Neutralising Bush’s electoral threat

Although Bush never made WMDs central to his case for war, his new inquiry will bury any difficult

President Bush has recently launched an inquiry into the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. But why has he chosen to open an inquiry? What kind of inquiry will it be? And what are the consequences of this for his presidential campaign?

CIA Director George Tenet told reporters that he defended the intelligence he presented to Bush, but said the agencies had never claimed Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat. This seems to fly in the face of what Bush said before the conflict, where he stated that Saddam Hussein was in possession of a stock pile of WMD.

To add insult to injury, the Bush-appointed weapons inspector David Kay has resigned; in a statement to Congress he said he does not believe Iraq ever had large stockpiles of WMD and questioned the quality of the pre-war intelligence.

Further attacks have come from the Senate Intelligence Committee which has published a report criticizing the quality of the pre-war intelligence. With all these forces working against him the President had no choice but to launch an inquiry.

House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi has questioned how a commission appointed by the President can be independent. Bush can claim to have ensured the commission’s independence by appointing two bi-partisan co-chairs; Democrat Charles Rob and Republican Laurence Silberman.

The President has also attempted to blunt criticism by including a contentious commission member in the form of John McCain. This move seems to have already back-fired with McCain telling reporters “The president of the United States, I believe, did not manipulate any kind of information for political gain or otherwise” revealing that he may not be as independent as Bush implied.

The commission is looking into a very broad range of issues including Iraq’s WMD, and intelligence relating to Iran, North Korea, Libya and Afghanistan. Because of this, the inquiry will likely be a lengthy process; its breadth means it might not be able to cover all issues comprehensively.

President Bush has also made clear that whilst the intelligence gathering process will be scrutinised, the actions of politicians will not be, further bringing the legitimacy of the inquiry into question.

All this could have a major impact on Bush’s presidential campaign. He is toting himself as the “war president” and is hoping the main issue for voters will be the use of American power in the world.

The latest revelations from key figures in Bush’s administration undermine the authority of the intelligence on which he is basing his case for foreign policy decisions, meaning it will be harder to justify future pre-emptive wars. The electorate may wonder how Bush can maintain national security if he cannot trust the intelligence he is receiving.

The implications of this will obviously be concerning Bush as his approval rating has dropped below 50% and the Democrat front-runner John Kerry had a lead of five-to-seven points over Bush in two recent polls.

Yet, the potentially damaging effects of the inquiry are being delayed; the commission will not report until 31st March 2005, after the presidential election.

Democrats have already criticized the timing as being purely political. Delaying the inquiry may partly neutralize the issue for this year’s election. It may possibly provide an important line of defence against Democrat candidates who launch an attack on Bush over WMDs.

To those who question the war in Iraq, Bush can simply tell them to wait for the commission to report its findings, by which time he may have won the election.