Viewpoint Joe Klein
Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004
"That's an interesting question," the President said, having been asked on Meet the Press whether Iraq was a war of choice or of necessity. "Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice or necessity?" It was as if George W. Bush had never considered this most basic of questions. He seemed befuddled, then slowly found his legs. "I mean, it's a war of necessity. In my judgment, we had no choice when we look at the intelligence I looked at that says the man was a threat."
An awkward moment in a suddenly wobbly presidency. Obviously, Iraq was a war of choice. CIA Director George Tenet recently said he never believed there was an "imminent" threat. It is hard to find anyone outside the Vice President's circle of friends who still insists that an immediate, unilateral invasion was necessary. The real question for this election year is, Was going to war in Iraq the right choice in the larger struggle against radical Islam? Saddam Hussein is in jail. There may have been ancillary benefits from the American show of force: Libya has given up its nuclear ambitions; Iran may, or may not, be doing the same. But the situation on the ground in Iraq remains chaotic. The possibility of a Sunni-Shi'a civil war, which could destabilize the entire gulf region, is growing. The U.S. Army is pinned down; morale and re-enlistment problems, especially among the Guard and reserves, are looming. Worse, there is a strong sense in the highest reaches of the intelligence community that the larger campaign against terrorism—a true war of necessity—has been retarded by the Iraq adventure, that "our actions in Iraq have caused a net increase in terrorists," as an intelligence gatherer told me. "We've gotten better at finding and killing them. But there are a lot more Islamic young people with a desire to fight us."
At the very start of his Meet the Press interview, Bush said, "I'm a war President." Winning the "war" that he declared has been this President's stated mission, and it is how he will be judged. From the days immediately following Sept. 11, the rhetoric has been stark and bellicose. "You're either with us or against us," he warned early on. Any country that "harbors or supports terrorism will be regarded as a hostile regime." But Bush's actions, except for Iraq, haven't matched the dire nature of the threat described—and his rhetoric has betrayed a moral simplicity that misrepresents the true difficulties of the struggle. Take the "with us or against us" point: Saudi Arabia is the primary funder of Islamic radicalism in the world. Pakistan is the primary residence of the most dangerous terrorists. Both are nominally "with" us.