Supporters of President George W. Bush extol his honesty and personal virtue. Americans like a plainspoken leader, a straight shooter they can trust, we are told. Bill Clinton’s strained relationship to the truth dishonored the presidency and undermined our belief in government, his critics charged. For many, Clinton’s lies justified his impeachment and should have resulted in his removal from office.

Like many politicians, Clinton was adept at manipulating the truth. He certainly lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Whether or not his deceit justified impeachment, it inevitably engendered distrust and greater cynicism about politics. Political advocacy is, in many instances, a case of putting the best possible face on highly disputed questions. But there are limits. The line between putting forward the best argument and outright distortion or lying is notoriously elusive, but it exists. When political decisions place a country on the path to war and put American and other lives at risk, the expectation of truth telling on the part of statesmen should be very high. In leading a democracy into war, leaders have a moral obligation to tell as much of the truth as possible. Perhaps, for reasons of security, a president cannot tell the whole truth, but he must not deliberately deceive those who have a right to know. If the case for war has been manipulated or falsified, a leader should be held accountable.

It appears irrefutable that President Bush misled the American people in making his case for war against Iraq. Playing on the nation’s fears in the aftermath of 9/11, Bush repeatedly emphasized his certainty, based on U.S. intelligence reports, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and was eager to get such weapons into the hands of terrorists. As the world now knows, Iraq possessed no WMD. The principal justification for the war has been utterly discredited. Was this an honest mistake on Bush’s part, or something more deliberate and pernicious?

A devastating report recently issued by the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace answers that question. It shows how administration officials systematically misrepresented what was contained in U.S. intelligence reports about Iraq’s WMD. In case after case, and especially in making its argument to Congress, the administration overstated the danger and suppressed information about the uncertainty of U.S. knowledge. In short, anything in the intelligence reports that might have cast doubt on the case for war was excised. The effect, said one of the study’s authors, was to turn “minor threats into dire ones.” To further galvanize the American public’s fears, the administration asserted that Hussein wanted to give WMDs to terrorists. Yet “there is no evidence to support the claim that Iraq would have transferred WMD to Al Qaeda and much evidence to counter it,” the report says. “The notion that any government would give its principal security assets to people it could not control in order to achieve its own political aims is highly dubious.”

What the report does document in disturbing detail is the undue pressure put on the intelligence community, especially from Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to provide only information that conformed to the administration’s goals. Whether administration hawks acted out of hubris, moral self-righteousness, or Machiavellian conviction, the result is the same: The credibility and integrity of U.S. intelligence has been politicized and fatally compromised. Who will now believe U.S. claims about “imminent” threats posed by North Korea or Iran? The Carnegie report urges that a nonpartisan commission be established to investigate how U.S. intelligence could have been so wrong. It further recommends that the office of director of the Central Intelligence Agency be given greater independence, and that directors serve for a fixed term. It is in the nation’s interest, especially in an era of terrorism, that intelligence reports be as objective as possible.

Further evidence of the administration’s hubris can be found in a study of the war on terror issued by the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army’s War College. The study warns that the administration’s multifarious and conflicting goals for its war on terror cannot be reconciled, that the “war” as presently defined cannot be won, and that the occupation of Iraq has pushed the Army “near the breaking point.” Like the Carnegie report, the Army War College study insists that Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al Qaeda are separate and distinct dangers that should not be conflated. It goes even further in arguing that the invasion of Iraq has distracted us from and undermined the battle against Al Qaeda.

Bush was little more than contemptuous of those who questioned the necessity of war. That contempt was as misplaced as his certainty about WMD. His post facto justification of the war on human rights and humanitarian grounds is self-serving. If that is what he believes, why didn’t he make that clear to the American people in the first place? If that is the case, why hasn’t Bush used U.S. troops to prevent human-rights abuses in other parts of the world? Bush has not only damaged relations with our allies—relationships crucial to the success of the war against terror—he has debased American democracy by practicing a crude ends-justifies-the-means morality. If democracy is what Americans are fighting and dying for in Iraq, it behooves the president to respect the need democracy has for the truth. It is time for Bush to admit to the American people, and to the world, that he was wrong about Iraq’s WMD. He needs to explain why he was wrong, and what steps he is taking to make sure he isn’t wrong again when faced with a similar decision. Despite what this president seems to think, truth is not fungible.

Published in the 2004-01-30 issue: View Contents
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