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Conservatives must face Iraq facts

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 11, 2004

The Iraq Survey Group headed by Charles Duelfer has released its report (key findings here and parts 1, 2 and 3 -- PDF format) on the status of Iraqi weapons programs and the results confirm what many had long suspected: When the United States invaded, Iraq did not posses weapons of mass destruction, was hardly engaged in serious efforts to produce them and Saddam Hussein's nuclear capabilities were actually deteriorating rather than advancing.

These findings contradict prewar statements by President Bush and top administration officials, and seriously undercut the rationale for the Iraq war. In an essay appearing in the New York Times on Sunday, Franklin Foer observed that even many conservative intellectuals and journalists are now entertaining second thoughts about the war, in some cases reaching conclusions more consistent with the old right's noninterventionist traditions.

But these doubts are not necessarily reverberating among the conservative grassroots. In fact, an October 6 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 62 percent of self-described Republicans, a fair if imperfect proxy for the rank-and-file right, believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks against America. Fully 50 percent believed that the Iraqi dictator was personally involved in planning the attacks.

These are claims that the administration does not make and did not even endorse prior to the war, although the campaign may not mind collecting votes based on these misperceptions. Indeed, Steve Sailer has expressed concern that Karl Rove's strategy may be to rely on the "dumbing down of Republicans" on these issues.

Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, conducting house-to-house searches in the northern city of Samarra
Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, conducting house-to-house searches in the northern city of Samarra

My readers are decent, thoughtful, patriotic Americans (and, of course, friends of America in other countries). Many of you supported the Iraq war, out of loyalty to the president and a sincere desire to keep the U.S. safe from WMDs in the hands of madmen. Although I was skeptical of an Iraq campaign from the beginning, I found persuasive many of the same arguments that convinced you to support to the war -- so much so that I tempered my opposition shortly before the invasion and declared myself undecided on the question. More than the arguments, however, I softened my position because I trusted and wanted to believe pro-war figures in the administration I held in particularly high regard. But experience is sometimes kinder to our doubts than our hopes.

The evidence is in and it has been gathering since Baghdad fell. According to the Duelfer report, there were "no credible indications that Baghdad resumed production of chemical munitions" after 1991, and "no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW [biological weapons] program." Contrary to warnings that Saddam had reconstituted his nuclear program and was perhaps a year away from having weapons, the Iraqi nuclear weapons program had been stopped in 1991 and the survey group found "no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart" it.

It's tempting to respond that virtually all the players, including leading Democrats from Bill Clinton to John Kerry and every major Western intelligence agency, believed that Iraq possessed WMDs. But some experts did have doubts. And while there was a broad, if inaccurate, government consensus on Iraqi WMDs, the notion that this constituted a risk serious enough to justify immediate, preemptive war was a minority viewpoint. There were also many uncertainties in the intelligence, partly as a result of limited Western knowledge of the facts on the ground in Iraq after the first Gulf War, and political assertions made on the basis of disputed intelligence estimates. In short, long before we received the conclusive evidence we have today there were sufficient doubts to call into question the wisdom of war.

Without the weapons, there remain two primary conservative justifications for the war. The first is the neoconservative dogma that democracy in Iraq will promote democracy throughout the Middle East, altering the political conditions that currently breed terror. But even if true, this does not mean that the U.S. can necessarily effect this transformation militarily through democratic nation-building. The second -- which appears to be Duelfer's own position -- is that the sanctions regime was eroding and would have eventually ended, at which point Saddam would have been likely to resume WMD production. Yet it is difficult to see why this much more speculative threat would have required drastic, immediate and unilateral action by the U.S. during a global war on terror with numerous other threats.

And the existence of myriad threats highlights the real problem: there are opportunity costs in this dangerous world to being bogged down in a WMD-free Iraq. Yes, presidents sometimes have to make decisions based on imperfect intelligence. But there were substantial prewar doubts. We conservatives have too often allowed this president to soft-pedal those doubts and, worse, conflate the war aims with its actual results.

Many conservatives have been too slow to grapple with new data unfolding on the ground in Iraq, preferring the comfort of familiar talking points. But it is not disloyal to our brave troops, a thousand of whom have already made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, to question the war. Nor is this presidential campaign the wrong time to raise such questions, for fear of helping Kerry, whose position on the war is indecipherable and is otherwise banally liberal. In addition to the election, something else is at stake: the credibility of conservatism as the guarantor of responsible national defense.

William F. Buckley, Jr., who more recently confessed that the case for the Iraq war was inaccurate and that in hindsight he would have opposed it, once described conservatism as the "politics of reality." If liberals are seen by the American people as more realistic on Iraq, conservatives will come to regret it -- eventually, if not on November 2.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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