Saturday, January 29, 2005

Election post-mortem:How to tell a BIG Lie and get away with it

Commentators have argued about how successful or eloquent George W. Bush’s speech accepting the nomination of his party was. And, as is generally the case, the judgements reflected party affiliations. Republicans called the speech inspirational, and praised it, while Democrats disparaged it, along with the candidate.

Unfortunately, there was very little serious scrutiny applied to the speech itself, either to the veracity of the claims which Mr. Bush made or to the underlying message, which it sent.

Those who support him will praise his “clear moral purpose” in describing his confrontation with Iraq. Many people seem to appreciate his forthright statements concerning the war, and contrast them positively with John Kerry’s more nuanced approach. The reasons for the different approaches can be largely explained by the nature of the respective bases to which the candidates must appeal.

Whereas Kerry has to appeal to the large percentage of people who believe that the war may have been a mistake, while acknowledging that he himself voted to authorize it, Bush is under no such constraints. Bush simply has to make the case for his war, while Kerry must appeal to those who were opposed to it, as well as those who think it was the right thing to do – which can’t be an easy task.

At the convention, Mr. Bush made his case made his case concerning the war with Iraq, clearly and succinctly

This progress involved careful diplomacy, clear moral purpose, and some tough decisions. And the toughest came on Iraq. We knew Saddam Hussein's record of aggression and support for terror. We knew his long history of pursuing, even using, weapons of mass destruction. And we know that September 11th requires our country to think differently: We must, and we will, confront threats to America before it is too late.

In Saddam Hussein, we saw a threat. Members of both political parties, including my opponent and his running mate, saw the threat, and voted to authorize the use of force. We went to the United Nations Security Council, which passed a unanimous resolution demanding the dictator disarm, or face serious consequences. Leaders in the Middle East urged him to comply. After more than a decade of diplomacy, we gave Saddam Hussein another chance, a final chance, to meet his responsibilities to the civilized world. He again refused, and I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office -- a decision no president would ask for, but must be prepared to make. Do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country? Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time.


The only problem with this heartfelt eloquence is that the central portion of it is totally untrue.

How much of a “threat” a third world country like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq really was, is debatable at best. And while it is undeniably true that Mr. Bush’s opponent also voted for the war, and we, (the United States acting through the UN Security Council), did give a “final chance” by passing a “resolution demanding the dictator disarm” the next part is false. While Resolution 1441 did give Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations,” the problem with Mr. Bush’s rendition is that the claim that he “refused” to do so, is completely untrue.

Saddam did, in fact, accept UN Resolution 1441, he did allow inspectors into Iraq, he did give an account of his country’s unconventional weapons program, and as yet (even now with the country under US occupation) there has been nothing unearthed which would show that he possessed any banned weapons.

Mr. Bush had made similar claims several times before. For example in his war speech of March 17, 2003, Mr. Bush stated categorically that:

On November 8th, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, finding Iraq in material breach of its obligations, and vowing serious consequences if Iraq did not fully and immediately disarm. Today, no nation can possibly claim that Iraq has disarmed…


Whether or not any nation could “possibly claim the Iraq had disarmed” (of WMD) it turns out that Iraq had indeed done so. The statement that Mr. Bush made with such absolute certitude turned out to be completely false. This could, of course, be blamed on an “intelligence failure”. But the possibility of such intelligence failures should, at the very least, give one pause concerning the whole concept of pre-emptive war. Otherwise Hitler’s invasion of Poland could be justified based on the claim that Poland was about to attack, which is in the never-never-land of self-serving speculation. Still, Mr. Bush may have believed it when he said it. He and his junior partner, British Prime Minister Tony Blair could have been “sincere deceivers”, as the Economist put it. A simple falsehood can be a mistake. It isn’t necessarily a lie.

Subsequently, Mr. Bush when speaking to reporters during a meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan , went off on a bizarre tangent and made the totally absurd and obviously false claimed that the reason the US invaded was that Saddam Hussein had refused to let inspectors in, so that it might be determined whether or not he had those banned weapons.

The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power


Of course, this was an extemporaneous comment, and it could be reasonably argued that the falsehood was based on confusion, and not an attempt to deceive. Most observers argued that the falsehood of this particular claim was so flagrant – since the whole world knew that the inspectors were allowed unfettered access pursuant to Resolution 1441– that it had to be a mistake. No one would tell such an obvious falsehood on purpose. (Some people would be more concerned that their president could become so confused over such an integral part of what he claimed was the casus belli on which he led his country into war, but this is a side issue.)

However, at the Republican National Convention Mr. Bush was speaking from a prepared text. This is what makes the false claim, and the lack of serious reaction to it so interesting.

Why on earth would Mr. Bush make such a statement? Perhaps, he had been somewhat confused or mistaken when he said similar things before. But this was different, this was his acceptance speech for the nomination of the Republican party, and his advisors had to have seen the text before he presented it. How could he have told such a brazen lie, without any plausible deniability.

To be sure, Bush’s opponent responded immediately, and in an unprecedented step, gave his own speech at a rally that same evening, in order to counter it. But although Mr. Kerry accused President Bush, and his Republican cohorts of having “attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as Commander-in-chief,” and having “misled the nation into Iraq,” nowhere did he point out the precise falsehood of the Bush speech, which was made just hours prior.

Senator Kerry’s position is, of course, somewhat muddled (and some might say hypocritical) since he voted for the war, and he had access to the same information which President Bush had. For him to claim that the reasons given for the war were phony, is difficult, because he was either a willing participant in the campaign to mislead, or a dupe who believed all of the falsehoods that the Bush administration told him, or he simply accepted the same information, and made the same judgement as the president did. Since the first two, would be difficult to admit, and the third would make it impossible to distinguish himself from his opponent, he is in a bit of a quandary.

But why would he not point out the obvious falsehood of Mr. Bush’s claim regarding Saddam’s supposed refusal to comply? Why would he allude to the “misleading” of the nation some months back, (when the falsehood of the claims was not readily apparent), and ignore the fact that Mr. Bush was continuing to mislead the nation regarding the war.

The “outrage” at the Republican claim that Kerry was not fit “to serve as Commander-in-Chief”, (as though Republicans would say that a Democrat was the proper choice for that post, or vice-versa) was apparently more important than pointing out that President Bush, by brazenly lying about the supposed casus belli, might not be fit to continue as Commander-in-Chief. By discrediting the President, who is either confused about why he starts wars, or living in denial about it, Kerry would then be seen as the logical alternative. Why wouldn’t he point it out? And perhaps more importantly, why wouldn’t the press do so?

The fact that Mr. Kerry was more outraged over the attacks on himself, than on the continuing false claims about Saddam Hussein, that led to a war (with all of the attendant death and destruction), can only be explained by Mr. Kerry’s colossal sense of his own self-importance. To speak ill of John Kerry is an outrage (at least to John Kerry) but to make false claims in order to justify a war is somehow less important – after all, the false claims were about Saddam Hussein, who is, by almost all accounts, a despicable character.

In some regards, this emphasis on the personality of the accused and accuser can explain the unwillingness of anyone to call Mr. Bush’s hand on this issue. After all, to point out the fact Bush is still lying (or at any rate, living in denial about what he did) might be construed as defending Saddam Hussein.

This partially explains Kerry’s refusal to point out the specific falsehood, which George Bush is still telling about the war. Imagine for a moment if John Kerry stood up and in a boisterous voice accused George Bush of “lying about Saddam Hussein, and his weapons program.” For him to do so could result in complete ridicule. Most people look for a candidate to stand up for them, not for some despicable foreign dictator. Consequently, Mr. Kerry is left making slightly more vague claims about the Bush administration having “misled the nation into Iraq,” with the vagueness serving the dual purpose of avoiding precision about who Mr. Bush was lying about, and not having to identify the specific claims with which Mr. Kerry had apparently agreed, since as stated, he voted for the war.

Unfortunately, the most important point seems to be lost in the shuffle. No one seems interested in the fact that the President of the United States is still telling brazen falsehoods about a war he started.

Is this made possible because the lies are all being told about a despicable character who is sitting in an American (or Iraqi) military prison? Under the current circumstances, he can hardly point out that the statement about his “refusal to comply” is untrue. One is almost tempted to say that it is a variation on the old “blame it on the dead guy” routine.

Of course, the comparison isn’t really appropriate. Blaming it on the dead guy is premised on the fact that the only knowledgeable people are unable to speak up. While it could be argued that Saddam Hussein isn’t in a position to point out that he did comply with the UN resolution, other people can see it as well, by a simple cursory look at the record. This situation is a little different. It really isn’t like theClintonesque claim that “if the two people who are involved say it didn't happen—it didn't happen.” It is more like blaming a thoroughly despicable character for starting a fight, even though the visual evidence shows quite the opposite.

This whole situation leaves one wondering whether anyone cares about the truth, merely for its own sake, or if a lie is only a lie if it is told about someone who counts. Is the false claim that “he refused” only relevant if he [Saddam] is a judged to be sufficiently worthy? Is it really OK to lie just because the guy you lied about is a bad guy? Or is the situation a little more complicated than that? Is it only a lie, if someone is willing to call your hand, and people aren’t willing to call your hand because no one wants to be perceived as defending a bad guy?

This formulation might explain the reason why Kerry won’t expose the specifics of Bush’s false claims, but why wouldn’t the “independent” press do so?

The only explanation is that they are subject to the same constraints as Mr. Kerry is. No network anchorman has to finesse his vote for the war, like Mr. Kerry does, but a mainstream newsman can’t really afford to be seen as defending Saddam Hussein against a charge made by the President of the United States.

One only has to recall the case of Jim McDermott (Representative from Washington state) who was in Baghdad in September of 2002. Congressman McDermott was interviewed on ABC’s “This Week” and was openly skeptical of Bush’s claims regarding Iraq’s WMD. At the same time, McDermott, who was in Baghdad promoting the use of inspections, as opposed to invasion, as a policy towards Saddam, was assailed for his “gullibility”.

According to George Will:

Not since Jane Fonda posed for photographers at a Hanoi antiaircraft gun has there been anything like Rep. Jim McDermott, speaking to ABC's ``This Week'' from Baghdad, saying Americans should take Saddam Hussein at his word, but should not take President Bush at his.


Other right wing columnists and pundits and talk radio hosts expressed similar sentiments. The Republican Party joined in the fray, trying to capitalize on the “outrage” of members of the US Congress accepting the word of Saddam, and not trusting the US President. They were all utterly incredulous at the mere thought of such a thing.

Of course, McDermott wasn’t really advocating that anyone simply take Saddam’s word for it. As he stated on CNN a few days earlier:

"What I am advising is that we have the inspections," he said. "No one is saying that Saddam Hussein is a good person or honest or trustworthy or loyal or reverent."



But the fact that he was advocating inspections, which might determine whether or not Saddam Hussein possessed the fabled WMD was lost in the shuffle. All that mattered was that McDermott was apparently taking the word of the Iraqi dictator over the word of the President of the United States.

Of course, in reality the situation isn’t all that simple. It really isn’t a question of who is more trustworthy – Saddam Hussein or George Bush, but who is in a position to know the truth and who can prove what. It is rather analogous to the situation of a (heavily armed) policeman who makes an accusation against someone who had previously committed a crime (for example that he might have a gun in his basement). The question isn’t so much whether one takes the word of the policeman (in this analogy – the US government) or the accused criminal (in this analogy – Saddam Hussein), but whether or not the policeman has some sort of credible proof of the accusations which he makes. One wouldn’t just accept the word of the policeman and then approve of him going in blasting, without bothering to execute a search warrant, or more analogously – doing so after finding out that the search proved fruitless.

McDermott, himself, drew this analogy, after his return from Baghdad in October of 2002:

In the United States, we have a tradition. We have a Constitution that says if there is a bad person there, we give them due process, and the inspections is due process in this example. If we go and we were to hang somebody and then ask questions, we would say that's unfair, it isn't the right way to do it, and the whole world would see it.

So it is important for us to go through this process, not to pressure the process. Let the process go. Mr. Blix can go, and he'll come back with a report to the Security Council and say, I succeeded, I was allowed into every place, or I was not. At that point, we can make a decision about what has happened in that process.


Of course, Jim McDermott was never really successful at getting his message out. The Bush Administration simply made the claim about Saddam Hussein’s WMD, and went to war, even though Mr. Blix’s inspectors never uncovered anything. McDermott was reviled, and attacked as a “useful idiot” for Saddam Hussein. The truth and wisdom of what he was saying was left as a minor footnote.

This story partially explains the reticence of the “mainstream” media in disputing the veracity of President Bush’s claims. The “mainstream” media is already suffering from a loss in influence due to the advent of alternative media (cable news had already cut into the market share of the networks, and the internet and talk radio have made more recent inroads). They can not afford to become what Bush supporters would label “tools of Saddam Hussein (or the Iraqi insurgents, or terrorists, or whoever).

The net result of all of this is that since no one is willing to face the inevitable accusations of being soft on a dictator (or even worse – being soft on terrorism, since the war against Iraq is invariably presented as part of the broader “War on Terror”), the big lie is allowed to pass undisputed. It is almost as though the entire country has joined President Bush in his attempt to live in denial. No one wants to point out the very sad fact that as regards Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (the stated reason for the war) Saddam Hussein was telling the truth, and George W. Bush was and is lying. The terrible truth, that our president made the choice to start a war of what amounts to naked aggression, can not be faced, and will not be spoken.


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