Bush and weapons

February 01, 2004

THE BBC ended up as a useful foil for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A highly charged investigation into the suicide of David Kelly, a government arms expert, came down hard on the broadcaster. It determined that a reporter, Andrew Gilligan, had been out of bounds when he inaccurately quoted Mr. Kelly - though not by name - as saying the prime minister's office had "sexed up" a report on Iraq's weapons.

Mr. Blair last week declared himself exonerated, and heads rolled at the BBC. Attention was diverted from one very salient fact: that the government report, which claimed Iraq could mobilize chemical arms within 45 minutes, was dead wrong, no matter what Mr. Kelly may have said. And caveats that had been part of its original drafts were removed by the time it was issued by No. 10 Downing Street. On these points, the investigation, by Lord Hutton, had little to say. It looked to many in Britain like a whitewash, conducted by a senior civil servant whose service to the crown goes back to the successful defense of British soldiers after the Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland in 1972. (That case has now been reopened.)

President Bush has no BBC. His own chief arms investigator, David Kay, has found next to nothing in Iraq and declared last week that "we were almost all wrong." The primary justification for the invasion of Iraq has come up wanting, and on this side of the Atlantic there aren't any convenient targets to distract attention from that reality.

Was the president misled by the incompetents at the CIA? That's the emerging Republican version. Or was the CIA simply telling the White House what it wanted to hear? That's how the Democrats would describe it - and a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that traces what was known and what was said about Iraqi weapons provides them with powerful circumstantial evidence. But here's another way to ask the question: Was the war itself all wrong?

Mr. Bush says it wasn't because even if Saddam Hussein didn't have any nasty weapons he would have liked to have some. Critics of the war never thought the weapons were anything more than a pretext anyway, and focused on other issues. But millions of Americans went along with the administration's precisely detailed warnings about the Iraqi threat - and now their trust is being sorely tested.

The president's response so far suggests that he's not especially taken aback by the absence of those terrible weapons - which in turn suggests that his critics were right in contending that the weapons were never the real issue. But there's an air of cavalier cynicism at the White House, as if reasons and facts don't matter. At its heart is a disdain for all those who placed their faith in the commander in chief and believed in the necessity of war. This is poisonous. Americans of every affiliation should demand a full and independent inquiry into the whole business. A whitewash won't do.

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