Perhaps the mathematics of Republican primary politics help to explain why Mitt Romney told blatant untruths about Iraq the other night, making false assertions that contradict five long years of factual reality.
In other words, maybe he was just being pragmatic; after all, 70 percent of Republicans still back President Bush and, presumably, his war as well, and those loyalists are expected to dominate the voting in the early GOP presidential primaries next winter. So perhaps Romney has made a conscious decision to ply them with the kind of falsehoods they have apparently come to believe.
That’s one explanation. The other possibility is that Romney is simply delusional, and truly has no clue about the track record of this war – how it came to pass, how its salesmen hyped the so-called evidence, and how various panels and commissions have since exposed the willful deceptions.
Let us return to the GOP candidates’ debate, which was staged in New Hampshire on Tuesday night. Iraq was the first item on the agenda, which probably didn’t please any of the contestants, given the fact that most Americans (except the GOP base) now view Bush as a disastrous war leader, and as a failed president in general.
It can’t be fun to run for president and be saddled with a lame duck who is embraced by only 29 percent of his fellow citizens (according to the latest AP-Ipsos poll, released yesterday; meanwhile, the latest Fox News survey, also released yesterday, puts Bush at 34 percent). On the other hand, Romney may have compounded the problem by making statements that suggest he has no idea what he’s talking about.
On Tuesday night, Romney was asked, “Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?” Here’s the key passage in his reply:
“(If) 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.”
Moments later, Romney repeated himself, arguing that "if we knew then what we know now (i.e., the absence of mass weaponry), by virtue of inspectors having been let in and giving us that information, by virtue of if Saddam Hussein had followed the U.N. resolutions, we wouldn’t be having this — this discussion."
In other words, in Romney’s version of history, we were compelled to Iraq because Hussein had defied the United Nations by refusing to open his country to the inspectors who work for the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (“he didn’t do those things”).
Take your pick, either Romney lied or he is clueless - because Hussein in fact did do those things.
Hussein did open up his country to IAEA inspectors – on Sept. 17, 2002. The inspectors searched for many months, with a mandate to gauge Hussein’s nuclear capabilities, and they found nothing. We know all this, because the IAEA filed a public report on March 7, 2003, two weeks before Bush decided to wage war anyway.
There was Romney, claiming that because the IAEA inspectors were barred from Iraq, they were thus unable to determine whether Hussein had mass weaponry. By contrast, in the pages of reality-based history, the IAEA inspectors were not barred, and, after having gained access, they were able to determine that Hussein did not have mass weaponry.
It’s all right there in the report:
“After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq…Iraq has been forthcoming in its cooperation.”
The factual record also shows that Hussein allowed a separate team of inspectors into Iraq prior to the invasion. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission later issued its own report, which stated: "In the period in which it performed inspection and monitoring in Iraq, UNMOVIC did not find evidence of the continuation or resumption of programmes of weapons of mass destruction."
But regarding the IAEA inspectors, maybe Romney simply misspoke when he got the facts exactly backward. Anybody can screw up once. The problem, however, is that this wasn’t the first time he has tried to rewrite this historical chapter.
In a May 7 appearance on Fox News, when he was asked by Sean Hannity whether in hindsight he viewed the Iraq invasion as a mistake, he gave virtually the same answer: “If we knew that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, and if he had complied with the United Nations resolutions to allow IAEA inspectors into his country, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
And he’s getting away with it. Hannity neglected to correct Romney on the facts. CNN debate host Wolf Blitzer didn’t protest (although, in that format, the attempt might have been awkward). The Washington Post covered the CNN debate, but didn’t even mention the remarks. Ditto the report in The New York Times. (So much for the so-called “liberal” media.) But corrections probably wouldn’t have mattered to the GOP primary voters whom Romney is seeking to woo; among many Bush loyalists, empirical facts about this war have long ceased to be a priority.
The big challenge for Romney would come later, if he wins the GOP nomination. Uttering falsehoods about why we went to war – particularly in an autumn debate - probably wouldn’t fly with swing-voting independents, most of whom now believe that the invasion was a mistake and that the ruling Republicans misled the nation. In 2008, no Republican can win if he leaves the impression that he will be as averse to factual reality as the man he seeks to replace.