WASHINGTON — Quick — what was the biggest intelligence misjudgment of Gulf War II?
It was the nearly unanimous opinion of the intelligence community, backed by the U.S. and British military, that the 50,000 elite soldiers of Saddam's well-trained, well-equipped special Republican Guard would put up a fierce battle for Baghdad.
Our military plan was based on this cautious assessment. That presumption of a bloody, last-ditch defense was also the basis for objections to the war: In street fighting, opponents argued, coalition casualties would be horrific, and tens of thousands of civilians would be sacrificed.
Happily, our best assessment was mistaken. Saddam's supposed die-hards cut and ran. Though Baghdad's power and water were cut off, civilians were spared, and our losses were even fewer than in Gulf War I.
What if our planners had believed Kurdish leaders who predicted that Saddam's super-loyalists would quickly collapse? We would have sent fewer combat troops and more engineers, civilian administrators and military police. But the CIA and the Pentagon had no way of being certain that the information about the Republican Guard's poor morale and weak discipline provided by Kurds and Iraqi opposition leaders was accurate.
With thousands of lives at stake, optimism was not an option. Sensibly, we based our strategy on the greater likelihood of fierce resistance. That decision was as right when made as it was mistaken in retrospect.
Turn now to the charge heard ever more stridently that U.S. and British leaders, in their eagerness to overthrow Saddam and to turn the tide of terror in the Middle East, "hyped" the intelligence that Iraq possessed germ and poison-gas weapons.
"Hype" means "exaggerate." As used by those who were prepared to let Saddam remain in power, it is prelude to a harsh accusation: "You lied to us. You pretended to have evidence that you never had; you twisted dubious intelligence to suit your imperialistic ends, so we were morally right and you were morally wrong."
Never mind the mass graves now being unearthed of an estimated 300,000 victims, which together with the millions of deaths in his wars make Saddam the biggest mass murderer of Muslims in all history. Never mind his undisputed financing of suicide bombers and harboring of terrorists, from al Qaida's Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi to the veteran killer Abu Nidal (the only "suicide" with three bullets in his head, dispatched in Baghdad probably because he knew too much.)
And never mind our discovery of two mobile laboratories designed to produce biological and chemical agents capable of causing mass hysteria and death in any city in the world. Future discoveries will be dismissed as "dual use" or planted by us.
No, opponents of the removal of this genocidal maniac now accuse President Bush and Prime Minister Blair of a colossal hoax. Because he didn't use germs or gas on our troops, they say, that proves Iraq never had them. If we cannot find them right away, they don't exist. They believe Saddam sacrificed tens of billions in oil revenues for no reason at all.
A strong majority of Americans believe he did have a dangerous program running, as he did before. Long before the CIA dispatched agents to northern Iraq, Kurdish sources were quoted in this space about terrorist operations of Ansar al-Islam, whose 600 members included about 150 "Afghan Arabs" trained by al-Qaida; after our belated bombing, some escaped to Iran.
As reassured Iraqi technicians and nurses come forward and as Baathist war criminals seek to save their skins, we will learn much more about Saddam's terrorist connections and his weaponry. It took seven years to catch the Olympic bombing suspect in North Carolina and 18 years to catch the Unabomber; the location of Saddam and Osama bin Laden won't remain a mystery forever.
In the meantime, as the crowd that bitterly resents America's mission to root out the sources of terror whips up its intelligence-hoax hype, remember the wise "mistake" we made in overestimating the fighting spirit of Saddam's uniformed bully-boys.
When weighing the murky evidence of an aggressive tyranny's weapons, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were obliged to take no chances. The burden of proof was on Saddam. By his contempt, he invited invasion; by its response, the coalition established the credibility of its resolve. There was no "intelligence hoax."
New York Times News Service