Bush Changes Context for War

He has accused Kerry of 'mixed messages' on Iraq, but the president's rationale has shifted too.

By Ronald Brownstein and Kathleen Hennessey

Los Angeles Times

October 19, 2004

WASHINGTON — In the campaign debate over Iraq, one constant has been the divide between the presidential candidates on the issue of inconsistency.

President Bush has stressed his resolve while accusing Sen. John F. Kerry of sending "mixed messages" on the war in Iraq. He pounded that point on Monday in his latest sharp attack on Kerry, saying, "For three years, depending on the headlines, the poll numbers and political calculation, he has taken almost every conceivable position on Iraq."

Yet an analysis of Bush's statements on Iraq show that he also has sent differing, if not necessarily conflicting, signals on a key war-related question.

Bush's shifts have come not on the decision to overthrow former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but why that action was justified.

Both before and after the invasion, Bush built his case for war on basically the same set of elements. But the prominence placed on each element has clearly shifted.

Before the war, the major chord was security and terrorism. Bush continually warned that Hussein could provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

As the evidence has accumulated that Iraq did not possess chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, Bush increasingly has argued that building democracy in Iraq would inspire democratic change across the region in a domino effect. That argument was part of, but secondary, in the administration's case before the invasion.

In effect, Bush has never wavered on the verdict about Iraq, but he has reordered the counts in his indictment.

"I don't think there is any argument we've made after the war that we hadn't made before the war," said one senior GOP strategist familiar with White House planning. "But there has been a difference of emphasis."

To critics, the focus on democracy is an after-the-fact explanation for the war that Bush is promoting only because his original justification collapsed.

"It was only because we didn't find any [weapons of mass destruction] that you had to find a new rationalization for the war," said Ivo Daalder, a former national security aide under President Clinton.

But David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, said that although the president has made "tactical" adjustments in his arguments for the war, the guiding principle in his decisions remained the same.

"The consistent theme is that he believed even before Sept. 11 that Saddam Hussein was a danger and the policies of the 1990s had failed," said Frum. "Bush decided from the start that he was going to do something about this."

In Bush's shifting justification for the war, some analysts see a clue to a larger pattern in his presidency.

Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale University, said Bush has often kept his goals constant even when circumstances force him to change the rationale for them.

On tax cuts, Skowronek said, Bush has followed a similar strategy: He's never altered his belief that tax cuts were the right policy, but he has altered his argument for them. He initially said they were needed to prevent Washington from spending the federal budget surplus; he then defended them as key to jump-starting the economy.

This style of leadership "has all the attractions of being consistent, true, orthodox, strong," said Skowronek. "But it has all the downsides of appearing inflexible, unable to adjust, not nimble."

Frum said that to some, Bush's unwillingness to concede any doubt about his decision to invade Iraq even while largely shifting the explanation for it makes him appear "intransigent." But he asserted that such single-minded resolve is a quality essential to a president confronting the terrorist threat.

"There are very few leaders who are men for all seasons; most leaders are men for some seasons," Frum said. "If our situation called for a leader who is highly skilled in the arts of international political maneuver … he wouldn't be the right man for that job. But he is consistent, he knows where he is going…. And for those of us who like him, that's what we like."

In his initial statements on Iraq, Bush seemed to acknowledge more uncertainty about the regime's intent and capabilities than he did later.

In his State of the Union Address in January 2002 — in which Bush famously identified Iraq, North Korea and Iran as an "axis of evil" — the president suggested that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and could ally with terrorists. But he did not explicitly charge Saddam Hussein on either count. He said only that Iraq "has plotted to develop" biological and chemical weapons and was "a regime that has something to hide."

He also warned that outlaw states "could provide these arms to terrorists." Given that possibility, Bush said, "I will not wait on events, while dangers gather."

He expanded on that theme in June 2002 in a speech at West Point, when he unveiled his argument that the U.S. needed to replace the doctrine of "containment" that guided its foreign policy through the Cold War. Bush proposed a strategy of "preemption" aimed at blocking rogue regimes from developing illicit weapons they could provide to terrorists.

"If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," he said.

In the late summer of 2002, the administration began depicting the threat from Iraq as more concrete and impending.

The shift was made clear by Vice President Dick Cheney in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 26. "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Cheney said. He also declared: "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons."

When Bush made his pitch to the United Nations a few weeks later for a resumption of weapons inspections in Iraq, he was much more definitive on Iraqi capabilities than earlier in the year, but still not as conclusive as Cheney.

Bush called Hussein's regime "a grave and gathering danger," and said the evidence showed that he was seeking illicit weapons. But he did not join Cheney in directly asserting that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Within days, that distinction eroded. As the administration pushed for the congressional vote authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Bush said flatly in late September that Hussein "has built up his cache of chemical and biological weapons," and described the dictator as "a man who loves to link up with Al Qaeda."

In the six months leading to the invasion in March 2003, Bush and other administration officials continued to stress their charges that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties "to international terrorist groups," including Al Qaeda.

In his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush highlighted later discredited reports that Hussein had sought enriched uranium from Africa and aluminum tubes that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. And he consistently argued Iraq would threaten the stability of the Middle East as long as Hussein remained in power — a case he still makes.

But Bush's central theme before the war was that the world could not allow Iraq to possess and develop weapons of mass destruction that it might provide to terrorists.

"Americans must understand that in this new war against terror, that we not only must chase down Al Qaeda terrorists, we must deal with weapons of mass destruction as well," Bush said at a news conference shortly before the invasion.

As it toughened its stance on Hussein, the administration began making its case that a democratic Iraq, along with a democratic Afghanistan, could inspire "reforms throughout the Muslim world," as Bush put it in his U.N. speech in September 2002. But tellingly, that argument was in the speech's second-to-last paragraph.

The following February, Bush significantly expanded this argument in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. More directly than before, Bush justified the war as a means of remaking the Middle East.

He argued that a democratic Iraq would inspire the spread of democracy through the region, and over time that would reduce the threat of terror "because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder."

The speech prefigured the themes Bush relies on most heavily now. But it was not the dominant note before the war. It has only been since Baghdad fell that the balance has tilted from the WMD arguments toward democratization.

Jonathan Clarke, a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute and co-author of "America Alone," a recent book on Bush's foreign policy, said he thinks Bush has made the shift so easily because the democratization theory was always more important to him.

"This whole thing about WMD and connection with Al Qaeda … were [just] the rhetorical tools he was using to persuade the American people," Clarke said. "He knew if he got up and said 'I have this ambitious project for changing the face of the Middle East,' people wouldn't have bought into that. So you had these immediate rationales being rolled out, but no great attachment to them."

On the WMD issue, the administration has fought a kind of rear-guard action, giving ground slowly on its original claims.

After coalition forces failed to find WMDs, Bush initially insisted that the war was justified because Hussein maintained illicit programs that would have allowed him to develop such weapons in the future. "Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day," Bush said in his 2004 State of the Union address.

But after CIA weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer concluded in his comprehensive report this month that Iraq did not have either illicit weapons or active programs underway to develop them, administration officials shifted their focus again, this time from the regime's capability to its intent.

They have stressed Duelfer's conclusion that Hussein "wanted to re-create" Iraq's WMD program if international sanctions were ever lifted. In early October, Bush also insisted that Iraq "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction."

Now, with the Nov. 2 election two weeks away, Bush is highlighting two main defenses for the war.

One is his case that a democratic Iraq will tilt the region away from extremism by encouraging the spread of freedom. The other is his argument that a president must confront "threats before they fully materialize," comments he made in his Sept. 30 debate with Kerry that echo the preemption doctrine he outlined in his 2002 West Point speech.

In that way, Bush is summing up his argument for invading Iraq by looking forward and back — forward toward a transformed Middle East, and back toward the 9/11 attacks that he says have compelled America to act decisively even amid uncertainty.



President's comments on Iraq

Over the last two years, President Bush's statements on Iraq have shown a shift in emphasis. The changes have come not on the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but why. The following statements trace the change in the president's rationale.

State of the Union, Jan. 29, 2002

"I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

Address to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 12, 2002

"United Nations inspections also revealed that Iraq likely maintains stockpiles of VX, mustard and other chemical agents, and the regime is rebuilding and expanding facilities capable of producing chemical weapons."

Speech in Cincinnati, Oct. 7, 2002

"We know that the regime has produced thousands of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas, VX nerve gas."

Speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Feb. 26, 2003

"The current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform the vital region by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions."

News conference, March 16, 2003

"The dictator of Iraq and his weapons of mass destruction are a threat to the security of free nations. He is a danger to his neighbors. He's a sponsor of terrorism. He's an obstacle to progress in the Middle East. For decades he has been the cruel, cruel oppressor of the Iraq people."

State of the Union, Jan. 20, 2004

"But let us be candid about the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power. We're seeking all the facts. Already, the [CIA] report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations. Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."

Acceptance speech, Republican National Convention, Sept. 2, 2004

"The terrorists are fighting freedom with all their cunning and cruelty because freedom is their greatest fear. And they should be afraid, because freedom is on the march. I believe in the transformational power of liberty. The wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom. As the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq seize the moment, their example will send a message of hope throughout a vital region."