19,000 reasons to be careful
To understand the predicament faced by the Bush administration in confronting its former treasury secretary, all anyone needs to do is read the "Author's Note" at the beginning of "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill." In the course of discussing sources and making acknowledgments, Ron Suskind reveals that O'Neill turned over a pair of CD-ROMs that contain, in digital form, a copy of "every document that had crossed his desk" during nearly two years in Washington. That amounts to roughly 19,000 documents, including many that concerned O'Neill's role as a principal of the National Security Council, plus O'Neill's detailed daily schedules and voluminous handwritten notes.
So Suskind is likely to have written proof of O'Neill's assertions about Iraq and many other subjects. That may be why nobody in the White House, where O'Neill is being called many things, has dared to publicly call him a liar.
In fact, neither the president nor his spokespersons have denied O'Neill's recollection of the administration's first, heavily scripted NSC meeting on Jan. 30, 2001 -- which was dominated by a long discussion of how to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein. Donald Rumsfeld now claims that his old pal O'Neill misunderstood what happened at that meeting and insists that the invasion and occupation were a last resort.
According to O'Neill, however, Rumsfeld lectured his colleagues at the very next meeting of the NSC in the Situation Room:
"Sanctions are fine. But what we really want to think about is going after Saddam. Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that's aligned with U.S. interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond it. It would demonstrate what U.S. policy is all about." Even then Rumsfeld was formulating the justification for war. "It's not my specific objective to get rid of Saddam Hussein," he said, disingenuously. "I'm after the weapons of mass destruction."
Were Bush and Rumsfeld merely reiterating the Clinton administration's previous commitment to "regime change" in Iraq, as they now claim? Or were they abandoning the Clinton approach for a more muscular policy, as they and their ideologues have often boasted? They'd like to have it both ways. But the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, usually cited as precedent, provides no justification for an American invasion and occupation. Its final section states:
"Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of United States Armed Forces (except as provided in section 4(a)(2)) in carrying out this Act." Section 4(a)(2) restricts military action to training and arming indigenous opponents of Saddam, at a cost not to exceed $97 million -- or a bit more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the last supplemental appropriation for the war.
O'Neill also reveals why the administration decided to invade Iraq after 9/11, despite the continuing dearth of any proof that Saddam possessed or produced weapons of mass destruction. At a Camp David meeting following the terrorist attacks, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz warned that while Afghanistan could turn into a mess, the Iraqi regime was ripe for an easy overthrow.
Iraq might not have been much of a threat, but Iraq was certainly "doable."
[3:30 p.m. PST, Jan. 13, 2004]