For the rest of March, to mark seven years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Shadow Elite column each week will focus on what I call in my book the "Neocon core," a tiny circle of longtime ideological allies who used their interlocking relationships across government, think tanks, business, and national borders to achieve their vision of asserting American power, and firepower, to remake the Middle East. The second Iraq war was the apotheosis of that vision. This week, the dark art of truthiness, and the marketing of the war. -Janine R. Wedel
In his new book, Karl Rove is insistent that President Bush did not lie to Americans about the threat of weapons of mass destruction that was the casus belli for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. And that very well may be the case, because the Bush White House created their own version of the truth that the President could plausibly embrace as fact, a slippery practice that comedian Stephen Colbert a few years later would put a name to: "truthiness" - defined as "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true rather than those known to be true." The powerful former White House political advisor was one of the purveyors of the truthiness that helped lead the U.S. to war.
Rove's brand of precision marketing was crucial to the group I call in my book Shadow Elite the Neocon core, a tight-knit dozen or so power brokers who had worked together for decades in various incarnations to realize their goals for an aggressive American foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, they shared one overriding conviction: that America should favor an aggressive, preemptive U.S. foreign policy to confront potential enemies, especially in the Middle East.
The ways and means that members of this Neocon core have perfected to accomplish their agendas provide a stark example of the trend I explore in Shadow Elite: a new system for exerting power and influence that I believe undermines democracy. In recent decades, top power brokers are increasingly using untraditional means to push their own agendas and those of their associates or fellow-believers, leaving their actions impervious to accountability. These "flexians", as I call them, move seamlessly among overlapping (and not fully revealed) roles in government, business, media, and think tanks to serve their own agendas; they bend official rules and bypass or undermine bureaucracy, organizational loyalty, official government, and professional expertise; and, as we'll see here, they also bend the truth: practicing truthiness to sell their message, playing with reality to give the appearance or trappings of truth without actual truth.
The Neocon core, and a much larger array of ideological neoconservatives, did not invent truthiness, but they took it to new heights. With Richard Perle, power broker par excellence--at the epicenter of a head-spinning array of activities in quasi-government, think tanks, and business--and as linchpin of the Neocon core, these flexians, operating together in what I call their "flex net", divined their own reality, namely the imminent threat to America posed by an Iraq supposedly armed with weapons of mass destruction. And then they went about marketing it.
Vice President Dick Cheney's office was pivotal, operating through an "alternate national security staff" that undercut the actual National Security Council, according to chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson. And with regard to decision making in the Pentagon, Neocon core players Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, and Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, were key.
To facilitate the mission, members of the core set up alternative structures: two secretive offices in the Pentagon that dealt with policy and intelligence after September 11--the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, established in October 2001, and the Office of Special Plans, founded in September 2002.
Perle, ever the ringmaster, helped recruit staff for these offices, with hiring seemingly based on loyalty to the cause above old-fashioned credentials. Flynt Leverett, an NSC senior staff member, told me:
I have no objection to people who have different views than I do working through the system. But the neocons worked around processes in ways I thought were illegitimate. There were constant efforts to pressure the intelligence community to provide assessments that would support their [the neocons'] views. If they couldn't get what they wanted out of the intelligence community, they simply created their own intelligence.
Once the "reality" was created, it could then be sold. Richard Perle and the Neocon core helped organize a band of collaborators in the media, friendly think tanks, and political organizations.
These players formed an overlapping effort with another group of longtime neoconservative activists who mostly made their mark as public intellectuals and pundits.
Perle was both orchestrator and mouthpiece, and the ambiguity of his role in the White House served his cause well. He took to the airwaves to claim that there were "substantial links" between Iraq and al Qaeda. (In fact, seven years ago today, the New York Times ran an article with poll numbers showing that 45 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in 9/11, even though no credible evidence of that has ever existed.)
Perle gave talks all over Europe promoting the war as if he was something more than the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a White House advisory committee. Then-Secretary of State Powell privately grumbled that "Perle is doing a lot of proselytizing around the world." As former chief of staff Wilkerson expressed:
He was making remarks as if he were an official inside the U.S government. The Germans, French, Brits, and Japanese perceived him as an official purveying official U.S. Policy.
The fact is, they were right. Perle was purveying what he hoped would become U.S policy, (and what did become U.S. policy), but in the way that the shadow elite finds most efficient: through all manner of official, might-be official, and unofficial channels, using power that can't be summed up in a vague job title like Perle's, or challenged by traditional means of accountability.
Helping to manage the marketing of the war was the White House Iraq Group. Rove was reportedly a regular at their weekly meetings. WHIG was a secret organization founded in the summer of 2002 to persuade the American public that the war in Iraq was necessary by any means possible, including by leaking intelligence to the media. The Washington Post reported that the group "wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence." And so the truth collapsed into truthiness.
One of the most potent metaphors was that of the "smoking gun" and the "mushroom cloud". According to Michael Isikoff and David Corn in their book Hubris, it was in a WHIG meeting that chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson suggested it to sell the public on the supposed nuclear threat that Iraq posed. From Hubris:
The original plan had been to place it in an upcoming presidential speech, but WHIG members fancied it so much that when the Times reporters contacted the White House to talk about their upcoming piece [about aluminum tubes], one of them leaked Gerson's phrase -- and the administration would soon make maximum use of it.
Of course the "facts" that make up the "truthy" picture are really images --resilient ones, oft repeated, from the mushroom cloud and supposed terrorist training ground in Iraq to the supposed meeting between the 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi official. And it doesn't really matter if the mushroom cloud or training ground are real or the meeting took place, the images stick, and we
believe the image, thus producing the "reality."
The acceptance of truthiness is made all the more insurgent by the institutional
backdrop it partially plays on: the devaluation of knowledge and the blurring of boundaries between punditry and journalism, the parallel decline in the institution of investigative reporting, and the dearth of memory. Practitioners of truthiness know that the truth of the present moment may not be that of yesterday. Our neoconservative protagonists have mastered this art around the Iraq war, constantly revising history as needed.
Just as WHIG was mobilizing in the summer of 2002, less than a year before the U.S would invade Iraq, an unnamed senior aide to President Bush summed up the White House attitude to journalist Ron Suskind.
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Seven years later, one wishes that Iraq was now simply a matter of historian research. But the reality is that U.S. forces are still on the ground, in harm's way, and the country is still dangerously unstable. No amount of truthiness can make that hard fact go away.
Linda Keenan is editor of the Shadow Elite column.