Saturday, November 26, 2005

Honesty Is Such a Lonely Word

Here are two questions to ask right-wingers:

If critics of the prewar intelligence that was used to justify invading Iraq were correct; if it were true that the Bush administration manufactured, misrepresented, cherry-picked, and lied about the evidence they said proved Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda -- then would making those truthful charges in public have an "insidious effect on the war effort" by undermining troop morale and public support for the war?

If it's wrong to tell American soldiers risking their lives in combat that they're fighting and dying because the president lied or made a mistake, does that mean it's right to let American soldiers continue fighting and dying if the president indeed did lie or make a mistake?

Michael Kinsley asks these questions, and for a purpose: To expose the army of straw men lurking behind Dick Cheney when he gives speeches like the one he gave at the American Enterprise Institute on Nov. 21: It's not the accuracy of the charges that prewar intelligence was faked that makes the public airing of those charges "dishonest and reprehensible" for Cheney -- it's the fact that such charges are aired publicly at all.

It's not the possibility that American men and women are fighting and dying for a bunch of deceptions and lies that outrages Cheney -- it's telling them that they are, or that they might be. It's putting the idea in their heads that lathers Cheney up, not whether the idea has merit or doesn't have merit.

"One might also argue," Vice President Cheney said in a speech on Monday, "that untruthful charges against the commander in chief have an insidious effect on the war effort." That would certainly be an ugly and demagogic argument, were one to make it. After all, if untruthful charges against the president hurt the war effort (by undermining public support and soldiers' morale), then those charges will hurt the war effort even more if they happen to be true. So one would be saying in effect that any criticism of the president is essentially treason.

Lest one fear that he might be saying that, Cheney immediately added, "I'm unwilling to say that" -- "that" being what he had just said. He generously granted critics the right to criticize (as did the president this week). Then he resumed hurling adjectives like an ape hurling coconuts at unwanted visitors. "Dishonest." "Reprehensible." "Corrupt." "Shameless." President Bush and others joined in, all morally outraged that anyone would accuse the administration of misleading us into war by faking a belief that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear and/or chemical and biological weapons.

Interestingly, the administration no longer claims that Hussein actually had such weapons at the time Bush led the country into war in order to eliminate them. "The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight," Cheney said on Monday. So-called WMD (weapons of mass destruction) were not the only argument for the war, but the administration thought they were a crucial argument at the time. So the administration now concedes that the country went to war on a false premise. Doesn't that mean that the war was a mistake no matter where the false premise came from?
Until last week, the antiwar position in the debate over Iraq closely resembled the pro-war position in the ancient debate over Vietnam. That is: It was a mistake to get in, but now that we're in we can't just cut and run. That was the logic on which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger took over the Vietnam War four years after major American involvement began and kept it going for another four. American "credibility" depended on our keeping our word, however foolish that word might have been. In the end, all the United States wanted was a "decent interval" between our departure and the North Vietnamese triumph -- and we didn't even get that. Thousands of Americans died in Vietnam after America's citizens and government were in general agreement that the war was a mistake.

We are now very close to that point of general agreement in the Iraq war. Do you believe that if Bush, Cheney and company could turn back the clock, they would do this again? And now, thanks to Rep. John Murtha, it is permissible to say, or at least to ask, "Why not just get out now? Or at least soon, on a fixed schedule?" There are arguments against this -- some good, some bad -- but the worst is the one delivered by Cheney and others with their most withering scorn. It is the argument that it is wrong to tell American soldiers risking their lives in a foreign desert that they are fighting for a mistake.

One strength of this argument is that it doesn't require defending the war itself. The logic applies equally whether the war is justified or not. Another strength is that the argument is true, in a way: It is a terrible thing to tell someone he or she is risking death in a mistaken cause. But it is more terrible actually to die in that mistaken cause.

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