Bush's Ever Shifting Absolutes

Let Us Count the Lies on the Road to War

A puzzled America watches now as the Bush imperial public-relations samurai try to behead the notion that they were the mongers who planted the vision of a quick and practically painless war. The recorded evidence doesn't help their case.

Their cocky drumroll oratory has been with us for many months. Vice President Dick Cheney, for one, told America that Saddam Hussein's regime was "a house of cards." We could expect the war to last "weeks rather than months," Cheney said just two weeks ago. Every once in a while, the president and his minions would protect themselves with a few words about possible unforeseen complications, but the thumping central message was that the invasion and conquest of Iraq would be easy. The nation was told relentlessly that our technological superiority and complete command of the skies would demolish the dictator like a plaster of paris statue and send Iraqis into the streets by the thousands to hail their liberators.

Some or even much of this may still happen—as I write, American units about 60 miles south of Baghdad are reported making early probes at Iraqi forces ringing the capital—but it will not change the fact that this president humbugged and lulled the public into acceptance of war. He has dealt them a shameless series of half truths, erasures of history, allegations without tangible proof, allegations without any proof and just plain stable droppings, the final one being the whopper that the war would be a cakewalk. No war—not even his father's Tinkertoy invasion of Panama City in 1989, where earsplitting rock music was used to try to stun Manuel Noriega (once the CIA's favorite money-launderer and drug dealer south of the border) out of the church building he'd fled into for sanctuary—could be a cakewalk.

Below is a partial timeline of how the White House kept changing its story. Follow the ever shifting, ever absolute bouncing ball.

On September 11, 2001, terrorists flew three hijacked commercial planes full of passengers into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Another hijacked craft crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers revolted. The death toll was roughly 3,000. In the aftermath, U.S. intelligence confirmed that the assault was carried out by operatives from Osama Bin Laden's global terrorist network. No mention was made by the White House or anyone else in the Bush administration of any Iraqi involvement.

President Bush, in his annual State of the Union address, on January 29, 2002, described an "axis of evil" comprising North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. He cited Iraq, a former ally whom Washington had aided in its war against Iran in the 1980s and to whom Washington allowed American companies to ship ingredients for biological and chemical warfare, for its development of weapons of mass destruction. He mentioned chemical and biological weapons and efforts to develop nuclear bombs. Still no suggestion of any Iraqi link to September 11.

By the spring, the White House was slowly and steadily accelerating its drumbeat for military action against Iraq. Baghdad was promoted from a member of the "axis of evil" triumvirate to being the most immediate threat to world peace. The U.S. and British air patrols in the UN-approved no-fly zones in Iraq were also being expanded and the war planes began striking more significant Iraqi military targets.

A key piece of evidence offered by Washington for Iraq's continued efforts to build a nuclear bomb—despite the prohibitions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War—was a packet of documents provided by British intelligence. The dossier purportedly revealed very recent Iraqi attempts to purchase "significant quantities of uranium" from an unnamed African country. At a classified briefing last September, CIA chief George Tenet told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about this document; Tenet vouched for its authenticity and identified the African country as Niger. Secretary of State Colin Powell also stressed the document's importance in a closed meeting with the same committee two days later. All this came at a time when the White House was trying to get a resolution from Congress, over some Democratic opposition, authorizing the president to wage war against Iraq. The resistive Democrats were mollified. The resolution breezed through two weeks later. Shortly thereafter, the administration told the public about the documents.

Bush used it as ammunition in his 2003 State of the Union speech on January 28. Powell did the same in his speech to the UN on February 5, seeking broader support for military action.

There was only one problem with the documents. They were forgeries. After all the buildup, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, stepped in to tell the Security Council that the papers were bogus. "The IAEA has concluded," said its director-general, "with the concurrence of outside experts that these documents... are in fact not authentic." The White House went virtually mute, as if the whole episode had never happened.

On February 14, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a speech in New York, saying military action was probably inevitable in order "to avert a September 11 with weapons of mass destruction," told a black-tie gathering of senior military officers and their spouses, "What we're trying to do right now is hard. It's to connect the dots before the facts."

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.

In the March 31 issue of The New Yorker, David Remnick, the magazine's editor, who has written in support of the war, though without enthusiasm, has an insightful piece on Bush's foreign policy, in particular about its absence of humility. He writes: "It [humility] is, however, a quality that will be indispensable in victory if we are to help rebuild Iraq after decades of tyrannical rule and to repair our own frayed relations with governments, peoples and institutions around the world." Of Bush's ideological, hawk advisers, Remnick says that they "seem oblivious, too, of the consequences of a unilateral, imperial-style occupation of Iraq. They welcome it. By embracing imperialism frankly—by proclaiming that the goal of their policy is the maintenance and expansion of unchallenged power—they congratulate themselves as honest and hardheaded."

The president and his roundtable of civilian advisers do not seem given to much self-examination or admissions of error. Rumsfeld, for example, does not fall on his sword voluntarily. When reporters raised questions about the adequacy of the battle plan, the Pentagon chief quickly disavowed primary authorship. "The war plan," Rumsfeld said, "is Tom Franks's war plan," referring to the general in charge of the Iraq operation.

Maybe, when victory over Iraq comes, a relieved public will look upon these civilian warriors as heroes and bold visionaries, rather than blinkered souls suffering from raging hubris. But we are all shaped differently and, after living for several years in the third world, I cannot see Edens being created by this war. It looks like just another application of weed-killer being poured over problems that are much too deeply rooted to die out so easily.

I also have no illusions about truth-telling suddenly taking hold as a guiding principle among nations. But minimum levels of candor and openness are critical to keeping democracies alive—even empires with democratic origins. And for my money the captain seems at the moment to be purposefully steering the ship to a place well below those minimums.


Research assistance: Jennifer Snow

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