|By Paul Waldman|
Something incredible is happening out there in America. Believe it or not, the country may actually be waking up to the fact that the Bush administration lied its way into Iraq. While the administration has been extraordinarily successful at making embarrassing stories disappear (remember his insider trading at Harken?), this one doesn't seem to be going away.
But the controversy, such as it is, is still revolving around a question that has already been answered. Instead of asking what we should do about the deception - let's say, impeachment - the political class is still contemplating whether or not the deception actually took place.
It may well be that some time in the next few weeks or months, American forces will uncover, say, a scud missile with a chemical warhead attached. The press will shout "Aha!" and the administration will proclaim, "Case closed. Iraq had weapons of mass destruction." Indeed, President Bush went so far as to tell Polish television, referring to two trailers that might have been capable of producing chemical weapons but apparently never did, "We found the weapons of mass destruction."
But the question isn't whether we can locate a couple of trailers or a missile or two. President Bush didn't tell the American people that we had to invade Iraq because they might have a few banned weapons. He argued that Iraq was practically brimming over with them, that they had a huge arsenal of horrific weapons poised to launch at American cities. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush ran through a list of weapons he supposedly knew Iraq had, a litany both terrifying and highly specific. Bush told us that Iraq had 29,984 munitions capable of delivering chemical weapons, and that they had materials to make 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, and 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent.
We were led to believe not only that the administration knew exactly what Saddam Hussein had in his arsenal, but that the banned weapons would be easy to locate. "We know where they are," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confidently.
In short, we were told not that Iraq might someday pose a threat to the United States, but that it posed an imminent and grave threat. Indeed, in the resolution the Bush administration sent to Congress authorizing the war, it cited the possibility that Iraq would "launch a surprise attack against the United States."
Whether the number of weapons of mass destruction we find is zero or five or 10, it has become obvious that Iraq had nothing like the arsenal the Bush administration claimed.
In addition to the big lie -- that if we didn't invade Iraq, they'd attack us with "some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," as Bush put it -- there were a number of outright falsehoods Bush told on the details of the Iraqi threat. A brief list would include his claims that Iraq had sought nuclear material from Niger, that it had obtained aluminum tubes useful only for enriching uranium, that it had unmanned aircraft capable of reaching the United States, and that the International Atomic Energy Agency had issued a report claiming that Iraq was six months away from obtaining a nuclear weapon. All of these contentions have been proven false (although Bush did not go as far as Vice President Cheney, who actually said on Meet the Press that Iraq had "reconstituted nuclear weapons").
So the question isn't whether Bush misled the American people. The question is just how far the deception went, and what we should do about it.
There were any number of grounds on which support for the war could have been built. The administration chose to base its argument on the threat to the United States posed by Saddam's supposed arsenal of weapons. Nonetheless, once the war actually began, it was christened not "Operation Protect America" but "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
To many, this belatedly added justification was reason enough, and polls have shown that a majority of Americans say the war was justified even if we never find any banned weapons. But we do not determine whether and how badly we were deceived based on an opinion poll. After all, a majority of Americans also believe that Saddam Hussein participated in the planning of the September 11 attacks -- something not even the Bush administration has asserted (though they have implied it innumerable times).
So as the search for Iraq's weapons continues and journalists question whether the nation was hoodwinked, the standard for judging the administration's honesty should be commensurate with the way they sold the war to us in the first place. Uncovering a small number of weapons will not be enough. Unless and until a huge arsenal of the sort the president told us Saddam Hussein was preparing to use on the United States is found, we will know that the American people were lied to.
The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz recently reported that President Bush told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that God instructed him to invade Iraq. Yet even acting on the Almighty's direct instructions, Bush couldn't bring himself to be straight with the American people.
Imagine for a moment what would have happened had Bill Clinton lied to the public in order to gain approval for a war.
Next time you get in an argument with a Republican, ask him which is worse: having an affair and refusing to admit it, or lying to the public in order to justify a war that has, to date, cost more than 205 American lives, to say nothing of the thousands of Iraqis who died.
Given his remarkable record of lying without cost dating back to his campaign, George W. Bush probably concluded that he can get away with just about anything. But he may not get away with this one.
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