One by one, official reports by government investigators, statements by former administration officials and internal CIA analyses have combined to undermine many of the central rationales of the administration's case for war with Iraq -- and its handling of the post-invasion occupation.
The release of yesterday's definitive account on Iraq's weapons -- and its conclusion that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction years before the U.S.-led invasion -- is only the latest in a series of damaging blows to the White House's strategy of portraying the war in Iraq as being on the cusp of success.
The report also comes just a few weeks after Democratic presidential challenger John F. Kerry gave new life to his campaign by emphasizing what he asserts is the gap between the president's rhetoric and the realities in Iraq.
This week, President Bush's former administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, broke with the administration to say officials had sent too few troops to Iraq and had allowed a culture of lawlessness to develop. The CIA, using information gathered after the invasion, cast doubt last week on whether Saddam Hussein aided Abu Musab Zarqawi, an al Qaeda associate, as the administration repeatedly alleged before the war.
The CIA over the summer delivered an analysis that Iraq could be expected, in the best-case scenario, to achieve a "tenuous stability" over the next 18 months and, in the worst case, to dissolve into civil war. The July assessment was similar to one produced before the war and another in late 2003 that were more pessimistic in tone than the administration's portrayal of the resistance to the U.S. occupation.
The risk for the Bush campaign is that the drip-drip of the revelations will slowly erode the advantage that the president has held among voters for his handling of the Iraq war and especially the struggle against terrorism. Despite growing misgivings about the violence in Iraq, Bush has held a commanding lead on whether he would better protect the country from terrorists.
But in the first two candidates' debates, Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, have worked to separate the two issues. They have charged that Bush bungled the war on terrorism -- especially against al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who is still at large -- through what they have described as a needless diversion into Iraq.
Kerry has had his own problems on Iraq: He accepted that the administration intelligence on Iraq was correct and voted to authorize the use of force. But he has said that he gave Bush authorization in order to give him credibility in the showdown with Iraq, and that he would have given U.N. weapons inspectors more time to complete their work.
Bush said yesterday that Hussein "chose defiance and war, [and] our coalition enforced the just demands of the world," but Iraq actually had allowed the United Nations to send inspectors into the country, although Iraqi officials had balked at allowing scientists to leave the country for questioning. The inspectors left not because Iraq kicked them out but because the United States said it was about to launch an invasion and their safety could not be guaranteed.
Former chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, adding weight to Kerry's argument, said yesterday: "Had we had a few months more, we would have been able to tell both the CIA and others that there were no weapons of mass destruction [at] all the sites that they had given to us."
Kerry campaign officials jumped on the report, saying it is one more piece of evidence that the war in Iraq was a mistake and was based on evidence that was either faulty or exaggerated by administration officials. Susan Rice, a senior foreign policy adviser to Kerry, said the Bush campaign is "grasping at straws" as it strains to maintain a link between the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war with Iraq.
Rice said the White House made a "very dangerous strategic error" by focusing on Iraq, which turns out to have had no banned weapons, while ignoring or mishandling the much more dangerous threat posed by Iran and North Korea -- countries known to have active nuclear programs.
Administration officials have responded to the report by playing down the failure to find weapons, suggesting it was old news. Bush ignored the findings when he gave a major speech attacking Kerry, saying, "There was a risk -- a real risk -- that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons, or material, or information to terrorist networks."
Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, interviewed by the BBC, stressed yesterday the report found that Hussein had a missile program in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and that he had the "capability and the intention" to possess dangerous weapons. "He did not, apparently, have WMD. That's clear," Armitage said, adding: "I think all of us have addressed this."
Administration officials spent yesterday trying to refocus the attention of reporters on the disclosures in the report that many U.S. allies, top foreign officials and major international figures secretly helped Hussein generate more than $11 billion in illegal income in violation of U.N. sanctions. The report contains a long list of foreign officials and companies involved in helping Iraq -- while the names of Americans were blacked out because of privacy considerations.
With Kerry making the ability to work with allies a central plank of his foreign policy agenda, the revelations of allied deceit could undercut that argument in the minds of voters. Yesterday on the campaign trail, Bush declared: "I'll never hand over America's security decisions to foreign leaders and international bodies that do not have America's interests at heart."
Rice argued that there is a different lesson from the report -- that the sanctions had prevented Hussein from acquiring weapons and had greatly weakened him. The United States, as a permanent member of the Security Council, could forever veto any attempt to lift the sanctions, she said.
"What this means is that the sanctions had him in a box, and he couldn't have gotten out of the box unless the administration lifted him out of it," she said.