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Misleading the Nation to War

By Sam Parry
October 15, 2002

George W. Bush made his winning case for a congressional war resolution against Iraq by playing up the nation's lingering fear from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His argument for preemptive war boiled down to the old adage: "better safe than sorry," better to take out Saddam Hussein now before he gives biological or chemical weapons to terrorists or develops a nuclear bomb.

"Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists," Bush said in his Oct. 7 speech in Cincinnati. Reiterating the theme two days later, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "If Saddam Hussein holds a gun to someone’s head, while he denies he even owns a gun, do you really want to take a chance that he’ll never use it." [NYT, Oct. 10, 2002]

But what Bush and his aides have left out of their one-sided risk equation is the possibility that the administration’s actions may increase the danger to Americans, not reduce or eliminate it. The truncated national debate has barely touched on this other reality – that Bush’s belligerence might speed up the timetable for terrorist groups getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction, a point acknowledged in a new CIA threat assessment.

Meanwhile, another danger looms – that Bush’s policies will transform anti-Americanism into the world’s common language of protest, what journalist Fareed Zakaria has called the emerging "default ideology of opposition."

Both prospects carry grave dangers for the United States and for individual Americans, at home and abroad. Yet, with war just over the horizon, these risks have gotten little more than passing reference in a debate almost exclusively focused on how thuggish Saddam Hussein is.

CIA Analysis

In his national address, Bush stressed the "clear evidence of peril" from Iraq possibly giving chemical and biological weapons to terrorists. But on the day of Bush’s speech, the CIA offered a sharply different evaluation of the risk.

The CIA judged the likelihood of Iraq attacking the United States without U.S. provocation as "low" but rising dramatically if the U.S. prepared for a preemptive strike. In other words, Bush’s strategy might touch off precisely the nightmare scenario that he says he is countering.

"Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or C.B.W. [chemical or biological warfare] against the United States," wrote CIA director George Tenet in an Oct. 7 letter to Congress. "Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions."

Eliminating the threat from Iraq also is not an isolated event whose consequences necessarily stay within Iraq's borders.

While a successful U.S. invasion might remove Saddam Hussein from power and enable Bush to dictate the shape of a successor regime, a preemptive war on Iraq is fraught with other dangers. Government leaders on the front lines of the Middle East have warned that a U.S. assault on Baghdad could set the region ablaze, spread Islamic fundamentalism and endanger those who have supported the U.S. war on terror.

Those red flags went up again as the results rolled in from provincial and parliamentary elections in nuclear-armed Pakistan a week ago. Though the pro-U.S. dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, used heavy-handed pre-election tactics to guarantee victory for his supporters, his party was stunned when both secular and Islamic opposition parties made strong showings.

Islamic fundamentalists won at least 39 seats in the National Assembly – compared to four seats in 1997 – and gained control of the strategic North-West Frontier Province. That’s where U.S. and Pakistani forces have been hunting down al-Qaeda leaders and their Taliban allies from Afghanistan. The change in provincial leadership means more trouble for the search.

"We will stop the ongoing pursuit of Taliban and al-Qaeda when we form the government," Munnawar Hasan, secretary general of the Islamic party, told Reuters. "Taliban and al-Qaeda members are our brothers." [NYT, Oct. 12, 2002]

With Islamic fundamentalist sympathizers also holding influential positions inside the Pakistani government, Bush’s assault on Iraq – especially if it kills large numbers of civilians – could drive Pakistan into political anarchy. Keeping Pakistan’s existing nuclear bombs out of the hands of Islamic terrorists could prove a more immediate danger than preventing Iraq from hypothetically building one sometime in the future.

Possible Boomerang

Bush's military strategy could boomerang in another way. Watching how Bush has exaggerated the threat from Iraq – moving to attack even when Iraq was doing what it could not to threaten the U.S. – other Middle Eastern candidates for "regime change" might choose another course, embarking on crash programs for weapons of mass destruction with a new readiness to use them.

Bush has counted Iran as part of his "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea. Syria, which has backed Palestinian militants for years, is another high-profile candidate for Bush’s "crusade" to rid the world of "evil." Those governments may judge that their only hope of holding off a future U.S. attack is to take action while Washington has its hands full with Iraq.

U.S. officials already are noting renewed activity by terrorist cells as al-Qaeda leaders have begun citing Bush's Iraq policy to rally support for attacks on Americans and their allies. "The campaign against Iraq has an objective that is far beyond Iraq to reach the Arab and Islamic world," said Osama bin Laden's lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri in one recent tape recording. [NYT, Oct. 13, 2002]

"Senior [U.S.] government officials also say that an attack that crippled a French oil tanker near Yemen and another that killed a United States marine in Kuwait showed that the terror network had reconstituted itself, with smaller groups prompted to begin new attacks by inflammatory new messages from Qaeda leaders," reported the New York Times.

Last week's bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, which killed more than 180 people, is also thought to be connected to the al Qaeda network.

Bad Salesman

Another problem for the U.S. is the international reaction to Bush's belligerent tone. While his wanted-dead-or-alive rhetoric may play well with his conservative base, it is offensive to many others in the U.S. and elsewhere. Around the world, the pages of leading newspapers regard Bush as an arrogant buffoon, the archetypal Ugly American who knows little about other cultures and treats them with contempt.

Bush’s declarations about freedom and human rights also ring hollow to many. "In keeping with our heritage and principles, we do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage," Bush’s national security strategy report stated on Sept. 20. "We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom."

But the report’s blunt goal of U.S. hegemony – what Bush enthusiast Michael Kelly has dubbed the "doctrine of armed evangelism" – may require the repeated use of American military might, with Afghanistan and Iraq just the first of many battlegrounds, a prospect that unnerves many world leaders.

Bush’s unapologetic goal of never-ending U.S. military domination – as described in his "national security strategy" report – has added fuel to the growing fire of anti-Americanism. Whether fairly or not, anti-Americanism has emerged as a powerful political theme in Europe and Latin America, as well as in the Middle East.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reversed his political fortunes in Germany’s parliamentary elections last month by opposing Bush’s unilateral threats to attack Iraq. Pakistan's elections are now the second example of political fallout from Bush and his preemptive war strategy.

International resistance to Bush was underscored again when the Nobel committee gave former President Jimmy Carter the Peace Prize and added a pointed rebuke to Bush's policy toward Iraq. "In a situation currently marked by threats of the use of power," the Nobel citation read, "Carter has stood by the principles that conflicts must as far as possible be resolved through mediation and international cooperation based on international law, respect for human rights and economic development." [NYT, Oct. 12, 2002]

As America's chief salesman, Bush also has complicated the U.S. cause by picking unnecessary diplomatic fights with the rest of the world, often simply to please conservative political interest groups back home.

Time and again, Bush has repudiated agreements on issues, including global warming, a permanent war-crimes tribunal, nuclear arms control, the illicit trade of small arms, and even the spread of chemical and biological warfare. "In its first two years, [the Bush administration] has reneged on more international treaties than any previous administration," wrote Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria. [New Yorker, Oct. 14 & 21, 2002]

In this sense, Bush differs from former President Bill Clinton who effectively cultivated world public opinion and from former President George H.W. Bush who built a broad international coalition during the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91. By contrast, the younger Bush has brushed aside the views of other nations and shown disdain for international cooperation when it does not involve lining up behind him.

Cooked Intelligence

Bush’s strategy of world domination also is quickly developing a domestic corollary: silencing political criticism [see The's "The Politics of Preemption"] and twisting intelligence reports into whatever shape serves his agenda.

According to a variety of press reports, U.S. intelligence officials say the Bush administration is pressuring them to "cook" the intelligence so Congress and the American people won't hear information that might cause them to question Bush's leadership.

"Basically, cooked information is working its way into high-level pronouncements and there's a lot of unhappiness about it in intelligence, especially among analysts at the CIA," said Vincent Cannistraro, the former head of CIA's counter-intelligence. [The Guardian, Oct. 9, 2002]

"A growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats … charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses, including distorting his links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, have overstated the amount of international support for attacking Iraq and have downplayed the potential repercussions of a new war in the Middle East," reported the Knight-Ridder news service.

Besides exaggerating the Iraqi threat, the Bush administration is "squelch[ing] dissenting views," the article said. "Analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books," said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Of a dozen other officials interviewed for the article, no one disagreed with that assessment. [Knight-Ridder, Oct. 8, 2002]

In another article, the Los Angeles Times cited "an escalating war" within U.S. intelligence circles in which "senior Bush administration officials are pressuring CIA analysts to tailor their assessments of the Iraqi threat to help build a case against Saddam Hussein."

Top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top deputy Paul Wolfowitz, "have bombarded CIA analysts with criticism and calls for revisions on such key questions as whether Iraq has ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, sources said," according to the Los Angeles Times.

"The sources stressed that CIA analysts – who are supposed to be impartial – are fighting to resist the pressure. But they said analysts are increasingly resentful of what they perceive as efforts to contaminate the intelligence process," the newspaper reported. "Analysts feel more politicized and more pushed than many of them can ever remember," the Times quoted an intelligence official as saying. [LAT, Oct. 11, 2002]

Festering Problem

The New York Times reported that the intelligence community and the White House have been at odds over Iraqi intelligence for months, but it wasn’t until the CIA letter to Congress was publicly released that these disagreements surfaced.

The letter made clear that the CIA believed that launching an attack against Iraq, or even preparing for one, would increase, not decrease, the chance that Saddam Hussein would unleash weapons of mass destruction against the United States. The finding turned Bush’s rationale for going to war on its head. Yet the administration has continued to push the case for military action in spite of, not because of, the intelligence reports.

The CIA's letter included declassified information from closed-session hearings of the Senate Intelligence Committee and cited an Oct. 2 exchange between Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and a senior intelligence witness on the likelihood of Iraq attacking the U.S.

Levin: . . . If (Saddam) didn't feel threatened, …is it likely that he would initiate an attack using a weapon of mass destruction?

Senior Intelligence Witness: . . . My judgment would be that the probability of him initiating an attack – let me put a time frame on it – in the foreseeable future, given the conditions we understand now, the likelihood I think would be low.

Levin:… If we initiate an attack and he thought he was in extremis or otherwise [sic], what's the likelihood in response to our attack that he would use chemical or biological weapons?

Senior Intelligence Witness: Pretty high, in my view.

Unlikely Attack

Besides misrepresenting the CIA's threat assessment, the Bush administration has been hyping other information to frighten the American people. In his Cincinnati speech, for instance, Bush conjured up the image of Iraq sending unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on chemical and biological warfare attacks against the United States.

Bush said Iraq "is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States." The UAVs "could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas," Bush said.

Though Iraq has been developing these drone aircraft, the prospect of them somehow reaching the U.S. mainland is considered preposterous. "U.S. military experts… said that [the UAVs have] a maximum range of a few hundred miles" and are "no threat to targets in the U.S.," reported the Guardian newspaper.

Bush also couldn't resist pushing the hot button of alleged links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. "Some al-Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq," Bush said. "These include one very senior al-Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks."

The Guardian reported that Bush was referring to Abu Musab Zarqawi, "who was arrested in Jordan in 2001 for his part in the ‘millennium plot’ to bomb tourist sites there." Zarqawi was subsequently released and did go to Iraq to receive medical treatment, but that there was no evidence of any connection between him and the Iraqi government, the newspaper said.

White House pressure has been especially intense on getting the U.S. intelligence community to agree that Iraq and al-Qaeda are connected, the Guardian said. "The FBI has been pounded on to make this link," said an unnamed source familiar with the Sept. 11 investigation, the newspaper reported.

Bob Baer, a former CIA agent assigned to track al-Qaeda, said there were contacts between Osama bin Laden and Iraq in the Sudan in the 1990s. But Baer stated, "There is no evidence that a strategic partnership came out of it. I'm unaware of any evidence of Saddam pursuing terrorism against the United States"

The Guardian also reported "profound skepticism among U.S. intelligence experts about the president’s claim that ‘Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.’"

The New York Times reported similar disagreements between the intelligence community and the White House.

"The agency line is that it is basically unlikely that Iraq would give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists under most circumstances," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former military analyst at the CIA and top aide for Persian Gulf affairs on Clinton’s National Security Council. "The Bush administration is trying to make the case that Iraq might try to give weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda under current circumstances. But what the agency is saying is that Saddam is likely to give such weapons to terrorists only under extreme circumstances, when he believes he is likely to be toppled." [NYT, Oct. 10, 2002]

Engineering Acquiescence

Taken together, the evidence seems clear that the Bush administration doesn't want a full debate on the merits of the president's war policy. Bush and his aides simply want to twist whatever information they can to bring the American people into line.

The irony of this manipulation of public opinion stands out against the glowing ideals expressed in Bush's "national security strategy" report of Sept. 20. "The great struggles of the Twentieth Century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom – and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise," Bush's report said.

Yet that grand commitment to freedom and democracy apparently does not extend to the concept of a free and open debate in the United States, even about life-and-death issues such as whether the nation should send its soldiers off to war and potentially face greater dangers as a consequence.

In opposing Bush's war resolution, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., argued that the Founding Fathers proscribed the war-making powers of the executive out of clear-headed knowledge about the destruction that can befall a people when a misguided leaders marches a nation off to war.

"We are at the gravest of moments," Byrd said in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. "We must not allow any president to unleash the dogs of war at his own discretion and for an unlimited period of time." [NYT, Oct. 10. 2002]

Byrd lost the argument, as Congress – less than a month before elections – gave Bush the powers he demanded. Bush carried the day after tilting the public debate with misleading arguments repudiated even by his own intelligence services.

In Bush's brave new world, Americans are finding the meaning of democracy changed. Rather than a system based on the decisions of an informed electorate, Bush and his followers seem to be envisioning – and implementing – a future in which they engineer acquiescence by misinforming a frightened people.

Bush's defenders may say that this constrained freedom is necessitated by the deeper threat to freedom in a post-Sept. 11 world. They may argue that they and the president know what's best for the country.

But even if one accepts Bush's sincerity – that he is leading the nation to war in Iraq for some greater good – there is another old adage that seems increasingly appropriate to the moment: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

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