Even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush wanted to shove Saddam Hussein from his dictatorship, says former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, who is absolutely, incontrovertibly right.
Bush himself scarcely made a secret of that ambition, and neither did his predecessor as president, Bill Clinton. Regime change was Clinton's policy, too.
The sheer fact of the Bush stance is scarcely revelatory and should not be politically damaging, and neither should O'Neill's further claim that members of the National Security Council went so far as to discuss an Iraqi war's aftermath before 9/11. Planning for contingencies is part of what governments do. Saddam, after all, was widely perceived as a very real danger before the catastrophe of two years ago.
It's when we come to certain judgments of O'Neill's — to matters less factual than interpretive — that the president looks bad. The former cabinet member has said the administration seemed less concerned about why Saddam should go than that he should, and that talk in security council discussions about weapons of mass destruction was unaccompanied by persuasive evidence of their existence. The picture he projects is of an administration mindlessly determined to have its war and willing to use any excuse to proceed.
Might O'Neill's attitude have been shaped by his having been fired from his Cabinet position? He seems more than a little angry — he also talked about Bush as being disengaged from his presidency, and of politics, not honest policy considerations, ruling White House actions. His thoughts about the administration have been delivered in interviews as he goes about helping to sell a book written by Ron Suskind, "The Price of Loyalty."
Many in the anti-Bush crowd will see confirmation of their worst suspicions in O'Neill's words, while the cautious will understand that one wounded insider's possibly biased take is unlikely to provide a conclusive understanding.