Intelligence and Wisdom

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
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President Bush got one thing right in his February 8 television interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Responding to the mounting furor over intelligence failures leading up to the Iraq war, Bush said there would be “ample time for the American people to assess whether or not I made good calls, whether or not I used good judgment, whether or not I made the right decision in removing Saddam Hussein from power.” He’s right about that. We know pretty much all we need to know already.

The interviewer, Tim Russert, had questioned the timing of the president’s newly announced inquiry commission, which is due to complete its work in March 2005, long after the November presidential elections. Russert contrasted Bush’s extended timetable to the tight July 2004 deadline set by Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair for his parallel inquiry. Bush, in his reply, acknowledged that his timing might seem political, and that some would question his motives, but he went on to say that there would be plenty of time for the public to render judgment. Assuming the president recognizes the central role of the ballot box as the means by which the public judges leaders in a democracy, he seemed to be suggesting that the voters wouldn’t need his commission’s findings to make its decisions in December.

Well, no, we don’t need a new commission to make our judgment. All we need to do is watch the president talk.

The magnitude of the administration’s error in taking us to war in Iraq is so vast, so multi-layered that our public debate has not yet absorbed it fully. Our leaders told us it was essential to attack Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a dangerous tyrant who threatened our security and that of the world. They said he possessed, or was about to possess, weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as the missiles to deliver them — that put his regime in violation of international law. They said Iraq was actively allied with the Al Qaeda terrorist network that had attacked us on September 11, implying that Iraq had effectively declared war on us and we were really only returning fire. They claimed they had intelligence information to back up these accusations, making our invasion of Iraq not just justifiable but objectively necessary. Somebody had to do something.

Now we know that none of those claims was true. The whole thing was based on false information. Saddam had no weapons. He wasn’t even close to producing them. His nuclear and biological weapons programs had been effectively shut down by the United Nations inspectors. His chemical weapons plants, it turns out, were destroyed by President Clinton’s bombing raids in 1998. Somebody had already done something.

In its defense, the administration now claims, as the president noted in his interview, that other nations had the same intelligence reports as we had. But that simply accentuates the wrongheadedness of the administration’s decisions. Yes, Germany and France had the same intelligence we had. But they looked at it and concluded that it did not justify going to war. It wasn’t the intelligence that tripped us up, but our reading of it.

What have we lost in launching a war on such false premises? Five hundred American soldiers are dead. But that is just the beginning of the accounting. We have, as the latest intelligence reports from Iraq show repeatedly, turned Saddam Hussein’s iron-fisted dictatorship into an anarchic, ungovernable wasteland that will probably end up an Islamic republic. We have created a new playground where international terrorists can meet and plot their evil.

We have undermined the rickety but valuable framework of international law that had been built up over the last century — the very framework we claimed we were going to war to defend — and established in its place the dangerous principle that might alone makes right. We have shown the world that those with the biggest guns get to call the shots, regardless of truth, law or the opinions of humankind.

Perhaps most ominous, we have squandered the vast reserve of good will that existed in the wake of the September 11 attacks and transformed it into a worldwide wave of anti-American feeling on a scale not seen in decades. The world has long been, as the president delights in reminding us, a dangerous place. But we have made it substantially more dangerous by creating entire armies of new enemies out to do us ill.

There are at present no fewer than seven separate inquiries probing the intelligence failures behind the bungled war on terrorism. In addition to the president’s new commission, they include two congressional intelligence investigations and two independent commissions probing the September 11 catastrophe, not to mention the British and Israeli inquiries. No matter how deep they dig, however, none of them will be able to uncover the explanation for what went wrong, because there’s nothing to uncover. The answer is staring us in the face. All we need is a mirror.

America went to war in Iraq last year not because of faulty information but because of faulty thinking. We went to war because of a mindset that thinks it is a form of weakness to take other viewpoints into account. We went to war because of an arrogance that assumes those who reject our cure must endorse the disease. We went to war because of a worldview that makes an ideology out of alarmism and places action ahead of thought. We acted because our leaders told us somebody had to do something.

We are wounded today because we ignored — no, rejected — the oldest bit of wisdom: Look before you leap. No amount of information can protect us from such foolishness. What’s needed is leadership capable of acting wisely.

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