"A null set"

Romney out-equivocates Clinton on the war in Iraq.

By Tim Grieve

Published June 6, 2007 2:03PM (EDT)

OK, we'll admit it, we've been way too hard on Hillary Clinton. Way too hard, that is, if the standard for honesty when it comes to the war in Iraq should be the one Mitt Romney exhibited at Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate.

Salon's Michael Scherer gives a taste of Romney's Iraq evasion in his rollicking tick-tock on the debate this morning, but the full mouthful is really worth digesting:

Question: Gov. Romney, I wanted to start by asking you a question on which every American has formed an opinion. We have lost 3,400 troops, civilian casualties are even higher, and the Iraqi government does not appear ready to provide for the security of its own country. Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?

Romney: Well, the question is, kind of, a non sequitur, if you will. What I mean by that -- or a null set -- that is that if you're saying let's turn back the clock and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein therefore not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in. But he didn't do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in.

I supported the president's decision based on what we knew at that time. I think we were underprepared and underplanned for what came after we knocked down Saddam Hussein.

By the way, Harry Reid was wrong. We did not lose the war in Iraq. And that's not the sort of thing you say when you have men and women in harm's way.

We did, however, not do a great job after we knocked down Saddam Hussein and won the war to take him down and his military.

And at this stage, the right thing for us to do is to see if we could possibly stabilize the central government in Iraq so that they can have stability, and so we can bring our troops home as soon as possible. Not to do that adds an enormous potential risk that the whole region could be embroiled in a regional conflict.

Question: Governor, thank you, but the question was, knowing what you know right now -- not what you knew then, what you know right now -- was it a mistake for the United States to invade Iraq?

Romney: Well, I answered the question by saying it's a non sequitur. It's a non -- null set kind of question, because you can go back and say, "If we knew then what we know now, by virtue of inspectors having been let in and giving us that information, by virtue of if Saddam Hussein had followed the U.N. resolutions, we wouldn't be having this discussion." So it's a hypothetical that I think is an unreasonable hypothetical.

And the answer is: We did what we did. We did the right thing based on what we knew at that time. I think we made mistakes following the conduct or the collapse of Saddam's government.

To his credit, Romney's "nuanced" answer was maybe a little more thoughtful than Rudy Giuliani's. America's Mayor declared last night that invading Iraq was "absolutely the right idea," which is exactly the opposite of what 61 percent of America's Citizens think.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2008 Elections Iraq War Mitt Romney Rudy Giuliani War Room