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U.S. becoming aggressor might be biggest failure

The report issued last Friday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is unlikely to be the last word on what the United States knew or could have known before beginning the war against Iraq last year. But the 520-page document continues to turn up gems of information, few of which speak well of the case made for war.

Americans know about the never-found chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the failure to find more than rudimentary programs that might someday have led to possession of effective weapons. Perhaps more important was the failure to have reliable information on Saddam Hussein’s intentions toward neighboring countries, and the extent of the threat the regime posed to regional stability.

This threat was apparently overestimated as well. The Senate report notes that the Intelligence Community took note of the steady decline in the capability of Iraq’s military forces since 1990. This assessment was generally borne out by the swiftness with which the U.S.-led coalition won the strictly military battle in 2003.

However, there were no U.S.-controlled spies inside Iraq, so the U.S. used exiles and other dubious sources. Thus “reporting on issues related to regional stability and security, particularly on the subject of regime intentions, was deficient and did not adequately support policy-maker requirements.”

Thus the U.S. had no real idea what Saddam Hussein’s regime planned to do to its neighbors. In retrospect, the Senate committee assessment supports the contention of critics that as of 2002 and 2003, Saddam was “contained” and posed little real threat to his neighbors, let alone to the United States.

This validates the distinction we made early on — that the war on Iraq was not a “pre-emptive” war to handle an imminent threat but a “preventive” war designed to deal with a potential but uncertain future threat. Thus the United States acted as the aggressor.

Going to war to defend the U.S. from attack or to defend an ally who has been invaded is one thing. Going to war to displace a distasteful regime because it might pose a real threat sometime is another.

The world might well be a better place with Saddam Hussein out of power. But this result came at the price of the United States initiating a war of aggression, losing whatever standing our history had earned us as a defender against aggression. That policy switch might turn out to be a more important failure than the prewar intelligence failures that are now being made public.