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Wednesday, February 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Too easily persuaded into an unnecessary war

Why did we invade Iraq? One scene from "The Price of Loyalty," Ron Suskind's look through the eyes of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, helps answer that. The book is, of course, from the point of view of a man who was fired. But he was a man with a reputation for telling unpleasant truths. Furthermore, the president he describes does look like the president we see on television.

O'Neill describes a meeting of the National Security Council, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice and others. It was Jan. 30, 2001. Bush had been in office 10 days, and 9-11 was more than eight months off.

CIA Director George Tenet rolled out a photograph onto the big table. It was an aerial photo, enlarged and grainy, of a factory in Iraq. He said it might be making chemical or biological weapons.

"Here are the railroad tracks coming in," he said, pointing with a stick, "and here are the trucks lined up over here. They're bringing it in here and bringing it out there."

"You have to take a look at this," said Cheney, and they crowded around.

To O'Neill, who had recently retired as CEO of Alcoa Aluminum, it looked like just another industrial building. What was so suspicious about it? Trucks were coming in night and day, Tenet said.

That meant nothing. But Bush was already sold. "Actual plans were already being discussed to take over Iraq and occupy it in an unspoken doctrine of preemptive war," the book says.

On my way to work, I sometimes see people with a banner, "BUSH LIED." There is not a hint of that in Suskind's book. Looking at the man, I think: No, he believes this.

Maybe I am being kind because I voted for him.

Apologists now say Bush was "misled" by bad intelligence. He says in his defense that others in the U.S. and British governments saw the same intelligence, and reached the same conclusions. The French and Germans didn't. The intelligence people, including Tenet, now say they never asserted such certainty.

A national commission will dig into the intelligence — and report after the election. Meanwhile, a thought from O'Neill: A president with a probing, restless mind, like Richard Nixon, would not have been so easily persuaded.

O'Neill worked for Nixon. Bush, he says, does not have that sharp and demanding an intellect. That is the conclusion of the book, and the best explanation, I think, of why America started an unnecessary war.

Bush had run as a candidate opposed to hegemonic war and the follow-on "nation-building." But he made the mistake of recruiting his father's men, who thought differently. By all appearances, he was sold on the war by the people around him.

In turn, he sold the Congress by asserting that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons. Its soldiers did not. We know that for a fact. For months, it has been suggested Saddam Hussein hid his best weapons, which is a very odd thing to do before the great battle of one's life. We have spent months looking, and have found Saddam in his spider hole, but not the "weapons of mass destruction."

It has been nearly a year. It's time for Bush's supporters to admit that there weren't any such weapons. Essentially, the president did this in the "Meet the Press" interview with Tim Russert this past weekend.

That is a serious admission. It means America was led to war under false pretenses. It means that in the first instance of the new American doctrine of preemptive war, we preempted something that wasn't real.

From the Bush camp comes much blowing of smoke over this. Bush says Saddam could have developed a nuclear weapon and given it to a private group to set off in the United States. A lot of things can be imagined, but the world's mightiest power cannot go to war over an imagination. The justification for killing people has to be stronger than that. There need to be facts — facts that stand in your path, shout in your face and block all paths other than that of mechanized violence.

The president didn't have the facts. Some people said in his defense that he probably knew more than he was saying. They overestimated him.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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