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PBS on Iraq: A Compilation of Deceit

By Morgan Strong
March 30, 2008


There have been five agonizing years of this war in Iraq. Five terrible years of bewilderment and rage.

Commemorating that anniversary, Frontline, the PBS investigative series, allotted four-and-one-half hours over two nights to an in-depth analysis of the war in Iraq and how it came about.

What the broadcast revealed was nothing new. Others have engaged the subject as thoroughly as did Frontline. What we did see in this broadcast, however, was a compilation of the deceit, pettiness, treachery, arrogance, ignorance and stunning callousness by those who took us into this vile war.

The key figures who promoted the war were Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Lewis Libby. Those names were not new, but a new motive for the war was revealed: the recognition of Israel by a new democratic Iraq.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in an interview with Frontline, revealed this motive in the context of his suspicions about Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who was chosen by the Bush administration to run Iraq. The State Department was funding Chalabi and his Iraq National Congress.

Armitage: I couldn’t get any receipts from him, and he seemed upset about this—I no longer had the State Department fund him. The funding went to the Department of Defense. So it didn’t take me long to come to the belief that Mr. Chalabi was a charlatan.

Frontline: But he had real believers?

Armitage: Yes, he certainly did in the Vice President’s Office.

Frontline: Why?

Armitage: Well, he was very charming and smart. This was one smart cookie.

Frontline: He convinced them that this was the answer they wanted to hear?

Armitage: Well, perhaps when you’re telling people what they want to hear, and that you’ll recognize Israel and you can have bases in Iraq and this will be the new democratic bastion in the Middle East which can change the whole picture of the Middle East, maybe there’s a bit of a siren song there.
Those American officials who promoted the war hoped that a Chalabi-led Iraq would recognize Israel and a new era in the Middle East would begin. Libby, the Vice President’s chief of staff, and Cheney – along with Perle, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld – endorsed the idea of Chalabi running Iraq and convinced a hopelessly befuddled Bush.
What is perhaps equally startling, and thoroughly depressing, is the common pettiness of the five – Libby, Cheney, Perle, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld – as they fought desperately to launch this war in Iraq. They would let nothing and no one stand in their way.

It was Libby who provided the information to Secretary of State Colin Powell on the fabricated claims of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. This information, after some refinement by the CIA, was what Powell drew upon to make his dramatic speech to the U.N. Security Council.

The Frontline broadcast, through interviews with senior members of the Bush administration, showed Cheney and Rumsfeld acting as agents for their subordinates – Wolfowitz, Perle and Libby – all three of whom have had close historic ties to Israel.

In 1996, for instance, Perle joined a small group of researchers who advised Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu on his first steps as Israel’s prime minister. (That group also included Douglas Feith, who would be another key Pentagon figure pushing for war with Iraq.)

The working paper, entitled “A Clean Break,” included plans for ousting Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which was called “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right.” The paper also advocated an alliance with the United States to confront threats to Israel from Syria and Iran.

Six years later, the Perle-Wolfowitz-Libby tandem, aided and abetted by Cheney and Rumsfeld, implemented exactly that strategy inside the U.S. government.

As depicted by the Frontline documentary, Rice was isolated and demeaned by the five, so she presented no obstacle in the path to war even though her single responsibility was to tell the President of the United States that the war was not in this nation’s best interest and was premised on faulty intelligence. She was too cowardly to act.

There is great discussion in the broadcast of the role of faulty intelligence. Everyone, it seems, knew – or suspected strongly – that the claims about Saddam possessing weapons of mass destruction were weak.

President Bush knew that these claims were tenuous at best. At one point, following a presentation of evidence by CIA Director George Tenet on the existence of these weapons, Bush pointedly asked: “Is that all you’ve got?”

Tenet replied: “It’s a slam dunk, sir.” In essence; don’t worry I’ll find you something.

Then Tenet went off to cook the intelligence that satisfied the President, enabling him to justify the war to the public.

By the time this sorry process was over, the five – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Libby and Perle – had in essence wrested the government from the American people. They controlled the mechanics of the state through lies, manipulations and intimidation.

They also isolated Powell, who was the only one in the Bush Cabinet who might have stopped them, but he did not – an act of transparent cowardice on his part.

Powell never raised his doubts to the American people or to their representatives. In truth, no senior official in the Bush administration did. Many government officials knew the information was highly suspect or completely false, but did nothing.

Bush is depicted in the broadcast as a passive incompetent controlled by Cheney, though whether or not the President was manipulated is largely irrelevant. As the chief constitutional officer of the United States, he bears the ultimate responsibility.

There have been 4,000 American men and women killed in Iraq so far. Estimates of Iraqi dead range into the hundreds of thousands, including many civilians and many children.

Beyond the lies, there also were the self-delusions. How in their right minds could the people who started this war believe that a new Iraqi government, with even modest democratic tendencies, would immediately recognize Israel?

And even more farfetched, that all of the Middle East states would rejoice and happily follow suit?

What would happen to the Palestinians? Would they simply be shoved aside in this glorious new era? Did the Bush administration really think that the people of the Middle East would forgive and forget so easily?

How did these people come to govern us? How did such incompetents and ideologues gain our fealty?     

Morgan Strong was an adviser on the Middle East to CBS News “60 Minutes.” He is a former Professor of Middle Eastern History at MercyCollege and S.U.N.Y.

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