By Edward M. Kennedy
Wednesday, August 26, 2009 7:28 AM
Editor's note: This op-ed was first published in The Post on Jan. 18, 2004. We republish it today, along with several Kennedy opinions, on the occasion of Kennedy's death.
Of the many issues competing for attention in this new and defining year, one is of a unique order of magnitude: President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. The facts demonstrate how dishonest that decision was. As former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill recently confirmed, the debate over military action began as soon as President Bush took office. Some felt Saddam Hussein could be contained without war. A month after the inauguration, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said: "We have kept him contained, kept him in his box." The next day, he said tellingly that Hussein "has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction."
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, gave advocates of war the opening they needed. They tried immediately to tie Hussein to al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld created an Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon to analyze the intelligence for war and bypass the traditional screening process. Vice President Cheney relied on intelligence from Iraqi exiles and put pressure on intelligence agencies to produce the desired result.
The war in Afghanistan began in October with overwhelming support in Congress and the country. But the focus on Iraq continued behind the scenes, and President Bush went along. In the Rose Garden on Nov. 26, he said: "Afghanistan is still just the beginning."
Three days later, Cheney publicly began to send signals about attacking Iraq. On Nov. 29 he said: "I don't think it takes a genius to figure out that this guy [Hussein] is clearly . . . a significant potential problem for the region, for the United States, for everybody with interests in the area." On Dec. 12 he raised the temperature: "If I were Saddam Hussein, I'd be thinking very carefully about the future, and I'd be looking very closely to see what happened to the Taliban in Afghanistan."
Next, Karl Rove, in a rare public stumble, made his own role clear, telling the Republican National Committee on Jan. 19, 2002, that the war on terrorism could be used politically. Republicans could "go to the country on this issue," he said.
Ten days later, in his State of the Union address, President Bush invoked the "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- and we lost our clear focus on al Qaeda. The address contained 12 paragraphs on Afghanistan and 29 on the war on terrorism, but only one fleeting mention of al Qaeda. It said nothing about the Taliban or Osama bin Laden.
In the following months, although bin Laden was still at large, the drumbeat on Iraq gradually drowned out those who felt Hussein was no imminent threat. On Sept. 12 the president told the United Nations: "Iraq likely maintains stockpiles of VX, mustard and other chemical agents and has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon." He said Iraq could build a nuclear weapon "within a year" if Hussein obtained such material.
War on Iraq was clearly coming, but why make this statement in September? As White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." The 2002 election campaigns were then entering the home stretch. Election politics prevailed over foreign policy and national security. The administration insisted on a vote in Congress to authorize the war before Congress adjourned for the elections. Why? Because the debate would distract attention from the troubled economy and the failed effort to capture bin Laden. The shift in focus to Iraq could help Republicans and divide Democrats.
The tactic worked. Republicans voted almost unanimously for war and kept control of the House in the elections. Democrats were deeply divided and lost their majority in the Senate. The White House could use its control of Congress to get its way on key domestic priorities.
The final step in the march to war was a feint to the United Nations. But Cheney, Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz had convinced the president that war would be a cakewalk, with or without the United Nations, and that our forces would be welcomed as liberators. In March the war began.
Hussein's brutal regime was not an adequate justification for war, and the administration did not seriously try to make it one until long after the war began and all the false justifications began to fall apart. There was no imminent threat. Hussein had no nuclear weapons, no arsenals of chemical or biological weapons, no connection to Sept. 11 and no plausible link to al Qaeda. We never should have gone to war for ideological reasons driven by politics and based on manipulated intelligence.
Vast resources have been spent on the war that should have been spent on priorities at home. Our forces are stretched thin. Precious lives have been lost. The war has made America more hated in the world and made the war on terrorism harder to win. As Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in announcing the latest higher alert: "Al Qaeda's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland is perhaps greater now than at any point since September 11th."
The most fundamental decision a president ever makes is the decision to go to war. President Bush violated the trust that must exist between government and the people. If Congress and the American people had known the truth, America would never have gone to war in Iraq. No president who does that to our country deserves to be reelected.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.