A graphic accompanying a June 6 Washington Post article about the previous night's Republican presidential debate asserted that the "Gaffe of the Night" was committed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who "incorrectly sa[id] [that] yesterday was Ronald Reagan's birthday." The graphic itself, however, contained a much more significant misstatement: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's erroneous account of the events leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Asked during the debate if it was "a mistake for us to invade Iraq," Romney replied, [W]e wouldn't be in the conflict we're in" if "Saddam Hussein had open[ed] up his country to IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction." In fact, Hussein did allow IAEA inspectors into Iraq before the invasion, and they "found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq." Saddam also allowed the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) into Iraq before the invasion, and its inspectors "did not find evidence of the continuation or resumption of programmes of weapons of mass destruction."
Tom Fahey of the New Hampshire Union Leader led off the debate by asking Romney if the United States had made a mistake in invading Iraq:
FAHEY: Governor Romney, I wanted to start by asking you a question on which every American has formed an opinion. We have lost 3,400 troops, civilian casualties are even higher, and the Iraqi government does not appear ready to provide for the security of its own country. Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?
ROMNEY: Well, the question is kind of a non sequitur, if you will. And what I mean by that -- or a null set -- and that is that if you're saying, let's turn back the clock and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction -- had Saddam Hussein therefore not violated United Nations resolutions -- we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in. But he didn't do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in.
Analyzing the debate on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, CNN political contributor Paul Begala said that Romney had made a "huge mistake" and that "if this were a general election debate, [it] would be a disqualifier." Begala then went on to correct Romney's "gaffe":
COOPER: You say that Romney made a big mistake tonight on Iraq.
BEGALA: A huge mistake, a gaffe that -- that's, if this were a general election debate, would be a disqualifier. He said -- we just heard the bite -- he said that, if Saddam Hussein had allowed IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency, inspectors into his country to ascertain whether he'd had weapons, we wouldn't have had this war. He did.
On September 17 of 2002, the Iraqi government, under Saddam Hussein, allowed IAEA weapons inspectors into their country. Over 250 of them went, led by Hans Blix. They searched the whole countryside and found nothing. While they were still searching, on March 17 of 2003, George W. Bush told them to get out 'cause he was starting a war. And, on March 20th, we started the war.
You can't get something like that wrong. I mean, that's like -- that's like saying the Mexicans bombed Pearl Harbor.
Yet instead of highlighting and rebutting Romney's falsehood, The Washington Post's graphic cited Huckabee's inconsequential remark about "Ronald Reagan's birthday," even though the same graphic contained Romney's comment about Iraq.
As Begala noted, in September 2002, Saddam agreed to allow UN weapons inspectors into Iraq. The UN Security Council subsequently voted to allow the IAEA and UNMOVIC to travel to Iraq and examine its alleged weapons of mass destruction programs, with the first inspectors arriving in the country in November. The IAEA focused only on Iraq's nuclear weapons capabilities, and on March 7, 2003, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei reported to the Security Council that, "to date," the IAEA (through its Iraq Nuclear Verification Office) had "found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq." Just over a month later, on April 14, in another letter to the Security Council, ElBaradei wrote that the IAEA had again concluded that "[i]n the nearly four months during which the IAEA was able to conduct inspections in Iraq, significant progress was made in assessing the status of Iraq's nuclear related capabilities" and that "as of 17 March, 2003, the IAEA had found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq." Congruent with Begala's claim on Anderson Cooper, ElBaradei noted in his April 14 letter that, "[o]n 17 March 2003, the IAEA ... had to withdraw its staff from Iraq, as part of the decision to withdraw the staff of UNMOVIC and other UN staff, out of concern for their safety following an advisory of upcoming military action."
Similarly, in its May 30, 2003, report to the Security Council, the executive chairman of UNMOVIC wrote: "In the period during which it performed inspection and monitoring in Iraq, UNMOVIC did not find evidence of the continuation or resumption of programmes of weapons of mass destruction or significant quantities of proscribed items from before the adoption of resolution 687 (1991)."