This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
Britain's report on the prewar intelligence assessment of the Iraqi threat is in and it reached basically the same conclusions as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: the intelligence was seriously flawed and Iraq had no usable weapons of mass destruction.
Prime Minister Tony Blair immediately accepted "personal responsibility."
President Bush has taken not one ounce of personal responsibility for the failings of our intelligence. Pathetically, that is the custom in American politics, but it still reflects poorly on the president.
Still, Mr. Bush did give a serious, substantive response to the Senate report in a speech Monday and it's worth looking at carefully. The arguments in the speech will be keys to his reelection campaign.
The Senate report, entitled "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq" attempted to answer a question: Was the intelligence portrait of the Iraqi threat accurate and proper? A more politicized version of the question is did the U.S. go to war under false pretenses? The answers were no and yes, resoundingly.
The central conclusion of the Senate report:
"Most of the major key judgments in the intelligence community's (IC) October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction, either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting. A series of failures, particularly in analytic trade craft, led to the mischaracterization of the intelligence." (My note: the NIE is the CIA's "most authoritative written judgment on a topic; this specific NIE was the document Congress most relied on in judging the Iraqi threat in 2002. I recommend taking a look at the whole report and reading the conclusions.)
The president's response to this, which also should be read in full, utilizes a classic politician's trick: never answer the question that is asked; answer the question you want to answer.
Mr. Bush ignores the question the Senate report dealt with – intelligence – except for one throw-away line: "The Senate Intelligence Committee has identified some shortcomings in our intelligence capabilities; the Committee's report will help us in the work of reform."
Some shortcomings. Right.
Instead, the president answers his own question: Was the war on Iraq the right thing to do?
In answering this, Mr. Bush uses another trick of modern rhetoric: repeat your sound bite in hopes that it hypnotizes the audience into acceptance. In this case, the mantra is, "the American people are safer." It is repeated seven times in the speech.
But to his credit, Mr. Bush also offers coherent arguments and not just subliminal suggestions. The president's first argument, obviously, is that the war was the right thing to do because America is now safer. Iraq was a "threat" to America the president argued. That threat has been eliminated. Ergo, America is better off and the war was just.
It is crucial to note a logical and ethical mistake here: War is not automatically justifiable because it may result in increased safety or general well being of the attacking nation or alliance. The increase in safety is one value weighed against others: U.S. fatalities (890 Americans so far in Iraq), enemy and Iraqi civilian casualties, money costs, relations with allied nations and relations with less friendly nations.
And even if we stipulate that Saddam did pose some threat (we can argue about the extent of it), it doesn't plainly follow that eliminating that threat makes America safer.
Mr. Bush's speech wholly ignores the two main arguments about why the U.S. is less safe after the war. The first is that by invading an Arab country we fueled even more anti-American hate and increased the supply of Islamist terrorists worldwide. The second is that by acting over the objections of so many major allies, we have weakened international cooperation in battling terror and the chances for cooperation in the next major crisis.
If eliminating threats was so clearly justifiable and prudent, we would have invaded both North Korea and Iran by now and maybe even Saudi Arabia.
The president's second main argument is that America is safer because of improved situations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Libya as well as Iraq. One problem: The situations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Libya were not improved because we fought a war in Iraq. Afghanistan was taken care of well before the war. The war certainly made life more difficult for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; they had different reasons for becoming more cooperative with us on terror issues. The president implies, but does not assert, that Libya gave up its nuclear ambitions because of the war, but it was on that path anyway.
So by the president's logic, we'd be plenty safer even without the Iraq war.
The president's third argument: "America must remember the lessons of September the 11th. We must confront serious dangers before they fully materialize." Well, yes. But that does not mean we send in the Army to deal with all serious unmaterialized dangers; the Army would be quite busy. For this argument to be persuasive, Mr. Bush would have needed to address the Senate report, because without accurate, honest intelligence, how does the president know when there is a serious danger?
As we've seen, Mr. Bush asserts –- simply and repeatedly -- that Iraq was "a threat."
"And so my administration looked at the intelligence on Iraq, and we saw a threat," he said. "Members of the United States Congress from both political parties looked at the same intelligence, and they saw a threat. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence, and it saw a threat."
In this war, the Iraqi threat that was described to Congress and the American people has proven to be false.
President Bush has still not addressed that, much less taken responsibility.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer
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