I had a little sparring match with Mitt Romney today over the run-up to the Iraq war. He is in California, mostly doing private meetings and fundraising, but he had a brief media availability before his lunch speech in Corona, and I went out with Mandie Russell, our intern, who videoed the whole thing. We're hoping to have some of it on the Register Web site, but we're still learning (or teaching ourselves) how to do it.
The question I asked had to do with the last Republican candidates' forum, at which Gov. Romney said -- well, here's the transcript, as provided to me by e-mail by the campaign afterward. The question had to do with whether, given what we know now, the Iraq war was justified:
Gov. Romney: "well, the question is, kind of, a non sequitur, if you will. What I mean by that -- or a null set -- that is that if you're saying let's turn back the clock and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein therefore not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in. But he didn't do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in. I supported the President's position based on what we knew at the time."
There's a lot to parse there, including the eccentric use of the term null set, from set theory in mathematics, which doesn't seem applicable at all here. But as I read that statement, it certainly seems to deny, not know or forget that IAEA inspectors were in Iraq until almost the moment of the U.S. invasion. So I asked him if he wanted to correct or clarify the statement.
He got a little huffy and said it needed to be taken in context, that what he meant was that Saddam Hussein hadn't opened the country up to unfettered inspection, that even as the inspectors were there Saddam was stonewalling (Romney's term) and engaging in deceit and deception, not letting the inspectors into his palaces and such. He also said he was tallking about the entire period of inspections, not just in the weeks and months leading up to the war.
I'll accept that clarification, but it still leaves the statement more than a little deceptive. Sure, Saddam's minions engaged in some legerdemain during that period, but it was the most access the IAEA ever had. The IAEA repeatedly queried the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies to give them more detailed information about the leads they had (many of them, as we know now, from Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraq National Congress, including the now-discredited fantasies from "Curveball") so they could really go after them. None of those leads panned out.
Although access was not perfect, the IAEA never did find WMD, nor did the U.S. government, after Saddam's regime had been defeated militarily and the U.S. had access to pretty much everything. That's pretty important, it seems to me. We went to war on the basis of a falsehood -- whether it was a conscious, knowing lie I simply don't know.
In the end, it was President Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who told the IAEA inspectors that it would be a good idea to leave because (as we soon found out) the decision to invade had been made and it was time for a little "shock and awe." President Bush has been twisting this story for years, actually saying in public speeches that Saddam Hussein kicked the inspectors out so we just had to assume he had WMD and go to war (he did in 1998, but not just before the war).
It is important to remember, I think, how the run-up to the war actually went down if we want to make intelligent decisions the next time there's talk of the necessity of war. I think it's defensible to say the Bush administration had decided on war well before the actual invasion (George Tenet in his book claims not to know for sure but thinks December 2002 is a pretty good date for when the decision was virtually irrevocable -- though he has his own axes to grind).
There were probably a number of reasons the administration decided to invade Iraq -- the rationales have shifted noticeably over the years. It may be, as Paul Wolfowitz later told Vanity Fair, that they settled on weapons of mass destruction as the main justification because that was the easiest to explain and they were pretty sure he had 'em.
Anyway, the Romney campaign did send me an e-mail with more detailed information to back up his position, including statements by Condoleezza Rice and then deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. The statement quoted from the Iraq Study Group was interesting but not on-point -- it noted that Saddam's SSO ordered SSO chiefs at local sites "to conceal anything to do with the President or his family" as well as documents relating to human rights abuses and political prisoners. These activities"made it difficult for Western intelligence services to distinguish innocuous security-related measures from WMD concealment ..."
A campaign spokesman, Mark Rhoads, called me to clarify the Romney position more fully. I said I would try to be fair, but I still thought his statement didn't take into account much of importance during the run-up to war. He seems to me to be pushing the idea that it was all Saddam's choice -- he said something very close to that -- whether the war would take place. But the idea that if only Saddam had been more open, and the IAEA had certified more completely that there were no WMD strikes me as naive and unlikely, and pushing it does no service to the American people. This was a war of American choice, not Saddam's choice.
Even if Saddam had WMD, the war would still not have been justified, as I wrote and as the Register editorialized at the time. It was not a defensive war by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it a preemptive war, which is a war begun to counter an imminent threat (the Israeli first strike in the 1967 Six Day War is the most commonly cited modern example). Instead it was what political scientists would call a "preventive" war, one calculated to eliminate a potential threat that might (or might not) mature into a reasonably imminent threat some months or years down the road. That's not the kind of war the United States should be initiating, many of us said at the time, since it is an act of aggression, no matter how large the coalition of the "willing."
Given how the Iraq war has turned out, I think that judgment holds up pretty well and would be a good guide for the future. To rewrite history to try to keep the claim alive that Saddam Hussein somehow forced a reluctant United States to go to war is an unhealthy endeavor.