Spinning Bush’s Lies

Interesting crop of stories this morning, most of them pointed to by The Smirking Chimp, about Bush’s lies on Iraqi weapons. They cover an interesting spectrum.

On the one hand is Geov Parrish’s column at Working for Change: Eying lies. Parrish cuts Bush and his supporters no slack, which won’t surprise anyone who’s read his columns in the past. The lies themselves aren’t at issue for Parrish; the more interesting question is the possible motivations of those driven to actually believe them.

On the other hand is David E. Rosenbaum, writing in the New York Times Week in Review: Bush may have exaggerated, but did he lie? I doubt that Rosenbaum is one of those who actually believes Bush; unlike those Parrish writes about who take the president’s statements at face value, Rosenbaum obviously has a more discerning judgement. It’s an interesting irony: in order for Rosenbaum to be someone who can present the best possible case for Bush’s truthfulness, he pretty much has to be informed and clever enough to recognize those statements’ essential falsity.

Which may be unfair, but that’s the nature of such Catch-22s. Anyway, in his audacity, his willingness to employ every trick in the book to obscure the underlying reality, Rosenbaum reminds me of Bill Clinton in some of his post-blue-dress statements on Monica Lewinsky, when he could both acknowledge his previous lies and at the same time minimize their significance, building clouds of confusion in the minds of uncritical listeners before slipping artfully away.

Timothy Noah in Slate is one who isn’t confused by Rosenbaum, ripping the piece in his Chatterbox column: Can Bush be both ignorant and a liar? Noah answers that question with an emphatic yes, observing that it really doesn’t matter if Bush is ignorant enough to actually believe some of the false statements he’s made on Iraqi WMDs; if those statements were the result of ignorance, then it’s a willful ignorance that offers no excuse from the charge of lying, unless one is willing to descend to the sort of sophistry exemplified by Clinton’s own “it depends on what the definitiion of ‘is’ is” arguments.

On the most fundamental level, all the above pieces are partisan arguments directed at the opposing side. Paul Krugman’s latest New York Times opinion piece, though, rises to a higher level, talking in a more general sense about the significance of Bush’s lies, and peoples’ willingness to make excuses about them: Denial and deception. Krugman’s conclusion:

But even people who aren’t partisan Republicans shy away from confronting the administration’s dishonest case for war, because they don’t want to face the implications.

After all, suppose that a politician — or a journalist — admits to himself that Mr. Bush bamboozled the nation into war. Well, launching a war on false pretenses is, to say the least, a breach of trust. So if you admit to yourself that such a thing happened, you have a moral obligation to demand accountability — and to do so in the face not only of a powerful, ruthless political machine but in the face of a country not yet ready to believe that its leaders have exploited 9/11 for political gain. It’s a scary prospect.

Yet if we can’t find people willing to take the risk — to face the truth and act on it — what will happen to our democracy?

7 Responses to “Spinning Bush’s Lies”

  1. Michael Williams Says:

    I’m not clear on exactly what you claim Bush lied about. Do you think Saddam didn’t have any WMD?

  2. John Callender Says:

    Heh. Nice try.

  3. Michael Williams Says:

    Ask an honest question, get sarcasm in return. Okey dokey.

    I’m serious.

  4. John Callender Says:

    Oh, my apologies. I thought you were trolling.

    Um, well, with the hyperbole stripped away, I would say that Bush, and even more, the people in his administration (who I’m lumping with him in the “Bush lied” characterization), have engaged in a systematic effort to play up certain parts of the Iraqi WMD picture in order to sell the war. That “playing up” has included a whole range of activities, from very subtle to very blatant, that, taken together, I call “lying”.

    Some of the strongest examples are summarized in that New Republic article that I thought I’d linked to the other day. In going and looking at the posting again, though, I just now realized that I pooched the URL, pointing instead to an image associated with the story (doh!). It’s actually here: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030630&s=ackermanjudis063003

    The two main things it talks about are the effort to play up Saddam’s nuclear capabilities, and the effort to tie Saddam to al Qaeda. Those two points were clearly (in my mind, at least) known to be false by Bush and his people at the time they were pushing them. Not coincidentally, they were also key factors in building public support for the war.

    In terms of your actual question, I don’t know whether or not Saddam had _any_ WMDs at the time of the invasion. I certainly realize he did have them previously. I was pretty sure Bush and his people were overstating the case for how dangerous they were, with talk of the vast stockpiles of chemical weapons deployed and ready for use by field commanders, and the imminent acquisition of nuke capability, and all that. And, obviously, subsequent events have tended to reinforce my views on that.

  5. Michael Williams Says:

    I guess I never really thought that the WMD reasoning was the largest piece of the puzzle. We haven’t found stacks of anthrax or VX yet, but even you admit that Saddam had them in the past. They must be somewhere. I agree that the danger of them may have been overstated or mis-estimated (like the danger of Soviet ICBMs during the cold war), but everyone in the world seems pretty surprised that nothing huge has been found yet.

    As far as the ties to al Qaeda, I’ve read lots of reports about finding al Qaeda training camps in eastern Iraq, and various stories about Iraqi intelligence meeting with suspected terrorists. Even aside from al Qaeda, however, no one denies that Saddam was paying suicide bombers in Israel and funding all sorts terrorist stuff in that region. So if you focus only on an al Qaeda connection, I think you’re only seeing part of the terror picture.

    The extremist Arab Muslim mindset that breeds terrorism needs to be undermined, and taking out Iraq was a critical part of that process. Helping to build a free Iraq in the aftermath is the next stage. Long term, these are essential to American security (and, I would argue, to security for civilization as a whole), even if there are significant questions about the exact circumstances used for immediate justification of the battle for Iraq.

    I want to know where those WMD are, too. I’m still nearly 100% sure that they exist, but where are they? I hope he didn’t move them out to Syria and that they’re just buried in the sand somewhere. But to claim that Bush and his administration lied about them seems to be too narrowly focused; they are just one part of a larger issue.

  6. John Callender Says:

    I don’t have the URL handy, but I recall reading a piece a few weeks ago that made the case that things like anthrax and VX have a fairly limited shelf life, such that the stocks Saddam was known to have had in the 80s, or in the early 90s, would be essentially useless today. I’m not an expert, and don’t know how accurate it might have been, but it was an interesting data point.

    I don’t recall seeing anything that mentioned al Qaeda training camps in eastern Iraq. I remember seeing some stories about one such camp, but I thought that was in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish autonomy zone, in fact, which seems pretty hard to blame on Saddam, since he in fact didn’t control that part of the country. If you have any URLs for such stories, I’d be interested in reading them.

    Your statement that “the extremist Arab Muslim mindset that breeds terrorism needs to be undermined, and taking out Iraq was a critical part of that process” certainly gets to the heart of the matter, but it sounds to me like you’re painting with a pretty broad brush, and without much supporting evidence. For one thing, I’d argue that the way we conducted this war, ignoring the objections of nearly every Arab country, actually undermined those moderate Arabs who might have been inclined to work on our behalf, while strengthening the positions of the very extremists you say you want to undermine. Of course, maybe your position is that _all_ Arab Muslims are extremists, and we just need to do as much ass-kicking in the Middle East as possible.

    It sounds like you might incline that way, with the talk about defending the security of civilization as a whole. Which, if that’s your view, I can understand, and sympathize with, even if I think Bush’s policies are actually a pretty poor strategy for achieving your stated goal.

    But in the meantime, the president’s willingness to lie to the people in order to build support for the war remains problematic. Bush certainly presented a long laundry list of reasons why we had to start this particular war, and some of those reasons certainly had merit. The war might even have been justified by those reasons (though I don’t believe it was). But that’s a different argument.

    In the meantime, though, how can we trust a leader who tells such lies? Without an informed electorate (by which I mean, an electorate informed by facts, rather than fiction), how can our democracy work? How can we do our job as voters? How can we check the ambitions of leaders who would place their own personal political interests ahead of the interests of the country? I don’t think we can.

    Lying of this scale, with this severity of consequences, can’t be overlooked. Bush must be held accountable. At least that’s the way I see it.

    For your part, you appear to like what Bush did, and so are willing to dismiss the unsavory means he used to accomplish it. If so, and if your position represents a significant chunk of voters, I think the problem will be self-correcting. If I’m right, and this war was a bad idea, people will eventually figure that out, and vote for someone else. Not in 2004, maybe, but probably by 2008. The possibility of a President Hillary as our deliverer from the finally-revealed-as-a-failure Bush might even be sufficient compensation, on some level, for the evils that would surely flow from a second Bush presidency.

    But personally, I’d rather we just kicked him out now.

  7. Michael Williams Says:

    Interesting point about the shelf life of chemical weapons. Even still, they don’t just vanish. He could have produced the expired goods.

    Via a comment thread on Donald Sensing’s site:


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