David Sanger: "Distraction" of Iraq War Came at Grievous Cost

Foreign policy reporter turned Times Washington correspondent David Sanger appeared on Charlie Rose's chat show Monday to talk about his new book on Bush's foreign policy, "The Inheritance," which takes a standard liberal line about how Bush squandered opportunities in the sands of Iraq, especially by allowing Iran to make progress toward building a nuclear weapon while the U.S. suffered through what Sanger called the "costs of strategic distraction" of the Iraq War.

Sanger has never been a fan of Bush policies. In October 2004, before Bush won a second term, Sangerpondered:

If the president is still Mr. Bush, would a second term be marked by pre-emption on steroids, unilateralism in a silken glove, or the kind of alliance-building Mr. Bush talked about in the three debates?

In Monday night's warm chat (partone of a scheduled two-part conversation), Rose and Sanger sidled up together and traded thoughtful murmurs about the tragedy that is Iraq:

Host Charlie Rose: The Iranians handled this brilliantly in terms of achieving their objectives and taking advantage of the caution in the United States.

David Sanger: That's right. This book, Charlie, is a book about the costs of strategic distraction. We had many costs of the Iraq war. I mean, you can believe the Iraq was the right cause, the wrong cause - I set that aside. There is no Iraq chapter in this book.

Rose: Right.

Sanger: The argument of the book is that Iraq not only cost 4,000 American lives, $800 billion and untold casualties among Iraqis and Americans, it occupied so much of the attention and the resources of the top levels of the U.S. government that we ignored much bigger threats, short-term and long-term.

The Iranians made their huge progress at the time that we were focused on Iraq, and we were so wrapped up as the war got worse and worse that the president of the United States could not step out and explain to the American public, hey, we suspect that the Iranians are racing ahead with a nuclear weapon. In fact, he said to me in response to a question at a press conference at the end of 2005 - I said to him after the laptop [a laptop computer which contained possibly intelligence about Iranian nuclear designs] came out, "don't you believe that you could talk to the American people, that you need to talk to the American people about the possibility that Iran is moving toward a bomb, or does the specter of Iraq and the intelligence failure make that impossible?" And he said, "you know, it would be very difficult to talk about it publicly." He said, "I can do it privately, to governments, but not publicly." And he has almost never publicly laid out a case.

But what else has he not done? In the weeks after the Iraq invasion is exactly the moment the North Koreans went and harvested their collection of spent fuel and turned it into fuel for eight nuclear weapons. Why? Because we were distracted on the other side of the world. The Iranians did what the Iranians did, the Chinese went out and bought up oil companies and oil rights in countries around the world, and spread their wings in Asia. The list goes on.

And the biggest example of this is Afghanistan, where we literally took - and the book is filled sort of chapter and verse with CIA officials, ambassadors, others saying resources we needed in Afghanistan -

Rose: Were moved to Iraq.

Sanger: - were moved to Iraq.