WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after public statements declaring an imminent threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has begun to harm the credibility abroad of the United States and of American intelligence, according to foreign-policy specialists in both parties.
In last year's State of the Union address, President Bush used stark imagery to make the case that military action was necessary. Among other claims, Bush said that Hussein had enough anthrax to "kill several million people," enough botulinum toxin to "subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure," and enough chemical agents to "kill untold thousands."
Now, as the president prepares for his State of the Union address today, those images of death and destruction have been replaced by a new reality: Few of the many claims made by the administration have been confirmed after months of searching by weapons inspectors.
Within the United States, Bush does not appear to have suffered much political damage from the failure to find weapons, with polls showing high ratings for his handling of the war and little concern that he misrepresented the threat.
But a range of foreign policy specialists, including supporters of the war, said the long-term consequences of the administration's rhetoric could be severe overseas -- especially because the war was waged without the backing of the United Nations and was opposed by large majorities, even in countries run by leaders who supported the invasion.
"The foreign policy blow-back is pretty serious," said Kenneth Adelman, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Board and a supporter of the war. He said the gaps between the administration's rhetoric and the postwar findings threaten Bush's doctrine of "preemption."
The doctrine "rests not just on solid intelligence," Adelman said, but "also on the credibility that the intelligence is solid."
Already, in the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, China has rejected US intelligence that North Korea has a secret program to enrich uranium for use in weapons. China has a key role in resolving the North Korean standoff, but its refusal to embrace the US intelligence has disappointed American officials and could complicate negotiations to eliminate North Korea's weapons programs.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the same problem could occur if the United States presses for action against alleged weapons programs in Iran and Syria. The solution, he said, is to let international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency take the lead in making the case, as has happened thus far in Iran, and also to be willing to share more intelligence.
The inability to find suspected weapons "has to make it more difficult on some future occasion if the United States argues the intelligence warrants something controversial, like a preventive attack," said Haass, a Republican who was head of policy planning for Secretary of State Colin Powell when the war started.
James Steinberg, a deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration who believed there were legitimate concerns about Iraq's weapons programs, said the failure of the prewar claims to match the reality "add to the general sense of criticism about the US, that we will do anything, say anything" to prevail.
Some on Capitol Hill believe the issue is so important that they are pressing the president to address the apparent intelligence failure in his address tonight, and propose ways to fix it. "I believe that unanswered questions regarding the accuracy and reliability of US intelligence have created a credibility gap and left the nation in a precarious position," said Representative Jane Harman of California, the senior Democrat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, in a speech last week. "The intelligence community seems to be in a state of denial, and the administration seems to have moved on."
Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and coauthor of a recent study, pointed to a speech delivered by Bush in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002. UN inspectors had noted that Iraqi had failed to account for bacterial growth media that, if it had been used, "could have produced about three times as much" anthrax as Iraq had admitted. Bush, in his speech, turned a theoretical possibility into a fact. "The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount," Bush said. "This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for and is capable of killing millions."
Mathews said her research showed the administration repeatedly and frequently took such liberties with the intelligence and inspectors' findings to bolster its cases for immediate action.
Richard Perle, another member of the Defense Advisory Board, said the criticism of the Bush administration is unfair. "Intelligence is not an audit," he said. "It's the best information you can get in circumstances of uncertainty, and you use it to make the best prudent judgment you can." He added that presidents in particular tend not to place qualifiers on their statements, especially when they are advocating a particular policy. "Public officials tend to avoid hedging," he said.
Given the stakes involved, Mathews said, the standards must be higher for such statements. "The most important call a president can make by a mile is whether to take a country to war," she said.