Iraq, Then and Now

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

AFTER LAGGING for months, debate on Iraq in Washington is picking up again. That's a needed and welcome development, but much of the discussion is being diverted to the wrong subject. War opponents have been trumpeting several British government memos from July 2002, which describe the Bush administration's preparations for invasion, as revelatory of President Bush's deceptions about Iraq. Bloggers have demanded to know why "the mainstream media" have not paid more attention to them. Though we can't speak for The Post's news department, the answer appears obvious: The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration's prewar deliberations. Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002.

Three summers ago the pages of this and other newspapers were filled with reports about military planning for war to remove Saddam Hussein and Mr. Bush's determination to force a showdown. "Debate over whether the United States should go to war against Iraq," we stated in a lead editorial on Aug. 4, "has lurched into a higher gear." Concern that the Bush administration was not adequately prepared for a postwar occupation -- another supposed revelation of the British memos -- prompted widely reported public hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee starting on July 31, 2002.

One observation in the memos is vague but intriguing: A British official is quoted as saying that the "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Yet it was argued even then, and has since become conventional wisdom, that Mr. Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration spokesmen exaggerated the threat from Iraq to justify the elimination of its noxious regime. And the memos provide no information that would alter the conclusions of multiple independent investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, which were that U.S. and British intelligence agencies genuinely believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that they were not led to that judgment by the Bush administration.

Debate over whether the war should have been fought is appropriate and no doubt will continue for many years. But it ought not distract from what should be an urgent discussion of the present situation in Iraq. After a lull following January's elections, violence -- and U.S. casualties -- have returned to the level of last fall; the political process is stuck on the inability of Shiite and Sunni leaders to reach an accommodation, even as the time allotted to completing a constitution slips away. Recent in-depth reports by The Post and the New York Times have suggested that training of the new Iraqi army continues to yield mixed results and that it will be several more years, at least, before Iraqi units can take the place of U.S. troops.

All this should call into question the Bush administration's present rhetoric and apparent strategy, which assumes that the Iraqi insurgency is, as Mr. Cheney put it, in its "last throes"; that Iraqi units will be ready before the U.S. military, now facing a recruiting crisis, is broken by the strain of deploying more than 130,000 troops; and that the United States can still afford to take a relatively hands-off approach to the political process, leaving Baghdad without an ambassador for months at a time. In fact, the U.S. mission in Iraq seems to be drifting dangerously -- and the president, once again, is not talking frankly to the country about the sacrifice that may be required, or where the troops and other resources for such an effort will come from. Those ought to be the questions at center stage this summer.

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