War stories

July 24, 2005

THE PLAME-Wilson-Novak-Rove-Libby-Cooper-Miller-Fitzgerald drama is more than a case of the usual hardball style of White House politics straying a little too far over the line. It's different, because it gets at the very heart of the way in which the U.S. went to war in 2003.

The Bush administration decided to justify a war with Iraq on the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. Plenty of people thought it likely that Iraq possessed nerve agents and biological arms, because the circumstantial evidence was fairly persuasive. Yet there was an unavoidable problem, from the administration's point of view: Even if those stocks had existed, they were a fundamentally insufficient reason to launch an attack. Containment was clearly working. Iraq had putatively possessed such arms for years, and had not used any of them since before the first Persian Gulf war. Iraq, moreover, had no means to launch a biological or chemical attack on New York or St. Louis or Oshkosh, Wis. It posed no threat to the United States.

There were two ways of getting around this obstacle, and the Bush administration used both. The first was to argue that Iraq might now ally itself with al-Qaida. Baghdad had the deadly goods; al-Qaida could use its sneaky, cunning means to deliver them against American territory. Vice President Dick Cheney in particular pushed this line. There wasn't, however, a shred of evidence to support it.

The second way to goose the process along was to bring up nuclear weapons. A half-century of Cold War with the Soviet Union had made the horror of nuclear war a touchstone of anxiety in the American mind, and the idea of Saddam Hussein having a few nukes in his arsenal - even if he did lack an intercontinental ballistic missile to shoot them our way - was enough to worry anyone. President Bush remarked that he didn't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

This then became the capstone - the one piece of the argument that lent urgency to the march to war. It was the nuclear option that put the wheels in motion, because delay could potentially be fatal.

The White House presented two pieces of evidence that it said pointed to nukes. There was an Iraqi order for aluminum tubes that supposedly might be for use in a centrifuge, though experts quickly threw cold water on this idea. And then there was the story about Iraq going shopping for "yellowcake" uranium in Niger. President Bush brought it up in the 2003 State of the Union speech. But, again, it was Mr. Cheney who was most enthusiastic about beating this drum.

In March 2003, just before the war broke out, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, convincingly declared that the Niger story was a fake. But the war clouds had gathered by that time, and it wasn't difficult for the administration to press onward; maybe some particular papers had been faked, but this was a detail, and - better safe than sorry - it was full speed ahead.

That July brought the article by Joseph C. Wilson IV, the diplomat and husband of Valerie Plame, in which he wrote that he had gone to Niger and reported back to Washington - a full year earlier - that the story was groundless. What this did was to demonstrate that the excitement over Iraq's supposed uranium purchases in the months leading up to the war wasn't a mistake, or an exaggeration. It was a lie.

This was Mr. Wilson's sin. The nuclear threat was the only justification for the urgency of war, and not only was it baseless but because of what he wrote, it was now clear that the architects of the war knew it was baseless.

Here is the motivation for the outing of Ms. Plame, a CIA agent. It appears that the White House was not intent so much on punishing Mr. Wilson as on discrediting him, by suggesting that his trip had been some sort of junket arranged by his wife. Mr. Wilson's revelation, if true, exposed the dishonesty at the core of the administration's maneuverings over Iraq. And of course it was true.

This is the context in which the continuing investigation by the special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, must be viewed. This is not simply about the Karl Rove brand of politics taken too far, but about the fabrication that launched a war.

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