Vanishing credibility

October 06, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In the continuing homefront debate over the war in Iraq, President Bush is fast losing ground as a result of the failure to back up his pre-invasion claims on why it was imperative to make war, and when.

The interim report just made by David Kay, the former U.N. weapons inspector appointed by the administration to seek the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that the president cited to justify the invasion, says nothing has been found yet to have warranted such a contention.

At the same time, the famous "16 words" in which Mr. Bush told Congress in his last State of the Union message of Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons program are back in the news. White House leaks designed to discredit the man who went to Niger for the CIA and reported otherwise are the subject of a Justice Department investigation.

Finally, Mr. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld both have now stated, after frequent implications to the contrary by them and Vice President Dick Cheney, that there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein was linked to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

This latter admission particularly clashes with what the polls have been telling us: that an overwhelming number of Americans have believed Mr. Hussein was involved. This finding explains why the president was able to sell to the public that the invasion of Iraq was a legitimate part of the war on terrorism.

Bolstered by this public misconception, it was easy for Mr. Bush to declare in the bloody aftermath of the invasion that Iraq had now become the "central front" in that global war on terrorism. Indeed, his invasion seems to have lured terrorists from other parts of the world to Iraq to play havoc with U.S. forces there.

The continuing casualties in Iraq, and extensions of Army and National Guard tours of duty, are bound to foster more domestic concern over Mr. Bush's war. The recent two-week leaves for battlefield warriors may ease that concern somewhat among military families, but their return to Iraq is likely to undo whatever morale boost has been generated.

For all these reasons, the basic questions of why the president took this country to war in Iraq and when he did so are not going to go away as long as his rationales for the invasion remain either unproved or discredited.

Beyond the moral issue of America entering into pre-emptive war without convincing evidence that there was any imminent threat to be pre-empted, there is the practical issue of being left to do the job in Iraq virtually alone.

Mr. Bush's insistence that the threat was so real that he could not wait long enough to form a truly widespread international coalition against Mr. Hussein has had its payback from the United Nations. The cool reception afforded him when he went there with hat in hand for military help amounted to a collective "Clean up your own mess."

His lecture to the United Nations on its "responsibility" to provide assistance, while declining to deal the world body into decision-making on the political future of Iraq, has only compounded the sense of American arrogance and unilateral outlook that is eroding the good name of the United States abroad.

As each day passes without the sort of evidence of weapons of mass destruction whose location Mr. Rumsfeld claimed to know, and with the president's admission now that 9/11 was not a justification for his Iraq invasion, Mr. Bush is left on thin ice on the war-making decision that now dominates his presidency.

His main resort, as it has been from the beginning, is his appeal to American patriotism, coupled with implied allegations that criticism connotes lack of it. He hasn't yet said, "My country, right or wrong," but in the absence of proof of his rationales for war, his justification may amount to that, which is not a worthy rallying cry for the world's leading democracy.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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