For the first 16 months of the administration, Powell had been "in the refrigerator," as he called his frequent isolation. [Finally, in Aug. 2002, Powell presented his case without Cheney present] and Bush asked, "What else can I do?" Powell offered, "You can still make a pitch for a coalition or UN action to do what needs to be done."
[In response, Cheney said in a speech], "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with UN resolutions." Powell was astonished. It was a preemptive attack on what the president had agreed to 10 days earlier. Powell was accused of contradicting Cheney and of disloyalty. How can I be disloyal, he wondered, when I'm giving the president's stated position?
After Sept. 11, it was clear to Cheney that the threat from terrorism had grown enormously. First, the standard of proof would have to be lowered-irrefutable smoking-gun evidence would not have to be required for the US to defend itself. Second, defense alone wasn't enough. They needed an offense.
The most serious threat now facing the US was a nuclear weapon or a biological or chemical agent in the hands of a terrorist inside the country's borders. And everything, in his view, had to be done to stop it. "The vice president, after 9/11, clearly saw Saddam Hussein as a threat to peace," Bush said. "And was unwavering in his view that Saddam was a real danger."
"There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us," including "an aggressive nuclear weapons program." Ten days earlier, the president himself had said only that Hussein "desires" these weapons. Neither Bush nor the CIA had made any assertion comparable to Cheney's.
Cheney also said that these weapons in the hands of a "murderous dictator" are "as great a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action." These remarks, just short of a declaration of war, were widely interpreted as administration policy.
It was about the worst charge that Powell could make about the vice president. But there it was. Cheney would take an intercept and say it shows something was happening. No, no, no, Powell or another would say, it shows that somebody talked to somebody else who said something might be happening. A conversation would suggest something might be happening, and Cheney would convert that into a "We know." Well, Powell concluded, we didn't know. No one knew.
In March 2002, [CIA director George] Tenet met secretly with two Kurdish leaders who would be critical to covert action inside Iraq. Tenet had one message: The US was serious, the military and the CIA were coming. Bush meant what he said. It was a new era. Hussein was going down.
When Tenet took problems to Bush, the president asked, Well, what's a solution? How do you take the next step? It was a new ethos for the intelligence business. Suddenly there seemed to be no penalty for taking risks and making mistakes.
A long NIE has a section called "Key Judgments" in which the intelligence analysts would try to give a bottom-line answer If the Key Judgments used words such as "maybe" or "probably," the NIE would be "pablum." The real and best answer was that Saddam probably had WMD, but that there was no proof and the case was circumstantial. [But the final] document said under the Key Judgments, without qualification, "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons." No pablum. From that attention-getting assertion, the NIE makes muted but clear equivocations. In the end, the hedging and backing off telegraphed immense doubt.
Tenet rose up, threw him arms in the air. "It's a slam-dunk case!" the director of central intelligence said. It was unusual for Tenet to be so certain. Cheney could think of no reason to question Tenet's assertion. Bush said of Tenet's reassurance -- "That was very important."
"Needs a lot more work," Bush told Card & Rice. "Let's get some people who've actually put together a case for a jury." The president told Tenet several times, "Make sure no one stretches to make our case."
"You understand the consequences," Powell said in a half question. For nearly six months, he had been hammering on this theme-that the US would be taking down a regime, would have to govern Iraq, and the ripple effect in the Middle East and the world could not be predicted. "You know that you're going to be owning this place?" Powell said. An invasion would mean assuming the hopes, aspirations and all the troubles of Iraq. Powell wasn't sure whether Bush had fully understood the meaning and consequences of total ownership.
But I think I have to do this, the president said, making it clear this was not a discussion, but the president informing one of his Cabinet members of his decision. The fork in the road had been reached and Bush had chosen war. In all the discussions, meetings, chats and back-and-forth, the president had never once asked Powell, Would you do this?
"Yes," she said. "Because it isn't American credibility on the line, it is the credibility of everybody that this gangster can yet again beat the international system." As important as credibility was, she said, "Credibility should never drive you to do something you shouldn't do." But this was much bigger, she advised, something that should be done. "To let this threat in this part of the world play volleyball with the international community this way will come back to haunt us someday. That is the reason to do it."
Other than Rice, Bush said he didn't need to ask the principal advisers whether they thought he should go to war. He knew what Cheney thought, & he decided not to ask Powell or Rumsfeld. "I could tell what they thought," the president recalled. "I didn't need to ask them their opinion about Saddam Hussein.
Cheney replied, "Prince Bandar, once we start, Saddam is toast."
After Bandar had left, Rumsfeld voiced some concern about the "toast" remark. "What was that all about, Dick?"
"I didn't want to leave any doubt in his mind what we're planning to do," Cheney said.
[The next day, to Bush], Bandar said, "People are not going to shed tears over Saddam Hussein, but if he's attacked one more time by America and he stays in power after you've finished this, yes, everybody will follow his word." The problem would be if Hussein survived. The Saudis needed assurance that Hussein was going to be toast. Bush said, "The message [from Cheney that] you're taking is mine, Bandar."
"You have to follow through on your threat," Condoleezza Rice said. "If you're going to carry out coercive diplomacy, you have to live with that decision."
"He's getting more confident, not less," Bush said of Saddam Hussein. "He can manipulate the international system again. We're not winning.
"Time is not on our side here," Bush told Rice. "Probably going to have to, we're going to have to go to war."
In Rice's mind, this was the moment the president decided the United States would go to war with Iraq. Military planning had been underway for more than a year even as Bush sought a diplomatic solution through the United Nations. He would continue those efforts, at least publicly, for 10 more weeks, but he had reached a point of no return.
"Iraq has developed a chemical weapons capability," Rove quoted Kerry saying in October 1990. In 1998, Kerry said that Hussein was "pursuing a program to build weapons of mass destruction," and in October 2002, he said, "The threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real. I am prepared to hold Saddam Hussein accountable."
Kerry's main response was that Bush did not press hard enough or long enough with the UN, that he did not plan for the aftermath, and was too eager to go to war when Hussein was isolated and weak. But Rove believed they had Kerry pretty cold on voting to give the president a green light for war and then backing off when he didn't like the aftermath.
|Other candidates on War & Peace:|
George W. Bush
Third Party Candidates:
Carol Moseley Braun
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