Those two words do a lot of political heavy lifting for the president; by framing the issue as a question of intelligence failures, not political propaganda, the Bush people hope to divert attention from the fact that they lied to promote the war.
When Secretary of State Colin Powell made his presentation to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, he claimed that "most United States experts" believed that Iraqi purchases of aluminum tubes were for centrifuges that would do uranium isotope separation, not for artillery, as Iraq had claimed. Actually, most experts said the opposite; in particular, the anodized coating of the tubes, which Powell cited as evidence for their nuclear use, would actually have to be removed if they were to be put in centrifuges but was normal for use in artillery. Powell mentioned that Iraq had produced four tons of VX gas but neglected to mention that most of it had been destroyed under U.N. supervision, and that the rest would have degraded in the years since 1991.
On March 16, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "We believe he [Saddam] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons," a claim he has made on numerous other occasions. In fact, neither the International Atomic Energy Agency nor anyone else had ever said anything of the kind; since nuclear weapons activities give off radiation, they are very easily detected, and inspectors had been doing on-site visits for four months at the time.
Bush usually left the lying to others, but in the 2003 State of the Union address he said that Iraq had purchased uranium from "Africa," a claim based on forgeries so crude that IAEA analysts said a couple of hours on Google would have sufficed to expose them. In an earlier speech, on October 7, 2002, Bush said Iraq was planning to use its unmanned aerial vehicles to target the United States; their top range was about 400 miles.
The Bush "intelligence failures" script goes like this: We have been working hard to protect ordinary Americans from harm. Because of the information provided by the intelligence community, we went to war in Iraq to eliminate a threat to our safety. Only now -- after the war -- do we realize the threat may not have been so great. But we can't be blamed for working diligently to protect America.
The truth is that, even if Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction, the administration was well aware that it was no threat to the United States. Even Richard Perle and David Frum admit in their new book, An End to Evil, that Iraq would never attack directly nor indirectly since, given the hysteria being built up, any WMD attack by terrorists would certainly have called down retribution on Iraq.
The Iraq War wasn't the result of an intelligence failure. It was the result of a spectacular political success -- the maneuvering of a nation to war, over the objections of the world community, when no threat existed.
Now, as the pre-war claims continue to unravel, the White House has accepted a "bipartisan commission." But if the focus remains on intelligence failures, Bush has already won the political battle, no matter what the composition of the commission. There will be admissions that mistakes were made, data was misread, and some interpretations were unsubstantiated. Bush will concede what can't be denied, but continue to claim he only had the interests of Americans in mind when he acted.
The Democrats could contest the Bush propaganda but they seem to be suffering from an intelligence failure of their own; if they continue on their usual path, they likely will offer mild criticisms and then move along out of fear of being seen as "soft on national defense." Journalists likely will write about it until it is deemed to be old news, moving along out of fear of being tagged as the "liberal media" out to destroy a God-fearing conservative president.
But the question will linger in the minds of many: Does it matter that the president and his top officials lied to manufacture the pretext for a war? In a democracy, shouldn't it matter?
Rahul Mahajan is the author of Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond (Monthly Review Press, 2003). Robert Jensen is the author of the forthcoming Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights Books, 2004 forthcoming). They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
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