Saturday, June 18, 2005

Repeatedly, those contending President Bush lied us into the war in Iraq have had to face contrary evidence, stacks and stacks of it. And how have they handled this refutation of their fantasies? By ignoring it.

But give them something all but irrelevant, some itsy, bitsy thing they can misinterpret as demonstrating the rightness of their view, and notice how some of them behave. Why, they say, the final proof is here at last.

I speak of the so-called Downing Street memo, the disclosed minutes of a 2002 meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others in his government on a possible war in Iraq, then still eight months in the future.

To anti-Bush critics such as Mark Danner, a magazine journalist and college professor writing in the New York Review of Books, the document is one more “revelation” in the weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) “scandal” that should lead to judicial proceedings against top officials, to sentences against them, and to punishment.

He talks in another issue of the magazine about the memo “establishing” a number of points, when in fact it establishes absolutely nothing. In summing up observations by the head of British foreign intelligence, for instance, the document cites no specific sources and is more than a bit vague.

The intelligence official, just returned from Washington, is paraphrased as saying “military action was now seen as inevitable” and Mr. Bush wanted Saddam Hussein’s removal.

Mr. Danner believes this means Mr. Bush “had decided to invade and occupy Iraq” months before war began and that evil resides in the fact. But as columnist Michael Kinsley has noted, the document contains “no claim of even fourth-hand knowledge that [Mr. Bush] had actually declared the intention.”

It is quite possible, of course, that even at that stage, Mr. Bush had concluded that a war might well be necessary, and for good reason. Saddam was hostile to the United States, had maintained associations with terrorists, was reckless, was the murderer of tens of thousands of people and, as all the best intelligence agencies in the world reported, had WMD on hand.

After September 11, 2001, it would have been the height of irresponsibility to think the long-stated U.S. policy of getting this man out of power should merit no more than a shrug.

What’s ludicrous is the position of some Bush critics that the administration somehow fabricated the intelligence reports on weapons, or outright lied about them. That’s conspiracy theorizing of fanatical reach.

A muddy line in the Downing Street memo has been taken to suggest the administration was contriving the case for war. But even if it was clear the line meant that — and it isn’t — the memo would hardly override the certainty the bulk of information getting to Mr. Bush was that the weapons existed.

While we now know this information was faulty and some concerns were expressed about it within the intelligence community, the administration had more than the intelligence reports to go on.

The United States gave Saddam a chance to prove the intelligence wrong. All he had to do was cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors, and he would have been off the hook. For some reason known only to him, he didn’t, and this signaled he still had something to hide, that all those intelligence reports were on target.

Although no WMD have been found, by the way, investigators have discovered Saddam maintained programs that could have manufactured biological and chemical weapons quickly, that he had plans to reconstitute his nuclear-weapons program and was busily bribing officials in such places as France, Russia and China so he could get out from under inhibiting sanctions.

There are solid arguments against this war, and I respect those who make them. But there is also an extreme element that seems to have dominated much of the antiwar rhetoric — one of its illogical suppositions being Mr. Bush would have told a lie that was sure to be found out.

In the end, such rhetoric does little service to either the antiwar cause or the reasoned discourse on which democracy depends.

Jay Ambrose is former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard News Service.

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