Breaking the Army

January 13, 2004

PAUL H. O'NEILL was fired as secretary of the Treasury because he was too candid in a job that demands a smooth operator. Now he's contributed to a book in which his ex-boss comes across, bluntly, as a president who doesn't listen much to other people and who always seems to have his mind made up in advance about everything - including, most especially, the need to go to war in Iraq.

Mr. O'Neill says that from the earliest days of the administration there was talk of unseating Saddam Hussein with an invasion, but the talk had to do with how to go about it; no one ever asked whether the original premise was a good idea or not. Mr. O'Neill also says that in National Security Council meetings, he never became aware of any hard evidence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

It would be easy, of course, to point out that the Treasury secretary might not be let in on all the most sensitive intelligence - except that subsequent events bear him out, entirely.

Late last week, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released an exhaustive report that persuasively argues that the reason American forces haven't found any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq - and in fact have given up looking for them - is that there weren't any. The report finds that the much-derided U.N. inspections were working much better than they were being given credit for, and that U.N. sanctions were effective in denying the regime the capacity to pursue such weapons.

The Carnegie report also takes special note of the way American intelligence assessments abruptly changed in 2001 - that is, the year the Bush administration took office. Equivocation, doubts, qualifying phrases and admissions of uncertainty vanished from the assessments after the Republicans took over the White House. That looks like a striking confirmation of Mr. O'Neill's account.

So why does it matter? The president wanted a war and he got it. His administration picked a pretext - the illegal weapons - that didn't hold water in the end, but that's a little beside the point. It's pretty clear the desire for the war came before a reason could be found to fight it. Now it's happened, so why should anyone care?

For an answer, check out a study just published by the Army War College. It accuses the administration of heading dangerously off course, distracted from the necessity of combating al-Qaida by an "unnecessary war" against a country, Iraq, that posed no threat, and beguiled by an unrealistic vision of total victory over worldwide terror. Its author, Jeffrey Record, says that America is overreaching and that the early results have already left the Army "near the breaking point."

The implication is that the security of the United States has deteriorated since 2001, and for no good reason. That's why the lack of candor, and lack of logic, that propelled the country into war in Iraq are so important - and worth examining. Mr. O'Neill's revelations provide a starting point.

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