About that Presidential Medal of Freedom, Mr. Tenet

Two and a half years ago, after interviewing many, many people involved in shaping Iraq-war policy, I wrote the following in the Atlantic (and then in Blind into Baghdad):

There is no evidence that the President and those closest to him ever talked systematically about the "opportunity costs" and tradeoffs in their decision to invade Iraq. No one has pointed to a meeting, a memo, a full set of discussions, about what America would gain and lose.

The Administration apparently did not consider questions like "If we pursue the war on terror by invading Iraq, might we incite even more terror in the long run?" and "If we commit so many of our troops this way, what possibilities will we be giving up?" Bush "did not think of this, intellectually, as a comparative decision," I was told by Senator Bob Graham, of Florida, who voted against the war resolution for fear it would hurt the fight against terrorism. "It was a single decision: he saw Saddam Hussein as an evil person who had to be removed." ... A man who participated in high-level planning for both Afghanistan and Iraq--and who is unnamed here because he still works for the government--told me, "There was absolutely no debate in the normal sense."

Comes now George Tenet. In those days, as CIA director, Tenet was the man who sat so visibly and solemnly behind Colin Powell during Powell's crucial UN speech presenting "proof" of the WMD threat from Iraq. Tenet's sober presence suggested how powerful America's evidence must be. In those days, Tenet was inseparable from President Bush and from the argument that, as the inescapable next step in the "war on terror," America had to invade Iraq. On December 2, 2004, Tenet was at the White House for perhaps the most cynically dishonorable day in the history of American public service: the day when the freshly reelected President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to three men: the one who publicly vouched for a misleading case for invading Iraq (Tenet); the one who beat Saddam's army but was entirely uninterested in what came next (Gen. Tommy Franks), and the one who helped turned that next stage into a catastrophe (Amb. L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer III).

Now Tenet tells us -- according to this story in the New York Times -- that the Administration pushed the country toward war without ever conducting a "serious debate" about Iraq's threat and the possible U.S. responses.

"There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat," Mr. Tenet writes in a devastating judgment that is likely to be debated for many years. Nor, he adds, "was there ever a significant discussion" about the possibility of containing Iraq without an invasion.

Gee, thanks for telling us now, Mr. Tenet. Now -- not when it was happening, and the news might still have changed national policy and spared us a "war of choice." Now -- not before the 2004 election, which as the President has told us was the "accountability moment" for his policy toward Iraq. (How differently the world would view the United States if, at its first chance after the Iraq invasion, the public had rejected rather than ratified the policies that led to war.) Now -- when it's not clear what difference it can make at all. People open to evidence about the war, including the majority of the public, now generally consider it to have been a mistake, which doesn't make the decision about what to do next any easier. People not open to evidence still control the Executive Branch. One more book won't change their minds.

If you felt so strongly, why did you wait to say anything until you knew it couldn't do any good? Of course, saying something earlier would have meant resigning in protest, a step that still is vanishingly rare. And there would not have been that Medal of Freedom. Perhaps you'll wear it on the book tour? Just a thought.

Addendum: Sounding harsh is not attractive, and it's possible that I'm being unfair to the whole case Tenet makes. I haven't read the book (which is not yet officially published) and am judging only on the parts quoted in the New York Times. So why this harshness? It's my frustration about people who tell us now that they had cold feet about what is either the most damaging, or the second-most damaging, decision in American diplomatic history, the other possibility being Vietnam. (I think Iraq will prove to be the worst. Many more Americans died in Vietnam than will in Iraq, and -- unless regional war in the Middle East becomes truly catastrophic -- the civilian and military deaths of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians will outweigh those in Iraq. But the slow, step-by-step escalation in Vietnam was, sadly, more logical and understandable than the wholly discretionary decision to invade Iraq. The long term damage to America's interests and reputation will, I think, be greater -- but we'll see.) So I find it hard to be as understanding and tolerant as I would like to be, when someone who might have made a difference but didn't, at the time, later tells us he was skeptical all along. This is, similarly, why the Iraq years did such damage to Colin Powell.