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Torturing Democratic candidates

I’m asking for trouble by reviving that much-maligned concept — nuance — in an attempt to rescue truth from politics.

Modern-day Torquemadas are busy torturing Democratic presidential candidates into confessing heresy for voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq. The Inquisition has recast that act as a vote for war, while ignoring its importance to furthering the inspection regime so central to the policy prescriptions of those who advocated containment instead of war.  
I am certainly not arguing in favor of the resolution, but rescuing historical reality from the flames of the Inquisition is, nonetheless, a worthy enterprise.

Make no mistake: There is a clear villain here. George Bush violated the spirit of the congressional resolution, initiating an ill-conceived war with catastrophic consequences for the U.S. However, an “aye” on the resolution was not a vote for war, let alone for George Bush’s disastrous post-Saddam policies. The nuances of that reality deserve our respect.

From end of the first Gulf War until 1998, when the Iraqis stopped cooperating, the Special U.N. Commission made progress dismantling Iraqi WMD programs. Iraq’s intransigence prompted U.S. military action under President Clinton, and the inspectors were withdrawn, still unconvinced Iraq had destroyed its entire WMD arsenal. In retrospect, it seems Saddam Hussein had adopted a policy of purposeful ambiguity — subtly encouraging adversaries to believe he retained WMDs despite having eliminated them from his arsenal.

While President Bush clearly misled the country about the evidence for WMDs, no U.N. agency or intelligence service was certain Iraq did not possess such weapons. That uncertainty did not justify war, but it did require pressure on Iraq to readmit the inspectors.

Only diplomacy combined with a credible threat of force could reopen Iraq to U.N. inspections.

Saddam repeatedly refused to provide inspectors with unfettered access until President Bush took to the U.N. rostrum threatening war if Iraq failed to comply with U.N. resolutions. Four days later Saddam reversed his position, agreeing, in principle, to full access for the U.N. Ten days after the inspectors hammered out an agreement with Iraq, Congress passed the resolution authorizing the president to use U.S. armed forces to enforce U.N. resolutions. A few weeks later, after more haggling, inspections finally resumed after a four-year hiatus.
What would have happened if Congress had blocked the resolution? The likelihood that Saddam would have permitted the inspections to go forward is near zero. As the now famously anti-war former Ambassador to Iraq Joe Wilson told CNN in January 2003, “I’ve always said you need credible threat of force and you need to be able to be prepared to act on it.”

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix also agrees that Iraq allowed inspections because the U.S. threatened war. “I don’t think there would have been any inspection but for outside pressure, including U.S. forces,” Blix said.

Once the credible threat of force opened Iraq to inspections, it became increasingly clear that Saddam had been playing the rest of the world, having earlier destroyed his WMDs.

Congress had authorized the use of force to back up U.N. resolutions. However, Bush rushed to war, even while the United Nations itself concluded Iraq was meeting the conditions of its resolutions and even as its inspectors were uncovering evidence that Iraq had complied with U.N. demands.

Absent the credible threat of force, we would not have had inspections. Absent the vote supporting the resolution, there would have been no credible threat of force. The resolution neither started the war nor endorsed the “post-war” plan — President Bush did. The president needs to recant; Democrats do not.

Mark Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.