Every time I try to wrap my mind around President Bush’s Iraq war and his associated war against the press, I come back to the lies the president and his courtiers have endlessly told. And to how they conned and cowed much of the press into being their early accomplices.
Those offended by the jolt of the word “lies” can substitute a gentler synonym, such as “fictions” or “frauds” or “breaches of the national trust.”
The lies haven’t stopped. Vice President Dick Cheney lately accuses the “reprehensible” Democrats in Congress of twisting history when they point to the flagrant disinformation campaign that got us into the war. He is saying, in effect, that telling the truth about a lie-based presidency comforts the enemy and makes you a bad American. That might be so if anyone were revealing national-security secrets. But these senators and representatives whom the vice president would crush are merely—and very belatedly—calling attention to the untruths sown by his own tribe to concoct a war.
The press too was slow to question and reveal the lies. Most of America was slow. People were still in shock over the 9-11 terrorist attacks and didn’t want to believe that their president would mislead them into the wrong war. The press, like many other Americans, was temporarily intimidated.
What was in the minds of the president and his political advisers? Many of them (who had never seen battle) seem to have believed
that 9-11 was the opportunity they had been hoping for since the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein, though defeated, was left in power by the first President Bush. But how did they imagine they could, by force of arms, create a world empire on a foundation of distortions and lies about a “grave and gathering danger” from Iraq? Maybe someday they’ll give us a halfway credible insight into what they were thinking.
It is tempting to go back and recite all the falsehoods—and all the scorned opportunities to exhibit honest, American humility by acknowledging them. A handful will suffice.
“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.”—Cheney, August 26, 2002
“[He] has indeed stepped up his capacity to produce and deliver biological weapons. . . . He has reconstituted his nuclear program to develop a nuclear weapon.”—Cheney, September 8, 2002
“We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons—the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have.”—Bush, February 6, 2003
“We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.”—Cheney, March 16, 2003 (three days before the start of the U.S. invasion)
“Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”—Bush, March 17, 2003 (two days before the invasion)
“We know where they [the weapons] are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad.”—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, March 30, 2003 (11 days after the war began)
It is now two years and eight months later, and none of these weapons or stockpiles or assembly lines or mobile labs have been found. The only explanation the White House has offered up is that it was given faulty intelligence. Many Americans believe that the Bush regime chose faulty, hyped intelligence because it believed it could not otherwise get either the public or Congress to approve the war.
The mainstream press is no longer timid. But it, too, has suffered some major credibility failures, the most scrutinized of them having occurred at two superior papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Responsible journalism— responsible to the public—needs to find its footing and spirit again.
The public itself is troubled, nervous, seeking diversion. Confidence in the government and other institutions is very wobbly. The Bush presidency tried—and is still seeking—to make radical changes in the nation’s social-support structure but has failed to demonstrate it has the competence to make these changes work for the majority of Americans. Next to the war, reducing the taxes of the wealthy has been the signature act of this White House.
From the start of the Bush presidency in 2001, senior White House officials have been telling reporters, usually anonymously, that because journalists are reality based, they cannot understand or relate to the Bush administration, since it is pursuing a “bold,” God-guided doctrine that intends to create its own reality. Iraq was clearly one of those bold ventures, and because the planning behind it was both flawed and unrealistic, the nation is now suffering psychologically and materially.
Many nonpartisan voices across the country have urged Bush to come forward and admit his mistakes, arguing that the public will respond to such honesty. But there is still no sign of any acknowledgment of error, hardly a hint of humility. The president’s message, as recently as his we-will-never-cut-and-run speech November 30, remains: We will persevere until we have “complete victory,” and we will not moderate our “bold” policies.
This adamantine stance is visible in virtually every corner of the Bush government. Here is a useful example, from a superb November 27 story by Adam Liptak of the Times. The story was about the rigid Bush policies concerning “enemy combatants” taken prisoner in the Iraq war, who have been allowed almost no legal rights, even those granted by the Geneva Conventions. Most of the prisoners are simply being held indefinitely without trial.
Liptak described a hearing last December before a federal judge in Washington, Joyce Hens Green. Using hypothetical questions, Green pressed a Justice Department official, Brian Boyle, for a clearer, more specific explanation of who could be detained as an enemy combatant under the government’s definition.
The judge first asked if it would include “a little old lady in Switzerland who writes checks to what she thinks is a charitable organization that helps orphans in Afghanistan but really is a front to finance Al Qaeda activities.”
She next asked: What about a resident of Dublin “who teaches English to the son of a person the CIA knows to be a member of Al Qaeda?”
Finally, “What about a Wall Street Journal reporter, working in Afghanistan, who knows the exact location of Osama bin Laden but does not reveal it to the United States government to protect her source?”
Boyle replied that the military could detain all three people as enemy combatants.
There is no compromise—or reality—in the “bold” Bush government. Only secrecy and prevarications.
(Almost forgot. Yes, the reporter in the third hypothetical should be shackled in the stocks for life—but for intentional stupidity, not as an enemy combatant.)