For Bush, Too Late for Honesty

Missing munitions spark an explosion of administration excuses.

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

October 29, 2004

On Monday morning, the New York Times reported that 380 tons of powerful explosives had disappeared from a military complex in Iraq that the American military didn't safeguard. An honest supporter of President Bush would reply to this by arguing that, despite this mistake, there are plenty of good reasons to reelect him anyway.

The week before the election, though, is too late for honesty, especially for a campaign so committed to the infallibility of its candidate. And so Bush and his allies have been forced to argue that no, neglecting to guard a lifetime supply of bomb-making material does not in any way reflect poorly on Bush's military strategy. Indeed, if anybody is tainted here, it's Kerry. This exercise in defending the indefensible offers a kind of morbid hilarity. So far, I count seven distinct lines of argument:

1. Look at the bright side. Kerry, insists Vice President Dick Cheney, fails to "mention the 400,000 tons of weapons and explosives that our troops have captured and are destroying." This is sort of like arguing, "Your honor, the record should reflect the countless times I've driven to work without swerving onto the sidewalk and mowing down dozens of pedestrians."

2. Consider the source. Why, Republicans ask, are we finding out just now about this? Well, for starters, it was less than two weeks ago that the International Atomic Energy Agency informed our government of the lost explosives. A Wall Street Journal editorial imputed dark motives to the fact that the information leaked, without explaining why the U.S. government was keeping it secret in the first place, or why the fact that it leaked detracts from the substance of the story.

3. Don't judge. As the Journal pleaded, "Some 380 tons of frightfully powerful stuff has gone missing, and the objective before us should be to locate it, not locate blame." In other words, the military can't search for the bombs unless the voters withhold judgment about Bush.

4. Kerry reads newspapers. "What would he do as president? Get up every morning and say, 'I'm going to govern based on what I find in the newspapers?' " sneered Karl Rove. "John Kerry will say anything he believes will help him politically," wrote Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman, "and today he is grasping at headlines to obscure his record of weakness and indecision in the war on terror." The horror — Kerry is letting world news infect his judgment.

5. Kerry's a hypocrite. "After repeatedly calling Iraq the wrong war and a diversion," Bush declared, "Sen. Kerry this week seemed shocked to learn that Iraq was a dangerous place full of dangerous weapons." This is a bizarre inversion of reality. Bush justified the war primarily as a way to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists, yet his handling of it led to exactly that result.

6. Kerry hates the troops. "The senator is denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field," Bush insisted. By this logic, any criticism of Bush's military plan amounts to blaming the troops. By the same Orwellian logic, statements like the one from Bush supporter Rudy Giuliani — "The actual responsibility for it really would be for the troops that were there. Did they search carefully enough?" — do not count as blaming the troops.

7. It was like that when we got here. Republicans seized on an NBC News report that a U.S. Army brigade had inspected the site in April 2003 and found no weapons. This claim fell apart after NBC and the brigade commander said the Americans merely stopped at the site without inspecting it. Bush and his allies have since retreated to claiming that the explosives may have been moved before the war started. This is possible, though highly unlikely. David Kay, the man Bush chose to search for WMD in Iraq, said such a transfer probably would have been detected by U.S. satellites. And KSTP, a Minneapolis TV station that had staff embedded with troops who went into the area, has footage of U.S. troops coming across what look to weapons inspectors very much like the explosives in question, cracking open locks and then departing. There have been reports of systematic looting since.

But even in the unlikely event that the weapons disappeared before the war, it would hardly forgive Bush's policy of invading without enough troops to secure vital weapons caches. The point is that he didn't plan for the peace, which included safeguarding weapons. Suppose it turned out that the pedestrians struck by our reckless driver all suffered fatal heart attacks moments before they were run over. Sure, the driver would be exonerated of their deaths. But as far as evaluating his driving skills — or Bush's war-planning skills — it makes no difference at all.