- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

President Bush is such an admirer of Winston Churchill that he keeps a bust of him in the Oval Office. You don’t have to agree with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who likens Mr. Bush to Mr. Churchill, to see the president has taken one of the British statesman’s maxims to heart. “In wartime,” Sir Winston confided, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

What is dawning on many people now is that in making the case for war, the administration and its allies did not make a fetish of strict honesty and candor. Why? Because if the American people had gotten the truth and nothing but the truth, they might not have been willing to go along with the whole enterprise.

But the strategy worked so beautifully that it’s being used for the postwar occupation as well. We were given no idea of what would happen once victory was achieved, and we have been given no idea what lies ahead. The danger for Mr. Bush is that one of these days, the public may be hit in the face with a cold dash of reality.

The chief rationale for the invasion was that we had to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his vast arsenal of unconventional weapons. Unfortunately, those munitions have yet to be found, and Mr. Rumsfeld now admits they may never be, because the Iraqis may have destroyed them. Why a thug regime that defied the United Nations for years would be so fastidious about eliminating all evidence of guilt at its hour of doom is a deep mystery. But the administration would rather live with this puzzle than admit that maybe Saddam Hussein didn’t have the arsenal that Mr. Bush told us about.

The U.S. government is not the only one capable of embellishing reality. Mr. Bush’s ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who may prove to be a distant relative of Jayson Blair, put out a report saying Iraq could use its weapons on 45 minutes’ notice. But an anonymous British intelligence official told the BBC that claim was added at the insistence of the prime minister and “wasn’t reliable.”

The administration also did its best to connect Saddam Hussein to the September 11, 2001, atrocities. By endlessly relating the war on Iraq to the war on terrorism, the president managed to create some useful confusion. By the time the war began, 51 percent of Americans were operating on the assumption that Saddam was “personally responsible” for the terrorist attacks — which is about as plausible as blaming them on Lee Harvey Oswald.

These deceptions are not exactly without precedent. If there is one constant in American history, it’s that presidents of both parties tell lies to justify wars. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both made a habit of it in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan intervened in Lebanon insisting it was a vital U.S. interest, which his own national security adviser later admitted it was not.

Bill Clinton sent troops to Bosnia in 1995 with a promise that they would be home within 12 months. They’re still there. So it should not be a surprise that the current president was willing to mislead us to build support for his invasion.

Nor has the quality of information available to the public improved since the war. When it comes to the aftermath, the question is not whether Americans were misinformed: The picture painted by hawks was that the Iraqi people and their liberators would all live happily ever after, and that has turned out to be a fairy tale.

No one in the White House predicted widespread looting, the collapse of order, anti-American protests, continuing attacks on U.S. troops, or the rise of fundamentalist Shi’ite groups. The only issue is whether the administration failed to tell us out of ignorance or out of deceit — whether the president and his aides were deliberately fooling us, or inadvertently fooling themselves.

In any case, the administration now has the problem of maintaining public support for a mission that promises to be expensive, open-ended, messy and thankless. But it has given the American people only the vaguest idea what they can expect.

At a recent hearing, Sen. Joseph Biden, Delaware Democrat, asked, “When is the president going to tell the American people that we’re likely to be in the country of Iraq for three, four, five, six, eight, 10 years, with thousands of forces and spending billions of dollars?” Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, complained that “the administration has not sufficiently involved Congress and the American people in its plans regarding the costs, methods and goals of reconstructing Iraq.”

No, it hasn’t, and it isn’t about to.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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