Commentary: Asking the Right Questions

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It was one week ago this morning that we all woke up to the news that Saddam Hussein had been caught. WNYC's Brian Lehrer cheered along with most of the world, but says the hard part now is to ask the right questions about what it means.

Brian Lehrer: With all the rhetoric for and against, it's easy to forget that the war in Iraq had only one main goal: to make Americans safer from terrorism. President Bush had given only one ultimatum to Saddam Hussein: disarm or be deposed.

Bafflingly, it now seems likely that Saddam had abandoned most of his weapons of mass destruction, but pretended he still had them. We'll probably never know why.

But if there is one big lie that the Bush administration has sold to many Americans, it's not about uranium from Niger. It's that this war had anything to do with liberating the Iraqi people.

When Saddam used chemical weapons on Iran in the 1980s, the US made nice. When he gassed the Kurds in '88, the US remained mum. Only when he invaded Kuwait and threatened the oil supply, did the US take action. And when Saddam slaughtered thousands more Iraqis who rose up after that war, the US did nothing again.

As the 90s progressed, President Bush and most of the people now in his cabinet opposed going to war for other people's freedom. Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti were all written off as none of our business because there wasn't enough US national interest.

So the war in Iraq was just what President Bush said it was originally - a battle in the war on terrorism. That's the US interest here. It's hard to argue that celebrating Iraqi Freedom is anything more than a calculated revisionst distraction.

So has it made us safer? We can't yet know. All we can do is choose up sides, and make predictions to support our politics.

That's exactly what's been happening since the dramatic announcement last Sunday morning.

The most controversial reaction came from Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean. Here's the Dean sound bite that started the debate.

(Dean Sound bite plays)

For all the hubbub surrounding that remark in political and media circles, it does not appear to be very controversial with the American people. In the NY Times CBS News poll released on Wednesday, 60 percent said we are equally vulnerable to another terrorist attack today as when Saddam was on the loose.

That doesn't make Dean and most Americans right. But it certainly should be sobering to President Bush and Dean's democratic rivals who have tried to portray his position as radical.

The Paul Wolfowitz theory that underlies this war may yet turn out to be right - that Invading Iraq, even with few allies, could launch a democratic domino effect in the region that will end with more freedom, and therefore less interest in attacking Americans. Or it could turn the world against us, inspiring a new generation of America-hating suicide bombers. There is simply no way yet to know.

But the new Dean controversy has served an important purpose. He's made us ask the right question again. Yes, it is great that Saddam Hussein's been caught. May he rot in hell forever for his crimes against humanity. But that's not why we fought the war. So it's not how we should evaluate its success.