At Large

A Historic Blunder

Certainly regarding Iraq the Democrats now have potent issues they can use in the next election.

By 7.21.03

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If only they had known, Congressional Democrats now say, they would not have supported the invasion of Iraq the way they did, and they would have asked some really tough questions. But how were they to know? Apparently the White House led them down a garden path, and deceived them. As Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Saturday in his party's weekly radio address, President Bush's claim that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa was "highly misleading," but "not an inadvertent mistake." In other words, Levin implied, Bush was lying.

And, as Levin went on: "Even more troubling is evidence that the uranium statement was just one of many questionable statements and exaggerations by the intelligence community and administration officials in the buildup to the war."

Levin, of course, was seeking to absolve himself and his Democratic colleagues from blame for the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Indeed it goes from bad to worse. We are facing a "classical guerrilla-type campaign" in Iraq, according to the new U.S. commander there, and American soldiers are dying. At the same the cost of stabilizing Iraq now hovers at $4 billion a month, and the promise of establishing a democracy there is fading.

Congressional Democrats, however, know a partisan issue when they see one: They had backed the war, or at least declined to criticize it, only because the White House had misled them; if they had known the truth, or had access to the intelligence reports, they would have acted differently.

But this is not even remotely true. You did not need the intelligence reports to know the administration was on its way to a historic blunder, and doubts were expressed, even in this column. The Democrats, however, read the polls, and realized the war was popular. Expressing any reservations about administration policy would not have been politically expedient, and for the Democrats to claim otherwise is hypocrisy of a high order. Their refusal to criticize Iraq policy was never principled; it was always political.

Certainly the Democrats now have potent issues they can use in the next election. The administration insisted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but so far none has been found. It also insisted Iraqi was working hand in glove with al Qaeda, but there is no evidence to prove that, either. The stated rationale for invading Iraq has collapsed, and the insular ideologues who formulated Iraq policy and the equally insular conservative journalists who supported them -- they learn about the world mostly by talking to one another -- have turned out to be a blessing for liberals. The ideologues and journalists, though, are in denial about this, just as they are in the denial about the mess they have made of foreign policy.

On the other hand, the ideologues and journalists no longer talk much about how the Iraqis are yearning to be free and want to be neo-Americans -- but beware, they now talk like that about the Iranians, and no good can come of that -- or how the Iraqi National Congress can take over the government. Instead they now are saying the U.S. is in Iraq for the long haul, and that it must not cut and run (or at least not until after the 2004 election).

Meanwhile some prominent figures in the administration now seem to be modifying, or even reversing, their old positions. The insistence that we had reliable, up-to-date intelligence on Iraq, for example, has been discarded. As Donald Rumsfeld told Congress last week, "The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. We acted because we saw the evidence in a new light, through the prism of our experience on September 11."

Translated, I think, that means that Rumsfeld and his like-minded colleagues wanted to believe there was cause to invade Iraq, and so they believed it. They were full of themselves and their mission. The U.S. would act alone if it had to, and if the United Nations did not approve of this, it was the U.N.'s loss, and not ours. On the eve of the Iraqi invasion, President Bush warned the U.N. that unless it went along with U.S. proposals it risked fading "into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society."

But that was then, and the insular ideologues have now discovered that we may need the rest of the world, after all. Rumsfeld talks about the international coalition we have assembled in Iraq, but it is still an overwhelmingly American operation, with a little help from the Brits -- and we need much more foreign assistance. The White House is getting ready to approach the U.N., hat in hand, and asking it to intervene in Iraq.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.