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They Left Him No Choice

Trying to reconcile Democrats on 9/11 and Iraq.

6:20 AM, Nov 17, 2005 • By JOEL ENGEL
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THE MAN who positioned himself as the anti-Chamberlain has nonetheless allowed his presidency to be hijacked by appeasement. For two years, he appeased those who shouted ever louder that he lied about why we went to war in Iraq. At first, no doubt, the president saw those claims as too ridiculous to merit any kind of response; doing so would've seemed beneath the office.

But in not reacting, as President Clinton used to do almost daily to his political adversaries, President Bush has allowed the Big Lie chorus to drown out the rest of the country. It's gotten so loud that polls now show nearly half the populace believing our president can't be trusted. Which is of course why he and his advisers have at last gone on the offensive, pointing out that his critics in Congress saw the same data he saw and yet voted to grant him their blessings to send out the troops.

The facts are on the president's side, as numerous commentators have elucidated with supreme skill. Prominent among them: Norman Podhoretz eviscerates each of the critics' ludicrous claims, and Christopher Hitchens details the cynicism and credulousness one would have to suffer from in order to believe the Big Lies. As Stephen F. Hayes has pointed out, the case can be made that opposition politicians are cynically playing with our security.

So there's no need here to gild any lilies.

There is, though, a need to remember what transpired before the war--in fact, soon after the towers fell. And what happened was this declaration, from the mouth of Rep. Cynthia McKinney while the ashes were still smoldering: "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11. What did this administration know and when did it know it, about the events of September 11?"

Farfetched as the claim may have seemed--the utterance of a leftist conspiracy wacko--the Georgia congresswoman was the first but would not be the last to accuse President Bush of having purposefully ignored intelligence that predicted the imminent use of hijacked planes as missiles.

Echoed Senator Hillary Clinton soon thereafter--from the Senate floor, no less: "What did Bush know and when did he know it."

Ditto Howard Dean. The then-presidential candidate passed along the "theory"--as he called it--on WAMU radio that Bush "was warned ahead of time by the Saudis." (Later came the pronouncements of former Nixon aide John Dean. Promoting a book about the Bush administration titled Worse Than Watergate, the convicted felon wrote that the president "likely" ignored "the potential of terrorists [to fly] airplanes into skyscrapers.")

A headline in the New York Times declared, "Bush Was Warned Bin Laden Wanted to Hijack Planes," which was what the Washington Post confirmed with its "Bush Was Told of Hijacking Dangers." These stories, among many, referred to comments by co-chair of the 9-11 commission Thomas Kean, synopsizing the first findings which suggested that the attacks could have been prevented.

The clamor inevitably reached the morning TV chat fests (Katie Couric: "What did Bush know and when did he know it?") and the rest of the zeitgeist, growing so pervasive that it sounded like hillside coyotes celebrating a kill. Its apotheosis would later appear in the person of Richard Clarke, former National Security Council chief of counter-terrorism. His bestselling book, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, received much media attention for his claims that the president and his team had remained willfully ignorant of the threat posed by al Qaeda.

Remember all this? Sure you do.

What you may not remember was that the source of all this hysteria was a single Presidential Daily Briefing, given to the president on August 6, 2001. The report said nothing about hijacked planes being flown into buildings and indeed admitted that "some of the more sensational threat reporting" could not be corroborated. It did, however, refer to bin Laden's stated goals of bringing the fighting to America--claims made by bin Laden himself on national television three years before--as well as the luckily foiled millennium bomber of 1999 and the African embassy bombings a year earlier.