Published on Monday, June 30, 2003 by the International Herald Tribune
Britain Stirs, America Sleeps
by William Pfaff
PARIS -- The only member of the United States Senate who voted against granting war powers to President George W. Bush, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, holds that lies were told by the president to justify the Iraq war, and that eventually truth will out.
One would like to believe it true. But while Senator Byrd will be vindicated in the long run, the culture of lies that prevails in the Bush administration is an integral part of a larger culture of expedience and systematic dishonesty that dominates the present leadership of American political society and business. There is little reason to expect this soon to change.
Expedient lies have always been part of politics; and American business, at its higher levels, has often been crooked, but uneasily so, in conflict with the residual puritanism of the American establishment.
This puritanism was contemptuously discarded by the profit-driven business ethic that took over in the 1980s. Thus no effort is deemed necessary today to mask the connections of members of this administration with corporate profit-taking from defeated Iraq.
The personal links of high officials, including the president and vice president, with the commercial interests and business sectors that expect to profit from Iraq's reconstruction and the privatization of Iraq's resources are not only widely known but largely uncontroversial. In the past, they would have been considered scandalous.
As for the lies told to justify invasion of Iraq, one had no need to wait for Paul Wolfowitz to tell Vanity Fair magazine that the proclaimed threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction - deployable within 45 minutes, as the president's ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, helpfully added - was simply the theme of bureaucratic choice. True or not, it was plausible and could be sold.
In the lead-up to the war it was painful for an American to watch Secretary of State Colin Powell present to the UN Security Council as serious evidence of the Iraqi menace, the flimsy texts, equivocal photos and tissues of supposition that he reportedly did not wholly believe himself.
It was still more embarrassing to see Blair try to make the same case, because Blair really does believe in the cause. Now the credulous prime minister is the man in danger, not his friend in Washington. Parliament takes a graver view of governmental lies than the sitting United States Senate. A House of Commons select committee is taking evidence on the matter. Conservatives now lead Labour in the polls.
MI6 insiders, unwilling to take the rap for Downing Street, and senior retired CIA and State Department people have for many weeks been in the corridors and on the Internet to express outrage at the use by Washington and London of rigged intelligence on Iraq - reaching even into Bush's State of the Union message in January.
That these were lies was made obvious when the United States proved unable to give valid or even interesting leads on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the UN inspectors, when they went back into Iraq.
A good deal has already been written about corrupting the intelligence services to serve ideological interests. Not so much has been said about plain lies, which travel a long way in an electorate as uninterested in international affairs and as ill-served by press and television as today's American electorate.
Bush convinced the majority of Americans that Saddam Hussein not only had weapons of mass destruction but was about to use them against America. He convinced the public majority that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were linked, and that Iraq collaborated in the Sept. 11 attacks. He has now convinced the public that Iran is a nuclear threat, and 56 percent of American opinion would support military intervention in that country to deal with the claimed danger.
Presidential lies to Congress, strictly speaking, are constitutional ground for impeachment. They really are something more serious. They rupture the relationship of responsibility that is supposed to exist between president and public.
Partisan or personal interest and equivocation are one thing. Lies about matters of state, and about war, are another. To lie to the citizenry is to reject the confidence freely given a president. It destroys the moral bond that holds a democratic society together.
© 2003 the International Herald Tribune