In February 2001, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters at a press conference in Cairo that sanctions had worked to contain Saddam Hussein.
"He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors," Powell said.
That was one of the last times that a high-ranking member of the Bush administration gave a public assessment of Saddam's power that was undergirded by facts and rational analysis. Just a year later, the administration powered up its campaign of disinformation and distortion to justify invading Iraq and overturning Saddam. From that time to this, you've heard nothing but exaggerations, distortions and dissembling. Powell himself turned dutifully to the task of hyping the threat.
Now that public support for the war is sinking — and trust in President Bush right along with it — you'd think the White House might take the opportunity to admit some of the mistakes it has made. At the very least, the president could stop trying to link Saddam to the atrocities of Sept. 11.
But no-o-o-o-o. This White House is nothing if not consistent. Bush and Vice President Darth, uh, Dick Cheney have taken to the hustings to repeat, with minor modifications, the same cascade of lies and distortions they gave before the invasion — including implicit attempts to link Saddam to the jihadists who attacked New York and Washington. And in typical fashion, Bush and Cheney are blasting their critics as liars and hypocrites.
On Wednesday, Cheney lashed out at a black-tie dinner for a conservative research group. ". . . In Washington you can ordinarily rely on some basic measure of truthfulness and good faith in the conduct of political debate. But in the last several weeks we have seen a wild departure from that tradition. And the suggestion that's been made by some U.S. senators that the president of the United States or any member of the administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city," he said.
You've got to give the Bush-Cheney White House credit for sheer gall. Cheney, after all, was among the worst offenders in distorting intelligence or disregarding it completely if it didn't support his views. Among other public statements he made in the run-up to the war were these: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." "It's pretty well confirmed" that Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the Sept. 11 attack, had met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official. In fact, the CIA had already concluded it was quite unlikely such a meeting took place. But that didn't stop Cheney, who continued to push the utterly discredited notion of a link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden.
With a White House that refuses to even concede that anything has gone wrong — that can only find energy for attacking and smearing its critics — how will we ever fashion a reasonable strategy for extricating ourselves from Iraq? And how will we confront the increased threats that the failed Iraqi enterprise has generated?
After all, the war in Iraq has not only been a bust at "draining the swamp" of anti-Western fanatics, it has bred more terror in Iraq that is now pushing across its borders into countries such as Jordan, which the United States has considered an ally. The suicide bombers who attacked three hotels in Amman, including a wedding, killing more than 50 people and injuring many others, came from Iraq. Moreover, the eventual takeover of Iraq by the Shiite majority — which has already begun — only strengthens Iran, a Shiite stronghold and budding nuclear power with anti-Western inclinations. (The newly elected president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made his entrance to the public stage by declaring that Israel has no right to exist.)
If that weren't bad enough, the botched invasion — and the corrosive distrust of the political structure that it has generated among Americans — may eventually breed a brand-new Vietnam syndrome, this one the "Iraq syndrome." That will make it difficult for a future American president to respond militarily even to a legitimate threat.
And both the Iraq syndrome and its earlier version will have a common heritage, inspired when an American president took the country to war on the wings of lies.
Cynthia Tucker is the editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
© 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution