To the extent that George Bush had retained the slightest shred of dignity through the whole ugly Iraq imbroglio, it was found in his refusal to fully embrace the biggest of the Big Lies told by his aides: the claim that Saddam Hussein had played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The president was never honorable in this regard. He did not correct the confusion among the American people, a majority of whom believed around the time of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq that Saddam's regime was somehow linked with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Nor did he step up to challenge the misinformation being spread by members of his administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, about a supposed connection between Iraq and al-Qaida.
But when he was directly confronted by reporters and asked whether he shared Cheney's view that a connection had been established, Bush detached himself from his vice president's mad ranting and made it clear that there was no evidence to support the charge. As recently as this spring, Bush refused to echo Cheney's Big Lie.
On Tuesday night, however, the president abandoned the narrow patch of high ground that he had staked out and dove into the raging flood of deceit that his administration had unleashed.
In what was billed as a major address regarding Iraq, Bush mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks no less than five times.
Before 750 members of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army's Special Operations unit, who had been assembled at Fort Bragg, N.C., to give Bush a respectful and unquestioning audience, the president declared, "The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror. This war reached our shores on September 11, 2001. The terrorists who attacked us - and the terrorists we face - murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent. Their aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression, by toppling governments, driving us out of the region and exporting terror."
Bush went on to claim, "After September 11, I made a commitment to the American people: The nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy. Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war."
By suggesting that the invasion and occupation of Iraq should be seen as part of a legitimate and necessary response to September 11, as he clearly did on Tuesday, Bush made a deliberate break with reality - not so complete a break, perhaps, as that of Cheney and the wing-nut faction of the administration, but a break all the same.
The president's speech was written and delivered with the intent of deceiving the American people into believing things that were never true.
Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, to be sure, but he ruled as a militant secularist, who gave Christians and members of other religious and ethnic minorities positions of power and authority within the governments he assembled. Saddam saw the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida as a threat, and he meticulously - sometimes violently - kept that threat out of Iraq. To the extent that elements of al-Qaida are now on the ground in that country, it is not as a result of Saddam's invitation but as a result of his removal.
The point here is not to defend Saddam. The point is to recognize reality: The invasion and occupation of Iraq did not stem the spread of terrorist activity in the Middle East. It handed the terrorists new opportunities for recruitment, and it gave them new territory in which to operate. Until the president acknowledges these fundamental realities - and his own responsibility for making things worse - it will be impossible to undo the damage.
George Bush set out to deceive the American people Tuesday. That was morally wrong, and tactically foolish.
But Bush also deceived himself, by engaging in the fantasy that some new spin will allow him to avoid taking responsibility for making the world a more dangerous place. Ultimately, that is the bigger, and far more dangerous, lie.
© 2005 Capital Times