Former president Bill Clinton said he agreed with President Bush's decision to confront Iraq about its potential weapons programs, but thought the administration erred in starting a war in 2003 rather than allowing United Nations weapons inspectors longer to carry out their work.
"In terms of the launching of the war, I believe we made an error in not allowing the United Nations to complete the inspections process," Clinton told CBS News's Dan Rather in a "60 Minutes" interview to air tonight.
Clinton made similar comments in an interview with Time magazine, in which he said he "supported the Iraq thing" but questioned its timing. Portions of both interviews -- part of the publicity campaign in advance of this week's release of Clinton's memoirs -- were distributed in advance by the news organizations.
The Time excerpts, in particular, leave Clinton's views on Iraq somewhat jumbled. He both defends Bush for confronting a threat of which Clinton also spoke in dire terms while president, and minimizes the size and urgency of the problem posed by Iraq's suspected weapons programs.
Noting that he has "repeatedly defended President Bush against the left" on Iraq, Clinton dismissed the notion that the Iraq war was principally about protecting petroleum or financial interests.
Instead, he asserts that Bush acted primarily for ideological reasons and that the president was under the sway of Vice President Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. "We went in there because he bought the Wolfowitz-Cheney analysis" that defeating Iraq would help transform the greater Middle East toward democracy.
Clinton's own rhetoric while president emphasized the commitments to allow unfettered weapons inspections that Iraq had made under the terms of surrender in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and the likelihood that then-President Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction that he planned to use.
In February 1998, after Hussein blocked U.N. inspectors from entering Iraq, Clinton warned: "What if he fails to comply, and we fail to act? Or we take some ambiguous third route, which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction and continue to press for the release of the sanctions and continue to ignore the solemn commitments that he made? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you he'll use the arsenal."
In the Time interview, Clinton said "I never really thought" Hussein would use his weapons but did worry that Iraqi weapons might be sold or given away.
Clinton ordered missile strikes against Iraq in December 1998 but did not press aggressively for U.N. inspectors to return. Bush administration officials said this was precisely the "ambiguous third route" in Clinton's warning. But Bush has been embarrassed by the failure of inspectors after Hussein's fall last year to find major weapons programs.
In the Time interview, Clinton suggested that he was concerned after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that Iraq had "a lot of stuff unaccounted for." But in the same interview he seemed to warn against exaggerations about how many weapons were ever suspected.
He said at the time the United Nations pulled out the weapons inspectors in 1998, not to return until after Bush came to power, "there were substantial quantities of botulinum and aflatoxin, as I recall, some bioagents" in addition to some "chemical agents" such as VX and ricin that were "unaccounted for."
"Keep in mind," Clinton urged Time interviewers Michael Duffy and Joe Klein, "that's all we ever had to work on. We also thought there were a few missiles, some warheads, and maybe a very limited amount of nuclear laboratory capacity."