It was widely assumed in the major media that the Duelfer Report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction would badly hurt George W. Bushs reelection effort. Indeed, leaving nothing to chance, the contents of that report were widely presented in such a way as to make that outcome more likely. However, it is not clear that, when the dust settles, Bush will actually be grievously harmed. Why not?
The answer begins with the obvious fact that preliminary reports of the Iraq Survey Group had come to a similar conclusion starting over a year ago, and most Americans had already come to terms with the notion that we were not likely to find large stockpiles of WMD in Iraq. The desperate attempt by the media establishment to treat that conclusion of the Duelfer Report as fresh news was nearly comical.
There are several other reasons to question how much the report will damage the president, at least if voters are exposed to the full range of the report’s conclusions. In particular, four stand out.
The question of Bushs good faith should be put to rest by the report, which reveals that Saddams generals were shocked when the dictator told them on the eve of war that Iraq did not any longer possess its WMD stockpile. If even top Iraqi generals thought the stockpiles existed, it is rather difficult to fault George Bush for not knowing the truth. Would a President John Kerry have known any better? Of course not. So the question resolves itself to this: Do Americans want a president who will act decisively against a threat that virtually every piece of information indicates is real?
Whatever the state of Iraqs WMD program in March 2003, the report makes clear that Saddam intended to resume it when the sanctions were gone. He retained the scientific capacity and the facilities to do so. If he had WMD in the past (as we know he did), and was going to seek it in the future, many thoughtful Americans will conclude that the period when he did not have it was but a fleeting moment that does not invalidate Bushs broader point. They may even conclude that March 2003 was a fortuitous time to act. Does John Kerry now think that it would have been better to wait until Iraqs WMD program was reconstituted and American troops had to come under fire from massed chemical artillery strikes?
Further, the Duelfer Report makes it clear that the sanctions were tottering on the verge of total collapse. This point is particularly important given the previous conclusion. Saddam had successfully suborned several foreign governments, including Russias and Frances. He had also completely subverted the U.N. Oil-for-Food program, funneling millions of dollars into his own coffers and those of the Iraqi military. These disclosures seriously undercut John Kerrys position in at least two ways. First, they lay bare the unmitigated folly of relying on France and the United Nations to determine the direction of American foreign policy. Second, it is difficult to persuade voters of Kerrys (newest) position, that war was a mistake because the sanctions were working, if the sanctions were obviously about to stop working.
Finally, the report opens up to public view a line of attack against Kerry that has long been available to Bush but has not been emphasized. Saddams WMD program did not stop in 1991 as the result of some random decision when he closed his eyes and put his finger down on a calendar. It stopped because Operation Desert Storm stopped it. If U.S. intelligence overestimated Saddams WMD progress in 2003, it had vastly underestimated it before 1991. After the first Gulf War, it became clear to shocked analysts that Saddam was only months away from developing nuclear weapons. In January 1991, John Kerry voted against that war, the war that kept nuclear weapons out of Saddams hands at nearly the last possible moment. The Bush campaign could only gain by hitting this point hard for the next three weeks. It would remind people that Saddam had a record, that Kerry has a record, and that the liberation of Iraq was less the launching of a new war than the ending of an old one, twelve years late.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.