It is difficult to read the report this week by Eli Lake alleging that Karl Rove suppressed any push-back on the meme that Bush lied about WMD in Iraq without this question springing to mind: does Rove like to lose? This comes on the heels of a New York Times report that not only were WMD found in Iraq, but several US servicemembers were injured by them. (As an aside, some of what the Times reports on was known, Wikileaks, for instance, contained evidence of WMD and my friend, Jim Lacey, did an extensive article at National Review on what was known.)
Starting in 2004, some members of the George W. Bush administration and Republican lawmakers began to find evidence of discarded chemical weapons in Iraq. But when the information was brought up with the White House, senior adviser Karl Rove told them to “let these sleeping dogs lie.”
Lake goes on to report on efforts by Rick Santorum, then engaged in a hotly contested senatorial campaign, and others to get the White House to go on the offensive over the issue. I agree with Rove that it is best to let sleeping dogs lie, but the absence of WMD in Iraq was not a sleeping dog. It was a rabid Rottweiler hanging onto the ass of the Bush Administration. More from Lake:
One might think a politically vulnerable Bush White House would’ve seized on Santorum’s discovery. After all, Bush and his subordinates famously accused Iraq of having active weapons of mass destruction programs.
But at least in 2005 and 2006, the Bush White House wasn’t interested. “We don’t want to look back,” Santorum recalled Rove as saying (though Santorum stressed he was not quoting verbatim conversations he had more than eight years ago). “I will say that the gist of the comments from the president’s senior people was ‘We don’t want to look back, we want to look forward.’”
It is difficult to conceive how, given the way the Bush Lied became embedded in the political vernacular, anyone pretending to political skills would have let the story metastasize. For instance, when Bob Woodward’s book “State of Denial” was published it contained an interview with President Bush and this:
In both accounts the President, as the President is prone to do, responds in the language of spin: “The realism is to be able to understand the nature of Saddam Hussein, his history, his potential to harm America.” Mr. Woodward then honors his readers with a dutiful follow-up: “But the status report, for the last six or seven months, is we haven’t found weapons. That’s all.”
“‘True, true, true,” the President is quoted as saying in Plan of Attack. Mr. Woodward then sums up with this paraphrase: “He contended that they had found enough.” The President has been given the last word, an administration talking point that turns the reporter into a quisling who would happily leave a dictator in power because he only had a little bit of weapons of mass destruction. Good enough, apparently, for a book that went to press with George Bush up above 50 percent in the approval ratings.
But the new book went to press with the President’s approval rating below 40 percent, and the author rewinds the tape. Now he remembers: He’d been pushy.
“‘But the status report, for the last six or seven months, is we haven’t found weapons. That’s all,’ I pushed one more time.”
The same “True, true, true” is played back at the reader. The fillip, however, has changed. Now it’s the author who speaks:
“It had taken five minutes and 18 seconds for Bush simply to acknowledge the fact that we hadn’t found weapons of mass destruction.”
Yes, there was disillusionment with the war in Iraq but it is impossible to overstate the impact the narrative that we went to war based on false pretenses had on creating that disillusionment, particularly in 2006. Supporters of the war (I remain among them) were left without a counter to the absence of WMD. Opponents of America, here and abroad, used it to damage US foreign policy. An active pushback, in 2003 and 2004 when the weapons were discovered, would have mitigated the effect of Cindy Sheehan and Code Pink. Democrats in Congress would have had one of their most potent attacks foiled. Colin Powell and his crotch remoras, Larry Wilkinson and Richard Armitage, would have had their disloyalty mitigated. In particular, none of them would have been able to whine about how Bush deceived them.
I’m not a political consultant but I will say this: the decision by Rove — and we must believe it was a decision agreed to by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and others– that it made sense to not vindicate one of the reasons we went to war with Iraq must rank with the most boneheaded political calculations made in American politics in at least 50 years. That decision forever damaged Bush’s legacy, it created a narrative that haunts us to this day with the use of force is contemplated, it handed Congress over to the Democrats in 2006, and it paved the way for the imbecile who was elected president in 2008.