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Turning the Corner on Iraq; Stupidity on Saudi Arabia

The Bush administration is handling the peace well in Iraq, but stumbling with the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

12:10 PM, Jul 28, 2003 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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THE GOOD NEWS is that we may turning the corner in the debate on post-war Iraq. The phony Niger/uranium scandal has run out of steam: There never really was enough oxygen there to sustain a firestorm in the first place, and the release of excerpts from October's National Intelligence Estimate has made the notion of systematic deceit and deception incredible. More important, and despite the continued killings of American soldiers, the situation on the ground in Iraq may well be turning. Aggressive military tactics may be breaking the back of the several thousand Baath die-hards, and we're probably closing in on Saddam. And the administration is finally beginning to explain why the continued sacrifice by American soldiers is crucial to victory in the war on terror, and why fully winning the peace in Iraq is so important. The president and other senior administration officials should be doing more in this respect, and they could do a lot worse than to echo the eloquent statement of a brigade commander in the 101st Airborne in Iraq, quoted by Paul Gigot in today's Wall Street Journal: "I tell my troops every day that what we're doing is every bit as important as World War II. The chance to create a stable Iraq could help our security for the next 40 or 50 years."

Yet as the administration beats back unjustified criticism about Iraq, it has foolishly given a sword to its critics by insisting on the redaction of 28 pages, in the congressional report on 9/11, on Saudi Arabia's links to the hijackers. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and no foe of the Bush administration, says the withholding was mostly unnecessary and was done to "protect the Saudis." The former vice chairman of the committee, Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), says he "went back and read every one of those pages, thoroughly, two or three days ago. My judgment is 95 percent of that information could be declassified."

The Bush administration claims the Saudis have been much more cooperative in the war on terror since the May 2003 bombing in Riyadh. But whether or not that's the case, and whether or not the administration's policy toward Saudi Arabia is now tough enough, there's simply no excuse for averting our eyes to the pre-9/11 situation. (In an unclassified part of the report, one government official is said to have told the committee that "it was clear from about 1996 that the Saudi government would not cooperate with the United States on matters related to Osama bin Laden.") The administration's censorship simply invites further questions about the extent to which we turned a blind eye to that failure to cooperate, or, for example, about why the bin Laden extended family was allowed suddenly to depart to Saudi Arabia shortly after September 11. There's no reason for the Bush administration now to be covering up the bipartisan disgrace of pre-9/11 U.S.-Saudi policy. Doing so simply gives fresh ammunition to its critics when the administration should be going on the offensive in making the (strong) case for its foreign policy.

William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.