In language that would seem better suited to a ballpark than the White House, President Bush’s administration officials are making it clear that they will tolerate no questions about the president’s use of faulty intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. The president’s outgoing (as in departing, not gregarious) spokesman, Ari Fleischer, paid a visit to the lexiconic barnyard, describing criticisms of the president as bull.
The administration, it would seem, has become awfully worried that peopleparticularly those of the voting kindactually may remember the reasons we were given for launching our tidy little war in Iraq. We were told that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and both the will and means either to use them himself or to pass them on to our terrorist enemies. How did we know this? Among other things, Saddam tried to buy uranium in Africa. The president told us this in his State of the Union speech in January.
The trouble is, as we now know, the uranium report was bogus. It was based on forged documents. That’s bad, but it would be relegated to a disturbing footnote if American soldiers already had uncovered the weapons of mass destruction the president insisted Saddam had. But there have been no such discoveries. And now we learn that Saddam was not trying to buy uranium after all.
This turn of events has inspired some people, including those infernal Democratic presidential candidates who have the temerity to run against the president, to wonder how many other lies or half-truths were told in the months before our invasion. Is it possible that Saddam did not have the weapons we said he had? And, if so, does that mean this administration led us into war with misinformation or, at best, bad intelligence?
Even to ask these questions is to invite the disdain of administration spokespeople and the contempt of the right-wing cable and radio crowd, who change the subject by pointing out that our victory was quick and that Iraq is now free of a murderous dictator. Arguing over the absence of nuclear or biological weapons factories, or criticizing a lie or two, is a pointless exercise. Shouldn’t the smiles of the free Iraqi people be enough to convince us that the war was necessary and, indeed, a success?
Sorry, but it is not enough. First of all, only time will tell whether Iraq truly is free, or whether it has exchanged one dictator for another. Second, words mean something, especially when they are used to justify bloodshed.
The president’s State of the Union speech was not just another campaign speech; indeed, it was not just another State of the Union address. When a candidate is on the stump, or even when a president is addressing a joint session of Congress, we expect to hear a great many things that we don’t take too seriouslygrand but vague promises, immodest claims of credit.
But when a president outlines a case for war, particularly a pre-emptive war, we expect and indeed demand that every claim of malevolence has been checked and is indisputable. When a president tells us that a madman is trying to buy uranium and so must be stopped before he unleashes a catastrophe, he had better be telling the truth.
Sadly, the president was not. Perhaps he believed the uranium story at the time, but if he did, his aides failed him, for the tale already had been flagged as dubious at best.
Again, taken on its own, the false uranium story might beshouldn’t be, but might beexcused as rhetorical excess. But it follows the long and unfruitful search for those weapons of mass destruction. And it follows reports that there was no appreciable contact between Saddam and the terrorists of Al Qaeda.
So why shouldn’t we wonder if we were duped into war? Even one of Mr. Bush’s fellow Republicans, Senator Chuck Hegel of Nebraska, conceded that there’s a cloud hanging over this administration. He acknowledged that there is reason to believe that the administration shaped and molded intelligence to serve their own purposes.
This may be more than just a standard-issue political scandal. This could be a scandal of monumental proportions, if it turns out that the White House lied and manipulated data to get the war it wanted. Ann Coulter is hawking a book these days that argues that liberals are nothing less than traitors. What then are we to make of conservatives who tell lies to justify a war? Are they the patriotic keepers of American ideals? Or have they betrayed their country and their trust in pursuit of...exactly what? Cheap oil?
Thirty years ago, the conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote a moving column in which he confessed to weeping when he realized that President Nixon had lied to him, personally, about his involvement in Watergate. Now we have a president who tells whoppers about matters of war and peace. But those who complain, never mind weep, are regarded as friends of the enemy. It is not enough to say that Iraq is better off because of our actions, so we shouldn’t worry about those nonexistent weapons. Zimbabwe would be better off too if we forced regime change there, but we will not and should not do that. Saddam was a horrible dictator, but, alas, one of far too many around the world. What set him apart, we were told, is the threat he posed to us.
And now we have reason to believe that those threats were exaggerated at best, and fictitious at worst.
The president, we are told, is unconcerned about all of this. His spokesman said he has moved on. Isn’t that heartening?