July 18, 2005
Republicans act outraged every time another critic of George W. Bush calls the President a liar. The latest is USA Today founder Al Neuharth, in a July 1 editorial in which he counsels bringing the troops home from Iraq. He draws a comparison between Lyndon Johnson and George Bush, pointing out that both presidents “lied to us in wartime.”
What amazes me is that hardcore Bush supporters – the people who say “thank God for America” that the inexperienced George W. Bush was President on 9/11 – can’t see they must face one of two realizations: either the Bush administration intentionally misled the American people to achieve a goal of going to war with Iraq (read: “lied”) or the Bush administration’s series of misjudgments about Iraq constitute gross incompetence.
I am sorry to say that I don’t think they were lying. I think they were (and still are) incompetent. I would actually prefer that this President fooled the American people than that he got fooled himself. A liar can mend his ways, but an incompetent usually cannot. And a liar might steer us on a less dangerous course than the one Bush has chosen.
The situation with President Bush is much more serious than it ever was with Bill Clinton. Most of Clinton’s defenders during impeachment understood he had lied to the country – they simply argued that trying to hide an affair from Hilary was not grounds for overturning an electoral victory. Perhaps it’s because the Bush supporters can’t claim his misstatements are of no consequence, so they have to pretend they aren’t lies in the first place. But if you can’t bring yourself to think of George W. Bush as lying to you, intellectual honesty requires you to admit he has been staggeringly incompetent. I mean, this administration let a guy with the code name “Curveball” feed them bad intel and then they lapped it up. How lame is that?
One reason I don’t like to use the use the term “lie” in reference to politicians is because 20%ers use the word to excess. Conservative talk show hosts like Hannity, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Ingraham, Boortz, and Savage (referred to at TAFS as HOLI-BS) often classify the misstatements, exaggerations, and unsupported claims of their opponents as lies – while giving politicians on their own side a free pass on all of these. The 20%ers on the left do the same thing. But the acid test is in the long-term pattern. I once worked as a bartender in a classy restaurant where the owner shorted me on my paycheck 15 weeks in a row! Each time, she called it an honest mistake. But if it were an honest mistake, she would have made an error in my favor occasionally. No, she was stealing from me – and then pretending it was a misunderstanding.
Similarly, if the Bush administration was making “honest mistakes” in the run-up to the Iraq war, they would have at least once believed in, or acknowledged, intel or rationales that worked against their case. They NEVER did. Not only did they never hype bad intel that worked against their case, they always minimized or discounted reasonable intel or arguments against intervention in Iraq. Every administration example of evidence about WMD – from the absolutely certainty about the tons of chemical and biological weapons to the long range missiles, from the aluminum tubes to the yellow cake from Niger used to make the “mushroom cloud” claim, and from the evidence presented by Powell at the UN to the claim that Saddam’s denials of WMD are proof he can’t be trusted – all are examples where the Bush administration put lipstick on a pig. They used phrases like “our most conservative estimate” but then chose numbers wildly out of line with reality.
The defense for all this today is that: 1) it was an honest series of mistakes because intel is always somewhat ambiguous, 2) even the French, German, and Russian intelligence agencies believed Iraq had WMD at the time (though you’ll note they all actively opposed the war and people argued at the time that this made them unreliable), and 3) besides, Saddam was a bad guy who needed to be removed and have I mentioned how important it is to bring freedom and democracy to the world?
Apparently this line of malarkey is plausible to Bush supporters, since it’s fed to them regularly by HOLI-BS and they lap it up. I was against the invasion of Iraq from the beginning, but I always said that even if they found chemical and biological weapons (it was clear to any well-informed citizen that Iraq had no access to nuclear technology), that would not be proof that Iraq was a direct threat to the USA. But that’s the claim Bush eventually felt forced to make to get the okay to invade – that our homeland was in danger (the mushroom cloud fear shared with the public by Bush, Cheney, and Rice).
Assuming Bush believed this, we have a president that is scared by the wrong things. No, these are not simply honest mistakes. Since I’m not a 20%er, I don’t have to call this dishonesty “lies.” This was primarily intellectual dishonesty, attributable to their skewed worldview. This was a series of incompetent judgments that have taken us off track in the war against al Qaeda.
But back then it was hard to imagine that the Bush administration would be wrong about so many things. It’s not just the WMD. Remember that the administration tried desperately to make the case that Iraq had ties to al Qaeda (amazingly, Dick Cheney is still arguing this one). But there were no ties of any consequence. And then there were the brash “predictions” about the war itself – about the expected cakewalk, about the very low cost to the US, about Americans being greeted as liberators, and the pooh-poohing of all the warnings – about planning, about securing sites and keeping order, and about the number of troops needed to successfully occupy a country.
Each of us has to judge – was the Bush administration fooling us to get permission to go in, or were they fooling themselves? While I think that they repeatedly exaggerated the danger of Iraq, I also think they were fooling themselves. Republicans and conservatives are fond of saying that the Bush administration meant that “the adults” were back in change in Washington and that it’s a good thing that Al Gore wasn’t in office on 9/11. That is partisan nonsense. A President Gore would probably have been much smarter about all this than Bush and his advisors have been. And I haven’t even brought up the biggest downside to going into Iraq – the very likely possibility that we’ve not just distracted ourselves from the war on terror, but that we’ve created the “1000 Bin Ladens” predicted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. I’ve known since before we went in that Iraq was a diversion. The verdict is still out about whether Iraq is increasing the number of terrorists in the world.
Despite assurances today from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice that they are “certain” (there’s that word again) they did the right thing by invading Iraq, it’s hard to believe that if they had it to do over they would take us to war so casually. But it’s been pretty clear since 2002 that they set the policy first and then used the facts that fit the case while ignoring those that did not fit. And that amounts to intellectual dishonesty and incompetence. Maybe it’s time to give someone else a medal.