Ok, let’s stipulate up front: the Bush administration owns the invasion of Iraq and everything that happened because of it up through 2009. (I do not believe new presidents inherit all responsibility on Inauguration Day; there is a grace period. President Obama’s expired about three years ago, but leave that argument for another day.) When Megyn Kelley is pantsing former Vice President Dick Cheney on this, you know that even the conservatives have accepted at least that much.
On one thing, however, it’s important to set the record straight, and that’s the issue of “lies” about WMD, especially chemical weapons. It has now become pretty much the status of urban legend that no one was crazy enough to link Saddam Hussein to WMD and Al Qaeda terrorists until the Bush administration did it as a rationale — one of several — for the 2003 invasion. It makes for a great story, except for one problem.
What follows is adapted from my 2008 book on preventive war, Eve of Destruction. Let’s be clear: if I knew this in 2006 and 2007 when the book was undergoing edits at a top university press, then it wasn’t a secret. The fact of the matter is that Bill Clinton laid out the connection between Iraq, VX weapons, and Al Qaeda in 1998, and Clinton himself provided such a strong rationale for going to war against Hussein that the far left was
apeshit distressed at his turn toward warmongering.
If you really want to know why we didn’t have a major (or major enough) debate on going to war in 2003, you might consider the degree to which senior members of the Democratic Party over 15 years ago had already sold their souls to support Clinton’s bellicose rhetoric, and thus were going to have a hard time explaining why they were then retreating on their own death-to-Saddam stuff only five years later without looking nakedly partisan.
I think this is one of many places that Bill Clinton eviscerated the heart and soul of the Democratic Party through his “triangulations” and other compromises, actions that I as a conservative welcomed, but whose damage to our public life is only now really evident. Again, a debate for another day.
In the meantime, if you’re one of the people who burps up that line about Bush’s “lies” in 2003, I suggest you revisit 1998 for a moment. The except below can be found on pages 49-51 of the book.
In a forceful February 1998 speech at the Pentagon, Clinton made the assertion that not acting against Saddam was tantamount to allowing him to gain, and therefore to use, weapons of mass destruction:
Now, let’s imagine the future. What if he fails to comply, and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction and continue to press for the release of the sanctions and continue to ignore the solemn commitments that he made? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the arsenal. And I think every one of you who’s really worked on this for any length of time believes that, too.
By year’s end, Clinton made good on his threat to attack Iraq, with U.S. and British forces engaging in a three-day bombing campaign, Operation Desert Fox, aimed at “degrading” Saddam Hussein’s presumed WMD capabilities. “Other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles,” Clinton said as the bombing started. “With Saddam, there is one big difference: He has used them . . . and I have no doubt today, that left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again.”
For a variety of reasons, including Clinton’s domestic political troubles and a face-saving deal struck at in the United Nations, military operations in 1998 never rose to the level of the rhetoric that attended them. Only weeks before Desert Fox, the U.S. Congress passed, and Clinton signed, the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which made it the stated policy of the American government from that point onward that Hussein’s regime should be removed from power. This was not a party-line vote; the Act passed by a lopsided and bipartisan 360 to 38 vote in the House, and by unanimous consent in the Senate.
The Act, however, only “supported” such efforts by the Iraqi opposition and was notably silent on the question of the use of American force. Regime change was never the stated goal of Desert Fox, and in the end the whole thing was a kind of desultory affair whose impact on Iraqi WMD programs remains unclear to this day. For his part, Clinton even called in to Larry King’s program to defend Bush’s assertion that there were WMD in Iraq: “We bombed with the British for four days in 1998,” he said to King and guest Bob Dole. “We might have gotten it all; we might have gotten half of it; we might have gotten none of it. But we didn’t know.”
But what is most interesting about this 1998 almost-war against Iraq is the way Clinton and others implicitly argued that opponents like Saddam Hussein were effectively undeterrable. This kind of anxiety could be seen, for example, among Clinton’s senior advisors in mid-1998 as they debated whether to strike a Sudanese factory they suspected was making chemical weapons. Former National Security Council staff members Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon later recalled:
Within the small circle of officials who knew of the plan [to attack the Sudanese facility called al-Shifa], some felt uneasy. Attorney General Janet Reno expressed concern about whether the strikes were proportional and met the requirements of self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which was how the administration intended to justify them. Others were aware that a decision to attack another country is rarely made on the basis of clandestine intelligence, and the United States has not often pursued a strategy of preempting threats militarily. Yet the perception of imminent danger was powerful enough to overcome these concerns. At the Principals meeting, [National Security Advisor] Sandy Berger asked, “What if we do not hit it and then, after an attack, nerve gas is released in the New York City subway? What will we say then?”
Reno eventually declined to vote, “but the rest recommended unanimously that al-Shifa be destroyed.” In August 1998, the United States launched Operation Infinite Reach, a series of cruise missile attacks against the Sudanese facility as well as several al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
The fact that al-Qaeda was struck was important. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants were actually the primary targets of Infinite Reach, largely as retaliation for al-Qaeda’s involvement in terrorist bombings against U.S. embassies in Africa. But in justifying the operation, Clinton administration officials argued that they were acting against a triple threat, a synergy between Sudan’s manufacture of chemical weapons, the Iraqis, and al-Qaeda terrorists. “We see evidence that we think is quite clear on contacts between Sudan and Iraq,” undersecretary of state Thomas Pickering said. “In fact, El Shifa [sic] officials, early in the company’s history, we believe were in touch with Iraqi individuals associated with Iraq’s VX [nerve gas] program.” UN ambassador Bill Richardson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer shortly after the strikes:
We know for a fact, physical evidence, soil samples of VX precursor–chemical precursor at the site. Secondly, Wolf, direct evidence of ties between Osama bin Laden and the [Sudanese] Military Industrial Corporation–the al Shifa factory was part of that. This is an operation–a collection of buildings that does a lot of this dirty munitions stuff. And, thirdly, there is no evidence that this precursor has a commercial application. So, you combine that with Sudan support for terrorism, their connections with Iraq on VX, and you combine that, also, with the chemical precursor issue, and Sudan’s leadership support for Osama bin Laden, and you’ve got a pretty clear cut case.
The case, as it turns out, wasn’t quite so clear cut, and over the years various investigations have cast doubt on whether the Clinton administration’s intelligence on al-Shifa was correct. But all major figures in the execution of Operation Infinite Reach stand by their decision, most notably former defense secretary William Cohen, who repeated the charges against the Sudanese in his 2004 testimony to the 9/11 Commission.
No. Clinton and his people, including career diplomats and intelligence officers made their best guess. But in any case, the next time you hear the claim that Bush dreamed up the Iraq-WMD-Al Qaeda connection, you can correct the record and note that it was none other than the best and the brightest working for Bill Clinton who came up with that one, not Bush or Cheney. It doesn’t mean Bush doesn’t own the war, but it does point out that there was a lot greater unanimity in the view of Saddam’s Iraq as a threat to the U.S., even before 9/11.