By Richard Cohen
Thursday, March 30, 2006 12:00 AM
It is my firm belief that if, say, a few dozen people simultaneously did an Internet search for the words "Bush lied," computers all over the country would crash and the energy grid would buckle, producing a rolling blackout that would begin somewhere around Terre Haute, Ind., and end in Barnstable, Mass. So common is the statement "Bush lied" that it seems sometimes that I am the only blue-state person who does not think it is true. Then, last week, the indomitable Helen Thomas changed all that with a single question. She asked George Bush why he wanted "to go to war" from the moment he "stepped into the White House," and the president said, "You know, I didn't want war." With that, the last blue-state skeptic folded.
I would not go so far as to say that Bush wanted war from Day One in the White House, but there was plenty of evidence he had Saddam on his mind and in his sights from the very moment he got the news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We have it from Richard Clarke, formerly the White House's chief anti-terrorism official, that within a day of the attacks Bush was inquiring if Saddam might have had a hand in them. When told no -- "But, Mr. President, al-Qaeda did this," Clarke told him -- it became instantly clear that this was not the answer Bush wanted. "'Look into Iraq, Saddam,' the president said testily," Clarke writes in his book, "Against All Enemies."
Similarly, Bob Woodward says in his book, "Plan of Attack," that not only was Bush fixated on Iraq, but by Thanksgiving of 2001, he already had told Don Rumsfeld to prepare a plan for the invasion of that country. "Let's get started on this," the president said, cautioning the defense secretary not to tell anyone. Rumsfeld said that eventually he would have to take CIA Director George Tenet into his confidence. "'Fine."' Woodward quotes Bush as saying -- "but not now."
As for myself, I was told by a European intelligence official that after flying to Washington right after the 9/11 attacks, he was stunned to discover that talk had already turned to Iraq. This was particularly true at the Pentagon, where Paul Wolfowitz was obsessed with Iraq, and that seems to have been true of the White House as well. And now we know from various British accounts that close aides to Prime Minister Tony Blair recognized early on that Bush was going to go to war -- and that Blair, his poodle at obedient heel, would follow along. More recently we learned -- again from British sources -- that even though Bush went back to the United Nations for yet another resolution condemning Iraq, he was determined to make war almost no matter what.
None of this necessarily means that Bush doctored U.S. intelligence to make a purposely false case that Iraq was seething with weapons of mass destruction. There is plenty of evidence that others in the administration -- Dick Cheney, in particular -- exaggerated such that their pants must have caught fire, but nothing so far proved that Bush knew he was making a false case. Indeed, foreign intelligence sources were in agreement with Bush on Iraq's WMD and so were Clinton administration officials who had seen some of the same intelligence. Even within the Bush administration, critics of the war -- and there were some -- were just as convinced that Saddam had WMD. Colin Powell, you may recall, soiled his stellar reputation with a United Nations speech that is now just plain sad to read. Almost none of it is true.
There remains, though, the little matter of what was in Bush's gut -- not his head, mind you, but that elusive place where emotion resides. It was there, in the moments after 9/11, that Bush truly decided on war, maybe because Saddam had once tried to kill George H.W. Bush, maybe because the neocons had convinced him that a brief war in Iraq would have long-term salutary consequences for the entire Middle East, maybe because he could not abide the thought that a monster like Saddam might die in his sleep -- and maybe because he heard destiny calling.
Whatever Bush's specific reason or reasons, the one thing that's so far missing from the record is proof of him looking for a genuine way out of war instead of looking for a way to get it started. Bush wanted war. He just didn't want the war he got.