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U.S.: Former Cabinet Official's Book Renews Debate On Rationale For Iraq War

  • Andrew Tully

A new book quoting a former U.S. cabinet member is generating controversy in the United States. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill -- fired by President George W. Bush a year ago -- paints an unflattering picture of the president and raises serious questions about the timing of the Iraq war. The issue now is whether O'Neill's account is reliable or merely the biased recollections of a man embittered by his dismissal.

Washington, 13 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A new book in the United States citing a former cabinet member raises questions about the timing of President George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq.

The book, which quotes former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, alleges the decision to invade Iraq was made shortly after Bush entered office in January 2001.

This differs from the administration's version that the United States went to war because of Iraq's alleged possession of nuclear-, biological-, and chemical-weapons programs, and -- in light of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 -- the prospect the country might share such weapons with terrorists.

Further, O'Neill says that in his 23 months in the Bush cabinet, in which he also served on the National Security Council, there was constant talk of how to get rid of Saddam Hussein -- yet no credible evidence the Iraqi leader actually had proscribed weapons.

In fact, since 1998, during the presidency of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, changing the regime in Iraq has been firm U.S. policy.

Bush yesterday used that very argument to defend the decision to go to war. Speaking in Mexico, he said: "The stated policy of my administration towards Saddam Hussein was very clear. Like the previous administration, we were for regime change."

But, O'Neill points out, that policy did not include unilateral military action by the United States.

Speaking on U.S. television (CBS News: "60 Minutes") on 11 January, the former treasury secretary said, "For me, the notion of preemption -- that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do -- is a really huge leap."

Bush's perceived eagerness to go to war is not the only negative revelation from O'Neill. He said the president often appeared disengaged from his staff, even during important meetings. O'Neill said when he met with Bush, he expected an exchange of ideas. Instead, he recalled, the conversations were strictly one-way, with O'Neill speaking and Bush merely listening.

The White House responded to the criticisms by saying O'Neill was more interested in justifying his own tenure at the Treasury Department than giving an honest assessment of the administration's accomplishments. Bush fired O'Neill in December 2002 as part of a general shake-up in his economic policy.

The larger question now is whether O'Neill's observations are valid or if they merely reflect his anger over being dismissed. Experts appear divided.

O'Neill also was on the losing side of two crucial differences of opinion in the Bush administration. One was Bush's decision in March 2002 to impose high tariffs on most imported steel, which infuriated U.S. trading partners. Those tariffs were withdrawn last month.

A second and perhaps more important dispute within the White House inner circle was a second round of tax cuts that went into effect last spring, at a time when the United States was embarking on the costly war in Iraq.

Barry Bosworth, an economist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy-research center, told RFE/RL that O'Neill's opposition to further tax cuts is probably the reason he was fired. "There were a number of disagreements within the White House economic team -- there were bitter disagreements, and that's something that this president isn't going to tolerate," Bosworth said.

Still, O'Neill's comments have the aura of credibility, according to Alan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University. Lichtman specializes in politics and political campaigns. He acknowledged that O'Neill is probably bitter about being fired, but added: "It is relatively rare, though, even for fired officials, to turn on their president. And so I would give it some real credibility in this case, particularly when it does seem to sustain what many analysts had already believed: that the weapons of mass destruction were really a justification for a war that had been already decided on other grounds."

Lichtman says the credibility of O'Neill's assertions could have a short-term impact on the race for the presidency, which will be decided in the 2 November general election. He says the principal beneficiaries will be Democratic candidates Howard Dean and retired General Wesley Clark, both of whom are opposed to the Iraq war.

Lichtman says, however, in the long term, O'Neill's claims will have little impact on Bush's chances for re-election. He notes that during Ronald Reagan's first term as president from 1981 to 1985, he too was accused of being disengaged from governance and, as Lichtman put it, not "taking his job seriously." And yet Reagan won a second term with a landslide majority.
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