By Kevin Drum
July 18, 2005
NUKES AND THE BASE....Step back from Plamegate for a moment and ask yourself a broader question: why did the White House react so violently to Joe Wilson's suggestion that the story about Saddam Hussein trying to procure uranium from Niger was false? After all, as conservative apologists never tire of pointing out, Wilson didn't really debunk George Bush's words in the 2003 State of the Union address. Bush said only that Saddam "sought" uranium from Africa, while Wilson merely provided evidence that no uranium ever changed hands. The fact is, Wilson's report didn't invalidate Bush's statement.
So why did the White House go nuts? What were they so scared of that they went into full-blown smear-and-destroy mode?
One of the advantages of living in Orange County is that I have plenty of centrist and conservative acquaintances, and one thing I've learned from them is that even among Bush's own supporters it was the possibility of Saddam getting hold of nukes that really scared them. Chemical and biological weapons were a bit of a yawn. Without nukes, even Bush sympathizers were skeptical about the whole Iraq adventure.
Since Karl Rove has much more sophisticated means of gauging public opinion than my occasional lunches with friends, he obviously knew this full well. And that means that he was hellbent on making a case in the SOTU that Saddam had an active nuke program. The problem is that even after sifting through every available rumor, analysis, and unconfirmed report, they were only able to come up with two meager pieces of evidence:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.
That's it. Uranium from Africa and aluminum tubes. It was pretty thin stuff.
But it turned out to be even thinner. Although conservatives insist with bilious disdain that the CIA was staffed by do-nothing bureaucrats afraid to follow the Iraqi WMD evidence where it led, the exact opposite was true. Although it's unclear how much of this was due to CIA culture and how much to White House pressure, the reality is that the CIA was far more bullish about Saddam's WMD programs than it should have been. They continued to report the uranium connection long after State Department analysts had made it clear that it was based on forged documents, and they continued to insist that the aluminum tubes were designed for centrifuges long after Department of Energy experts had conclusively debunked it.
Without those two things, there was no evidence left that Iraq was reconsituting its nuclear program aside from the procurement of a bit of dual use equipment and some hazy reporting of personnel movements. As the SSCI report concluded last year, "the judgment...that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, was not supported by the intelligence."
In other words, the White House political operation wasn't lashing out just because of Joe Wilson. They were lashing out because they believed their political lives depended on their own supporters continuing to believe that Saddam had been actively working on a nuke program. Without that belief, they'd lose support within their own base even if they eventually found evidence of chem and bio programs.
In Karl Rove's world, the base is sacred, and nukes were the key to their support. Joe Wilson threatened to open a crack in that support, and that's why he had to be destroyed.
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