June 17, 2003
The question has become a roar: Did the Bush
administration lie about weapons of mass destruction to
get the country into war with Iraq?
Republican royalists resent the
very idea that their president could lie. It seems to them what the awful
French would call lese majesty. Of course our (lower-case) republican
institutions are based on the understanding that any ruler is capable of
crimes and misdemeanors, so we can hardly deny in principle that
President Bush might conceivably tell a whopper.
And the Republicans themselves
firmly believe (as I do) that his predecessor cut a few corners with the
truth. I once surmised that Bill Clinton carried his Bible with him at all
times just in case he should feel a sudden need to commit perjury.
Americans are proud of their
democracy, yet for them politicians the very men they elect to
rule them are synonymous with lying. Its an interesting
point of the national psychology. Elections are supposed to ensure, or at
least increase the chances of, honorable rulers. But who believes this?
What we do find hard to believe
is that anyone, even a politician, would tell a big, fat, audacious lie, fully
knowing that its totally false and could be exposed by events. The
risk would be too great. A president who did that would court electoral
ruin, possibly even impeachment.
President Bush has taken to
calling those who doubt his word about the Iraqi menace historical
revisionists. Its a little early for that. History has not yet
established that Saddam Hussein had those dreaded WMDs and posed an
imminent threat to the United States. In fact, history
seems to be moving toward a different and opposite
conclusion. The weapons werent used in the war and havent
been found. Bush himself has even adopted a softer phrase: weapons
program. It sounds as if he doesnt believe his own propaganda.
Well? Does this
mean he was lying all along? Not necessarily. In fact, I doubt that he was.
And I dont say this out of any fondness for him or trust in his word.
People have subtle ways of
misleading without actually lying. One of these is to exaggerate their own
certainty. They pretend to be sure of things when they are only guessing.
You can see this all the time in
Shakespeare studies. Scholars insist that there is absolutely no room for
doubt that the Stratford gent wrote the plays ascribed to him. They
question the honesty and even the sanity of the skeptics. Yet the evidence
for his authorship is very dubious. This doesnt stop the scholars
from writing 400-page biographies based on only a meager
handful of documented facts.
I suspect that Bush and his
fellow hawks have done something like this. For various reasons of their
own, they wanted a war with Iraq. So they posited a threat that
wasnt there. After 9/11, we were all ready to believe the worst,
and so were they. They took the maxim Better safe than
sorry to its logical extreme. But the logical extreme may not be
rational or even reasonable. The logical extreme of caution is paranoia.
The temptation to exaggerate a
threat is especially seductive to those responsible for national defense. It
may sound hard-headed, but its almost a form of wishful thinking.
You come to want the enemy to be not only as evil but as dangerous as
possible. This seems to justify any measures you take against him.
The Soviet threat was always
grossly overstated. Anti-Communists (including me) recognized that
Communism was evil, but forgot their own argument that it was also,
ultimately, futile. It was an absurd, destructive way to organize human
society. In retrospect we can see how shabby it was, how the Soviet Union
was bound to collapse. But at the time, American foreign policy posited
that Communism was an almost irresistible force. We gave it far too much
credit. We shuddered at its promise to bury us, a threat that
now seems risible.
This doesnt mean that our
rulers were lying to us; they largely believed what they said. It was an
enormous and willful failure of judgment, historys most expensive
application of Better safe than sorry.
So we neednt accuse Bush
of trying to deceive us. He probably deceived himself first. With all his
advisors, experts, access to secret information, and intelligence sources,
he simply didnt know what he was talking about. But this should
teach us not to trust his judgment.