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Gary Hart was Right on Iraq, Then and Now

May 21, 2015

In the wake of Jeb Bush's whiplash-producing reversal last week, the U.S. media is engaged in a feeding frenzy over who would have supported the Iraq war "knowing what we know now." For his part, former Colorado Senator and might-have-been President of the United States Gary Hart is disgusted both with the current circle-jerk and Jeb Bush's contortionist act to steer clear of his brother's war. But when Bush spokesman Tim Miller said he was "going to count Gary Hart criticizing Governor Bush's judgment as a win," Jeb's team walked into yet another trap. After all, Hart was right about Iraq, then and now.
To be sure, Harts criticism of "The Decider" and his brother was pointed and personal:

"I'm trying to avoid being categorical about a whole family. But the Bushes do not demonstrate analytical minds. They demonstrate visceral minds. The father I knew and liked a lot. The sons respond to events and respond to stimuli, and they are not analytical thinkers. And that comes out in their rhetoric or lack thereof and their thought process and how they look at complex issues. Governor Bush, half his mind is how to protect his brother. The other half is, How do I answer without alienating two-thirds of the Republican Party?"

As he explained to the Huffington Post on Monday, Senator Hart was more than skeptical of the Iraq project from the beginning:

"I have to say, not being privy to intelligence briefings as others were, I probably had the benefit of objectivity. That is to say, I wasn't being misled by intelligence briefings by the administration or anyone else. But it didn't pass the smell test. And, to be honest with you, I didn't trust the people promoting the war in Iraq. I knew many of them and thought they had a different agenda. They had in mind to use Iraq as an American political and military base in the Middle East and reach out from there to impose peace on the region. It was a grand scheme, but many bridges too far."

But while Republican presidential contenders and their conservative amen corner scramble to rewrite the history of the Iraq catastrophe, Hart's position has been unchanged. In the spring of 2002, as Matt Bai documented in his book All the Truth is Out, New York Democratic Congressman and Project for a New American Century fellow traveler Stephen Solarz asked Gary Hart to join other Democratic elder statesmen to give pro-war Democrats political cover by signing a letter to President Bush supporting a potential invasion. Hart would have none of it:

"Though I am flattered to have been on the distribution list for your proposed letter to President Bush," Hart began, "the last thing in the world I'm going to do, as a Democrat or as an American, is give this administration a blank check to make war on any country."

In concluding his response to Solarz, Hart explained his opposition in no uncertain terms:

Once it has been established that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, there will be plenty of time to enact appropriate U.N. resolutions authorizing the international community to act in concert to remove them.
With all due respect, Steve, and there is plenty of that, I think this proposed letter is unwise and ill-conceived. If unqualified, open-ended, mindless support for whatever Wolfowitz and Perle have on their minds is such a good idea, Democrats in Congress won't need us to make it easier for them. This letter will come back to haunt all who sign it.
[Emphasis mine.]

As it turns out, this wasn't the first time Gary Hart warned President Bush about a nightmare that could occur on his watch. On February 15, 2001, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century Hart co-chaired released its final, Phase III report, "Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change." While the Commission in its Phase I report "the Commission stressed that mass-casualty terrorism directed against the U.S. homeland was of serious and growing concern," in February 2001 Hart's panel presciently warned that "many thousands of American lives, U.S. leadership among the community of nations, and the fate of U.S. national security itself are at risk unless the President and the Congress join together to implement the recommendations set forth in this report."

The combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack. A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century. The risk is not only death and destruction but also a demoralization that could undermine U.S. global leadership. In the face of this threat, our nation has no coherent or integrated governmental structures.

The new Bush administration responded by letting the findings and recommendations of the Hart-Rudman Commission gather dust. Gather dust, that is, until it was too late. On September 11, 2001, that mass casualty attack left 3,000 people dead in Manhattan, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. In 2004, 9/11 Commission co-chairman Tom Kean said "the most important failure" leading to the attacks was "one of imagination," concluding. "We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat."
To mark the 10 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, former Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley relied on pretty much the same talking point. That the United States wouldn't find WMD, but instead an insurgency, sectarian chaos and an influx of Al Qaeda fighters, Hadley concluded "It was less an intelligence failure than a failure of imagination."
But there was no failure of imagination of the part of Gary Hart. He certainly understood the gravity of the threat posed by terrorist groups to the American people on U.S. soil. And he knew President Bush was inviting another threat by setting foot on Iraqi soil.
Note: I worked on Gary Hart's 1984 campaign for president.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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