Like every important government crisis, the outing of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame by the President's chief political adviser, deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, perhaps among others, must be seen in many contexts at once. (As all the world knows, Rove's aim was to discredit Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, who had publicly disproved the administration's claim that Iraq was buying uranium yellow-cake from Niger -- a key element in the Administration's justifications for the Iraq War.) Howard Fineman of Newsweek and Sidney Blumenthal of Salon point to the broader story of Rove's habitual practice of defending his political clients by smearing their competitors and detractors. Blumenthal titles his piece "Rove's War" and Fineman speaks of "The World According to Rove." Frank Rich of the New York Times, on the other hand, suggests that the most important war to look at is the one in Iraq. He says that the injustice to the Wilsons and even to the CIA is secondary: "The real crime here remains the sending of American men and women to Iraq on fictitious grounds." In other words, what's important is not the "war" but the war.
Surely, they are all right. It's true that the harm to the Wilsons cannot be compared to the deaths of thousands in the misbegotten conflict, but it's also true that the resolution of the scandal is likely to have a lasting impact on American politics, and even on the American system of government. Perhaps the most important political question is whether the Bush administration is to be held accountable for any of its actions, or whether it now enjoys complete impunity and a free field of action to do whatever it likes -- from waging war to designing and presiding over systems of torture to breaking domestic law. There are other contexts to consider, too.
If Rich is right that the scandal is really about the Iraq War, then we have to ask what the war was about. The administration's chief answer is weapons of mass destruction and, more particularly, nuclear weapons. The atomic signature is scrawled all over the scandal. It is present, of course, in the uranium the President falsely said Iraq was seeking from Niger. And Plame, as it turns out, worked for the CIA on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. To defend its nuclear lies, the administration destroyed a (possible) source of nuclear truth. The smear campaign thus did double damage in the nuclear-weapon field: It propped up, however briefly, the erroneous justification for the war while shutting down authentic information on the broader problem. The nuclear issue popped up again in a State Department memo Colin Powell brought with him on Air Force One shortly after Wilson's op-ed piece appeared. It is now famous because it disclosed Plame's identity as Wilson's wife. Less noticed is that the bulk of the memo was devoted to rebutting the Niger uranium allegation. This must be one of the most rebutted claims in history. Before Wilson ever spoke up, it had been disproved by several government agencies; the director of the Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei; and, of course, the State Department. (As for Powell, in February 2003 he had told the UN Security Council, "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.")
Whatever else the scandal is, it is also an episode in the six-decade history of the nuclear age. In the wake of the cold war, many people imagined that nuclear danger had disappeared. A decade of utter neglect followed. Then, in 1998, the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests launched the two countries on a nuclear arms race. Soon other countries, including North Korea and Iran, were knocking at the door of the nuclear club. But it wasn't until 9/11 that the neglected peril reared up again in the public mind -- and returned to the center of policy. The fictional danger of an Iraqi bomb bursting in an American city was, of course, the chief justification for the war, but it was more than that. It was the linchpin of the broader policy of preventive military strikes -- necessary, the President said, to forestall the hostile states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In his words, "as a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed."
At the root of the policy was a radical reconception of the way to stop proliferation. Hitherto, the policy had been to address it by negotiation and disarmament treaties. Now it was to be addressed by military force. The decade of neglect had led to the most severe collision of nuclear policy with nuclear reality since the Cuban missile crisis. The Iraq War was the result, though not the only one. While the U.S. military was looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, where there were none, it was in effect ignoring them in North Korea, which reportedly was either acquiring or expanding a nuclear arsenal, and in Iran, which was pressing forward down the nuclear path. It's worth recalling that the Vietnam War, too, was in part the product of misguided nuclear strategy. Policy-makers, well aware that they could not win a nuclear "general war" with the Soviet Union in the Central European theater, hoped instead to win a "limited war" with conventional arms on the "periphery." When it went wrong, the consequence was the Watergate crisis, born directly of Nixon's fury at antiwar protesters.
That chain of reasoning died with the cold war, but nuclear danger lived on to produce new and possibly more dangerous illusions. The worst is that the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their associated technology and know-how can be stopped, or prevented in advance, by arms. Once that conclusion was accepted, mere hints of danger, wisps of fact and speculations became actionable, bomb-able. But if there is one thing in this world that cannot be bombed out of existence, it is an illusion. And illusions, when rigidly defended, breed encounters with the law. Thus did a mistaken revolution in nuclear policy, proceeding under the guise of the "war on terror," produce the lies that produced the war that produced the whistleblowing that produced the smears that produced the blown cover that produced the cover-up that produced the legal investigation that produced the political and legal crisis that now swirls around Karl Rove.