Iraq Fighting Shifts to U.S. Soil

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By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2005; 11:05 AM

Even before former president Bill Clinton joined the torrent of criticism of the Iraq war on Wednesday, President Bush and others in his administration had launched a withering counterattack aimed at reversing negative public perceptions of the White House's handling of the war.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney spent much of the past several days accusing Democratic critics of hypocrisy for criticizing the Iraq war and the U.S. intelligence estimates that justified it after so many congressional Democrats voted for the war in the first place three years ago.

Cheney described charges that the administration manipulated intelligence on Iraq as "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."

"They spoke the truth then and they're speaking politics now," Bush said in a speech at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska on Tuesday.

In his speech in Alaska, Bush quoted Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has since renounced his vote in favor or the war authorization. "There is unmistakable evidence that Saddam Hussein is working aggressively to develop nuclear weapons," Rockefeller said before the war.

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has produced a video compiling statements from about a dozen high-profile Democrats, including Bill Clinton, decrying Saddam Hussein and the Iraq threat.

On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld launched his own counterattack, reading past statement about the threat posed by Iraq made by Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser. Rumsfeld's argument is one that has commonly been used by supporters of the war--that Clinton himself supported "regime change." But few people really know what that means.

Clinton did, in fact, sign regime-change legislation. But it was hardly a declaration of war. The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 essentially sought to encourage the Iraqi insurgency and fund it to the tune of $97 million--a far cry from a commitment to a U.S. led ground war over international objections that has cost more than $200 billion and killed more than 2,050 Americans.

The GOP video and the Bush administration's pointed responses to Democratic critics are really nothing more than smokescreens, Democrats argue. The main issue over the intelligence that drove the decision to go to war remains: Was Hussein an eminent threat that could only be dealt with by an unprecedented preemptive strike?

The problem, Democrats say, is that Bush and top administration officials presented the case against Iraq as unequivocal, overwhelming, solid, and then redacted or withheld dozens of facts that might presented a more nuanced, balanced viewpoint. The minority office of the House Committee on Government Reform has culled scores of old quotes from Bush and other administration officials that it says proves this point.

White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino defended the actions of the White House in an interview with Talking Points.

"The Robb-Silberman Commission found that there was no political pressure on the intelligence community, and that the intelligence provided to Congress was no different than that given to the President," Perino told Talking Points. "These intelligence failures are the reason that we've taken action to reform our intelligence community. The Democrats should refocus their efforts on winning the War on Terror instead ofattempting to rewrite history for political gain."

But as Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus of The Washington Post pointed out in a recent story, the Robb-Silberman Commision wasn't charged with discerning whether "officials mischaracterized intelligence by omitting caveats and dissenting opinions." In fact, "Judge Laurence H. Silberman ... said in releasing his report on March 31, 2005: 'Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us were agreed that that was not part of our inquiry.'"

Not only is it now a very public inquiry, but the debate appears to be headed on a very divisive path.

As former president Clinton said yesterday in Dubai, "Saddam [Hussein] is gone. It's a good thing, but I don't agree with what was done. It was a big mistake. The American government made several errors, one of which is how easy it would be to get rid of Saddam and how hard it would be to unite the country."

Polls show the American public increasingly uneasy with the Bush administration's handling of the war, but the Democrats' change in direction isn't guaranteed to pay off in next year's midterm elections. The only thing most observers agree on now is that the political ramifications for both parties will be significant in 2006.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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