Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Jonah Goldberg and Kenneth Pollack on the WMD issue (post revised) 

'Straightforwardness would defuse WMD issue.' Goldberg makes a couple of key points here. First, he convincingly hammers home the point that the charge from many of the Democrats (including Monsieur Kerry) that the Bush Administration "misled" or "lied to" the American people about WMD is ridiculous on its face, to wit:

[T]he idea that the president lied to the American people hinges on - at least - one almost impossible fact: that George W. Bush knew for a certainty that the intelligence agencies of America, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Australia, as well as the United Nations and countless independent experts were all wrong.

Second, it is now fairly clear that the Bush administration, along with all these other good people, were fundamentally incorrect in their assessment of Iraq's WMD capabilities. We need to understand why this assessment was so incorrect, and the first step toward that end must be an acknowledgement from the White House that we have to look at our gathering and analysis of intelligence. "And just because a bunch of self-serving presidential wannabes are for it, doesn't mean you have to be against it."

Third, Goldberg is absolutely correct that this issue will substantially diffuse itself if the White House responds constructively with some open and honest criticism of its own processes. That can be accomplished without any concession that the decision to go to war was a bad decision. Indeed, even if you believe that that the purported existence of WMD was the most important reason to go to war in Iraq (and WMDs were certainly not my favorite reason), it is still pretty easy to conclude that Bush and Blair made the right decision: "In the post-9/11 world, when the Iraq sanctions regime was falling apart, President Bush had two basic options: put his faith and trust in his own and his allies' intelligence agencies or in the promises of a truly warmongering madman who'd twice before pursued nuclear weapons and used other WMDs on his own people." TigerHawk agrees completely.

All of that having been said, anyone who wants to dig into this issue should read Kenneth Pollack's article in the current issue of The Atlantic. Pollack was the Clinton Administration's Persian Gulf expert, and the author of The Threatening Storm, which is a powerful and systematic argument in favor of removing Hussein by military means. Pollack generally believes now that the Bush administration had the right idea, but chose the wrong time and manner for the war (see his contribution to the "Liberal Hawks" discussion at Slate, here). In his Atlantic article, Pollack essentially charges that the Bush Administration blinkered itself in its assessment of pre-war intelligence on a range of topics, and closed its mind to alternative intelligence that might have altered the time or the manner of the conduct of the war. Pollack's thesis:

Democrats have typically accused the Bush Administration of exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq in order to justify an unnecessary war. Republicans have typically claimed that the fault lay with the CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, which they say overestimated the threat from Iraq—a claim that carries the unlikely implication that Bush's team might not have opted for war if it had understood that Saddam was not as dangerous as he seemed.

Both sides appear to be at least partly right. The intelligence community did overestimate the scope and progress of Iraq's WMD programs, although not to the extent that many people believe. The Administration stretched those estimates to make a case not only for going to war but for doing so at once, rather than taking the time to build regional and international support for military action.

Pollack traces the history of Western intelligence concerning Iraq, the degradation of the quality of that intelligence after 1998, when the U.N. inspectors were essentially expelled, and the various known or possible explanations for our inaccurate assessment of the intelligence that we did have. It is interesting that he ultimately prescribes the same remedy as Jonah Goldberg, disclosure:

Finally, the U.S. government must admit to the world that it was wrong about Iraq's WMD and show that it is taking far-reaching action to correct the problems that led to this error. Iraq is not going to be the last foreign-policy challenge in which we must make choices based on ambiguous evidence. When the United States confronts future challenges, the exaggerated estimates of Iraq's WMD will loom like an ugly shadow over the diplomatic discussions. Fairly or not, no foreigner trusts U.S. intelligence to get it right anymore, or trusts the Bush Administration to tell the truth. The only way that we can regain the world's trust is to demonstrate that we understand our mistakes and have changed our ways.


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