By Stan Crock Washington these days is embroiled in two furious debates -- about why we went into Iraq, and how we should get out. But as usual, both sides in both debates are ignoring some critical issues.
Let's look at the debate over prewar intelligence first. The Democrats charge that the Administration misled the public into war. Vice-President Cheney replies that such a claim is "revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety" since Congress had the same intelligence the President did and voted to go to war.
Well, on this one, the Democrats have the better of the argument, but the issue is more nuanced than they let on. As former Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who was the chairman of the Intelligence Committee at the time of the invasion, wrote in an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post recently, the information Congress had was not the same as what the President had. Among the things not shared: routine intelligence briefings to the President, and information the Vice-President learned on his unusual and repeated visits to the Central Intelligence Agency to question analysts.
MISLEADING STATEMENTS. The key point Graham made, however, was that as the chairman of the committee, he had access to a quite detailed briefing the Administration received that included disputes among intelligence agencies and the fact that none of the information about weapons of mass destruction was confirmed by U.S. intelligence. It all came from Iraqi exiles and third countries. The briefing prepared for the rest of Congress, however, contained none of these qualifications and indicated instead that the information was both solid and frightening.
Beyond that, reporters at Knight-Ridder have done a remarkable job over the last two years showing how a number of statements by Administration officials, especially the Vice-President, simply were unsupported by any intelligence analysis that was available.
In August, 2002, Cheney said Iraq would develop a nuclear weapon "fairly soon," when there was no evidence of that. A month later, he said Iraq had bought aluminum tubes for a nuclear-weapons program. At the time, there was a major dispute about whether that was in fact the tubes' purpose, and experts later concluded that the tubes were intended to be used for conventional artillery.
Yes, it's true, as the Republicans maintain, that other nations also thought Iraq had nuclear weapons. But here lies the difference. Based on information from Saddam's son-in-law, defector Hussein Kamel, everyone knew that there were a lot of weapons components unaccounted for in the early 1990s. But other nations thought that made Saddam an incipient threat.
TIME TO GO? The Bush Administration, in contrast, portrayed Saddam as an imminent threat. It did so even though the son-in-law, after laying out what Saddam had imported, said he had destroyed the weapons. Why did the government believe some of what the son-in-law said -- all of which checked out -- and not that rather important conclusion? It's clear to me the Administration was hyping information beyond all recognition to justify an invasion.
O.K., that's history. What about the future? I find it both amusing and dismaying that the Administration is keelhauling Democrats for wanting an exit strategy when Arab and Iraqi leaders are calling for a withdrawal timetable and the Pentagon reportedly has drafted a plan for starting a drawdown next year. Representative John Murtha (D-Pa.) has argued for a rapid withdrawal on the ground that we're not going to win and we shouldn't sentence more troops to die senselessly.
I would make a different argument: We should get out of Iraq because we've won. We already have achieved our two chief goals: ridding Iraq of Saddam's rule and ending any weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.
We haven't spread democracy to the country and the region, though after the next Iraqi election there will be little left on that agenda for us to do. Democracy is something that should blossom from within anyway.
HOME ADVANTAGE. If we were to leave, would there be more sectarian bloodshed? The Sunnis and al Qaeda aren't going to mass troops to take over Baghdad. Neither faction has the forces, and neither operates that way anyhow. They will stay in the shadows, and there isn't much U.S. forces can do to stop that (see BW Online, 7/06/05, "What Makes Suicide Bombers Tick?"). The Iraqis have not only the incentive to be more effective but also the ability, because what's needed is intelligence. And Americans aren't as likely to get the goods as the locals.
Iraq has become so politically radioactive that hardly anyone can look at it rationally. But that can be said for many things in Washington these days. As lawmakers, especially Republicans, start looking toward the 2006 election cycle, I bet we'll start hearing more about pulling back troops in large numbers. And it will be because we won, not because we lost.
Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek