"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The decision to go to war is the most momentous one a leader can make. National security, relations with the rest of the world, vast sums of money and the lives of troops and civilians are all at stake. Intentionally misleading one’s country about why a war is necessary is perhaps the gravest offense a president can commit — an act of betrayal that potentially warrants removal from office, and could even be considered treasonous.
If it turns out that the reasons the United States gave for invading Iraq were false, and the Bush administration knew they were false, it should be held fully accountable by the American people and their representatives in Congress. If President Nixon could be forced from office because of his coverup of a politically motivated burglary and President Clinton impeached because an obsessed prosecutor investigating a bogus real-estate scandal came upon a sexual impropriety, a president found to have lied about or distorted the reasons for going to war surely deserves to face at least similar sanctions.
We gave one and only one reason for invading Iraq: self-defense. The Bush administration unequivocally told the American people that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction, was linked to al-Qaida, and thus posed an imminent and unacceptable threat to America and the world. In his address to the nation on March 17, 2003, just days before U.S. forces attacked Iraq, Bush said, “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.” In the days before the invasion, Bush began to raise the issue of Saddam’s murderous reign, but — despite the disingenuous title given to the campaign, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” — we did not bomb Baghdad to defend human rights. Just ask the suffering people of the Congo, with its over 3 million dead, how much the Bush administration cares about their right to life.
To this date, two months after Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown, no evidence has been found that Iraq possessed any weapons of mass destruction. One smoking gun after the next has turned out to be a fraud, or grossly overhyped. The latest example is the two mysterious trailers: Immediately after the trailers were discovered, administration authorities asserted that they were biological weapons labs, but on Saturday intelligence analysts who had examined the trailers disputed that claim, telling the New York Times they were probably used for other purposes and that “the evaluation process had been damaged by a rush to judgment.”
Far more disturbing than these desperate attempts to find WMDs under every bush is the fact that it is now clear to everyone (except, apparently, the Democratic candidates for president) that the Bush administration put its thumb heavily on the scales when presenting the evidence it used to justify war. The Times reported months ago that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top lieutenant, Paul Wolfowitz, had pressured the CIA to come up with evidence that would justify an invasion, going so far as to create a special Pentagon intelligence unit to get “better” results. That ominous revelation was largely ignored by a press corps apparently too stunned by 9/11 to question anything the White House might choose to do so long as it fell under the rubric of “national security.”
Since then, evidence has emerged that the administration cherry-picked only the most ominous parts of intelligence reports, downplaying or completely ignoring those that took a less alarming view. Friday, for example, it was reported that the Pentagon’s main intelligence agency warned just five months before we went to war that there was “no definitive, reliable information” that Iraq was producing or stockpiling chemical or biological weapons. This was a crucial piece of intelligence that cut to the heart of the reason we went to war — a war that has cost more than 100 American lives, with more troops being killed every week. Yet no administration official — not Bush, not Vice President Dick Cheney, not Powell, not Rumsfeld — saw fit to share this crucial piece of information with the American people.
Then, of course, there is the specious connection between Iraq and al-Qaida asserted with increasing certainty by Bush. That supposed connection was known by all with even a passing knowledge of the subject to be virtually nonexistent. But Bush kept asserting it, and in the end his assertion of frightening links between al-Qaida and Saddam played a significant role in convincing the American people a war against Iraq was necessary. In fact, when he was warning the American people of those ties, Bush presumably knew that Abu Zubaydah, a top al-Qaida leader captured in March 2002, had told the CIA that his organization had no ties with Saddam.
So angry are many members of the intelligence community about what they regard as egregious interference from the administration — from pressure to come up with the “right” answers to tendentious misinterpretation of their data — that they have begun venting to journalists, charging that the White House lied to the public.
It is true, of course, that the United States was not alone in suspecting that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Before he was forced off his job by the U.S. invasion, U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix raised serious questions about Iraq’s WMDs, saying that various deadly weapons and agents, including anthrax, VX and chemical bombs, remained unaccounted for. And since Saddam is known to have had WMDs, and to have used them on his own people as well as against Iran, it would not be an outrageous stretch to presume — as U.S. officials, though not Blix, did — that if he was unable to prove he had destroyed them, he still had them.
Moreover, those who deny that Saddam possessed WMDs are forced to address a peculiar question: If he didn’t have them, why didn’t he simply prove to the U.N. he didn’t have them, thus potentially averting an invasion?
Neither of these arguments, however, address the central issue: Did American leaders fail to lay out all the evidence about the Saddam threat to the American people? Bush and Rumsfeld may have sincerely believed the Iraq dictator had weapons of mass destruction; they may have had some legitimate reasons to fear that he did. (Saddam’s failure to prove he destroyed his WMDs may remain a permanent mystery. But it could be explained by the fact that his terrified underlings lied to him, assuring him that a nonexistent program was in full swing.) But the point is this: In a democracy, mere beliefs, no matter how sincere, are not sufficient to justify national leaders suppressing or distorting evidence before going to war. Not even in times of national crisis. In fact, particularly not in times of national crisis. In 1942, we all sincerely believed that Japanese-Americans posed a terrible threat and had to be rounded up and put in concentration camps.
The missing weapons of mass destruction, or evidence that they were destroyed or removed during the war, may yet turn up, as Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asserted on Sunday. “I’m sure more evidence and more proof will come forward as we go down this road,” Powell told “Fox News Sunday.” “We have thousands and thousands and thousands of documents that we’ve not yet gone through,” Rice said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We have many, many people; we’ve interviewed just a fraction of them. There are sites to visit. We will put together this whole picture, but the preponderance of evidence is that this was a regime that had the capability, that had unaccounted-for stockpiles and unaccounted-for weapons.”
But even if WMDs in the quantities we alleged existed do turn up — and the odds of that happening grow longer every day, especially when you consider that we claim we knew where they were hidden — there is already ample reason for the American people and their representatives to demand a full investigation of whether the administration went out to find “facts” to support a war it had already made up its mind to prosecute. The CIA and Congress are undertaking reviews of prewar intelligence to assess its reliability: That is a good start, but it is likely to disappear into the bureaucratic void if the Democratic opposition, and the American people, don’t keep the heat on.
Until now, the Democrats’ reluctance to take up this issue has been at least partly understandable. Iraq is a big country, chaos prevails and the alleged WMDs or evidence of WMD programs could be hidden anywhere. But now that the grace period is over and the Democrats are still silent, it’s clear that the real source of the Democrats’ timidity is political: It’s part and parcel of their general post-9/11 impotence.
The planes commandeered by Osama’s henchmen destroyed the Democratic leadership as surely as they did the twin towers. In shock, the Democrats fell back to the Beltway default position in times of crisis, rallying around the flag and the president. That posture was justifiable for a few weeks, but Democratic leaders have proved unable to break away from it, unable to muster the courage to challenge the Bush administration on any substantive issue involving national security or foreign policy. Deluding themselves that the “war on terror” would soon end and they would be able to return to their favored themes — the economy and Bush’s outrageous tilt toward the rich — they made the fateful decision to not fight the buildup to the Iraq war early, allowing Bush to link it to the al-Qaida attacks. (One of the most depressing polls taken in the last decade is the one showing that most Americans believed that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks — an appalling revelation of ignorance that helped the Bush administration sell the war, and which it abetted by going months without so much as mentioning Osama bin Laden’s name.)
By their passivity and cowardice, the Democrats have essentially ceded the entire field of national security to Bush — and if they now try to raise the issue of WMDs, the GOP attack machine will accuse them of playing politics while American lives are at stake. Their obvious response should be that there was no good reason for those American lives to be put at risk in the first place, and that the cooked evidence and failure to turn up WMDs proves it. But because of their failure to take on the real reason the U.S. went to war against Iraq, the Democrats cannot defend themselves.
The real reason the U.S. invaded Iraq was not to get rid of an imminent threat. The Bush administration knew that Saddam had been contained for years, and that though a brutal and delusional despot, he was above all a Stalin-style survivor who was not likely to pass WMDs to terrorists. This does not mean that the Bush White House did not regard Saddam as posing no threat at all, but that threat probably represented only 10 percent of the motivation for the war. The real reason for the invasion was dictated by a perceived need and opportunity to hit back after 9/11. A sudden, violent eruption of American unilateralism, targeting a fat peach of a rogue state like Iraq, would achieve five objectives.
First, it would show Islamists that we were not a paper tiger and not to be trifled with, and generally lay down the law. In some murky way, Saddam was linked in the Bush team’s mind with terrorism, as the now-infamous Wolfowitz interview with Vanity Fair makes clear. Describing the epiphany that came to him after 9/11, Wolfowitz said, “And I think what September 11th to me said was this is just the beginning of what these bastards can do if they start getting access to so-called modern weapons, and that it’s not something you can live with any longer. So there needs to be a campaign, a strategy, a long-term effort, to root out these networks and to get governments out of the business of supporting them.” Unfortunately, the Vanity Fair interviewer did not ask the obvious followup question: Since U.S. intelligence never asserted that Iraq supported any significant terrorist networks, why Iraq? Second, it would create a prosperous, democratic state in the heart of the Arab world, leading to salutary changes in troubled nearby states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Third, by removing one of the frontline confrontation states, it would weaken the Palestinians and help break the Mideast logjam. Fourth, it would reduce our reliance on our shaky Mideast oil spigot and strategic linchpin, Saudi Arabia.
And finally, there was the domestic politics factor. By going to war, Bush automatically doubled his chances of winning reelection. If people are scared enough, they’ll even vote against their own interests — what might be called the Sharon Factor.
In a remarkable recent column, New York Times pundit Thomas L. Friedman made a similar case, asserting that the U.S. invaded Iraq for long-term strategic reasons — principally the need to burst what he called a “terrorism bubble” that had built up in the Muslim world. The WMD rationale, Friedman argued, was just a cover story. Although he acknowledged that if the Bush administration was found to have lied about the WMDs, it would have big credibility problems, his main point was that as long as we rebuilt Iraq and addressed the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, we would have achieved our goal of bursting the terrorism bubble. The WMD explanation was always bogus and was of secondary importance.
There is something weirdly abstract about Friedman’s argument that the almost-arbitrary use of military power could stun violent fundamentalists into line, and its implications for future applications of American force are disturbing. But even more troubling is how Friedman’s dismissal of the WMD controversy lines up with the American public’s baffling failure to give a damn about it. Could it be that the average citizen shares, in some inchoate way, Friedman’s belief that we had to hit the bad guys back, and just where didn’t matter that much? Why else would they not seem to care that we went to war for manufactured reasons? Does “winning” really end all discussion forever?
The Democrats’ timidity on this subject seems to reflect their own failure to think these complex matters through and come up with their own approach to national security in an age of WMDs and terrorism. They seem haunted in advance by fears that they will run afoul of some primordial, vengeful, don’t-tread-on-me American id, and will be cast into the outer darkness where liberal wimps and elitists gnash their teeth. One wants to believe that they’re wrong, that the American people are waiting for leadership that goes beyond the crudely reactive. A Democrat who preached a muscular internationalism, who pointed out that Bush’s macho interventions have squandered our credit with the world and have not made Americans any safer, and who demanded that leaders found to have cooked the evidence for war be held accountable, would stand tall amid these voiceless pygmies.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)