Tuesday, June 21, 2005

E.J. DIONNE thinks that the worst part about the Bush administration's dishonesty about the basis for war with Iraq is that Bush, Cheney, et al. were actually convinced it was all true.

The notion that the president led the country into war through indirection or dishonesty is not the most damaging criticism of the administration. The worst possibility is that the president and his advisers believed their own propaganda. They did not prepare the American people for an arduous struggle because they honestly didn't expect one.

How else to explain the fact that the president and his lieutenants consistently played down the costs of the endeavor, the number of troops required, the difficulties of overcoming tensions among the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds? Were they lying? The more logical explanation is that they didn't know what they were talking about.
The assertion of the "Downing Street Memo" that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of invasion has understandably become a rallying point for the war's opponents. But in some ways more devastating are other recently disclosed documents in which British officials warned that "there was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action." The British worried at the time that "U.S. military plans are virtually silent" on the fact that "a postwar occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise."

The most damaging document supporting this claim is not secret, and remains one of the most important artifacts of the prewar debate. It is the transcript of "Meet the Press" from March 16, 2003, in which Vice President Cheney gave voice to the administration's optimistic assumptions that have now been laid low by reality.

Host Tim Russert asked whether "we would have to have several hundred thousand troops there" in Iraq "for several years in order to maintain stability." Cheney replied: "I disagree." He wouldn't say how many troops were needed, but he added that "to suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don't think is accurate. I think that's an overstatement."

Russert asked: "If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?"

Cheney would have none of it. "Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I've talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. . . . The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want [is to] get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that."

Russert: "And you are convinced the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shiites will come together in a democracy?"

Cheney: "They have so far." And the vice president concluded: "I think the prospects of being able to achieve this kind of success, if you will, from a political standpoint, are probably better than they would be for virtually any other country and under similar circumstances in that part of the world."

Was Cheney disguising the war's costs for political purposes? It's more likely that he believed every word he said. That suggests that the administration was not misleading the American people nearly so much as it was misleading itself.

Dan Drezner thinks this makes the Bushies responsible for being wrong about the intelligence, but innocent of having lied about the intelligence: they genuinely believed Iraq had WMDs.

Henry at Crooked Timber disagrees:

I don’t think that [Drezner's] claim holds; and there’s an analogy that I think makes this clearer. ... In many countries (including my home country, Ireland), police have a reputation for stitching people up; they seem prepared in some instances to commit perjury in order to get people convicted for crimes. Now in some cases, this is a completely cynical exercise – the police have no idea of whether the accused is guilty or not, but need to get a conviction for political or other reasons. But in others, it’s because the police think that they know who committed a crime, but don’t have the necessary evidence to get the person convicted in court. Therefore, they perjure themselves and lie about the evidence in order to get the conviction.

This, it seems to me, is what happened in the lead-up to Iraq. The Bush administration, like others, probably did genuinely believe that Iraq had an active nuclear program. But it didn’t have the necessary evidence to prove this, either to its allies or to its own people. It therefore cooked the evidence that it did have in order to make its claims more convincing. It didn’t deceive the public about its basic belief that there were WMDs in Iraq. But it did deceive the public about the evidence that was there to support this belief, in order to convince them that there was a real problem. In other words, it did “consciously mislead” the American people (and its allies). When the police are caught perjuring themselves to get convictions, they should (and frequently do) suffer serious consequences, even if they believe that they’re perjuring themselves in order to get the guilty convicted. That’s not what the police should be doing; they haven’t been appointed as judges, and for good reason. If the police persistently lie in order to get convictions, the system of criminal law is liable to break down. Similarly, when the administration lies about a major matter in order to get public support, it shouldn’t be excused on the basis that it thought that it was lying in a good cause. It’s still betraying its basic democratic responsibilities.

Duncan makes a subtle but important distinction: Bush and Cheney may have believed Saddam Hussein had WMDs, but that doesn't mean they believed those weapons were a genuine threat to U.S. survival or national security.

We need to distinguish between the "WMD" and "the threat." Without a real investigation we'll never know to what degree they hyped WMD claims they thought were false instead of simply hyping claims they did not know were true. Some of us with our faulty memories remember Donald Rumsfeld saying things like:

We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.

And George Bush saying:

He's a man who has told the world he wouldn't have weapons of mass destruction, yet he does.

And Ari Fleischer:

We know for a fact there are weapons there.

And Poodle:

We know that he has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons[.]

All of these things can fall in Henry's basic frame - they believed he had certain weapons and while they were dishonest about their evidence and certainty of this, they still believed it.

But what they did do, without a doubt, was hype the degree to which such weapons, even if they existed, posed any kind of threat to the United States or even to Iraq's neighbors. We have a bit of a language problem, calling anything nasty a "weapon of mass destruction" when frequently we're talking about things which are very unlikely to produce a mass casualty event. A true "weapon of mass destruction" is capable of killing massive amounts of people. So, we're talking nuclear or a nasty plague or poisoning of an urban water supply or something which can actually succeed in killing massive amounts of people. Something like the much hyped Ricin doesn't even come close to deserving the label of WMD.

So, maybe they believed all the stuff about WMD (I'm still rather dubious about that too), but they certainly didn't believe the degree to which they hyped those WMD as posing any kind of genuine threat to us, and they certainly had no legitimate evidence of a nuclear program that had proceeded any further than my own nuclear program.[[UPDATE: Let me add here that the one thing I really don't believe is that they thought Saddam really had an active nuke program. Bad guy with lust in his heart, sure, but that describes every shitty dictator in the world.]]

They said he had WMD and, under the shitty definition of that word we've embraced, it's possible they believed it even if they didn't have the evidence they claimed to have (which was obvious at the time and one of many reasons I opposed this thing). But the kinds of weapons they believed they had were, for the most part, only useful as a deterrent to invasion, which appears to be the reason Saddam let the rumors about his evil laboratories persist. They just wouldn't be useful either for direct military uses or even for terrorist blackmail.

Believed in WMDs they hyped? Perhaps. Believed in the threat they hyped? Nope.

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