SOME CAMPAIGN claims so strain credulity that, hearing them, you're surprised the speaker can keep a straight face as he utters the words. That's now the case with George W. Bush and the Iraq war.
It would be one thing for the president to say that in going to war, he made the decision he thought right based upon the intelligence he had at the time.
But Bush has gone far beyond that. Last week in Washington, the president used a question about improving intelligence to make this assertion: "Knowing what I know today, we still would have gone into Iraq. We still would have gone to make our country more secure."
On the campaign trail, Bush has ratcheted it up even further.
Asserting, "We did the right thing, and the world is better off for it," on Friday in New Hampshire, he challenged the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, to say whether he, too, would have gone to war.
"That's an important question, and the American people deserve a clear yes or no answer," said Bush in what is obviously designed to become part of a summer campaign offensive.
Now, it's probably unrealistic to expect Bush to acknowledge second thoughts on something as grave as going to war. Yet, consider for a moment what the president is really saying in claiming he would have invaded Iraq even knowing what he knows today.
He's saying that he would have started this war knowing that months of searching would reveal no active nuclear weapons program, no real biochemical program, and almost no evidence of forbidden weapons.
And knowing that, depite sporadic contact, there was apparently no operational cooperation between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
In other words, Bush is saying he would have commenced this armed conflict knowing that the justifications he cited in urging war would not be validated.
It's hard to believe that any rational president would have done that. Indeed, earlier this year, Secretary of State Colin Powell came close to conceding the truth -- that the "absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus; it changes the answer you get" -- before he scrambled back into compliance with the White House line.
Certainly if one is to take Bush at his word, he has essentially answered guilty to the accusation that after Sept. 11, he was determined to oust Saddam and simply looking for an excuse to do so.
But even with a (slight) majority of Americans now judging the war in Iraq not worth the human and financial cost, the Bush team clearly thinks it can wield the issue effectively against Kerry.
In pressing Kerry for a yes or no, the Bush camp is clearly hoping to find a line of political attack. If Kerry said yes, that he, too, would have gone to war, he would be giving the incumbent cover for an increasingly unpopular war -- and possibly cause erosion from Kerry to Ralph Nader on the left.
But if Kerry says what common sense compels -- no, if he had known that neither WMDs nor terrorist ties would be found, he would not have invaded Iraq -- then Bush could use the emotional charge that if Kerry had been in power, Saddam Hussein would still be, too.
And if he sidesteps? On Monday, Kerry did just that. The senator said he would still have voted to give the president the authority to go to war because he believes "it was the right authority for a president to have." That's not inconsistent with what Kerry has said all along: that the president deserved the leverage the congressional vote gave him. But Kerry did not say whether, had he been president, he would have initiated hostilities against Iraq.
Although Bush's campaign accused Kerry of dodging the real issue -- "whether, as commander in chief, he would have removed Saddam Hussein from power" -- yesterday Bush seized upon Kerry's comments as vindication for his decision to go to war.
"He now agrees it was the right decision," Bush said.
The Kerry-Edwards team has done better. When Leslie Stahl interviewed both Kerry and running mate John Edwards on "60 Minutes" a few weeks ago, Edwards had a commonsensical formulation about Iraq: As president, Kerry would have conducted himself carefully enough that he would have found out that there weren't weapons of mass destruction.
Make no mistake: This is an issue where Bush, not Kerry, should be on the defensive. And yet, ultimately Kerry may have to take a clearer stand to put him there.
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