Donald Trump took a page from MoveOn.org in the Republican debate in South Carolina on Saturday night.
Speaking of the Bush decision to go to war in Iraq, Trump asserted: “I want to tell you, they lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none.”
The “they” means George W. Bush, and (we must assume) basically Bush’s administration and entire security and foreign-policy and intelligence team.
Trump’s accusation is outrageous. This is Code Pink/International A.N.S.W.E.R.-type stuff. Is Donald Trump trying to win the Cindy Sheehan vote?
What Trump said here is what we would expect from a left-wing blogger at the Daily Kos, not from the Republican front-runner for the White House.
The idea that George W. Bush lied about WMDs is a ludicrous left-wing canard that should be on the ash-heap of history.
Look, imagine strictly for the sake of argument that Bush lied about WMDs. That would mean that he and his administration went to war in 2003 for a reason they knew would be exposed the moment we got to Iraq and found no WMDs. They would have pursued this tactic realizing it would be revealed as a farce very soon, certainly by the next year, meaning the very year (2004) that Bush ran for re-election. It would have been a mission of political suicide.
But let’s dig deeper, dealing solely with facts. Remember the history leading up to 2003:
The war debate was not over whether Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Everyone was convinced he did, including all Democrats, Kofi Annan at the U.N., the French, the Russians, and so on.
The debate was not if Saddam had WMDs but how to best go about disarming him. The debate within the international community was whether an American-led invasion should be pursued to disarm Saddam (the approach favored by George Bush and Tony Blair) or whether sanctions and arms inspections should be pursued to disarm Saddam (the French-Russian approach), but never whether Saddam had WMDs.
For years, since at least 1990, the world was certain that the Iraqi dictator was ever-assuredly securing WMDs.
If I may, my personal experience is instructive:
I began working this issue at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in 1991, and then continued in graduate school, as a professor, and as a researcher for various think-tanks. All along, I supported the Democrats in the White House—that is, Bill Clinton and Al Gore and crew—when they bombed Iraq because of its ominous WMD threat. The last such occasion was December 1998, after Saddam again kicked out U.N. inspectors as they demanded entry to clandestine WMD sites. By 2003, inspections had not occurred in Iraq in five years, which concerned George W. Bush and his team greatly in the post-9/11 world.
In my lectures on Iraq still today, I quote lengthy articles from the New York Times to Newsweek that detailed Saddam’s frightening covert biological and nuclear programs. Check the Washington Post (Barton Gellman, “Iraq Works Toward A-Bomb,” September 30, 1998); London Times (“Defectors say Iraq tested nuclear bomb,” February 25, 2001, and “Iraq ‘will have nuclear bomb in months,’” September 16, 2002); New Yorker (Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Great Terror,” March 25, 2002); U.S. News & World Report (Richard J. Newman, “Stalking Saddam,” February 23, 1998); Newsweek (John Barry, “Unearthing the Truth,” March 2, 1998); or Time, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, or on and on. Some laid out not merely nuclear programs but supposed secret nuclear tests conducted by Saddam. Peruse transcripts from major TV news broadcasts: CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, CBC. Check the BBC and NPR. Oh, and don’t neglect the full-blown books published by top houses, like Khadhir Hamza’s Saddam’s Bombmaker.
Watch the terrifying November 23, 1997 clip of Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, Bill Cohen, on Meet the Press with Tim Russert, laying out the Clinton administration’s horrifying projections on Saddam’s WMD production in the absence of inspections. Russert, usually merciless in grilling people, naturally accepted Cohen’s details; there was no reason to doubt them. I used to show my students an amazing video of Clinton’s security team — Cohen, Sandy Berger, and Madeleine Albright — being shouted down by extremely rude students in a forum at Ohio State University in February 1998, which CNN broadcast as an “International Town Meeting.” Despite the embarrassing behavior of the students, the Clinton team hung in there, urging that America “must get those WMDs.” I also regularly showed my students the November 1997 CNN special report, “Showdown with Iraq.”
Those are just a few examples of what was always fresh and available.
I began collecting such material at CSIS. I maintained the briefing book on this subject for our senior analysts, who were CNN’s regular analysts, and most of whom voted for Bill Clinton. In one case, we discovered and blew the whistle on a suspected Iraqi WMD site near Kirkuk. Dan Rather grabbed the story and made it his lead in an October 1992 CBS Evening News broadcast.
George W. Bush, like all of us, first heard about suspected Iraqi WMDs from the media in the 1990s, long before he was governor let alone president. The press was unanimous in reporting daily that Iraq was producing if not harboring WMDs in defiance of the 1991 U.N. ceasefire. There were never-ending reports that Saddam was months away (estimates ranged from six to 18 months) from an operational nuclear bomb, on top of his equally alarming bio and chemical weapons arsenals, which he previously employed against “enemies” ranging from Kurdish children to the Marsh Arabs to the Iranians and Israelis. He promised to “scorch” Israel with chemical gas.
It was because of Saddam’s obstruction, remember, that the Clinton administration unceasingly bombed suspected Iraqi WMD sites throughout the 1990s, so often that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times quipped that Saddam Hussein was the reason God invented the cruise missile.
Thus, by 2003, President George W. Bush had correctly calculated that Saddam’s WMD arsenal, after at least five years of no inspections, was an intolerable, unacceptable risk in the wake of 9/11.
This was a fully legitimate fear, with Bush’s suspicion of Saddam’s stockpiles first informed not by his advisers but, instead, by the media that informed all of us in the 1990s, years before Bush became president.
In short, all of that very recent history was forgotten by an emotional, angry, childish political left after our troops didn’t find the WMD stockpiles we all expected.
Of course, we did discover some WMDs in Iraq after 2003 (everyone forgets this), and chief inspector David Kay found both Iraqi infrastructure and intent to ramp up WMD production once Saddam later figured he was in the clear. We did not, however, find the WMD stockpiles we expected.
That said, the argument that George W. Bush deliberately lied about WMDs is not only extraordinarily unfair but stunningly misinformed and nonsensical.
Sure, Donald Trump can generally argue that going into Iraq was ill-advised, and that “we destabilized” the larger Middle East region. “George Bush made a mistake,” said Trump in the South Carolina debate. “We should have never been in Iraq.”
That’s a legitimate point of contention. Fair enough — though Trump better not exclude Obama’s prematurely pulling troops from Iraq from that equation. That, more than anything else, enabled the rise of ISIS.
But Trump charging that Bush lied on WMDs is outrageous. He should clarify it, apologize for it, or admit that he did not speak as precisely as he should have.