November 11, 2005,
Getting suckered usually is not a sign of good judgment. On the contrary, it's something to be embarrassed by. But Democrats are making the contention that they were told lies prior to the Iraq war, and believed them, central to their party's identity.
They are caught between their base's conviction that President Bush lied about Iraq and the fact that the cream of the party voted to authorize the war. Nearly every Democratic senator who has higher ambitions voted "yes" Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and John Edwards. If Bush lied, it stands to reason that they are all naifs, foolishly drawn to the seductions of a charlatan. They aren't statesmen; they're victims.
Some of the "aye" votes make this argument themselves. "He misled every one of us," Sen. Kerry charges. Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, since retired, agrees: "We were misled." The talented New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who voted for the war in the House, explains, "If you believe that people like me and [Sens.] Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton drew the wrong conclusion at the time, well, that's true of a lot of Americans who were deceived by this president."
Surely, however, these Democrats don't rely on Bush exclusively for their information. In a demolition of the Bush-lied argument in the current issue of Commentary magazine, Norman Podhoretz recalls the other players who warned of Saddam Hussein's WMDs. Democrats could have consulted Bill Clinton, who had talked of the "threat posed by Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction program." They could have read the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that maintained "Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs." They could have asked the State Department, which believed Saddam had chemical and biological weapons. They could have listened to former U.N. weapons inspectors, a group of whom said in the presence of Iraq expert Kenneth Pollack in 2002 that they all believed Iraq had WMDs.
The Democratic "aye" votes contend they were further misled because they assumed that Bush would carry out the war competently. This is another way of saying that they thought it would go smoothly. But Bush said the war might be difficult. Democrats were free to believe this admonition and conclude that the war was too risky. Pro-war vote Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia complains that we thought "we could be welcomed as liberators," but it turns out that "we don't know anything about the Middle East." Did he believe in 2002 that we were soaked in a nuanced knowledge of the Middle East? And what precisely did Bush say to convince him of that?
When Democrats claim they were duped, they are sidestepping an inconvenient truth: Many of them supported the war for the same reasons as the president. We now know Saddam didn't have WMD stockpiles, but the only reason we know it with any certainty is that we crushed his regime. To pretend that, absent Bush's deceptions, everyone would have known with exactitude the reduced state of Saddam's weapons programs is juvenile and contemptible, especially from Democrats who want to shimmy their way out of their pro-war votes.
This is where the Howard Dean Democrats deserve a glimmer of admiration. They were against the war, period. Even when things seem to go well in Iraq, they hold firm. Dean was unswayed by the capture of Saddam two years ago. They don't sully themselves with after-the-fact rationalizations and evasions, and have the courage of their paranoid and wrongheaded convictions.
But their drumbeat of "Bush lied" puts their party's leaders in a bind. If Bush was a misleader, many top Democrats were misleadees. Dick Polman, a political reporter for Knight-Ridder News, reminds us that Republican George Romney damaged his presidential bid in 1968 by claiming he had been deceived by the military into supporting the Vietnam War. Voters weren't looking for a president who could, by his own account, be easily misled. Gullibility is not a leadership trait.