Never saying `Sorry'

July 15, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- What do President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards have in common besides their fat wallets? Not one of them will admit that he was flimflammed about the Iraq war.

At least Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was courageous enough in the wake of his committee's blistering assessment of prewar intelligence to say something truly outrageous in Washington society: He said he was sorry.

The West Virginia Democrat said he now regrets his vote to authorize a war against Iraq in light of information uncovered by his committee and others.

You may recall that the Democratic-led Senate approved the war resolution 77-23 Oct. 11, 2002, a day after the House approved a similar resolution. Since then a steady stream of reports has undermined each of the Bush administration's arguments, such as Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, empire-building aims and links to al-Qaida.

The Senate's first report detailed numerous cloak-and-dagger blunders, including the colorfully bizarre Iraqi source who was appropriately code-named "Curve Ball." As reported by the Los Angeles Times in March, Curve Ball was the mysterious Iraqi defector who provided the Bush administration's bogus prewar intelligence that Mr. Hussein had built mobile biological weapons labs. "Winnebagoes of Death" was what Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called them in his highly persuasive U.N. address in 2003.

The only American to meet Curve Ball warned the CIA that the defector appeared to be an alcoholic hustler. But according to new documents, a CIA official waved off the warning with "Let's keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen" and "The powers-that-be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about."

"If I had known then what I know now, I would have voted against" the war powers resolution, Mr. Rockefeller said after his committee's report was released. "I have admitted that my vote was wrong."

There, as my elders used to say on the playground, was that so hard?

Well, yes, if you're one of the guys running for president.

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards voted "yes" on the resolution, but under questioning on CBS' 60 Minutes Sunday, Mr. Rockefeller's fellow Democrats would not say whether they, too would have opposed the resolution if they had known what they know today. They tried to brush the question off as hypothetical. Mr. Kerry picked up his familiar theme that the war had the right purpose but that Team Bush messed it up.

A day later, President Bush similarly refused to allow new facts to get in the way of his old story. In a rare admission, he acknowledged during an appearance in Tennesee that no weapons of mass destruction have been found. But he maintained that "we were right to go into Iraq," without getting into any details about how we went in.

Then he subtly downgraded Mr. Hussein to "a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them."

With that swift rhetorical flourish, Mr. Hussein was reduced from a once-mighty threat to a miscreant who merely had "the capability of producing" weapons of mass destruction and hypothetically could have passed that capability on to terrorists.

How low, I wonder, can he go? Stay tuned.

If the president had come to Congress with that version of Iraq's threat back in 2002, we still might have gone to war, but more likely after a real debate such as the one that was held before the Persian Gulf war. Instead, Team Bush cut the United Nations process short, cobbled together a near-unilateral "coalition of the willing" and rushed to war without an exit strategy.

Running for president means never having to say you're sorry.

You do that later, maybe. Or maybe not. One of the most striking revelations in Errol Morris' very revealing 2003 documentary, The Fog of War: 11 Lessons From the Life of Robert McNamara, is how the former defense secretary shows so much regret, yet not quite enough to say he's sorry, for the mistakes he and others made, including faulty intelligence, that sucked the United States into a doomed war in Vietnam.

"Belief and seeing are both often wrong," says one of Mr. McNamara's 11 life lessons. Indeed, that's why nations should not rush into war without thorough investigation and debate. It's easier than having to say you're sorry later.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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