- By Peter Feaver
Karl Rove is back in the news with his memoirs doing something that he claims the Bush administration did not do vigorously enough: re-litigating the past. I will have more to say when I finish reading the book, but for now I want to talk about one of the highlights flagged in several interviews: Rove’s claim that if the administration had known the true extent of Iraq’s WMD stockpile and programs it would not have pushed the use of force resolution in October 2002 and invaded in 2003.
This claim leapt out at me because I remember President Bush giving a somewhat different answer a few years ago. For instance, in December 2005 Bush was asked more or less this exact same question and he gave this response:
HUME: Can you say today that if you had known then what you know now about the weapons, that you would have made the same decision.
BUSH: I said it today, and I said it at the last speech I gave. And I’ve said it throughout the campaign to the American people. I said I made the right decision. Knowing what I know today, I would have still made that decision.
HUME: Now if you had this — if the weapons had been out of the equation, because the intelligence did not conclude that he had them, it was still the right call?
In a valedictory interview, he was asked this question again and his answer was less dogmatic:
GIBSON: You’ve always said there’s no do-overs as President. If you had one?
BUSH: I don’t know — the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn’t just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that’s not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.
GIBSON: If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?
BUSH: Yes, because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld. In other words, if he had had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely.
GIBSON: No, if you had known he didn’t.
BUSH: Oh, I see what you’re saying. You know, that’s an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can’t do. It’s hard for me to speculate.
At some level, of course, this is an impossible hypothetical counter-factual and so there is nothing sinister in the fact that one of Bush’s key advisors would give a different answer from the president nor even in the fact that the President would give a different answer at different times. Bush is at work on his own memoirs and so doubtless he is wrestling with this very issue himself and so his views may evolve still further.
And we should not exaggerate the contradictions in these various answers. Both Bush and Rove say that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein and both would say that if Iraq continues on the basically positive trajectory it has been on since the surge decision the war will have been "worth it."
But I think Rove’s point is important and basically right. There were good reasons to promote regime change in Iraq and good reasons to oppose it. But the strongest case for the urgency of dealing decisively with Iraq in 2002 hinged on Iraq’s WMD arsenal and its pursuit of capabilities to expand that arsenal. Had the true condition of that arsenal (limited) and the true status of the pursuit (ongoing but slower than suspected and put on a somewhat slower track deliberately pending the final collapse of the sanctions regime) been known by the Bush administration, the president’s national security team would have pursued other more urgent priorities in the war on terror. And had it been known more widely in Congress, there would not have been such strong bipartisan support for the use of force resolution; all of the major Democratic senators in 2002 with ambitions for the 2004 presidential run supported the use of force resolution because they agreed with the consensus view that Iraq had a formidable WMD arsenal and was seeking to expand it still further. And had it been known more widely in the international community, the argument with our allies would have been over the existence of an Iraqi threat rather than over the best strategy for dealing with it.
There were a few iconoclasts who guessed more accurately the truth about the Iraqi WMD program in 2002, but they were outliers — not unlike the outliers today who claim that Iran has no nuclear weapons ambitions whatsoever. Then, as now, it would seem quite a gamble to base an entire security strategy on an iconoclastic view that, if wrong, would be disastrously wrong. And, of course, we only know these truths because the Duelfer report provided the intrusive fact-finding that was impossible while Hussein was in power. The situation in mid-2002 was one of a non-existent inspection regime and a collapsing sanctions regime; those and other dots pointed to the consensus that formed the basis of the Bush policy.
Rove’s point is important in one further respect — it rebuts a core tenet of the most fervent Bush-haters, those who believe that Bush wanted war in Iraq for any number of reasons, none of them having to do with the threat Bush claimed Iraqi WMD posed to the national interest of the United States. Those who think the Iraq war was about some Freudian impulse to best the father, or about seizing Iraqi oil, or about boosting Halliburton’s profits, or what-have-you must believe that Rove is wrong — that Bush would have figured out some other way to generate a war. These canards live on and, in some circles, may even enjoy the status of conventional wisdom. Given those circumstances, Rove is right to litigate the matter again.