All governments shade the truth. Most resort to deception when the going gets tough. Saddam Hussein is gone and so is his regime. So who cares if George W. Bush fiddled with the facts on Iraq's banned-weapons programs and its reported links to al-Qaeda?
I care. The Bush administration's dissembling about the invasion of Iraq and its self-delusion about the consequences are directly related to the disturbing events now unfolding there. All of us are likely to feel the effects as a confused, angry superpower grows ill at ease with its self-appointed role.
Time magazine reports that in March, 2002, Mr. Bush told a group of senators at the White House: "F -- Saddam, we're taking him out." In public he said no such thing, instead initiating a parade of torqued and misleading statements about Iraq's threat to the United States.
In October, he said Iraq "possesses and produces" chemical and biological weapons and "is reconstituting" its nuclear-weapons program. Yet the Defense Intelligence Agency at that time was reporting no hard evidence of Iraqi possession of banned weapons. He also said Iraq had continuing ties to al-Qaeda, and had trained its operatives in the use of banned munitions. Those statements went much further than the U.S. intelligence consensus, according to an exhaustive report on Sunday in The Washington Post.
At the end of January, in the State of the Union address, Mr. Bush offered a tale of Iraqi attempts to buy yellowcake uranium in Africa. The CIA, and possibly Vice-President Dick Cheney, knew this to be bogus. Last month, Mr. Bush trumpeted the news that U.S. weapons teams had found "biological laboratories" in Iraq. That was another leap into the abyss. It now appears the mobile units either had been deactivated or had nothing to do with germ warfare.
There is, of course, no doubt that Iraq at one time had illegal weapons. The question was whether they were dismantled, lost, buried beyond exhumation and detection or simply too old and decrepit to threaten anyone.
Even before the invasion, the evidence was so dubious that those in favor of war were recasting it as a campaign on behalf of oppressed Iraqi civilians. That is almost unbelievably cynical.
There would have been no quick-exit fantasies if humanitarianism had been driving U.S. Iraq policy. Civilian policing would have been integrated into planning from the start. It would have been tough to avoid the current situation, in which soldiers who thought they'd been sent to take out a death-dealing tyrant find themselves confronting rebellious civilians. But at least the need for a long-term civilian occupation administration would have been acknowledged.
Iraq is not Vietnam, but the resort to deception is common to both campaigns. In 1964, after hearing allegations of attacks on two U.S. destroyers by North Vietnamese patrol boats, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving then president Lyndon Johnson a free hand in pursuing the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. The first was a trivial incident, and not unprovoked. Mr. Johnson later admitted that he had no idea whether the second attack actually took place. Neither his doubts nor those of a key naval commander were shared with the public.
Sound familiar? Action based on faulty, partial or misleading information is bound to be bad policy and worse strategy. It will come to grief either because it is the wrong thing to do or because it leads to a loss of public trust.
In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair is accused of manipulating intelligence reports to boost the case for war. His critics include not only former cabinet ministers and senior intelligence officials, but also the leader of the Conservative Party, whose MPs helped him win parliamentary approval for the invasion.
The spectacle of Margaret Thatcher's political heirs rounding on Mr. Blair ought to make self-respecting Republicans sit up and take note. The next time Mr. Bush decides on the basis of proprietary intelligence that the time is ripe for a pre-emptive strike, who will believe him? Deception-driven policy-making is exceptionally dangerous in an age of instantaneous broad-spectrum news. Actions are far more likely to be jeopardized while they are still in progress, instead of merely being criticized after the fact. Iraqis opposed to the U.S. occupation may be emboldened by real-time, televised accounts in their own language of U.S. and British investigations into who knew what, and when.
Official duplicity may be an immutable fact of life. So should be the quest to expose its corrosive effects. The United States is in danger of forgetting the most important lesson it learned in Vietnam. The end may seem to justify the means, but all too often the means deform the end.
© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.