It seems clear now that we, as a nation, will never stop relitigating the Iraq war. Owing to partisan loyalty or (for the politicians and pundits who personally backed the war) gross self-interest, most of today’s conservatives will stridently argue that the war George W. Bush started on false pretenses was justified (despite the lack of justification) and on track for a successful conclusion (despite every bit of evidence to the contrary) before Barack Obama came in and threw away all of Bush’s good work.
In this vein, the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed yesterday by Laurence Silberman, the conservative federal judge who co-chaired the 2004 Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. In the piece, Silberman takes objection with Ron Fournier (of all people) blithely asserting that George W. Bush “lied” in order to make the Iraq war a reality. Saying Bush “lied” is a bad, hurtful argument, Silberman writes, because he Bush didn’t lie; he just got every single thing wrong and that’s totally different:
Our WMD commission ultimately determined that the intelligence community was “dead wrong” about Saddam’s weapons. But as I recall, no one in Washington political circles offered significant disagreement with the intelligence community before the invasion. The National Intelligence Estimate was persuasive—to the president, to Congress and to the media.
It was just bad intelligence! Everyone was fooled! You can’t say Bush “lied” about Iraq pursuing WMDs or about the Saddam Hussein regime having ties to 9/11 because he was just echoing what the intelligence community said, which was wrong.
This is a line of argumentation that Bush administration officials and Iraq war boosters have been clinging to ever since it became clear that U.S. troops would found no mobile biological weapons labs and no Mutual Admiration Society correspondence between Saddam and Osama. “We were wrong just like everyone else” isn’t a particularly compelling argument, though I suppose that if you’re responsible for one of the modern era’s most significant foreign policy disasters, “shared incompetence” is a more appealing excuse than “willful deception.”
But the Bush administration absolutely did engage in willful deception. Quite a bit of it, in fact. It’s one thing to simply repeat an intelligence assessment that is wrong, and quite another to take a disputed, credibly challenged intelligence assessment and state it as uncontested fact. That’s a lie, and senior Bush officials did it often. There’s no better example of this than the aluminum tubes.
If you were following politics in the six months or so leading up to the actual invasion of Iraq, then you probably remember how much importance senior Bush administration officials put on the fact that Iraq had tried to obtain a certain type of aluminum tube that was, per those same officials, only suitable for use in uranium centrifuges. The tubes were at the heart of their case that Saddam Hussein was pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and had been cited as evidence of Hussein’s intentions by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell. They even earned a mention in George W. Bush’s now infamous 2003 state of the union address:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.
Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.
The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary, he is deceiving.
This was all wrong. And they knew at the time that the intelligence regarding those tubes was nowhere near as strong as they made it out to be. A number of intelligence agencies believed that the tubes were, in fact, made for uranium enrichment. There were, however, a number of dissenting views, including from the State Department and the intelligence arm of the Department of Energy, the agency responsible for maintaining the United States’ nuclear arsenal (i.e. the people who actually know this stuff). DOE determined that the tubes were completely impractical for use in uranium enrichment, and were probably intended for use in conventional rockets. The State Department came to a similar conclusion.
Senior policymakers, including President Bush, were aware of this debate over the tubes by October 2002. But with Dick Cheney calling the shots and applying pressure where necessary, the administration disregarded the dissenting views, prioritized the assessments that aligned with their preferred policy outcome, and hid the debate from the public while offering up the tubes as incontrovertible evidence that Saddam Hussein was in the process of developing nuclear weapons.
That falls pretty squarely in the “lie” category, to my judgment. But if the tubes don’t do it for you, there’s plenty more to choose from – like Dick Cheney’s repeated false insistences that the 9/11 ringleader met with an Iraqi agent in Prague.
But perhaps what angers me most about Silberman’s Op-Ed is his garbage explanation for why it’s “dangerous’ to call the Bush administration the irresponsible and destructive liars that they were:
The charge is dangerous because it can take on the air of historical fact—with potentially dire consequences. I am reminded of a similarly baseless accusation that helped the Nazis come to power in Germany: that the German army had not really lost World War I, that the soldiers instead had been “stabbed in the back” by politicians.
Sometime in the future, perhaps long after most of us are gone, an American president may need to rely publicly on intelligence reports to support military action. It would be tragic if, at such a critical moment, the president’s credibility were undermined by memories of a false charge peddled by the likes of Ron Fournier.
Nazis. Always with the god damn Nazis. This self-Godwinning is doubly stupid because we already know what the political fallout of Bush lying about Iraq was: the Democrats briefly took control of Congress, a black guy was elected president, and they teamed up to pass a successful healthcare reform law. You may consider that a travesty depending on your political and social views, but Kristallnacht it ain’t.
“Sometime in the future, perhaps long after most of us are gone, an American president may need to rely publicly on intelligence reports to support military action,” Silberman continues. Sometime in the future after we’re all dead? This happens literally all the time. President Obama has launched military campaigns in Iraq and Libya and I feel pretty confident saying that the case he presented to the public was based on intelligence reports. What’s unclear is why the current president, or any president, deserves the blanket assumption of credibility that Silberman believes they’re entitled to when launching military action.
Here I thought the lesson of the Iraq war is to not blindly trust the president when he or she waves around intelligence supporting their intention to put U.S. military personnel in harm’s way. But apparently I was wrong: the real lesson is to be careful when calling a lying president a “liar” because doing so may imperil future misbegotten military adventures.