O'Neill and WMD: fallout beyond Iraq

Questions about prewar impetus affect future policymaking, may not cut into Bush's support.

Two days before launching the war in Iraq, a resolute President Bush went on national television to tell the American people, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

Less than a year later, the Iraq regime the president warned about is gone, and the Bush administration is busy tallying what it considers are the positive dividends of the war. What it cannot claim, however, is that the war spared the US and the world the imminent threat of "some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." The reason: the weapons have not been found.

Evidence is mounting that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) existed at best on paper and compact disk. The Bush administration has responded by shifting its rationale for war, which it executed largely without foreign support.

The administration is now emphasizing the threat posed by a vicious and megalomaniacal dictator, rather than the imminent threat of WMD. It is also facing fresh accusations that it was bent on deposing Mr. Hussein virtually from the day Bush first took office.

The administration's postwar shift in rationale, and its alleged deep-seated obsession with toppling Hussein, appears to matter little to the American public.

But Bush's failure to show to the world evidence of the imminent threat posed by Iraq will alter the future exercise of American foreign policy, analysts say.

The way in which foreign intelligence is gathered and presented could also change, as experts call for a full inquiry into the Iraq intelligence file, and for major changes in the US intelligence arena.

The nation's approach to addressing acts of terror might also shift, say experts.

"This is going to matter to history, it will matter the next time there's a crisis [like Iraq], and it will matter if there is a Lebanon-type disaster in Iraq," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, referring a truck bomb that killed 241 Marines in 1983.

But Mr. Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, adds that "short of that the whole world is saying we're better off without Saddam, and if even the opposition party is split on the topic, it's hard to make it an issue."

The renewed attention to Bush's rationale for war was prompted by revelations in a new book about former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's experience in the administration.

In the book and in interviews, Mr. O'Neill claims that, in his capacity as a member of the president's war cabinet, he never saw any evidence that the former Iraq regime possessed WMD. He also claims that from the new administration's first cabinet meeting in 2001, the president directed staff to begin looking at means of removing Hussein.

O'Neill's assertions surface as questions mount about the war's justification. Evidence is growing that no WMD existed, while experts renew the claim that international sanctions and weapons inspections were working to corral Hussein's ambitions. The Washington Post reported last week that one of Iraq's top nuclear scientists says Hussein's unconventional weapons were limited to plans on compact disks.

The fallout from what some argue was poor intelligence work could be significant.

"It's a classic example of the little boy who cries wolf," says James Lindsay, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "The next time [the US] insists we have to act because the threat is imminent, we will have that much harder a time making the case."

But others insist that the campaign in Iraq was an "elective war" all along that was worth carrying out for reasons beyond Hussein's actual possession of WMD. And it is this view that most Americans appear to hold.

In a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted last week, 62 percent of Americans said US military action in Iraq is helping to make the world a safer place - down slightly from December but more than 10 points higher than in November.

Mr. Lindsay points out that promoting regime change in Iraq had been the official policy of the US government since 1998 - and Bush noted as much on Monday.

Karl Inderfurth, a foreign-affairs expert at George Washington University, says claims that Bush was single-mindedly set on ousting Hussein are weakened by the fact that the president resisted calls by some of his closest advisers to go after Hussein the day after the twin towers fell.

"We now know that on Sept. 12 people including the defense secretary and the vice-president argued for taking out Saddam, but the president decided otherwise. He pushed it off," says Mr. Inderfurth

Still, Inderfurth, a former high-level official in the Clinton State Department, says the absence of WMD in Iraq should prompt a careful investigation of where the intelligence process went wrong.

"We need to know if information was selectively provided, if dissent was frowned upon," says Inderfurth.

Questions about the war's justification are also going to have a long-term impact on the Bush administration's approach toward threats abroad.

In a 2002 doctrine, Bush asserted America's right to act preemptively and with force against what it deems are gathering but unexercised threats to the US.

"If the US took action against Iraq because of its possession of weapons and what they could do to us and others, and lo and behold there are no weapons, it does call into question this emerging policy or doctrine," says Jeswald Salacuse, an expert in international relations at Tuft University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

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