“George Bush made a mistake,” said Donald Trump in the South Carolina debate last week. “We should have never been in Iraq.” Trump added that “we destabilized” the larger Middle East.
Those are legitimate points of contention—though Trump should not exclude President Obama’s decision to prematurely pull troops from Iraq. That move by Obama in 2011 was disastrous, as so many (including Bush himself) warned it would be. It unquestionably helped enable the surge of ISIS and its establishment of a self-proclaimed “Islamic State” caliphate.
But then Donald Trump went way overboard.
“I want to tell you, they lied,” said Trump. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none.”
The “they” means George W. Bush, and (we must assume) basically Bush’s administration and entire security and foreign-policy and intelligence team.
Trump’s accusation is outrageous.
Given a chance to walk-back that remark in an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump seemed unwilling.
“Some people felt like you were going conspiratorial,” said Hannity, “suggesting that they knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction.”
Trump answered: “No. I don’t have—you know, I can’t tell you that. I can only tell you that getting into the war was a disaster.”
That was all that Trump said. No further elaboration. Was he backing down a bit? Maybe, but it was hardly a major retraction or apology.
Either way, Trump’s initial assertion should be dealt with. The idea that George W. Bush lied about WMDs is an old, ludicrous canard that needs to be dispatched to the ash-heap of history. It is a very unfair smear.
Let’s recall the history leading up to 2003:
The war debate was not over whether Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Everyone was convinced he did, including Democrats, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Kofi Annan at the U.N., the French, the Russians, the world’s intelligence agencies, and on and on.
The debate was not if Saddam had WMDs but how to best go about disarming him. The debate within the international community was whether an American-led invasion should be pursued to disarm Saddam (the approach favored by George Bush and Tony Blair) or whether sanctions and arms inspections should be pursued to disarm Saddam (the French-Russian approach), but never whether Saddam had WMDs.
For years, since at least 1990, the world was certain that the Iraqi dictator was ever-assuredly securing WMDs.
If I may, my personal experience is instructive:
I began working this issue at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in 1991, and then continued in graduate school, as a professor, and as a researcher for various think-tanks. All along, I supported the Democrats in the White House—that is, Bill Clinton and Al Gore and crew—when they bombed Iraq because of its ominous WMD threat. The last such occasion was December 1998, after Saddam again kicked out U.N. inspectors as they demanded entry to clandestine WMD sites. By 2003, inspections had not occurred in Iraq in five years, which concerned George W. Bush and his team greatly in the post-9/11 world.
In my lectures on Iraq still today, I quote lengthy articles from The New York Times to Newsweek that detailed Saddam’s frightening covert biological and nuclear programs. Check the Washington Post (Barton Gellman, “Iraq Works Toward A-Bomb,” September 30, 1998); The London Times (“Defectors say Iraq tested nuclear bomb,” February 25, 2001, and “Iraq ‘will have nuclear bomb in months,’” September 16, 2002); The New Yorker (Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Great Terror,” March 25, 2002); U.S. News & World Report (Richard J. Newman, “Stalking Saddam,” February 23, 1998); Newsweek (John Barry, “Unearthing the Truth,” March 2, 1998); or Time, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal or other publications. Some of these articles laid out not merely nuclear programs but supposed secret nuclear tests conducted by Saddam. Peruse transcripts from major TV news broadcasts: CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, CBC. Check the BBC and NPR. And don’t neglect the full-blown books published by top houses, like Khadhir Hamza’s Saddam’s Bombmaker.
Watch the terrifying November 23, 1997 clip of Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, Bill Cohen, on “Meet the Press with Tim Russert,” laying out the Clinton administration’s horrifying projections on Saddam’s WMD production in the absence of inspections. Russert, usually merciless in grilling people, naturally accepted Cohen’s details; there was no reason to doubt them. I used to show my students an amazing video of Clinton’s security team—Cohen, Sandy Berger, and Madeleine Albright—being shouted down by extremely rude students in a forum at Ohio State University in February 1998, which CNN broadcast as an “International Town Meeting.” Despite the embarrassing behavior of the students, the Clinton team hung in there, urging that America “must get those WMDs.” I also regularly showed my students the November 1997 CNN special report, “Showdown with Iraq.”
This is just the tiniest sample of what was always fresh and available.
I began collecting such material at CSIS. I maintained the briefing book (actually, literal briefing boxes) on this subject for our senior analysts, who were CNN’s regular analysts, and most of whom voted for Bill Clinton. In one case, we discovered and blew the whistle on a suspected Iraqi WMD site near Kirkuk. Dan Rather grabbed the story and made it his lead in an October 1992 “CBS Evening News” broadcast. Yes, that was way back in 1992, when even then we were being told that Saddam was on the cusp of an operational nuclear weapon.
George W. Bush, like all of us, first heard about suspected Iraqi WMDs from the media in the 1990s, long before he was governor let alone president. The press was unanimous in reporting daily that Iraq was producing if not harboring WMDs in defiance of the 1991 U.N. ceasefire. There were never-ending reports that Saddam was months away (estimates ranged from six to 18 months) from a nuclear bomb, on top of his equally alarming bio and chemical weapons arsenals, which he previously employed against “enemies” ranging from Kurdish children to the Marsh Arabs to the Iranians and Israelis. He promised to “scorch half of Israel” with “chemical gas.”
It was because of Saddam’s obstruction, remember, that the Clinton administration unceasingly bombed suspected Iraqi WMD sites throughout the 1990s, so often that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times quipped that Saddam Hussein was the reason God invented the cruise missile.
Thus, by 2003, President George W. Bush had correctly calculated that Saddam’s WMD arsenal, after at least five years of no inspections, was an intolerable, unacceptable risk in the wake of 9/11.
This was a fully legitimate fear, with Bush’s suspicion of Saddam’s stockpiles first informed not by his advisers but, instead, by the media that informed all of us in the 1990s, years before Bush became president.
In short, all of that very recent history was forgotten by an emotional, angry political left after our troops didn’t find the WMD stockpiles we all expected.
Of course, we did discover some WMDs in Iraq after 2003 (everyone forgets this), and chief inspector David Kay found both Iraqi “infrastructure and intent” to ramp up WMD production once Saddam later figured he was in the clear. We did not, however, find the warehouses of WMD stockpiles we expected. (The better question is why not and what happened to the WMDs.)
Finally, aside from these facts, imagine strictly for the sake of argument that George W. Bush did lie about WMDs. That would mean that he and his administration went to war in 2003 for a fallacious if not treacherous reason they knew would be exposed the moment we got to Iraq and found no WMDs. They would have pursued this self-defeating tactic realizing it would be revealed as a farce very soon, certainly by the next year, meaning the very year (2004) that Bush ran for re-election. It would have been a mission of political suicide, probably even impeachable.
In short, Donald Trump can legitimately question Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. But his charge that George W. Bush lied about WMDs is outrageous.
This is an old smear that needs to be ended, not resurrected by the Republican front-runner for president.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.