Political Hay

Communication and the WMD Mess

The controversy over the missing WMD is a direct result of Bush's failure to explain the war.

By 6.19.03

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As American military inspection teams run out of sites to check in Iraq for WMD, Democrats are using Watergate language to ask whether George Bush deceived the country about the Saddam threat. Bush might have been able to avoid this trouble if he had been willing, or able, to communicate the true rationale for the war, which was not WMD. But since the war was sold that way, the Bush Administration is stuck with trying to find weapons that may no longer be there.

There are of course many possible explanations for what happened to Saddam's stock of weapons. Jim Lacey outlines several in the current issue of National Review. But whatever Saddam did with the WMD that most of the world -- including the Democratic Party -- acknowledges he had, the problem for Bush is about more than the failure to find weapons, or defending what may have been shoddy intelligence. The real challenge remains the same as it was after September 11th: explaining why we are fighting in the first place.

Saying the war in Iraq was about WMD is like saying that World War II was about death camps. WMD is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. Likewise, the misnomer "War on Terror" also describes a symptom, a tactic, like land mines or death squads. Bush's failure to communicate clearly is more than a semantic issue; it has real ramifications, as the brewing scandal over the missing WMD makes clear. Until he articulates war objectives more consistently, future military campaigns are bound to run into similar problems.

Bush's War on Terror is largely a war of self-defense. But most people understand self-defense in the context of that phrase that became so familiar during the long run-up to the Iraq conflict: "imminent threat." How imminent Saddam's threat was to the U.S. in 2003 is difficult to say. But it is clear that, for critics of the war, the threat would have had to be very imminent indeed to justify taking action.

So Bush attempted to argue for imminence by making the war about Saddam's WMD. Then he argued that Saddam was working with al Qaeda. When these criteria ran into resistance, Bush began talking about liberation of Iraq as the objective of the war. This was by far the most troublesome case he made, with its Wilsonian implications of a crusading superpower. If conservatives were initially uneasy about liberation as a justification in itself, they seem to have gotten over their squeamishness now that Saddam has been toppled. Even now, in the fever swamps of Fox News, Sean Hannity can be heard celebrating Bush as the liberator of Iraq, as if liberation alone justified sending American servicemen to die. Wasn't there some larger reason they were fighting?

Of course there was. We are in a war in which our adversaries come from a region of the world that is overrun with fanaticism and cruelty. They have no single national identifier, only a perverted and deadly religious passion aimed at destroying the West. In the days after September 11th, the Bush Administration correctly determined that victory in the war would require confrontations with both stateless terror organizations and sovereign states that support or breed terror, and that ultimately the problem of Islamic terrorism could not be addressed without transformative changes in the structures of Islamic societies. Only then could we be confident that the atrocities of September 11th would not revisit us. The larger war -- of which Iraq was merely a battle -- was not about WMD or links to this or that terrorist group. The United States was in conflict with a number of different groups and states that, taken as a whole, presented a grave threat to national security.

The logic of this analysis has implications that the Administration has been reluctant to fully articulate publicly. If we are in a war that has already begun, then we can, just as in a conventional war, take action against our adversaries at whatever time is auspicious for us to do so. In our own self-defense, we can become aggressors. The closest Bush came to expressing this idea was his declaration of the new doctrine of pre-emption, which was fine as far as it went.

But Bush sold pre-emption only on the basis of imminence, of clear and present danger. He did not extend the mandate for pre-emption to include environments that were breeding grounds for eventual hostility, even if their dangers were not immediately operational. From time to time during the long pre-war period, Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz made statements alluding to this larger vision, but Bush focused more on the narrow case of WMD. The public remembers a president's arguments for a war, not those of his aides.

As a result, pre-emption quickly became bogged down in the WMD debate. The public heard an evidentiary justification for war not unlike that of a prosecutor seeking a conviction. Instead of being anchored by a stable truth, the war was dependent on a set of mere facts. If those facts collapsed, so would the case for the war. And that takes us up to the present.

If Bush had sold this war as part of the larger goal of transformation -- Iraq as the next theater in an ongoing war that had already been declared -- then an unambiguous case would exist for the campaign, no matter what Saddam did with his chemicals and toxins. Where there could have been a coherent vision for Americans to accept or reject, there is instead a deepening swirl of contention and suspicion. With each passing day, it is more unlikely that a massive discovery of WMD will be made to prove the president's limited case. But far more frustrating than that is the knowledge that all of this could have been avoided if the president had explained what the Battle of Iraq was really about.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.