“We both put together large coalitions of nations, and we both gave Saddam Hussein a chance to make a choice.”
“The man, Saddam Hussein, would have a lot of revenue as a result of high prices of oil. And even though there wasn’t, you know, a – we found a dirty bomb, for example – he had the capacity to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And so there’s – you know, it’s all very hypothetical. But yeah, I could argue that we’re much safer without Saddam. And I would argue that the people of Iraq have a better shot at living in a peaceful – a peaceful state.”
— Former president George W. Bush, interview on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” aired Nov. 12, 2014
The Fact Checker was puzzled by Bush’s reference to finding a dirty bomb in Iraq. It certainly sounded like he said that such a weapon was found in Iraq. But after listening to the tape a few times, we concluded that the former president, in an offhand manner, was giving that as an example of something that was not found after the United States invaded Iraq.
Who knew that the United States invaded Iraq because of a potential dirty-bomb threat? That’s certainly not what the administration suggested before the war.
Let’s examine a pair of the president’s claims in the NPR interview.
‘Large coalitions of nations’
Here Bush is comparing the coalition he assembled for Iraq with the one put together by his father, George H.W. Bush, to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. But he is repeating old White House spin that was quite inaccurate. As diplomatic correspondent for The Post in 2003, The Fact Checker assessed the two coalitions and found the comparison wanting.
At the time of the March 2003 invasion, administration officials asserted that 44 nations were part of the coalition, but officials reached that number by lumping nations providing military units or logistical assistance with an eclectic group of nations — such as Afghanistan, the Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Honduras, Rwanda and the Solomon Islands — that voiced only political support. The military force was almost entirely a U.S.-British campaign, with some assistance from Australia and Poland.
By contrast, the first Persian Gulf War was prosecuted by a 34-nation military force, with each nation listed in the coalition contributing troops on the ground, aircraft, ships or medics. Dozens of others nations voiced support for the war against Iraq in 1991, so it likely topped 100 countries under the standards used to come up with a list of 44 nations in 2003.
In fact, 21 of the 34 countries that contributed forces or materiel to the first Gulf War — such as France, Syria, Pakistan, Canada, Germany and Norway — either refused to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq or asked not to be identified because of public opposition to U.S. actions.
To be fair, after the invasion a number of countries (including Norway) began to supply troops for stability and humanitarian operations, so that between December 2003 and May 2007, 38 countries besides the United States provided at least some troops, according to a 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office. But that’s not the same as the invasion force, which is the context in which Bush made this comment. (Note that he says he assembled a coalition and then gave Hussein “a choice.”)
‘Had the capacity to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons’
Before the invasion, Bush was much more definitive. The issue was not capacity, but actual weapons. And these were not just “dirty bombs” — which spew radioactive material — but weapons of mass destruction.
Here is a section from a major speech on the “Iraqi threat” that Bush gave in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, outlining what he called a “grave threat to peace”:
The Iraqi regime has violated all of those obligations. It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons…. Surveillance photos reveal that the regime is rebuilding facilities that it had used to produce chemical and biological weapons. Every chemical and biological weapon that Iraq has or makes is a direct violation of the truce that ended the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Yet, Saddam Hussein has chosen to build and keep these weapons despite international sanctions, U.N. demands, and isolation from the civilized world…. Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.
Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of its nuclear program in the past. Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.
But none of that turned out to be correct. Even Bush’s revised claim of “capacity” is a stretch.
The most comprehensive report on Iraq’s weapons programs after the war, the so-called Duelfer report, concluded that Saddam Hussein “resolved to eliminate the existing stocks of WMD weapons during the course of the summer of 1991 in support of the prime objective of getting rid of sanctions…. It seems clear that the guiding theme for WMD was to sustain the intellectual capacity achieved over so many years at such a great cost and to be in a position to produce again with as short a lead time as possible — within the vital constraint that no action should threaten the prime objective of ending international sanctions and constraints.”
In other words, Hussein may not have given up his dream of one day again having weapons of mass destruction — but he did not have such weapons when the United States invaded. Neither did he have much capacity, either. The nuclear program, in particular, was all but eliminated, even though Bush once again raised the specter of nuclear weapons in his NPR interview.
“There was no highly enriched uranium, no plutonium, no remaining capacity to produce either of those things (the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons),” said Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor who is an expert on nuclear proliferation. “They could have rebuilt someday, but not with international inspectors in place. This was a case where international inspections did exactly what we want them to do — deter violations because of the risk they’d be detected — but the Bush administration didn’t believe it.”
The Pinocchio Test
In playing down what the administration hoped to find in Iraq (“a dirty bomb”) and then playing up what was found (“capacity to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons”), the former president misleadingly twists the initial rationale behind the invasion and the outcome of extensive investigations into Iraq’s WMD capability. He also overstates the comparison between his invading force and the coalition assembled by his father.
Bush earns Three Pinocchios.
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