There are two big reasons to be skeptical of yesterday's allegations in The New York Times that "As American soldiers massed on the Iraqi border in March an influential advisor to the Pentagon received a secret message: Saddam Hussein wanted to make a deal."
First, there is the issue of credibility. Saddam Hussein is not credible; saying that he was ready to make a deal sounds much like his old hide-and-go-seek routine of the mid '90s.
Second, there is the method. Back-alley intermediaries are not always credible operators, and this message came through a Lebanese businessman with extensive ties in the U.S., but with no formal intelligence history.
These two initial caveats to the Iraqi overture should not have been enough to result in a blanket rejection by George W. Bush.
Richard Perle, a member of Donald Rumsfeld's personal think tank, The Defense Policy Board, was sent to meet with the chief of Iraqi intelligence, who had promised to hold elections within two years and to allow U.S. agents to search Iraq to prove that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Perle was told by the CIA to tell the Iraqis, "We will see [you] in Baghdad."
You can read all of that in the newspaper. More importantly, we must ask who made the decision not to meet with representatives of the Baathist regime. The easy answer is that Hussein's strategy has been to delay in order to ease pressure, and it seems as if this might have been just another stall tactic.
Regardless, the decision not to explore this offer must have been made by someone, and all signs point to George W. Bush. Perle answers directly to Rumsfeld, who answers directly to Bush. Perle claims that the CIA told him not to meet with the Iraqis. That makes some sense, except for the fact that the head of the CIA, George Tennet, answers directly toyou guessed itBush.
More important, however, is an issue of goals. The offer of surrender was provided to Perle and must have been passed on to his superior at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld. On the table was exactly what Bush had publicly demanded: Iraqi submission to U.S. demands. Yet the war, invasion, and occupation continued.
Why did Bush ignore the offer? Yes, it may have been a stall tactic, it may even have been fraudulent, but the cost of finding out if it was true would have been a few plane tickets, a small security detail, and a rental car.
So it comes down to cost.
Bush went to extraordinary lengths to wage war against Iraq. If he was unwilling to explore a peace settlement in February, then why did he go to the U.N. months before demanding such an agreement? Perhaps the U.N. effort, which failed, was a charade. If that is the case, then the goal all along was war. If so, it seems as if Bush got what he wanted only months ago. He was able to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declare "mission accomplished."
But the mission wasn't accomplished. More than 300 American soldiers have been killed since.
The analysis goes even further. Why would George W. Bush go to such great lengths to make war but not peace? If the article is true, it seems as if Bush's strategy of international pressure and military build-up succeededthe head of the Iraqi Intelligence Agency came to U.S. operatives with a white flag and a mandate from Hussein, only to be rebuffed.
Bush went to great lengths to make war, and now it seems as if he'll go to even greater lengths to score a political victory. Attacks on American soldiers have increased threefold in the past months, yet he is declaring that the situation is getting better. More than 25 soldiers have died in the past week and he remains quiet, not reaching out to the families, not even commenting on the ultimate price paid by the men and women in service.
If peace could have been hadand it now looks that waywithout a single life lost and without such a large price tag (now in the hundreds of billions of dollars), but at the cost of the perceived political capital of not "winning the war," then we must ask where Bush's priorities lie. Do they lie with America and her long-term interests? Or with his own political future?
This leaves me with an ugly question: If Bush were given the choice between a second term and another terrorist attack, what would he do?
I wish we knew the answer.