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Of Sleeping Dogs and WMD

The late Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are back in the news, and they’re proving an embarrassment to both sides of the debate about the Iraq War.
Readers of a certain age will recall that the WMD, as they were popularly known, were one of 23 casus belli cited in the congressional resolution authorizing the war in Iraq but the only one that anyone seemed to notice. When the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq failed to provide the press with large stockpiles of newly-made WMD to photograph the critics of the war started chanting “Bush lied, thousands died” and public opinion began to turn against the effort. President George W. Bush had always taken care to truthfully state only that our intelligence agencies and those of several of our allies had suggested a high probability of a WMD program, even someone so reputedly stupid would have been unlikely to launch a war on a basis he knew would be disproved, the lack of proof of the WMD did not prove their non-existence, there were sporadic reports of the chemical weapons that Hussein had indisputably used against in the past and credible theories that the weapons had been shipped to Syria during the debates in congress and the United Nations, several Democrats including both Senators who wound up serving as President Obama’s Secretaries of State also found the intelligence reports dating back to the Clinton administration credible, and there were still those other 22 writs that had been widely ignored, but such arguments neither fit on a bumper sticker nor rhymed and were not enough to persuade a war-weary public.
The missing WMD and that “Bush lied, thousands died” line became such cherished beliefs of the establishment media and the rest of the left that it was noteworthy that such a established paper as The New York reported last week that “American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells, or aviation bombs … ” The report was quick to add that the weapons were “remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West,” and “the discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale,” but that didn’t stop the war’s supporters from claiming long-awaited vindication. The Times spends most of its article explaining the toll those weapons have taken on American soldiers, and it is hard to reconcile that with its claims that they posed no threat to civilians. If taken at face value the facts laid out in the story also show that Hussein was not in compliance with his treaty obligations regarding weapons of mass destruction, and suggest that he retained his old willingness to use anything at hand against his enemies. As much as they hate to cite The New York Times as a source, the war hawks have found a weapon there to use against the “Bush lied” calumny.
Which raises the infuriating question of why the Bush administration didn’t avail itself of the evidence to defend its arduous efforts in Iraq while public opinion was turning against the war. Conservative suspicions naturally turn to political adviser Karl Rove, who has long been a leading figure in the demonology of the left and has lately assumed the same role for the right, and over at The Daily Beat the usually reliable reporter Eli Lake provides quotes from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and some unnamed “insiders” to bolster the case. Rove reportedly felt that that the public had already concluded no significant WMD were in Iraq, t and by 2005 was telling Santorum to “Let these sleeping dogs lie; we have lost that fight so better not to remind anyone of it.” The strategy was not without some merit, given that that the shrillness of the opposition was likely to drown out any claims of WMD and a hostile press was not going to offer any help, but given the continued decline in support for the war and the drubbings that the Republicans took in the ’06 and ’08 elections it doesn’t look good in retrospect. The Lake article has provided the more strident right-wing talk radio hosts with material for further rants against Rove, and in this case he seems to deserve it.
Rove wasn’t the president, though, and the ultimate responsibility for the decision rests with his boss. Perhaps he had his own reasons for declining to publicize the discovery of the WMD, and perhaps they had to do with military considerations that he considered more important than his own political standing, but we’ll have to await some long-off history book to learn what those reasons might be. Those history books will likely be full of facts that will change the public’s understanding of the war, and they’ll surely record that “Bush lied” and “blood for oil” and all the other bumper sticker slogans proved false, and they might just conclude that Bush’s invasion was a bad idea and Obama’s premature an even worse one, but until then no will get to enjoy any vindication.

— Bud Norman

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