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Bush Suckers the Democrats

From the July 28, 2003 issue: Anatomy of a scandal that wasn't.

Jul 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 44 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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KARL ROVE is a genius. No--Rove probably gets more credit than he deserves for political smarts, and the president gets too little, so let's rephrase that: George W. Bush is a genius.

Almost two weeks ago, the president ordered his White House staff to bollix up its explanation of that now-infamous 16-word "uranium from Africa" sentence in his State of the Union address. As instructed, and with the rhetorical ear and political touch for which they have become justly renowned, assorted senior administration officials, named and unnamed, proceeded to unleash all manner of contradictory statements. The West Wing stood by the president's claim. Or it didn't. Or the relevant intelligence reports had come from Britain and were faulty. Or hadn't and weren't. Smelling blood, just as they'd been meant to, first the media--and then the Democratic party--dove into the resulting "scandal" head first and fully clothed.

Belatedly, but sometime soon, the divers are going to figure out that they've been lured into a great big ocean--with no way back to shore. Because the more one learns about this Niger brouhaha that White House spokesmen have worked so hard to generate, the less substance there seems to be in it. As we say, George W. Bush is a genius.

In its October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the CIA concluded that Saddam Hussein remained "intent on acquiring" nuclear weapons; that actual development of an Iraqi nuclear weapon would be but several months to a year away if Saddam could acquire sufficient fissile material; and that Baghdad had, in fact, already begun "vigorously trying to procure" such stuff, uranium ore and yellowcake, either of which would speed Saddam along.

This then-secret CIA report was filed one month after the British government had announced a similar judgment in public. Subsequently, a variety of American officials echoed this claim in public statements between October and January, in the context of repeated expressions of concern about Iraq's "continuing, and in some areas expanding," chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs, as the CIA put it in its October estimate.

On January 28, the president said in his State of the Union address that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Perhaps he should have said "the British government believes" rather than "has learned." But this statement was unremarkable at the time, and remains unremarkable today. And, contrary to the implications of George Tenet's disingenuous press release of July 11, the president said nothing that the Central Intelligence Agency had retracted or controverted in the months between the distribution of their October estimate and the State of the Union address.

It now turns out the CIA had its doubts--though they were less than definitive. It also turns out the British are sticking by their claim. And it remains the case, most important, that the African uranium business, whatever the truth of it, was never more than a single piece of the otherwise voluminous evidence driving allied concern over Saddam and weapons of mass destruction. How important were those "significant quantities of uranium from Africa"? The White House now acknowledges, in retrospect, that the matter didn't merit mention in the State of the Union.

There's your "scandal."

American journalism's frenzy over the thing--the hyperbolic, rush-to-judgment, believe-the-worst character of the coverage--has been plenty bad enough. But the Democratic party has been even worse. Here, for example, is what unsuspecting Internet visitors learn from the Democratic National Committee's website: There has been "a year-long campaign of deception involving a bogus intelligence report on Iraq's nuclear program." And who has directed this deception, for reasons so terrible, apparently, that they cannot be identified? DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe has cracked the conspiracy: "This may be the first time in recent history that a president knowingly misled the American people during the State of the Union address," he says. And "this was not a mistake. It was no oversight and it was no error."

What it was instead, according to former governor Howard Dean of Vermont, currently the Democratic party's leading candidate to replace President Bush in the White House, was a "pattern of distorted intelligence" that raises a real question whether the American people can confidently "retain their trust in their government"--or whether the United States "can retain its credibility as a moral force in the world."

And the answer to these questions, adds Sen. Ted Kennedy, not to put too fine a point on it, is: no. "It's a disgrace," in the Sage of Hyannisport's expert assessment, that "the case for war seems to have been based on shoddy intelligence, hyped intelligence, and even false intelligence." There being no other conceivable case for war, so far as Kennedy is concerned, the Bush administration has therefore "undermined America's prestige and credibility in the world."

Of course, were all this true--had Bush really sent American soldiers into combat against what he knew to be an imaginary, fabricated threat--then the nation would be ripe for yet another presidential impeachment drama, maybe. Not maybe, says Florida senator Bob Graham, one of Howard Dean's many rivals in next year's Democratic primaries: "My opinion is, if the standard that was set by the House of Representatives relative to Bill Clinton is the new standard for impeachment, then this clearly comes within that standard."

Not that anyone in the Democratic party is prepared to defend Saddam's deposed regime, mind you. Or dares to propose that Iraq is worse off now that Saddam is gone. Or that America is worse off now that Saddam is gone. Or that the Middle East is worse off now that Saddam is gone. (Though Gov. Dean is agnostic on all counts.) No: The Democrats' problem is not that Bush judged Saddam a present danger. Their problem isn't even that Bush based this judgment on American intelligence estimates to that effect. How could it be, since Bill Clinton and Al Gore made the very same judgment, based explicitly on the very same intelligence estimates?

George W. Bush's one great and unforgivable sin, it seems, was to have acted on the judgment that Saddam Hussein was a present danger--acted, as Clinton and Gore repeatedly threatened but failed to do, the way a serious president must. At his moment of decision, the American people supported Bush. They support him still. And the fact of that support--as the Democrats' hysterical attack on a 16-word sentence in the State of the Union suggests--is driving one of our two major political parties...stark, raving mad.

God knows the Bush administration is not beyond criticism for either its prewar planning or its execution of postwar reconstruction efforts. And it would be a valuable contribution to our politics if such criticism were mounted by the Democratic party--acting as an intelligent, loyal opposition. But it's a free country, and if the Democrats prefer instead to act as a pathologically disgruntled lunatic fringe, then it'll be their problem more than anyone else's.

Certainly the White House won't think it a problem. That muffled sound you hear coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the sound of George W. Bush chuckling at the success of his nefarious scheme. Misunderestimated, once again.

--William Kristol