Karl Rove devotes his latest WSJ column to settling scores over the Iraq war. Calling “shameful” charges by Democrats that Bush exaggerated the evidence underlying the case for war, Rove accuses them of “hypocrisy and cynicism” and intones that they have “lost their honor and blackened their reputations.”

Rove then manfully takes responsibility for letting the Democrats get away with it.  “I should have insisted to the president that this was a dagger aimed at his administration’s heart.”  Instead, he says ruefully, he advised Bush “not to relitigate the past.”

Hmm.  Without indulging in the kind of cynicism of which only Democrats who attack Bush are capable, it seems unlikely that the administration chose not respond to Democratic attacks out of a patriotic wish not to “relitigate the past.”  Rather, the administration had an obvious political motive: as bad as it was to be accused of making a dishonest case for war, it would have been worse to have highlighted the charge by setting out to refute it – especially if the charges had any merit. Conveniently, Rove can now retaliate with impunity, and can even claim that his only regret is that he did not do so sooner.  At the time, however, the administration was wise to keep quiet.

Rove would be equally wise to keep quiet now.  For, having proclaimed his liberty to rebut the Democrats, he goes on to write a column that… doesn’t even bother to rebut the Democrats.  Instead, Rove just repeats a favorite talking point of Bush apologists, namely, that Democrats made the same claims about Iraq’s WMDs as Bush.  But what Democrats said about Iraq’s WMDs is irrelevant to whether the administration was exaggerating the intelligence.  Rove knows full well that Democrats in Congress did not have access to the intelligence that the administration was touting. They ultimately were given the notoriously slipshod October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate shortly before the Iraq war resolution vote. By that time, like most everyone other than a few skeptics, Democrats in Congress had concluded that if the president was claiming that Iraq had or was close to acquiring WMDs then he must have known what he’s talking about.  After all, nobody would be so foolish as to make such claims groundlessly, right?  Further, as Rove knows, the Democrats had accurately perceived that, after 9/11, the war issue was working in Republicans’ favor.  Democrats therefore – cynically, as Rove might say, thought not for the reasons he mentions — tried to mitigate the damage by me-tooing the President.  They voted for the war resolution and repeated the administration’s intelligence claims.  The Democrats’ claims about Iraqi WMDs – though certainly embarrassing – have no bearing on whether the administration was exaggerating the case for war.

Rove does cite the Robb-Silberman report of March 31, 2005, which concluded that intelligence officials had not been pressured to produce faulty intelligence.  But that is quite different from saying, as Rove claims the report said, “that the ‘Bush lied’ charge was false.”  On the contrary, the administration may have exaggerated even the faulty intelligence indicted by the Robb-Silberman report.  Further, Rove focuses solely on claims that Iraq had or would acquire WMDs – claims that, as the Robb-Silberman report found, turned out to be false.  He does not mention the other ways in which Bush might have misled the public,  such as by insinuating that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al-Qaeda or that he would pass WMDs to terrorists.  About these claims the Robb-Silberman report says nothing.

In short, Rove calls the Democrats’ charge that Bush made a dishonest case for war “poisonous” but not, evidently, for the reason that it is false.  (It seems clear that Rove enjoys reading, and indeed takes his cues from, pro-war pundits.  Just like Bush apologists in the press, he even ridicules the allegedly ubiquitous four-word slogan “Bush lied, people died,” as if all it took to exonerate Bush from wrongdoing was to refute a bumper sticker.)  If Democrats are guilty of “hypocrisy and cynicism,” then Rove is guilty of chutzpah.  Whatever Democrats might have said, at least they didn’t decide to attack a country that, by Bush’s own admission, did not pose an imminent threat. As political poison, launching an unprovoked war surely outranks vulgar accusations of dishonesty.