In George Tenet's new book, "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA," there is an intriguing phrase that pinpoints the miscalculation that may have done much to trigger the Iraq war.
The former CIA director, who served both Presidents Clinton and Bush, writes, "Before the war, we didn't understand that [Saddam Hussein] was bluffing, and he didn't understand that we were not." Mr. Tenet was referring to the fact that Mr. Hussein was a "genius at what the intelligence community calls 'denial and deception' – leading us to believe things that weren't true."
While asserting to the United Nations that he had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Hussein perpetuated to others – including his own generals – the myth that he did possess them. Thus American and British intelligence agencies, mindful that Hussein had earlier used WMD against his own people, and mindful that evidence emerged after the earlier Gulf war that his regime had been much closer to acquiring nuclear weapons capacity than they had believed, concluded that he might have again clandestinely developed WMD.
The intelligence agencies of a slew of other countries, such as France, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, were similarly convinced. The Germans had their own prized informant, "Curve Ball," who gave them graphic accounts of Hussein's hidden weaponry. In the end, it all proved not to be true. The clever shell game that Hussein had played – assuring the United Nations Security Council that he was without WMD, while signaling a warning to others that he did have them and could use them if threatened – was his undoing.
Tenet says Hussein was "a fool" for not understanding, especially after 9/11, that the United States "was not going to risk underestimating his WMD capabilities as we had done once before." The irony, says Tenet, is that [Hussein] could have allowed UN inspectors free run of the country, and if they found nothing, "UN sanctions would have melted. In that case, he might be alive and living in a palace today. Without sanctions, he would be well on his way to possessing WMD." Thus his bluff failed, and he miscalculated the will of the US to act with military force against him.
In his round of TV programs to publicize the book, Tenet was defensive of himself, the CIA, and its officers and agents. He took aim at some in the Bush administration, particularly Vice President Cheney, who, he charges, embellished the CIA conclusions. But he admits that he and the agency were dead wrong in the assessment of Hussein's WMD capacity that they gave to President Bush.
The harshest antiwar critics of Mr. Bush claim that he knowingly lied about the WMD issue in order to justify the war. The nearer truth seems to be that he was painfully misled, as were prominent Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, whose taped words at the time were as militant and condemnatory of Hussein as Bush's.
This is not to suggest that, irrespective of what WMD there were or were not in Iraq, the Bush administration was not eager to see Hussein toppled. Again, with many prominent Democrats, Bush was appalled at the mass murders Hussein had ordered and the rape rooms and torture chambers that were the hallmarks of his regime against dissenters and critics. Clearly, Bush also hoped that freeing the people of Iraq from tyrannical rule would bring liberty to others in the Arab world laboring under repressive regimes.
Bush was not alone in such hopes. Tenet, who was also Mr. Clinton's CIA director, reminds us in his book that regime change in Iraq was also the explicitly stated policy of the Clinton administration. It was the goal of the Iraq Liberation Act, passed by Congress in 1998. Nearly $100 million were appropriated for the express purpose of seeking an end to the Hussein regime. "America's promise to topple Saddam remained the law of this land," writes Tenet, "from halfway through Bill Clinton's second term right up until US troops invaded in March 2003."
The motives for which America went to war in Iraq are fair topics for discussion. But Americans' concern now should be the manner in which their country exits Iraq. A precipitate withdrawal would dash Iraqis' hope for liberty and security, leave the Middle East in turmoil, and leave others to question the value of America as an ally.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.