Those comments must have sent some in the White House apoplectic, because Powell quickly rushed to assure reporters that he nonetheless believed "the president made the right decision." The question of how Colin Powell resolves his internal conflicts over being part of an administration with which he is at odds on so many foreign policy questions must be left to his biographers. But by letting slip his obvious doubt that the war was necessary given the absence of a "real and present danger" from Iraq, the Secretary of State has teed up the administration for a devastating critique.
The Iraq invasion has cost the lives of more than 500 American soldiers, and more than 100 from allied armies. It has left almost 3,000 carrying the scars of serious wounds. More are being killed or wounded almost every day. The invasion has already cost the American taxpayer upward of $120 billion, and that figure is likely to keep growing. Up to 10,000 Iraqis are estimated to have been killed since the invasion began, and that figure, too, continues to rise. And there's no early end in sight.
The hint from Powell that all of this may have been the product of errant "political calculus" won't do much for the administration's credibility. Indeed, leading lights of the foreign policy establishment have warned that fixing the credibility gap left by the failure to find WMD in Iraq is a matter of urgency. A charitable view of Powell's comments might be that he is seeking to heal the rift with Europe the Europeans are hardly going to be convinced by Vice President Cheney's plea for moving on at the same time as insisting that the Iraq invasion was a timely and prudent preemption of a "grave and gathering danger". Powell appears to be acknowledging that the antiwar Europeans may indeed have been right, or at least that the outcome of the conflict has not exactly repudiated their opposition.
To be sure, even some of the key antiwar Europeans believed Saddam may have had some WMD capability. The intelligence agencies of Germany and France may have been as surprised as the CIA by the complete absence of any such weapons in Iraq. All of them will, no doubt, be following the U.S. and British lead in reviewing their own intelligence-gathering processes. But while such reviews are clearly urgent, they don't answer the question of how and why the Bush administration led America into war against what now appears to have been a phantom menace, or at least a tragically exaggerated one. Even many of the Europeans who believed Saddam had some prohibited weapons didn't believe he was an imminent threat, and warned that a war would create more problems than it solved. It was certainly a lot more than intelligence findings that prompted the Bush administration to go to war.
A talking point recently heard repeatedly among defenders of the Bush administration's decision to go to war is the claim that the Bush administration acted on the same intelligence assessments used by the Clinton administration five years earlier. The argument is designed to defend the White House against the charge heard from many former intelligence professionals that administration officials pressured the intelligence agencies to provide the answers it wanted to hear any inquiry may be expected to face substantial pressure to investigate the role played by the Office of Special Plans established in the Pentagon, allegedly to cherry-pick raw intelligence for evidence backing the case for war. By saying the Bushies saw the same intel as the Clintonites, their defenders are denying claims that the administration sucked its view of Iraq's capabilities out of thin air. But it also implies that the picture of Iraq's WMD was static, that it hadn't changed in the four years since inspectors were kicked out by Saddam. And that means the decision to go to war was not based on a new intelligence assessment of some imminent threat presented by Iraq, but rather by a new administration's political assessment of an old intelligence picture.
Some Bush officials even concede this directly, saying that 9/11 "changed everything" and compelled the administration to take a new look at old problems. Others cast it in a darker light: Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has revealed that the Bush administration began seeking a pretext to invade Iraq even before 9/11, and with General Wesley Clark's charge that 9/11 provided such a pretext even though there was no connection between Iraq and the attacks. And the idea of seeing Iraq as a new threat based on old intelligence was precisely prevented the Bush administration winning UN backing for war.
Washington easily won the argument at the UN that the international body could not tolerate Iraq's refusal to submit to inspections the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution requiring that Iraq immediately and unconditionally readmit the inspectors. Which Iraq did. The inspectors visited hundreds of sites, and turned up nothing. Inspections, of course, provided the opportunity for renewed intelligence gathering in Iraq, and the ability to update what intelligence services knew about Iraq's activities. The presence of the inspectors also functioned as a block on any ongoing WMD activities. But the Bush team had plainly planned to go to war regardless of what the inspectors found, or didn't find. For those among the antiwar Europeans who actually believed Saddam may have retained some WMD capability, the inspections were a valid strategy. After all, the U.S. and Britain could use their intelligence on Iraq's capability to point the inspectors to the suspect sites. But from very early on, chief inspector Hans Blix complained that the tips that he was given by U.S. and British intelligence were checked, and didn't pan out, and that whatever "hot" intelligence these government's claimed made them certain of their case for war wasn't being shared with the inspectors, and therefore could not be verified.
The inspectors provided an opportunity to verify and update the intelligence picture on Iraq. Instead, the Bush administration quickly abandoned the inspection process when it became clear that it was not producing evidence to back the case for war. Washington simply declared Iraq non-compliant and launched military action, even though this made no sense in light of what was emerging from the UN process that the U.S. itself had demanded. That was the principal reason the Bush administration failed to win a UN mandate for war.
Nobody watching the issue unfold from the summer of 2002 could doubt that the decision to fight a war of choice against Iraq had been made before the inspections even started indeed, the administration had to fiercely debate whether to go back to the UN at all, and President Bush did so only once he'd been convinced that it would bring more allies to his war effort. The invasion force was already being deployed in the region even before the first inspectors returned. And the time frame Washington allowed for the inspection was determined not by the outcome of the inspection process, but by the duration of the weather conditions that allowed for a ground war before the summer.
A probe of the intelligence-gathering process is urgent and important, but it doesn't address the question of how, or why the decision was made to go to war. The conclusion that war was the necessary and prudent course of action was made in the White House, not at Langley. And for better or worse, that is where its consequences must be borne.