The elusive search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and mounting questions about pre-war intelligence are prompting some liberal supporters of military intervention in Iraq to reassess their positions.
Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who wrote an influential book in 2002 advocating military action against Saddam Hussein, acknowledged in an article in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly that “what we have learned about Iraq’s WMD programs since the fall of Baghdad leads me to conclude that the case for war with Iraq was considerably weaker than I believed beforehand.”
Pollack also repeats allegations that administration officials pressured CIA analysts to produce evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs and used “creative omission” to support the White House’s “reckless” rush to war.
In a contribution to a debate among liberal hawks hosted by the online magazine Slate this week, Pollack said that in retrospect he might have advocated deterrence as much as military intervention if he were to rewrite his book today. Other participants, including the journalists Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens and Fareed Zakaria, maintain that ridding the world of a source of instability in the region and a murderous dictator like Saddam Hussein transcends the WMD issue, despite the chaotic postwar conditions in Iraq and the diplomatic fallout from the invasion.
The renewed debate over Iraq comes as Bush’s former treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, is telling reporters that administration officials had been planning to remove Saddam since they first took office early in 2001. “From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,” O’Neill said in an interview aired on 60 Minutes. In a separate interview with Time magazine, O’Neill said that he did not see any evidence of the existence of Iraqi WMDs during his 23 months in the administration, when he sat on the National Security Council.
O’Neill has been dismissed by Bush allies as a disgruntled former Cabinet member, bitter over being pushed out after less than two years on the job. Democrats, however, have been quick to seize on O’Neill’s claims as a way to start up a debate over pre-war intelligence.
Pollack now says that intelligence assessments of Iraqi weapons programs were off the mark, particularly regarding Iraq’s nuclear program, but he points out that such assessments were shared by the Clinton administration and even several countries that opposed the war, including France and Germany.
Still, other observers argue that the intelligence estimates on Iraqi weapons programs were far from unanimous and that hawks in the administration deliberately pressured the intelligence community in general and CIA director George Tenet in particular to play up the threat.
“The administration has been a flat-out bully and has compelled intelligence analysts to toe the line,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA official and past head of the anti-terrorism unit at the State Department. “They framed the estimates.”
But such accusations seem to be having little impact on several liberal supporters of the war, who viewed concerns about WMD as a secondary justification for war.
In his contribution to the Slate forum, Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, argued that his main reason for backing an invasion was his belief that transforming Iraq into a model of Arab democracy would undercut the spread of radical Islam and Islamic terrorism. Still, he added, the rush to war — the result of focusing on the WMD threat — was to blame for diplomatic and postwar mismanagement that should have been avoided.
Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens, who broke ranks with his fellow leftists after the September 11 terrorist attacks and quit his column at The Nation, argued in his Slate post that the WMD debate is irrelevant because freeing Iraq from a genocidal tyrant was a long-held American policy objective. In addition, he argued that recent conciliatory actions by Libya, Iran and North Korea were directly attributable to the removal of Saddam.