoric] beyond the facts,” Mr. Crowley said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday avoided giving direct answers to questions about intelligence failures before the Iraq war, saying instead that “the world” agrees that Mr. Bush was right to take out Saddam.

“We have already reconfirmed that it was the right decision,” Mr. McClellan said. “The world — I think a lot of people say so [too]. The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. … It was the right decision then, and we know that it was the right decision today.”

Steven Hess, presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Kay’s testimony yesterday — agreeing that Mr. Bush made the right decision in attacking the Saddam regime — will make it more difficult for Democrats to use prewar intelligence failures as an election-year issue.

Suggesting that Mr. Bush misled America in taking the nation to war, as most of the Democratic presidential contenders have done on the campaign trail, has little resonance except with loyal Democratic voters, Mr. Hess said.

“Democrats will single him out, but it’s quite clear that this is the same sort of information that Bill Clinton was getting,” Mr. Hess said. “Saying Bush took us to war under false pretenses is a very difficult sell.”

Mr. Hoffenblum said the president will relish debating his Democratic opponent on the justification of the Iraq war.

“He’s not defensive about the war,” the Republican consultant said. “Bush, in his mind, truly believes that he did the right thing, not only in the interests of the country, but the world. And he’s willing take on any opponent on that subject.”

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