By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
A line is forming outside the Iraq confessional. It consists of Democratic presidential aspirants -- where's Hillary? -- who voted for the war in Iraq and now concede that they made a "mistake." Former senator John Edwards did that Nov. 13 in a Post op-ed article, and Sen. Joseph Biden uttered the "M" word Sunday on "Meet the Press." "It was a mistake," said Biden. "It was a mistake," wrote Edwards. Yes and yes, says Cohen. But it is also a mistake to call it a mistake.
Both senators have a point, of course. They were told by the president and members of his War Cabinet -- Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld -- that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. In particular, those three emphasized Iraq's purported nuclear weapons program. As late as August 2003, Condoleezza Rice was saying that she was "certain to this day that this regime was a threat, that it was pursuing a nuclear weapon, that it had biological and chemical weapons, that it had used them." To be charitable, she didn't know what she was talking about.
As it turned out, neither did Vice President Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney said, "Increasingly, we believe that the United States will become the target" of an Iraqi nuclear weapon, and Rumsfeld raised a truly horrible specter: "Imagine a Sept. 11th with weapons of mass destruction" that would kill "tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children." Imagine a defense secretary who thought he was propaganda minister.
I quote this trio of braying exaggerators -- all of them still in the administration -- because they emphasized the purported nuclear weapons threat. Yet by the time the war began, March 20, 2003, it was quite clear that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program. All the evidence for one -- the aluminum tubes, the uranium from Africa -- had been challenged. What's more, U.N. inspectors in Iraq had found nothing. "We have to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq," said Mohamed ElBaradei of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency. That was on Feb. 14. The next month, the United States went to war anyway.
In their respective confessions, neither Edwards nor Biden explains why they were not persuaded by the evidence that Bush & Co. were exaggerating -- concocting is possibly a better word -- Saddam Hussein's nuclear threat. Of course, that still leaves chemical and biological weapons. But chemical arms have been around since 1915 and World War I. Biological weapons are a different story, but they are hard to deliver and not all that effective. Whatever the case, before Sept. 11, Americans hardly feared Hussein's chemical or biological weapons.
Sept. 11 changed all that. The terrorist attacks, coupled with the still-unexplained deaths of five people from anthrax sent through the mail, unhinged America. Cooler heads in the Bush administration seized the moment to plump for a war they had always wanted while many of the rest of us -- myself included -- got caught up in an emotional frenzy. Even after the passions of the moment cooled -- even after it was clear Iraq was no real imminent threat -- few of us demanded that Bush back down. The best I could do was whisper some doubt. On July 25, 2002, I wrote that the Bush administration would pay dearly if it was going to wage war for specious reasons. "War plans are being drawn up in the Pentagon," I wrote. "But explanations are lacking at the White House."
Well, those explanations are still lacking. But so, too, are those from Democrats who say they made a "mistake" in supporting the war. What sort of mistake? It's not a mistake to be misled. But it is a mistake, if that's even the right word, to lack the courage of your convictions, to get swept up in the zeitgeist and dig in your heels even harder -- not as a consequence of hardening conviction but of accumulating doubt. This is a mistake of great consequence, a failure of judgment or political courage, and it needs to be explained.
I do not hold the new war critics to a higher standard than those who led us to war or who still think it was a dandy idea. But we will learn nothing from this debacle if the word "mistake" can be used like a blackboard eraser just to wipe the slate clean. This is no different from what Bush is trying to do: The intelligence was bad, not his wretched judgment. To accept this explanation does not -- both for the president and his critics -- undo the mistake. On the contrary, it compounds it.