George Bush's candid interview with ABC News' Charles Gibson has one moment of awful truth - when the president, asked if he'd have gone to war had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, stated: "That's a do-over that I can't do." If only he could.
More than 4,207 US service members, 314 coalition troops (including 176 British fatalities) and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis might be alive, including, of course, Saddam Hussein, the former ruler of Iraq whom Bush promised to disarm together with America's "friends of freedom". Saddam, Bush proclaimed in the weeks leading up to his decision to invade, and subsequently occupy, Iraq, was "a dangerous, dangerous man with dangerous, dangerous weapons." The Iraqi dictator was "a danger to America and our friends and allies, and that is why the world has said 'disarm'".
Bush, in his revealing interview, claimed he wished "that the intelligence had been different", but that was never really the point. Bush, like so many others, had made up his mind regarding Saddam independent of the facts of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Try as he might to spread responsibility for his actions by pointing out that "a lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein," the fact is WMD was simply an excuse used by the president to fulfil his self-proclaimed destiny as a war-time president who would avenge his father's inability (or, more accurately, sage unwillingness) to finish the job back in 1991, in the aftermath of the first Gulf war.
As pre-war British government discussions with Bush administration officials reveal, there was never a solid case to be made on Iraq's possession of WMD in the months leading up to the decision to invade, simply a sophomoric cause-effect relationship linking regime change (the preferred policy) and WMD (the excuse) "in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD" (quoting Blair).
The intelligence on Iraq's WMD was whatever the president and his cronies (including his erstwhile ally at 10 Downing Street) wanted it to be. Over seven years of UN-mandated weapons inspection activity, conducted from 1991 until 1998, had produced a well-defined (and documented) record of disarmament which, while not providing absolute verification of the disposition of every aspect of Saddam's WMD programmes, did allow any observer interested in the facts to ascertain that Iraq was fundamentally disarmed from a qualitative perspective. This, coupled with the presence of the world's most technologically advanced and intrusive arms control regime monitoring the totality of Iraq's industrial infrastructure, provided a high degree of confidence that Saddam had neither retained nor reconstituted his WMD programme.
There was a gap in inspection coverage of Iraq from December 1998 until November 2002, brought on by the removal of weapons inspectors at the behest of the United States (during the administration of Bill Clinton). However, no verifiable intelligence emerged during this time to credibly suggest that Iraq had sought to reconstitute its WMD programme. Instead, the Bush administration developed arguments that spoke of a "re-examination" of the "facts" from the perspective of a "post-9/11 world".
But the diversionary tactic of bait and switch, where the so-called global war on terror was used to justify an attack on Iraq, did not in any meaningful way alter the reality that Iraq had been disarmed. The Pentagon tried to provide glossy satellite images and hyped-up speculation about what Saddam was up to in September 2002 (and the British followed suit, publishing their since-discredited "dossier"), but by that November UN weapons inspectors were back in Iraq, and by January 2003 had discredited the entire intelligence case the Pentagon (and the British) had so clumsily cobbled together.
I and others did our very best to highlight the factual vacuum in which Bush and Blair operated while making their case for war, but to no avail. The decision to invade had been made months before the UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq. Their work, and the intelligence they provided, was not only ignored, but indeed was never relevant to the larger issue, centred as it was on regime change, not disarmament.
The most important aspect of Bush's interview rests not in what he admits, but rather in what he avoids, when he stated that the failure to find WMD in Iraq was "the biggest regret of all the presidency." He doesn't regret the decision that led America to war, or the processes that facilitated the falsification of a case for war. He doesn't regret the violation of international law, the deaths of so many innocents, the physical destruction of Iraq or America's loss of its moral high ground. He merely regrets the fact that his "gut feel" on Saddam's WMD arsenal was wrong.
In this, truth be told, Bush is no different from the majority of society in both America and Great Britain. It is easy to moralise today, armed with the certainty of 20/20 hindsight, that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, the case for war a fabrication. But how many people will admit that Iraq was better off under Saddam than it is today, ruined by conflict generated by the destruction of Iraqi society prompted by the toppling of the Iraqi dictator? How many people will decry the kangaroo court and the lynch mob that convicted and executed Saddam as a travesty of both law and justice? Unless one is willing to repudiate all aspects of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, inclusive of the termination of Saddam's regime, then any indignation shown over the so-called intelligence failure represents nothing more than hypocrisy.
American policy in Iraq must not be viewed in isolation, but rather as part of a larger problem set, one that Barack Obama will have to deal with if he is to avoid repeating Bush's mistakes. America, and indeed the world, may very well have serious issues with the governments of nations such as Syria, North Korea and Iran. However, the solutions to these problems rest not in the form of unilateral policies formulated and implemented from Washington DC. That is how we got into Iraq to begin with. Rather, Obama must put action to his promise to embrace multilateral solutions to the problems of the future.
This means foregoing ideologically (or politically) driven pressure to act void of international consensus driven by a collective appreciation of international law (ie, no regime change, unless the world properly mandates it). It means trusting in the integrity and ability of organisations such as the UN Special Commission (the UN weapons inspectors), even if their product contradicts US intelligence sources. It also means trusting such organisations enough to share such intelligence so that it might be thoroughly investigated. And, if and when a rogue regime is overthrown and its leaders brought to justice, it means supporting an international court of law in which to try them for any of their alleged crimes.
The latter is of particular importance, especially when it comes to Obama, given his proclivity for announcing his intention to "hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden". Such bravado could become his undoing, just as gunning for Saddam was the undoing of Bush. America seemed content to let the perpetrators of the Srebrenica atrocities, who murdered some 8,000 Bosnian men and boys, be apprehended in accordance with accepted international practice, and be tried in an international court. Yet somehow the murderer of 3,000 Americans deserves special, unilateral American justice. There is an inherent inconsistency here.
In order for a multilateral solution to be genuine, it must be the product of a multilateral consensus driven by accepted ideals and principles, and not simply a unilateral dictate imposed on others by the strong. Let there be no doubt, the Iraq war was a product of American bullying, not just of Iraq, but the entire world. The current conflict in Afghanistan, threatening as it is to spill over into neighbouring Pakistan, is no different.
The unilateral desire of the US to exact revenge disguised as justice for the crimes committed on 9/11 has overshadowed the mission of creating a stable and moderate government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, to the detriment of both missions and the people of the region. Obama's singular focus on bringing bin Laden to heel will simply perpetuate this failure.
Obama would do well to embrace those international multilateral institutions, such as the UN and the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which his predecessor eschewed. Subordinating the American desire for revenge in the interest of regional and international stability would represent the living manifestation of the multilateralism Obama has stated he wants to pursue. Leadership is the product of much more than simple rhetoric, and simply saying something "is" does not make it so. Putting action to words is the challenge, and the mark, of any true leader. I am hopeful Barack Obama can be the genuine leader he aspires to be. America, and the world, will much better for it.