Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is distinguished and polished, as advertised, and generally in command of the issues he discusses. But his views are still troubling on the most important decisions a president has to make, those concerning war and peace.
During the most recent Republican candidates’ forum in New Hampshire, Romney made the following statement: “ The question (about whether going to war in Iraq was the right decision) is, kind of, a non sequitur … if you will. What I mean by that – or a null set – that is that if you’re saying, let’s turn back the clock and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors and they’d come in and they’d found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein therefore not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn’t be in the conflict we’re in. But he didn’t do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in. I supported the president’s decision based on what we knew at the time.”
Leaving aside the mystifying talk about null sets, that statement suggests that Gov. Romney didn’t know or had forgotten that prior to the war Saddam Hussein did allow UN weapons inspectors in, that the inspectors were able to visit most of the sites they wanted to, that they asked U.S. intelligence agencies for more information on specific sites where weapons were expected to be and inspected them, finding no weapons of mass destruction.
When asked if he wanted to correct this impression, Romney reacted somewhat indignantly. What he meant, in context, he said, was that Saddam didn’t allow completely unfettered inspections, that he stonewalled and evaded the inspectors. Romney’s campaign later sent an e-mail to the Orange County Register to buttress this conclusion, including quotes from Condoleezza Rice, deputy secretary of defense Richard Armitage, and the Iraq Study Group.
It is certainly true that there was evasion and deception on the part of Saddam’s regime even during the inspections just prior to the war. It is also true, however, that the inspectors found no weapons of mass destruction, nor were any found later, and that it was President Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who informed the IAEA that it would be prudent to end the inspections, since, as we soon discovered, the United States had already decided to invade Iraq.
The idea, then, that if the inspections had continued and found no WMD there would have been no war is disingenuous at best.
Apparently there were many reasons the United States chose to begin that war. It may be true, as former assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said later, that the administration settled on WMD as the major justification because it was easiest to explain.
Even if the inspectors had found WMD, however, it remains the case that what the administration undertook was not a preemptive war – one designed to counter an imminent threat – but what scholars of international relations call a preventive war – one designed to eliminate what might have become a real threat some years down the road. As we argued at the time, that’s not the kind of war it is healthy for the United States to initiate.
One may disagree with that conclusion, of course. But to perpetuate the belief that the decision about war was entirely in Saddam Hussein’s hands is naive at best.