Bush's Ever Shifting Absolutes

Let Us Count the Lies on the Road to War

On February 28, the White House formally upped its demand on Iraq. At a news briefing, press secretary Ari Fleischer confirmed that the president was not satisfied with merely "total disarmament." Saddam Hussein had to be removed as well. Responding to a reporter who was certain he was hearing escalated language, Fleischer said matter-of-factly: "It's disarmament and regime change." He insisted it was no shift at all. The president, he said, had been talking this way for some time—though in October Bush had said Iraq's compliance with UN demands for disarmament would in itself "signal the regime has changed."

The rest is fresh news, engraved on the public mind. Bush couldn't get the Security Council to approve a military attack. He then gave Saddam and his ruling clique 48 hours to leave the country, something no one expected the tyrant to do. And then the allied bombing began.

And the psy-war campaign, already vigorous, ramped up to new levels.

For starters, the early heavy bombing was given a name just short of "blitzkrieg." It was called, as we all know now from numbing repetition, "shock and awe." The Iraqi regime, Washington suggested to us, would be so terror-struck and unstrung by the ferocity of our bombardment that it would crumble overnight. Well, Shock and Awe was quite a nighttime television show, loud and glowing enough to make viewers wince at the thought of what it might be like living under such a barrage. On the tube, it looked like Atlanta and Rome burning, both at the same time. Actually, it was a hail of precision bombs and missiles falling with impressive accuracy on military command facilities, government buildings, and Saddam's palaces of self-worship.

At morning light, Baghdad had not been demolished, just a number of select targets. Now Washington is telling us that the ballyhooing of "shock and awe" was mostly a psychological-warfare effort to cause panic and perhaps produce an early surrender with limited casualties on both sides and only minor damage to the country's economic infrastructure. Maybe so, but could it be that this explanation itself is just another feint in the psy-war campaigns that both sides are waging.

There is nothing new about political leaders lying to us. At times it may be a necessary tool to lead us away from some angry mob action or to calm community fears. Most of the time, though, it's a cynical device to get us to embrace a course of action we wouldn't otherwise touch with a barge pole.

No scientific method exists to measure whether political prevarication is more abundant now than in the past, though with media overload on overdrive in around-the-clock image bombardment, it certainly seems as if more and bigger lies are flying around.

One of them has to do with the president's tax-cut mania. The president is still insisting on huge tax reductions, especially for the moneyed class, even though the weak economy and the costly war are draining the treasury. No president has ever cut taxes during a war before. It seems to turn common sense on its head. There is this gravity-defying, reason-challenging quality to much of what the president has done since September 11.

I'd like to explain why I'm using lie in its several forms, instead of the euphemisms journalists usually employ, such as spin or misspeaking. I think it's probably because this graying journalist has perhaps been around so long and seen so many of the really foul things humans can perpetrate on other humans that the urge to call things by their proper name has overtaken him. I hope it doesn't put anybody off.

The president needs to think about being more candid, about talking straight to his own people and others. I'm sure he believes he is simply conducting himself the way nearly all of his recent predecessors have. He's right about that. And he has observed that they got away with it. But he is taking the United States into what appears to be revolutionary, uncharted territory. He has ordered up a war that lacks the support of most of the world, even though almost all the naysayers agree that Saddam Hussein is a vile tyrant whose demise is to be wished for and pursued. The people andnation-states who shun President Bush's war generally argue that there has to be a better way to end Hussein's rule than by the bloodshed and destruction this war will cause in Iraq (and upon the invading American, British, and Australian troops)—and the chaos it might cause in other parts of the globe. They also point out that Iraq, though a threatening outlaw nation, has not directly attacked the United States, and that there is no conclusive or even strong evidence that Iraq played any direct role in the terrorist attacks of September 11—the event that started Bush on the road to this war (and may subsequently lead him to violent forays against other troubling nations).

It is because the president is leading us into this unknown terrain and because he seems to be saying he wants to change the world—and will continue on this crusade whether or not the United Nations or major nations back him—that I have raised the issue of how he speaks to the American people and the world. No matter how convinced he may be that he is doing the right thing and no matter how powerful a super-nation the United States is, Bush must know that, in the end, disciplining and changing rogue nations across the board cannot be accomplished without broad support. He has to start by talking to the voters as his partners, not as his subjects. We often talk figuratively of an imperial presidency, but the monarchy is surely dead in this country. That was settled more than two centuries ago.

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