The Unasked Question
So said the poet William Blake. His words came to mind when I read the hawkish British weekly The Economist on whether President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had lied about the Iraqi threat that turned out to be nonexistent after the war had already been fought. Both rulers have been cleared of outright mendacity by official investigations; the magazine called them sincere deceivers who believed what they said, but ... said more than they really knew.
Many people argue that we should believe our rulers because they know so much more than we do. Yes, they have access to far more information than we do; and furthermore, they have the power to withhold it from us. A curious reason for trusting them. Jefferson said that freedom depends on jealousy suspicion of government and not confidence in it.
We have more to fear than rulers factual lies; we also have to worry about their bad judgment and exaggerations. The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that Bush had overstated the supposed Iraqi threat. Are we expected to write this off as an honest mistake, when the overstatement meant the difference between war and peace, life and death?
While Bush was overstating the danger, he allowed his underlings to go further. Vice President Dick Cheney, the administrations answer to Whoopi Goldberg, said there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear program; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned that we faced nuclear attack; even Secretary of State Colin Powell, the only member of the Bush team known for measuring his words, joined in the hyperbole contest, asserting positively things unwarranted by the facts.
Yes, in a sense they all knew more than we did. Thats what makes their feigned certitude not only false, but criminal. They misled the American public into thinking a preemptive war was necessary for American survival, when it was not.
Even so, many Americans didnt believe them. Politicians lie a lot; thats a fact of life. But in this case, it also defied common sense to think Saddam Hussein would dare to launch an attack on the United States, whose weapons of mass killing were so far superior to anything he could possibly have possessed. He had already been decisively deterred from invading tiny Kuwait next door, which he had once attacked only because he thought it was safe to do so. Why would he launch a suicidal war on the West?
Moreover, neoconservatives in the press, who hungered for war on Iraq, went beyond exaggeration to sheer fantasy, warning that the United States was in danger of total destruction holocaust, in the word of Richard Perle and David Frum, in their hysterical book An End to Evil. Bush did nothing to temper these diatribes, which were useful to him; just as he didnt bother correcting the many Americans who didnt even know the difference between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Such absurd confusion was also useful.
So outright lying was hardly necessary. Just encouraging hysteria and letting it run its natural course did the job. Time and again the Bush spokesmen said there was no doubt of the Iraqi threat; and those who did have doubts should trust their rulers. The risks of inaction, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, are greater than the risks of action. War was the prudent course.
The country is now having severe second thoughts about the war, but one risk was hardly taken into account: the risk of killing innocent people, including Iraqi soldiers whose only crime was trying vainly to defend their country from an unprovoked invasion. We still hear a great deal about American casualties, but almost nothing about American guilt.
An unjustified war is mass murder. That obvious truth has carried very little weight in the whole debate over this war. Our government has slaughtered countless people. Those who still resist are called rebels and even terrorists, no different from the fanatics of 9/11.
The hawks, within the administration and in its volunteer propaganda corps in the media, have never evinced much (if any) regret at the cost to the other side. How can anyone call these deceivers sincere if they never even paused to face the simple moral question But what if we are wrong? If they had been sincere then, they would be facing this question today, tens of thousands of deaths later, when there is little doubt how wrong they were.
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