In recent days, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have attacked their critics as "reckless," "shameless," and "irresponsible." They have accused United States senators and others who have criticized the administration for manipulating the presentation of intelligence data in order to justify our invasion of Iraq with nothing short of lying.This smacks of the same sort of presidential defensiveness and demagoguery that became so familiar to the American people during the Vietnam War under President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew. Such accusations are not only dishonest, but dangerous to democratic values.
When the Bush administration assumed office in 2001, many of its most powerful voices, including Cheney, Rumsfeld, Pearle, and Wolfowitz, were deeply committed to the neo-con position that the United States must oust Saddam Hussein in order to establish stability in the Middle East. Whatever the merits of that position, even its most dedicated adherents understood that the administration could never persuade the American people to invade Iraq for that reason, and they also understood that they could never persuade the American people to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. The United States does not invade other sovereign nations for such reasons, and certainly not without the full support and endorsement of the United Nations.
The events of 9/11, however, changed the rules. I do not know, and I do not purport to know, whether members of the Bush administration cynically and intentionally took advantage of 9/11 to justify an invasion of Iraq for reasons far removed from 9/11. But even if they believed there was a connection between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, I have no doubt that, human nature being what it is, they interpreted the events and circumstances following 9/11 in ways that were deeply colored by their long-standing desire to oust Saddam Hussein. In this, they behaved no differently than fervent baseball fans who invariably interpret close plays through the filters of their own "rooting" interests. At the very least, they failed in their responsibility to the nation to be cognizant of this danger and to find ways to guard against their inherent vulnerability fo misjudgment.
In defending their actions and attacking their critics, Bush and Cheney have repeatedly trumpeted the fact that many organizations and individuals also believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Of course, this is true, but it is seriously misleading. We can believe something to be true with very different levels of confidence. It is one thing to believe that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction with sufficient confidence to justify sanctions or inspections. It is another thing entirely to believe that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destructions with sufficient confidence to justify a full-scale preemptive invasion with the consequent loss of hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. Bush and Cheney either ignorantly or dishonestly equate these two judgments. One might reasonably demand inspections or sanctions if one is only 50% or even 25% confident of the existence of a danger, but a full-scale military invasion demands a <em>much</em> higher degree of certainty. Bush and Cheney flagrantly elide this fact, which fully explains the difference between the positions of the United Nations and the Bush administration on whether it was proper to launch an invasion. (One need only recall Colin Powell's presentation to the Security Council to remember how shaky the proof really was.)
Moreover, even if we were 95% certain that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that does not mean he posed a serious danger to the United States. That is a completely different question. Many nations possess weapons of mass destruction, but we don't invade them. The issue here is whether there was sufficient reason to believe either that Saddam Hussein would actually use his weapons against the United States or allow others (that is, the terrorists) to do so. This was the weakest part of the administration's argument for preemptive invasion. Vice President Cheney repeatedly stated at the time that Iraq had been in cahoots with the terrorists. By all accounts, this was flatly and unambiguously false. And although the President asserted that Saddam Hussein presented a growing and present danger to the United States, there was no proof that this was so. Not only did Saddam Hussein not have weapons of mass destruction, but there was no reasonable basis for believing that if he did have such weapons he would have used them against the United States or given them to the terrorists. This part of the administration's case for preemptive war was almost entirely misleading.
The plain and simple fact is that the Bush administration did mislead the American people. Undoubtedly, they did so for what they believed to be good reasons, and some or even much of this may have been sloppiness rather than intentional deceit. But surely they misled the American people by obscuring the different degrees of confidence necessary to justify different types of measures, by exaggerating the evidence (certainly with respect to Saddam Hussein's involvement in 9/11), and by failing to recognize the danger that as advocates committed to a particular outcome they themselves might erroneously assess the data and the risks. For them now to claim that it is their critics who are lying is shameful.