By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post Staff Writer
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) strongly criticized yesterday the White House's new line of attack against critics of its Iraq policy, saying that "the Bush administration must understand that each American has a right to question our policies in Iraq and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them."
With President Bush leading the charge, administration officials have lashed out at Democrats who have accused the administration of manipulating intelligence to justify the war in Iraq. Bush has suggested that critics are hurting the war effort, telling U.S. troops in Alaska on Monday that critics "are sending mixed signals to our troops and the enemy. And that's irresponsible."
Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and a potential presidential candidate in 2008, countered in a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations that the Vietnam War "was a national tragedy partly because members of Congress failed their country, remained silent and lacked the courage to challenge the administrations in power until it was too late."
"To question your government is not unpatriotic -- to not question your government is unpatriotic," Hagel said, arguing that 58,000 troops died in Vietnam because of silence by political leaders. "America owes its men and women in uniform a policy worthy of their sacrifices."
Hagel said Democrats have an obligation to be constructive in their criticism, but he accused the administration of "dividing the country" with its rhetorical tactics.
Hagel supported the 2002 resolution to authorize military action in Iraq, but he has emerged as a strong skeptic of the Bush administration's handling of the war. In his speech, he called for a regional security conference to help invest Iraq's neighbors in the effort to stabilize the country.
At one point, while answering a question from the audience about Syria, Hagel suggested that the Middle East is worse off after the invasion because the administration failed to anticipate the consequences of removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "You could probably argue it is worse in many ways in the Middle East because of consequences and ripple effects," he said.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld joined other administration officials yesterday in attacking critics of the Iraq war for attempting to "rewrite" history, warning that setting an arbitrary deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops could "give terrorists the false hope that if they can simply hold on long enough, that they can outlast us."
At the same time, Rumsfeld acknowledged what he called honest mistakes in the Bush administration's prewar intelligence on Iraq. "There's no doubt in my mind that people made honest mistakes in . . . the pieces of that intelligence that were presented at the United Nations," he said at a news briefing.
Rumsfeld described an evolution of U.S. policy toward Iraq embraced by Democrats and Republicans. He read several quotes from 1998 from then-President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger. They predicted that Hussein, if unchecked, would again use weapons of mass destruction.
However, many of the comments cited by Rumsfeld were used to justify continued sanctions on Iraq, not to invade it. Moreover, the Clinton administration officials did not cite the problematic intelligence that formed the core of the Bush administration's case for an invasion, such as allegations that Iraq sought uranium in Africa and tried to obtain aluminum tubes as part of a resurgent nuclear program.
Rumsfeld also pointed to congressional actions in 1998 and 2002 calling for Hussein's removal. But the 1998 law, signed by Clinton, said "nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to use of United States Armed Forces" to implement it.