Two weeks ago in this space, I employed the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to examine the unhappy precedent set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in failing to level with the American people about the level of conflict between the United States and the Axis Powers that preceded the attack.
Using this analogy, and speaking of the manner in which President Lyndon B. Johnson deliberately deceived the nation about the imaginary second Gulf of Tonkin incident and thereby entangled the nation in the unwinnable Vietnam War, I noted Sen. J. William Fulbright later remarked that "FDR's deviousness in a good cause made it much easier for [LBJ] to practice the same kind of deviousness in a bad cause."
The consequences of President Johnson's campaign of deliberate deception regarding Vietnam could hardly have been more catastrophic for the nation, the military, the president, his party, and the presidency itself. And while there is no reason to minimize either the level of lying or its consequences, one cannot be impressed by the refusal of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to learn from his mistake.
As we salute the final American soldiers leaving Iraq, we also remember the enormous costs paid not only by our soldiers and our nation but also denizens of the region, millions of whom were turned into refugees and injured, hundreds of thousands of whom were killed, and countless who were tortured or otherwise abused. But it behooves us to recall the underhanded manner in which President Bush and Vice President Cheney manipulated a quiescent press corps into making it appear as if an American invasion of a nation that had no intention of harming us (and next-to-no capacity to do so, regardless of intentions, as it turned out) was warranted.
At the same time, if we care about our nation's ability to act as a democracy, we need to ask ourselves and our mainstream media hard questions about how it happened. To do so, I return to some of the research I undertook for When Presidents Lie (where specific citations for all of the quotes below can be found).
The almost ostentatious lack of concern for veracity was evident in almost every area of governance but was most prominent in the administration's foreign policy pronouncements. Recall the famous (albeit anonymous) Bush press aide who, in response to a string of revelations of falsehoods relating to the president's reasons for the invasion, replied, "The President of the United States is not a fact-checker."
Yet the case President Bush made to convince the nation to embark on its first-ever "preventative" war was riddled with deception from start to finish. The examples of purposeful fraud in the Bush White House's portrayal of the level of alleged threat to Americans' safety and security posed by Iraq's Saddam Hussein are so extensive that only a few examples can be offered here.
For instance, in September 2002, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush claimed:
I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied -- finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic -- the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] -- that they were six months away from developing a [nuclear] weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need.
In fact, the estimate to which President Bush was referring was more than a decade old and was made before Iraq's military capabilities were decimated in the Gulf War.
The president's then-press secretary, Ari Fleischer, tried to claim in The Washington Post that "it was in fact the International Institute for Strategic Studies that issued the report concluding that Iraq could develop nuclear weapons in as few as six months." But that report, which was unavailable at the time President Bush originally made his claim, did not support his statement either.
In a speech to the nation, President Bush also added, "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists," an alliance that "could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints." But this claim, too, was wholly unsupported and contradicted by CIA intelligence. The testimony, declassified after President Bush's speech, rated the possibility as "low" that Hussein would initiate a chemical or biological weapons attack against the United States but might take the "extreme step" of assisting terrorists if provoked by a U.S. attack.
In the same speech President Bush warned the nation that Iraq possessed a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used "for missions targeting the United States." But a CIA report suggested that the fleet was more of an "experiment" and "attempt" and labeled it a "serious threat to Iraq's neighbors and to international military forces in the region." The report said nothing about the fleet having sufficient range to threaten the United States.
President Bush's repeated acts of dishonesty did not become widely known to the public until the famous controversy regarding "16 words" in his 2003 State of the Union address, referring to the story he told about Iraq's alleged purchase of "yellow-cake" uranium from the African nation of Niger. But the focus on the mere "16 words" by the media was most notable for the successful spin that the White House managed to put on the story.
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