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Short-Sighted Bush

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Advocates of big government sometimes say that politicians are superior to business people because the latter are shortsighted: they only care about the next quarter’s balance sheet.

This was always nonsense, because while business has strong incentives to look farther up the road, politicians have little incentive to look beyond the next election.

It turns out that the case against the politicians was grossly understated. If they are looking as far as the next election, that’s extraordinary. Case in point: President Bush and his merry band of warmakers. How far were they looking up the road when they spoke in infallible tones about the arsenal of chemical and biological weapons of Iraq’s former president, Saddam Hussein? Sure, it served their immediate interest, which was to persuade the American people (and a few other gullible folks) to support the invasion and war. But now that the war is over and no weapons have been found so far, the administration’s credibility in the Middle East is shot. The expectation-lowering statements that have been coming out of the White House certainly don’t inspire confidence. So much for superior far-sightedness.

President Bush says that in the wake of the military victory he wants to lead the Israelis and Palestinians to a new era of peace and reconciliation. This, of course, is the umpteenth time an American president has declared such an ambition. One reason none has succeeded is that the U.S. government long ago disqualified itself as an honest broker. For good or ill, it has been an Israeli partisan from the beginning, with only one or two moments of something resembling neutrality. So exactly how will the president’s looseness with the truth about Hussein’s weapons establish his administration as an honest broker? It won’t and it can’t.

In other words, Bush got his war, but in the process he made sure he won’t get what the war was ostensibly intended to accomplish: a remodeling of the Middle East such that the Israelis and Palestinians finally resolve their differences and settle down to peaceful coexistence.

Most Arabs in the region, however much they might despise Saddam Hussein, distrust the U.S. government (although they admire the American people) and opposed the Bush invasion. They never bought the line that Hussein was a threat to them, much less to the United States. They quite reasonably assumed that the military action was intended to put the large Iraqi oil reserves in pro-U.S. hands and to make the region safe for its only nuclear power: Israel.

What has Bush done to dispel those notions and to win Arab trust? Zilch. If no substantial chemical or biological weapons or factories are found — and the prospect is increasingly unlikely — Arab regard for American politicians will drop lower, if that’s possible. Even if some components are found in deep storage, Bush’s credibility will take a hit. Opponents of the war will reasonably ask where the threat was. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain not long ago said that the best intelligence indicated that Hussein could launch chemical or biological weapons with 45 minutes’ notice. That claim looks like balderdash.

It won’t do to counter that Hussein destroyed or relocated the weapons before the invasion. Why would he do that? Nor will it do to argue that he was killed in the early days of the war and unable to order the launch. Wouldn’t he have readied them during the long U.S. buildup to war?

Are we to believe that Hussein, who knew he was a marked man, abandoned any presumed intention of inflicting harm on the foreign invaders and instead opted for embarrassing the United States by disposing of any evidence that he had the weapons? Maybe his plan is to resurface when no weapons are found, reclaim his office, and say, as an American cabinet officer once said, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?” That strains credulity.

This all prompts an intriguing question: should supporters of President Bush be hoping that Hussein had or didn’t have the weapons the United States is looking for?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.