Among the allegations leveled at President Bush by his critics, probably the most serious is that he took the United States to war in Iraq on false pretenses. He told the American people that Saddam Hussein had a collection of dangerous weapons of mass destruction when Mr. Hussein did not.
In retrospect it is clear that the weapons did not exist, although they had in the past, and Hussein had used them against his enemies. But what is also clear from captured documents now coming to light is that Mr. Bush had every reason to believe they still existed at the time he launched the military campaign in Iraq. Not only did US and allied intelligence agencies assert that the weapons were there, but Hussein himself played a dangerous game of convincing enemies such as Iran, and even his own generals, that he had such weapons, while protesting to United Nations inspectors that he did not.
While Bush may have been badly misled by his own intelligence and other sources, he did not lie. He believed, and had good reason to believe, that the weapons existed.
From thousands of official Iraqi documents captured by American forces, and dozens of interviews with captured senior military and political leaders, a picture is now emerging of the world of delusion in which Hussein lived when he was in power. It is being chronicled in magazines such as the Weekly Standard and a forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs and books such as "Cobra II." Written by New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor, the book is being hailed as one of the most comprehensive accounts of the war in Iraq.
Hussein was much more concerned about an internal coup, or a rebellion by dissident Shiites, or even an attack by Iran (with which he had fought a long war), than he was with an invasion by the US. Though he had largely disposed of his stocks of chemical and biological weapons in the 1990s, he encouraged the Iranians to believe he might have a hidden cache of them, a strategy called "deterrence by doubt." He did not take seriously a military threat from the US because he believed France and Russia would block the US diplomatically at the UN, and that in any event the Americans had little stomach for taking heavy casualties.
The Americans, however, took seriously the probability of confronting Hussein's WMD. When the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had close ties with Hussein, told Vice President Cheney that Hussein did not want war but would use chemical weapons if attacked, Mr. Cheney did not blink. The Americans, said Cheney, would deal with them.
Bush ordered that, when the US assault started and the anticipated stockpiles of WMD were seized, they must be publicized. Gen. Tommy Franks, his military commander, arranged for specially trained public affairs camera crews to document the discoveries.
Initially it was planned that seized samples of WMD would be shipped to Kuwait for analysis, but when Kuwait balked at this, the 75th Field Artillery Brigade headquarters at Fort Sill, Okla., was assigned the task.
Messrs Gordon and Trainor say in their book that German agents in Baghdad tipped the American military to Hussein's plan for defending his capital. Concentric rings were to be manned by Iraqi units of varying trustworthiness. One of the circles was called the "red line." This was to be the final barrier, manned by Hussein's elite and most reliable troops. US military intelligence reasoned that as American troops reached this defense line they would be met by poison gas or germ weapons.
But within Hussein's war council, the story was very different. In December 2002, Hussein called his generals together for a surprising announcement: Iraq did not possess WMD. The generals were stunned. They had long assumed that they could count on a hidden cache of chemical or biological weapons. Iraq had used such weapons in the war with Iran. Hussein had convinced his generals that it was the threat of WMD that had enabled him to stop the Americans moving on Baghdad after the 1991 war.
According to "Cobra II," Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, told American interrogators after the 2003 war that Hussein's stunning admission to the generals "sent morale plummeting."
The Bush critics can argue that the president was too gullible in accepting the conclusion of his intelligence agencies. But the evidence does not suggest that he knowingly lied to the American public about the existence of WMD.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.