Last week, after the New York Times published an amazing piece on the U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq by the decayed remnant of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons arsenal, there was a flurry of renewed conservative enthusiasm about Iraq and the case for war. George Bush’s invasion of Iraq stands out as a generation-defining foreign policy blunder that left an indelible stain on the Republican Party. In the Times’ report, conservatives saw redemption – there were WMD in Iraq after all! Bush was right! Here, finally, was incontrovertible proof that the liberal media was wrong, and now they could shove a decade’s worth of “Bush lied us into Iraq” back down the throats of smug Democrats.
Only there were a few problems. The first was that the presence of old, degraded chemical munitions in Iraq was not news (it was first reported in 2004), nor did it bolster the administration’s case for war. The White House argued that Iraq had an active chemical weapons program and “the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent,” as Bush himself said in his 2003 state of the union address.
The second problem was the fact that the Bush administration itself never claimed these weapons backed up the rationale for war. In fact, they did the exact opposite and shot down people who tried to do that. This, in particular, had to be puzzling for the “Bush was right” crowd – if Bush was right, why didn’t Bush say how right he was?
Well, they seem to have come up with an answer to that question. George W. Bush was right about Iraq, but the evidence was covered up. By George W. Bush.
I wish I were joking, but that’s where they’ve landed on this one.
After the Times story dropped, the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reported that in 2005 and 2006, some Republicans tried to get the Bush White House to go public with the remnants of Iraq’s dilapidated chemical weapons arsenal, but they were stymied by Karl Rove, who didn’t want the administration to get into a fight over Iraq’s WMD ahead of the 2006 midterms.
It’s hard to find fault with Rove’s political logic – the White House was getting hammered on the Iraq War and had little credibility with the public. Also, the White House had already accepted the Iraq Survey Group’s conclusion that “while a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions have been discovered, ISG judges that Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991.” If they had suddenly reversed course and pointed to a few hundred degraded and unusable chemical weapons shells from the 1980s as proof that they got it right, they would have looked like fools. Also, a big reason Iraq had chemical weapons to begin with was because “the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush authorized the sale to Iraq of numerous items that had both military and civilian applications, including poisonous chemicals and deadly biological viruses.” It would have been a bit awkward to crow about going to war to secure a chemical weapons arsenal that the U.S. – including the sitting president’s father – helped to make.
The proof that Rove showed good political sense can be found in the fact that the people who did go public with the weapons’ existence in the summer of 2006 ended up looking like fools. Rick Santorum held a big press conference announcing that WMD were found in Iraq, pointing to 500 chemical weapons shells that had been buried near the Iranian border in the ‘80s. He spent his remaining months in office politically isolated on the issue and constantly having to explain that “we have not found any new weapons.”
But news that Rove quashed the effort to publicize the weapons has enraged conservatives, who are now accusing the Bush White House of a politically motivated coverup of its own vindication on Iraq.
Here’s talk radio host Mark Levin screaming with anger into his microphone last week, accusing the Bush team of betraying their own cause:
This is outrageous, how this administration shot itself in the foot, how people who defended this administration, both in the administration and outside the administration, going to war for, among other reasons, to get to these chemical weapons. And then Karl Rove and other senior advisers to the Bush White House, when evidence of the weapons started to appear, because soldiers saw them, were taking pictures from them, and some of them were affected by these chemicals, were told “no, don’t say anything because it might hurt us politically.”
We sent people to war to get these damn weapons, and the president of the United States and his staff – I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I know families who lost sons over there. And the president of the United States and his staff should have announced “we found these weapons.” But they didn’t. Because they say they lost the argument. Why bring it up now, in the 2006 election cycle? It’s beyond us, it’s past, let’s not get into it now.
Levin’s rant was heartily endorsed by Sarah Palin, who believes the Bush administration – which went to war to find WMD – engaged in a “WMD coverup.”
This is a bizarre state of affairs. You can chalk it all up to epistemic closure, the right-wing media bubble, the alternate reality that conservatives construct around themselves so that they never feel the sting of rejection or failure. But it’s more than that. There are so many gears grinding against one another in this theory that basic logic should have prevented its formation. The idea that Bush was right about the Iraq War is so central to the conservative mind-set, such an absolute truth that it can’t be abandoned, no matter the evidence that’s marshaled against it. As such, they’re now angry at George W. Bush for refusing to recognize that Bush was right.