The Iraq Survey Group's interim report on weapons of mass destruction has caused Hindrocket to go wobbly again on Bush's political prospects. HR is of course entitled to make whatever bets he likes, and I don't intend to make this blog into a running commentary on Power Line, but I think it's worth noting where the pessimism that has overwhelmed HR appears also to have affected his reasoning, for the results point to some misconceptions that plague the entire Iraq pseudo-debate.
Throughout the above-linked post, which was itself written as a response to Andrew Sullivan's almost entirely opposite conclusions, HR draws the most politically unfavorable implications possible from the text of the Kay report. Thus, for example, while bemoaning the "especially woeful" state of evidence about Saddam's nuclear program - no extensive program at the start of the war, but clear intent to resume at the first opportunity - HR concludes that "[t]he suggestion that Saddam would have resumed work on nuclear weapons development once the U.N. sanctions ended is hardly a convincing argument for abandoning those sanctions and launching a pre-emptive war instead." In this statement, HR adopts the arguments from false premises and imaginary alternatives that mark so much current criticism of the Iraq war. One key presumption of this type is that, at the time the war was "launched," U.N. sanctions and inspections were working - that Saddam's regime was safely contained. This position ignores ample evidence, in the ISG report as elsewhere, that Saddam's defiance remained energetic and widespread, and his long-term ambitions remained unaltered, with or without U.N. inspectors or even Coalition troops in country. Perhaps even more critically, and irrationally, the presumption requires one to forget that, prior to Bush's threat of force, there were no inspections taking place in Iraq, and the sanctions policy was widely under attack, most stridently by Islamist radicals and by the later opponents of Bush policy, as cruelly unjust to the Iraqis and as increasingly subject to violation. The resumption of inspections and the temporary strengthening of sanctions occurred only as a result of U.S. initiative.
HR and others who will try to state the case as he does are in effect advocating the indefinite prolongation of Iraqi suffering under the twin burdens of Baathism and internationally enforced economic isolation, forever to be accompanied by inspections and patrolling of "No-Fly Zones." For how many years, how many generations was this policy supposed to have continued? Isn't it more likely that at some point, at a time when international will had relaxed, and sooner rather than later, Saddam's intention to resume weapons development would have been realized? If Bush had never insisted on Iraqi compliance with its obligations under U.N. resolutions and Gulf War 1 ceasefire agreements, that point might already have been reached by today. Given Bush's stated insistence and Saddam's determination never to comply fully, the only alternative to enforcement of the threat - war - would have been for the U.S. to back down. Saddam would have won a major victory, while enemies around the world would have been treated to yet another demonstration of America's inability to act independently and decisively. We cannot know how long, in the wake of such events, it would have been before Saddam and his objective allies readied their next set of challenges to U.S. policy and influence, but there is every reason to believe that the next provocations would have been rather more than merely rhetorical, would quite possibly have exceeded 9/11 or the first Gulf War, and would perhaps have combined unconventional and conventional tactics.
HR's pessimism finally turns into defeatism when he fully adopts anti-war reductionism as his own. He concludes that Bush's only chance for "vindication" lies in WMD discoveries that he no longer expects to take place. What's odd is that in the same virtual breath, HR also recognizes that the existence of deliverable WMDs in Iraq was never the key to Bush war policy:
The administration's real reason for going to war was the Wolfowitz theory that a free Iraq would topple autocratic dominoes all over the Middle East, thereby ultimately draining the swamp of Islamofascism. Saddam's illegal weapons consitituted a real, but secondary, motive; even if Wolfowitz's theory proved unrealistic, we would have done a useful and important thing in preventing Saddam's weapons from somehow ending up in the hands of terrorists. Now, President Bush's problem is not just that Wolfowitz may be proved wrong--Arab culture is problematic at best, and Islam appears highly resistant to reform--but that even if Wolfowitz was right, he will not be proved so until Bush is long out of office, be that in 2008 or, as I suspect, in 2004
Though this rendition of U.S. war aims and justifications remains overly narrow, it at least acknowledges their multiple dimensions and components. Still, even though HR realizes that Bush's historical vindication does not depend on the discovery of a ready-to-use WMD arsenal in Iraq, he asserts that Bush's political vindication - in time for the 2004 elections - must. This belief presumes absolute political incapacity on the part of Bush and his team - an inability ever to re-state actual policy (rather than the straw man constructed by his opponents) fairly and convincingly.
I suppose it's conceivable that the Bush Administration will never find the words and images to convey its aims and accomplishments to the electorate, or that economic and foreign affairs may go badly enough wrong to make campaigning hopeless. Some may also believe that Americans love complacency and denial too much, or are too susceptible to leftwing propaganda and hostile media, to stay the strategic course, but there is no basis in recent history or in current events, the interim ISG report and whatever interim poll results included, simply to assume so. Indeed, if the facts remain more on Bush's side, as I believe they very much are today, then political success remains the safer bet. In regard to Iraq specifically, complexities and complications are sometimes difficult to explain against outraged and frequently outrageous partisan opposition, and the post-war situation inevitably involves obstacles and setbacks, but the war and reconstruction remain essential elements in Bush's overall response to the strategic challenge so clearly enunciated by our enemies on 9/11/01. Since that time, the President has never pretended to be Weapons Inspector-in-Chief. He has promised to pursue the war on terror aggressively, systematically, and even singlemindedly. The political campaign should provide ample opportunity to remind Americans why they supported him when he made the promise, how he has sought to fulfill it, and why his efforts deserve renewed support going forward.