As the Bush administration goes on the offensive against war critics, the debate rages in the mainstream media and the blogosphere. Is it “irresponsible,” “dishonest” and “reprehensible,” as Bush and Cheney have charged, to say that the administration deliberately misled the American people and manipulated intelligence data to make the pitch for the war in Iraq? Are Democrats who voted for the war but have now come out against it cynically pandering to their base? Or are the Bush Administration and its minions trying to suppress dissent by labeling it unpatriotic?
Of course, the charge that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence data either is true, or isn’t true. There’s no such thing as an unpatriotic fact.
And here’s the reason I hate this kind of debate. To have a truly informed opinion on this topic would probably take months of meticulous research, and probably some specialized knowledge as well. That means most people commenting on the issue tend to form their opinion based on selective information and based, at least in part, on their political biases. It’s just a little too convenient that nearly everyone who opposes the war thinks the Bush administration cooked the intelligence, and nearly everyone who supports it thinks that’s a cynical lie.
There is, for instance, this new article by Norman Podhoretz in Commentary, purporting to be a conclusive debunking of the “Bush lied” meme. Podhoretz’s argument is that many Democrats, and many people in the mainstream media, believed Saddam Hussein had a weapons of mass destruction program and posed a serious threat. Almost without exception, pro-war commentators think Podhoretz makes a devastating case. Equally without exception, those on the other side are not convinced.
I think it’s overwhelmingly obvious that a lot of people other than the Bush administration believed Hussein was working toward rebuilding his WMD program. Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, details these facts in a recent Washington Post column. Among other things, both he and Podhoretz refer to a January 29, 2001 Washington Post editorial which said, in part:
Of all the booby traps left behind by the Clinton administration, none is more dangerous — or more urgent — than the situation in Iraq. Over the last year, Mr. Clinton and his team quietly avoided dealing with, or calling attention to, the almost complete unraveling of a decade’s efforts to isolate the regime of Saddam Hussein and prevent it from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction. That leaves President Bush to confront a dismaying panorama in the Persian Gulf [including] intelligence photos that show the reconstruction of factories long suspected of producing chemical and biological weapons…
True enough. But does that mean the situation was urgent enough to justify war? The Post editorial concludes thus:
In all this, the option the Bush administration can least afford is Mr. Clinton’s inaction. Saddam Hussein — who tried to assassinate Mr. Bush’s father after losing the Persian Gulf War to him — is likely to challenge the administration soon; among other things, Iraq has been laying the groundwork for an attempt to disrupt world oil markets by withholding its production as OPEC tightens supplies. To be sure, it will take considerable time and effort to roll back Saddam Hussein’s gains. But in the short term, some steps can be taken. Pressure can be focused on Syria, as well as on Turkey and Jordan, to stop the illegal export of Iraqi oil. And the administration can take a clear stand: If new Iraqi production facilities for weapons of mass destruction can be identified, the United States quickly will take action against them — with or without its allies.
Of course, no such production facilities were identified by 2003; in fact, Kevin Drum makes this point, which seems to me to be worth considering:
Nor does Podhoretz apply himself to the entire period before the war. He stops his investigation at the end of 2002. But that’s not when we went to war. We went to war in March 2003, and by that time UN inspectors had been combing Iraq for months with the help of U.S. intelligence. They found nothing, and an increasing chorus of informed minds was starting to wonder if perhaps there was nothing there. In response, President Bush and his supporters merely amped up their certainty that Saddam was hiding something.
And another point. Podhoretz cites this article by the Brookings Institution’s Kevin Pollack as proof that prewar intelligence data bolstered — wrongly, as it turned out — the case for Iraq having WMDs, and that reliance on them was an error made in good faith. Yet Pollack also writes:
The one action for which I cannot hold Administration officials blameless is their distortion of intelligence estimates when making the public case for going to war.
As best I can tell, these officials were guilty not of lying but of creative omission. They discussed only those elements of intelligence estimates that served their cause. …
Some defenders of the Administration have reportedly countered that all it did was make the best possible case for war, playing a role similar to that of a defense attorney who is charged with presenting the best possible case for a client (even if the client is guilty). That is a false analogy. A defense attorney is responsible for presenting only one side of a dispute. The President is responsible for serving the entire nation. Only the Administration has access to all the information available to various agencies of the U.S. government—and withholding or downplaying some of that information for its own purposes is a betrayal of that responsibility.
That’s not very exculpatory.
A news analysis in The Washington Post also points to holes in the argument that “Congress saw the same intelligence the administration did before the war, and that independent commissions have determined that the administration did not misrepresent the intelligence.”
Of course, many Bush supporters will no doubt say that the Post critique is driven by ideological bias and the desire to take down Bush. And so we’re back to square one: it all depends on the political lens through which different commentators view the evidence.
My own tentative conclusion (as someone who still thinks that the Iraq invasion may well ultimately prove to have been justified, in terms of its net effect) is that while the Bush administration did not deliberately lie, it almost certainly believed what it wanted to believe, and presented the evidence accordingly.
I also think that Democrats, or Republicans, have the right to change their mind about the war without being labeled unpatriotic or accused of pandering to the base (unless there is evidence that that is indeed their motive for the switch). There are many honest reasons a politician could reverse himself, from concluding that the Bush administration manipulated pre-war intelligence to being disenchanted by the post-war handling of the occupation. And John Cole’s new liberal co-blogger Tim F. makes another interesting point:
Is it possible that some may have supported the war in Iraq for political gain?
If anybody used support for the war for political gain, would that make them less patriotic?
Again, this is not simply a Republican vs. Democrat issue. Here’s conservative Republican Chuck Hagel:
The Bush Administration must understand that each American has a right to question our policies in Iraq and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them. Suggesting that to challenge or criticize policy is undermining and hurting our troops is not democracy nor what this country has stood for, for over 200 years.
(Hat tip: Hit & Run)
Amen to that. I find it revolting when opponents of the war in Iraq demonize war supporters, accusing them of being driven by greed or of wanting to slaughter “brown people.” But it’s just as revolting to hear the pro-war faction toss around charges that war critics are, in effect, giving aid and comfort to the enemy.