STOCKHOLM, Sweden – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday rejected allegations from a former White House spokesman who says the Bush administration misled the American public into going to war with Iraq.
Rice would not comment specifically on charges made by ex-press secretary Scott McClellan in a new book, but said President Bush was honest and forthright about the reasons for the war. She also said she remained convinced that toppling Saddam Hussein was right and necessary.
"The president was very clear about the reasons for going to war," she told reporters at a news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in Stockholm where she is attending an international conference on Iraq.
Chief among those reasons was the belief, shared widely before the war, that Saddam Hussein had or was developing weapons of mass destruction, Rice recalled, suggesting the international community shouldn't have backed harsh sanctions against Iraq if it doubted the threat.
"I am not going to comment on a book that I haven't read," she said, referring to McClellan's scathing memoir, "but what I will say is that the concern about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the fundamental reason."
"It was not the United States of America alone that believed that he had weapons of mass destruction that he was hiding," Rice said, dismissing suggestions that the administration knew the intelligence was incorrect.
"The story is there for everyone to see, you can't now transplant yourself into the present and say we should have known what we in fact did not know in 2001 and 2002," she said. "The record on weapons of mass destruction was one that appeared to be very clear."
Those who were skeptical should have spoken up at the time and argued against U.N. sanctions such as the oil-for-food program, she said.
"The threat from Saddam Hussein was well understood," Rice said. "You can agree or disagree about the decision to liberate Iraq in 2003, but I would really ask that if you ... believe he was not a threat to the international community, then why in the world were you allowing the Iraqi people to suffer under the terms of oil-for-food."
The heart of the McClellan book concerns Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, a determination McClellan says the president had made by early 2002 — at least a full year before the invasion — if not even earlier.
"He signed off on a strategy for selling the war that was less than candid and honest," McClellan writes in "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception."
However, McClellan wrote that he did not believe Bush or the White House "deliberately or consciously sought to deceive the American people."
McClellan says Bush's main reason for war always was "an ambitious and idealistic post-9/11 vision of transforming the Middle East through the spread of freedom." But Bush and his advisers made "a marketing choice" to downplay this rationale in favor of one focused on increasingly trumped-up portrayals of the threat posed by the weapons of mass destruction.
The White House responded angrily Wednesday to McClellan's memoir, calling it self-serving sour grapes.
"Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House," said current White House press secretary Dana Perino, a former deputy to McClellan. "We are puzzled. It is sad. This is not the Scott we knew."