Memo To: Tim Russert, NBC's Meet the Press
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Unasked Questions
Your interview of President Bush yesterday asked a great many questions of him that are now on the minds of the American people, especially about the mess in Iraq. I was surprised when I learned that he actually asked for a Tim Russert interview, knowing of your reputation of being the toughest questioner of the Sunday talk shows. I frankly did not know what to expect, but what you elicited were the responses of easily the most misinformed President in my experience. He clearly believes what he says, but I came away actually depressed with his performance, astonished that he has learned so little of the mistakes he made. The New York Times was actually kind to him in its lead editorial, "Mr. Bush’s Version", noting that "a week in which it became obvious to most Americans that the justifications for the war were based on flawed intelligence, Mr. Bush offered his reflections, and they were far from reassuring. The only clarity in the president's vision appears to be his own perfect sense of self-justification."
The questions I wish you had asked, though, go to what the Times said were his repeated assertions on your show “that he went to the United Nations seeking a diplomatic alternative to the war. In fact, the United States rejected all diplomatic alternatives at the time.” Couldn’t you have asked him why he decided to go to war when the UN inspectors had spent months not only looking everywhere they believed they might find weapons of mass destruction, but also looking in those places where the CIA suggested they might find WMD? As I recall, after the several hundred inspectors said they found nothing in any of these locations in violation of UNSCR #1441, the Pentagon still insisted it knew of other locations where WMD would be found, but that they would not tell the UN inspectors where to look. Don’t you remember this, Tim? Baghdad actually offered to go beyond #1441 and said it would welcome George Tenet’s CIA teams, if there was any question that the UN inspectors were not looking hard enough. President Bush doesn’t seem to know any of this, although it was all reported in the daily papers. But then the President has already informed us that he doesn’t read the papers, that he is satisfied with the briefings he gets from his staff. No wonder he is so easily misinformed.
Well, it isn’t the easiest assignment you ever had, grilling a President on these momentous issues, and I’m grateful you got as much as you did. If you had pursued the line of questioning I suggested here, you would have caused Mr. Bush great embarrassment, I think. And he will have to face these questions when the presidential campaign begins in earnest and the Democrats have united behind their nominee. If Senator Kerry is the nominee, as appears to be the case, he might himself be a bit embarrassed as to why he did not raise objections at the last minute when the President told the American people that diplomacy had failed, when it clearly had not. Kerry will be a guest on your show before long, so you might ask him why he didn’t speak out. He will probably say that he did wonder if the administration did have intelligence that it could not share, and that he thought WMD stockpiles might be found. But at least the issue would be aired in a way that Mr. Bush will have to confront long before the commission he has appointed will report on why he was so misinformed last March. To me, it will remain a puzzle on how he could be so much in the dark to this day.
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The complete transcript of the interview is available at
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/08/politics/08TEXT-BUSH.html The most relevant section on Iraq is excerpted here:
Russert: The night you took the country to war, March 17th, you said this: "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
President Bush: Right.
Russert: That apparently is not the case.
President Bush: Correct.
Russert: How do you respond to critics who say that you brought the nation to war under false pretenses?
President Bush: The …… first of all, I expected to find the weapons. Sitting behind this desk making a very difficult decision of war and peace, and I based my decision on the best intelligence possible, intelligence that had been gathered over the years, intelligence that not only our analysts thought was valid but analysts from other countries thought were valid.
And I made a decision based upon that intelligence in the context of the war against terror. In other words, we were attacked, and therefore every threat had to be reanalyzed. Every threat had to be looked at. Every potential harm to America had to be judged in the context of this war on terror.
And I made the decision, obviously, to take our case to the international community in the hopes that we could do this achieve a disarmament of Saddam Hussein peacefully. In other words, we looked at the intelligence. And we remembered the fact that he had used weapons, which meant he had weapons. We knew the fact that he was paying for suicide bombers. We knew the fact he was funding terrorist groups. In other words, he was a dangerous man. And that was the intelligence I was using prior to the run up to this war.
Now, let me which is——this is a vital question
Russert: Nothing more important.
President Bush: Vital question.
And so we –– I expected there to be stockpiles of weapons. But David Kay has found the capacity to produce weapons. And when David Kay goes in and says we haven't found stockpiles yet, and there's theories as to where the weapons went. They could have been destroyed during the war. Saddam and his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported to another country, and we’’ll find out. That's what the Iraqi survey group let me let me finish here.
But David Kay did report to the American people that Saddam had the capacity to make weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with the ability to make weapons. He was a dangerous man in the dangerous part of the world.
And I made the decision to go to the United Nations.
By the way, quoting a lot of their data in other words, this is unaccounted for stockpiles that you thought he had because I don't think America can stand by and hope for the best from a madman, and I believe it is essential I believe it is essential that when we see a threat, we deal with those threats before they become imminent. It's too late if they become imminent. It's too late in this new kind of war, and so that's why I made the decision I made.
Russert: Mr. President, the Director of the CIA said that his briefings had qualifiers and caveats, but when you spoke to the country, you said "there is no doubt." When Vice President Cheney spoke to the country, he said "there is no doubt." Secretary Powell, "no doubt." Secretary Rumsfeld, "no doubt, we know where the weapons are." You said, quote, "The Iraqi regime is a threat of unique urgency.”” ““Saddam Hussein is a threat that we must deal with as quickly as possible."
You gave the clear sense that this was an immediate threat that must be dealt with.
President Bush: I think, if I might remind you that in my language I called it a grave and gathering threat, but I don't want to get into word contests. But what I do want to share with you is my sentiment at the time. There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America. [CROSSTALK]
Russert: In what way?
President Bush: Well, because he had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon. We thought he had weapons. The international community thought he had weapons. But he had the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network.
It's important for people to understand the context in which I made a decision here in the Oval Office. I'm dealing with a world in which we have gotten struck by terrorists with airplanes, and we get intelligence saying that there is, you know, we want to harm America. And the worst nightmare scenario for any president is to realize that these kind of terrorist networks had the capacity to arm up with some of these deadly weapons, and then strike us.
And the President of the United States’’ most solemn responsibility is to keep this country secure. And the man was a threat, and we dealt with him, and we dealt with him because we cannot hope for the best. We can't say, Let's don't deal with Saddam Hussein. Let's hope he changes his stripes, or let's trust in the goodwill of Saddam Hussein. Let's let us, kind of, try to contain him. Containment doesn't work with a man who is a madman.
And remember, Tim, he had used weapons against his own people.
Russert: But can you launch a preemptive war without iron clad, absolute intelligence that he had weapons of mass destruction?
President Bush: Let me take a step back for a second and there is no such thing necessarily in a dictatorial regime of iron clad absolutely solid evidence. The evidence I had was the best possible evidence that he had a weapon.
Russert: But it may have been wrong.
President Bush: Well, but what wasn't wrong was the fact that he had the ability to make a weapon. That wasn't right.
Russert: This is an important point because when you say that he has biological and chemical weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles
President Bush: Which he had.
Russert: and they could come and attack the United States, you are saying to the American people: we have to deal now with a man who has these things.
President Bush: That's exactly what I said.
Russert: And if that's not the case, do you believe if you had gone to the Congress and said he should be removed because he's a threat to his people but I'm not sure he has weapons of mass destruction, Congress would authorize war?
President Bush: I went to Congress with the same intelligence Congress saw the same intelligence I had, and they looked at exactly what I looked at, and they made an informed judgment based upon the information that I had. The same information, by the way, that my predecessor had. And all of us, you know, made this judgment that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed.
You mentioned "preemption." If I might, I went to the United Nations and said, Here is what we know, you know, at this moment, and you need to act. After all, you are the body that issued resolution after resolution after resolution, and he ignored those resolutions.
So, in other words, when you say "preemption," it almost sounds like, Well, Mr. President, you decided to move. What I decided to do was to go to the international community and see if we could not disarm Saddam Hussein peacefully through international pressure.
You remember U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 clearly stated show us your arms and destroy them, or your programs and destroy them. And we said, there are serious consequences if you don't. That was a unanimous verdict. In other words, the worlds of the U.N. Security Council said we're unanimous and you're a danger. So, it wasn't just me and the United States. The world thought he was dangerous and needed to be disarmed.
And, of course, he defied the world once again.
In my judgment, when the United States says there will be serious consequences, and if there isn't serious consequences, it creates adverse consequences. People look at us and say, they don't mean what they say, they are not willing to follow through.
And by the way, by clearly stating policy, whether it be in Afghanistan or stating the policy that we expect you, Mr. Saddam Hussein, to disarm, your choice to disarm, but if you don't, there will be serious consequences in following through, it has had positive effects in the world. Libya, for example, there was an positive effect in Libya where Moammar Khaddafy voluntarily disclosed his weapons programs and agreed to dismantle dismantle them, and the world is a better place as a result of that. And the world is a safer and better place as a result of Saddam Hussein not being in power.
Russert: There is a sense in the country that the intelligence that was given was ambiguous, and that you took it and molded it and shaped it your opponents have said "hyped" it and rushed to war.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: And now, in the world, if you, in the future, say we must go into North Korea or we must go into Iran because they have nuclear capability, either this country or the world will say, ‘‘Excuse you, Mr. President, we want it now in hard, cold facts.’’
President Bush: Well, Tim, I and my team took the intelligence that was available to us and we analyzed it, and it clearly said Saddam Hussein was a threat to America.
Now, I know I'm getting repetitive, but I'm just trying to make sure you understand the context in which I was making decisions.
He had used weapons. He had manufactured weapons. He had funded suicide bombers into Israel. He had terrorist connections. In other words, all of those ingredients said to me: Threat.
The fundamental question is: Do you deal with the threat once you see it? What in the war on terror, how do you deal with threats? I dealt with the threat by taking the case to the world and said, Let's deal with this. We must deal with it now.
I repeat to you what I strongly believe that inaction in Iraq would have emboldened Saddam Hussein. He could have developed a nuclear weapon over time I'm not saying immediately, but over time which would then have put us in what position? We would have been in a position of blackmail.
In other words, you can't rely upon a madman, and he was a madman. You can't rely upon him making rational decisions when it comes to war and peace, and it's too late, in my judgment, when a madman who has got terrorist connections is able to act.
Russert: But there are lots of madmen in the world, Fidel Castro ……
President Bush: True.
Mr. Russert: …… in Iran, in North Korea, in Burma, and yet we don't go in and take down those governments.
President Bush: Correct, and I could that's a legitimate question as to why we like felt we needed to use force in Iraq and not in North Korea. And the reason why I felt like we needed to use force in Iraq and not in North Korea, because we had run the diplomatic string in Iraq. As a matter of fact, failed diplomacy could embolden Saddam Hussein in the face of this war we were in. In Iraq I mean, in North Korea, excuse me, the diplomacy is just beginning. We are making good progress in North Korea.
As I've said in my speeches, every situation requires a different response and a different analysis, and so in Iran there is no question they're in danger, but the international community is now trying to convince Iran to get rid of its nuclear weapons program. And on the Korean peninsula, now the United States and China, along with South Korea and Japan and Russia, are sending a clear message to Kim Jung Il, if you are interested in a different relationship, disclose and destroy your program in a transparent way.