And “the evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.” How did Bush know that? Satellite photographs revealed that “Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of its nuclear program in the past.” Then there was the attempt “to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes” used to help enrich uranium.
Finally the slogan we all remember: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
Bush had no such “clear evidence of peril.” But the resolution passed both houses of Congress, and four months later the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq using the resolution as its legal basis for the action.
The lesson should be clear. Allegations of chemical use in Syria must be double-checked. Something happened on March 19 at Khan al-Assal, a village outside the northern city of Aleppo, where the Syrian government and rebels accused each other of chemical warfare. There are reports from British officials that Syrian troops may have been victims of either a projectile going to the wrong target or an Assad-government attempt to implicate the rebels.
The British and French have said they have soil samples and interviews indicating chemicals were also used on March 19 in Ataybah, a village near Damascus, and perhaps Dec. 23 in Homs.
The United Nations has a 15-person special investigation team, headed by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, waiting in Cyprus for deployment whenever the Syrian government gives the okay. So far the regime has said the team can go only to Khan al-Assal.
Delays hamper any inquiry. Urine samples are helpful for the first few days. Blood has a longer shelf life. Sophisticated technology can look for agents in individuals’ DNA and in soil — which can be present for weeks.
Still, traces won’t tell investigators who used them.
The harder question is what does Obama do if “airtight” evidence is found involving the Assad regime.
If the Bush “Decision Points Theater” exhibit offers any lesson, it should be not to trust a president’s “gut instinct” when it comes to ordering military action, particularly if that president has never been to war himself.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.