Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s commitment to doing the popular thing politically was legendary. He has met his match, however. If anything, President George W. Bush is even more devoted to turning everything to his political advantage.
The day after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appeared in the dock in Baghdad, a story appeared in the Washington Times headlined “Bush Backers See Trial Taking Focus Off WMDs (weapons of mass destruction).” White House spokesman Scott McClellan and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman both publicly pointed to Hussein’s brutality. One unnamed source told the newspaper: “Put aside the WMDs, and go look at the mass graves.”
The Bush administration’s strategy is clear: After taking the United States into war based on a lie, get Americans to forget the lie. Playing the humanitarian card just won’t do. The administration was blissfully unconcerned about mass graves before 9/11. There were no plans to oust Hussein and end his tyranny even as his security forces continued to arrest, torture, and murder people.
Moreover, after preparing for war, Bush offered to call off the attack if Hussein went into exile. Hauling Hussein into court and creating Western-style democracy were dispensable objectives.
The supposedly charity-minded administration has done nothing about millions of dead in Congo, starvation and civil war in Sudan, and ongoing Russian brutality in Chechnya, to name just a few humanitarian catastrophes around the globe.
Washington left war-torn Liberia to the Africans. The administration has proposed no military remedy for ousting the Myanmar junta and has reopened relations with oppressive Libya. North Korea’s Kim Jong Il continues to kill in peace while Washington negotiates possible aid packages.
In fact, humanitarianism was but a throwaway line as assorted administration officials made their case for war with Iraq. Bush called Hussein’s human-rights abuses troubling, but said he doubted that they constituted a cause for war.
In an interview last year, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz admitted that the internal consensus was that humanitarian concerns did not warrant risking American lives in battle. Since there were sharp administration divisions over the existence of operational ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, Wolfowitz observed, only fear of presumed Iraqi possession of WMD unified the administration. So, he explained, it served as the centerpiece of the administration’s case, for both domestic and foreign audiences.
Indeed, the administration went all out to scare the American people — and allied governments — into its corner. For instance, before the war, Bush said “the threat from Iraq stands alone,” since that nation’s “weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant.” He visualized “mushroom clouds” when talking to the American people.
Said Secretary of State Colin Powell, “Saddam Hussein could have produced 25,000 liters” of anthrax and had accounted for none of it. Added Powell: “Saddam Hussein has never accounted for vast amounts of chemical weaponry: 550 artillery shells with mustard [gas], 30,000 empty munitions and enough precursors to increase his stockpile to as much as 500 tons of chemical agents.”
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of “large, unaccounted-for stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons — including VX, sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gas; anthrax, botulism, and possibly smallpox.”
Bush claimed that “we found biological laboratories.” Powell pointed to unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, that “are well suited for dispensing chemical and biological weapons.” In fact, the administration charged that UAVs could hit American cities. Alas, all of these claims have proved to be false.
Of course, maybe someone will eventually find something, as Hussein seemed to preserve program elements in the hopes of a future revival. But that isn’t the same thing. Said David Kay, who ran America’s Iraq Survey Group: “It clearly does not look like a massive, resurgent program, based on what we discovered.”
So now administration officials hope that American voters will simply forget. And the president’s supporters think the trial of Hussein will help promote mass amnesia.
In fact, the administration seems to be positioning itself to manipulate coverage of the trial. At Hussein’s hearing, U.S. officials ordered pool reporters to disconnect their audio equipment when the former dictator was speaking.
All-too-aware of how former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic won sympathy in Serbia by challenging his foreign accusers, perhaps Bush’s aides plan to mute as much of Hussein as possible. After all, administration supporters are committed to making political mileage out of the trial.
Hussein was a cruel dictator, a thug who deserves to be tried and punished. But that does not make him unique. Nor does it justify the U.S. and its allies going to war. The American people must hold the Bush administration accountable for taking the country into war on a lie.