Thursday, June 1, 2006

To learn lessons from history, including recent history, it’s essential to get the history right. That’s why, to understand what to do about the mullahs’ regime in Iran, it’s worth revisiting the debate over the intelligence in Iraq. This is especially so in view of the recent announced decision to participate in talks with Iran, provided the mullahs call a halt to the country’s enrichment of uranium.

For large swathes of the mainstream media, the debate is over. In their view, George W. Bush misled the nation about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, his officials manipulated the intelligence and cherry-picked items that supported their views and there was an “intelligence failure” on whether Iraq had WMD programs.

But all these points are false. Mr. Bush accurately reported what the intelligence agencies, not just our own but those of other countries, reported. Neither Mr. Bush nor his leading officials manipulated the intelligence, according to both the bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the bipartisan Silberman-Robb Commission on intelligence.

And the so-called “intelligence failure,” I would argue, was not a failure at all. If the intelligence agencies’ conclusions were wrong (and remember we don’t know for sure whether Saddam spirited WMDs out of the country), that only reflected the inherent limits on the intelligence craft.

Put yourself back in the frame of mind of administration officials and citizens generally in the months before our military action in Iraq. We knew some things for certain. Saddam’s regime had developed and used WMDs before. It had a nuclear weapons program that, we found after the 1991 Gulf war, was farther along than we thought. Saddam had repeatedly refused to cooperate with inspections and had violated resolution after U.N. resolution.

In those circumstances, Saddam was not entitled to a presumption of innocence. To the contrary, any responsible American president had to assume Saddam was continuing to develop and might use WMD. Bill Clinton was acting responsibly when he so assumed in the late 1990s. George W. Bush was acting responsibly when he did so in 2002 and 2003.

And, indeed, we were told in September 2004 by weapons inspector Charles Duelfer that Saddam retained the capacity to start up WMD programs at any time. But it also appears those programs were not active during the run-up to March 2003. That information was unknowable at that time, however. What intelligence information could have convinced us beyond a reasonable doubt that Saddam’s WMD programs were dormant? Information from someone high in the regime? Quite possibly disinformation. The failure of inspections to locate WMD installations? They were easy to hide in a large country. A sworn affidavit from Saddam himself? You’ve got to be kidding.

The precise facts were unknowable, and so decisions had to be made on the known facts — all of which pointed to Saddam developing WMDs. Intelligence agencies in the past overestimated the time it would take regimes — the Soviet Union, China, India, Iraq — to develop nuclear weapons. Under the circumstances, it was prudent to act on the assumption WMDs would be developed sooner rather than later.

Fast forward to today, and Iran. We have every reason to believe the mullahs’ regime is developing nuclear weapons. We know Britain, France and Germany in three years of talks with Iranian officials have made no progress in persuading them to stop. And we know Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to destroy Israel and to attack other countries. His letter to President Bush, taken by some as an invitation to talks, reads like a demand for capitulation to fundamentalist Islam.

What to do in these circumstances? First, assume Iran is bent on getting nuclear weapons — and don’t rely totally on estimates it won’t get them for 10 years. Second, understand the case for military action is not as strong as it was in Iraq. Iran is a much larger country, and the nuclear program sites are widely dispersed and probably strongly fortified. Third, — and most importantly — there is every indication the Iranian people hate the mullahs’ regime and like the United States.

That means direct negotiations with the Iranian government, which seem sure to be futile, could give the regime prestige and reduce the chances of its peaceful overthrow. But be clear about maintaining the military option: It seems likely air strikes could substantially delay if not destroy Iran’s nuclear program. And keep stepping up direct communications with the Iranian people.

There’s no easy answer on Iran, as there has been no easy answer on Iraq. But we can’t assume there is no problem, as Mr. Bush’s critics say he should have done on Iraq. We need to keep up the pressure on the mullahs. And keep our nerve.

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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