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Bush & the End of Reason

By Nat Parry
June 17, 2003

The United States is at a crossroads, with neither route offering an easy journey. In one direction lies a pretend land – where tax cuts increase revenue, where war is peace, where any twisted bits of intelligence justify whatever the leader wants and the people follow. In the other direction lies a painful struggle to bring accountability to political forces that have operated with impunity now for years.

The choice is so big, so intimidating, so important that many in politics, in the U.S. news media and on Main Street America don’t want to believe that there is a crossroads or that there is a choice. They want to think everything’s okay and go about their lives without making a choice. Or they hope someone else will do the hard work so they can stay on the sidelines as bemused observers.

But more and more Americans have a sinking feeling that the institutions that they count on to check abuses – the Congress, the courts, the press – are no longer there as bulwarks. The dawning reality is, too, that what ultimately is at stake is not simply the fiscal stability of the United States or the relative comfort of the American people. Nor even the awful shedding of blood by U.S. soldiers and foreign inhabitants in faraway lands.

What may be in the balance is an era of history that many Americans take for granted, an era that has lasted for a quarter of a millennium, an era that has given rise to scientific invention, to a flourishing of the arts and commerce, to modern democracy itself. There is a gnawing realization that the United States might be careening down a course leading to the end of the Age of Reason.

This possibility can be seen best in the details that still push their way to the surface, though the powers-that-be tell the people to ignore those facts or to reject the logical conclusions that flow from the facts.

Those troublesome facts may emanate from budget bean-counters who project a U.S. federal deficit smashing records of a decade ago, soaring beyond $400 billion a year and aiming toward the bankruptcy of Social Security and other basic government programs. Or the facts may come from cold economic data about the rise of poverty and the loss of 2 million jobs in America in the past couple of years.

But perhaps the most dramatic facts that we are told to ignore represent the gap between what George W. Bush claimed about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, his chief rationale for war, and what’s been found.

Civilian Dead

Every day there are new revelations from intelligence officials that the evidence was manipulated to scare the American people into a war that the Associated Press conservatively estimates killed 3,240 Iraqi civilians, a figure culled from the records of 60 of Iraq’s 124 hospitals. "The account is still fragmentary, and the complete toll – if it is ever tallied – is sure to be significantly higher," the AP reported. [AP, June 10, 2003]

In light of that carnage and the continuing bloodshed, the reaction to Bush’s WMD deceptions can be seen as a measure of how enfeebled the U.S. political system has become. Will the American people demand serious answers from Bush and his administration over what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls "the worst scandal in American political history," taking the nation to war over a series of lies and distortions? Or will the "feel good" presidency roll on?

In September 2002, for instance, Bush started his march to war by going to the U.N. and demanding a tough stance against Iraq over its alleged WMD. "Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons," Bush said. "Iraq has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons, and is rebuilding the facilities used to make more of those weapons."

That same month, in secret, the Defense Intelligence Agency was finding the evidence was far less precise than Bush was claiming. "There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has – or will – establish its chemical warfare production facilities," the DIA said in a classified report. That information didn’t reach the American people, however, until June, two months after the war, when Bloomberg News and other news outlets disclosed it.

On another occasion in those early days of war fever, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair cited a "new" report supposedly from the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency saying Iraq was "six months away" from having a nuclear weapon. "I don’t know what more evidence we need," said Bush.

Few in the U.S. news media noted that the IAEA had issued no new report. "Millions of people saw Bush tieless, casually inarticulate, but determined-looking and self-confident, making a completely uncorroborated (and, at that point, uncontradicted) case for preemptive war," observed author John R. MacArthur in the Columbia Journalism Review. [May/June 2003]

As Bush’s pre-war drumbeat grew louder, so did the alarms about WMD. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.N. that Saddam had amassed tons of chemical and biological weapons. Blair claimed that Iraq’s WMD could be unleashed in only 45 minutes. Bush warned that Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons could be put into unmanned planes that could spray poison on U.S. cities – though it was never clear how Iraq’s short-range planes were going to fly halfway around the world. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s "Misleading the Nation to War."]

Even as the earlier IAEA claim proved inaccurate, Bush made new claims about Iraq’s plans to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program, one of the scariest nightmares to Americans. Only later was it disclosed that two key pieces of evidence were bogus. A supposed document showing Iraq seeking nuclear material from Niger turned out to be a forgery, and metal tubing that the Bush administration insisted was for nuclear production actually would fit only for manufacturing conventional weapons.

Secret Evidence

While the Bush administration didn’t repeat some of its wilder claims after they were debunked, it didn’t retract them either. It simply moved on to new questionable assertions while keeping secret evidence that challenged Bush’s shifting WMD case. On the eve of war, Bush declared that not to act against Iraq over these weapons would be "suicidal."

It should now be obvious that Bush never wanted a national debate about the need to go to war. He had reached his decision months earlier and simply wanted to herd the American people into his pro-war corral. One of his administration’s favorite techniques for silencing the scattered voices of opposition was ridicule.

Bush’s backers made particular fun of Hans Blix and his U.N. weapons inspectors for not finding any WMD. Dennis Miller, the decidedly unfunny right-wing comic, joked that Blix and his inspectors were like the cartoon character Scooby Doo as they fruitlessly sped around Iraq unable to find WMD. Other Bush supporters portrayed Blix as either incompetent or secretly sympathetic to Saddam.

Public figures who questioned Bush’s presentation of the facts, such as actor Sean Penn, were subjected to a blacklist as they lost work due to public pressure from Bush’s allies. Instead of objecting to these tactics of intimidation, which frequently sank to questioning the patriotism and even the sanity of critics, Bush and his top aides egged their followers on. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Politics of Preemption."]

Tens of millions of protesters from all over the world who marched against war in Iraq raised nuanced, articulate objections to Bush’s war policy. They raised questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence and whether U.N. inspectors should be given more time to search for WMD before resorting to armed conflict. But Bush summarily dismissed the protesters, likening the unprecedented mass demonstrations to a focus group.

"First of all, you know, size of protests – it’s like deciding, ‘Well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group,’" Bush said.

Bush’s conservative allies also mounted public campaigns against the French, the Germans and the U.N. Security Council for their refusal to accept Bush’s certainty about Saddam’s WMD. The suggestion often was that the unwilling Europeans were on the take because of oil or other business deals with Iraq. Only the "coalition of the willing" was sincere and hardheaded enough to recognize Saddam’s stockpiles of WMD and to take action.

Fruitless Search

American troops began scouring the Iraqi countryside for the banned weapons on the night of March 19-20 as the war started. So far the results have proved the skeptics right and left the U.S. military feeling like Scooby Doo on some comical mission.

After months of searching, Lt. Col. Keith Harrington, the head of one team tasked with finding the elusive WMD, said, "It doesn’t appear there are any more targets at this time." He added, "We’re hanging around with no missions in the foreseeable future."

In post-war comments, Blix has said none of the pre-war intelligence given him by the U.K. and U.S. was helpful in finding any secret Iraqi weapons. Blix also revealed that even on the day before the U.S. launched the invasion, the Iraqi government was answering questions about how it had disposed of its weapons stockpiles.

As criticism about his pre-war WMD claims has mounted, Bush has sought to preempt this new debate with bald assertions that he was right all along. "We found the weapons of mass destruction," he declared in reference to the discovery of two trailers that his administration touted as "the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program." But again scientists who have examined this evidence are challenging the conclusion.

"American and British intelligence analysts with direct access to the evidence are disputing claims that the mysterious trailers found in Iraq were for making deadly germs," the New York Times reported. The analysts "said the mobile units were more likely intended for other purposes and charged that the evaluation process had been damaged by a rush to judgment."

The analysts said the trailers were more likely used for producing hydrogen for weather balloons that help artillery units adjust for wind conditions, just as captured Iraqi scientists had claimed.

Also it appeared the administration was continuing its pre-war practice of covering up dissent about its interpretation of the evidence. In a press briefing about the administration’s May 28 report claiming the trailers were mobile biological weapons labs, a U.S. official had told reporters that "we are in full agreement" about the WMD purpose of the trailers. The internal dissent only emerged later. [NYT, June 7, 2003]

The London Observer called the trailer flap another blow to Blair, who like Bush had cited the trailers as confirmation of pre-war WMD claims. "The Observer has established that it is increasingly likely that the units were designed to be used for hydrogen production to fill artillery balloons, part of a system originally sold to Saddam by Britain in 1987," the newspaper reported. [Observer, June 8, 2003] [For more on the Bush administration’s rush to judgment on the trailers, see Consortiumnews.com’s "America’s Matrix."]

Bush also is seeking to subtly shift the argument about what constitutes proof. Instead of talking about "vast stockpiles" of forbidden weapons, he now predicts the U.S. will find evidence of "weapons programs," with the suggestion that proof of Iraq’s capacity to make chemical and biological weapons – a very low threshold indeed – would suffice.

Taking the Offensive

Even as the administration’s case for Iraq possessing a trigger-ready stockpile of chemical and biological warfare collapses, Bush’s aides still don’t hesitate to go on the offensive against their critics. Some top Bush aides even have the audacity to accuse the critics of manipulating the historical record.

"There’s a bit of revisionist history going on here," sniffed Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on NBC’s "Meet the Press" as she lashed out at former CIA analysts and others who questioned Bush’s pre-war WMD claims. "As I said, revisionist history all over the place." [June 8, 2003]

In this Brave New World, up is definitely down and black is clearly white. Those who don’t agree with Bush’s false record are the "revisionists," which implies they – not Bush – are the ones playing games with history.

Besides the WMD distortions, the Bush administration pushed other pre-war hot buttons to get Americans juiced up for war. Bush and his aides repeatedly suggested that the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda were in cahoots, a theme used so aggressively that polls showed nearly half of Americans polled believing that Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Only now has it been disclosed that the Bush administration knew – and hid – direct evidence contradicting its claims about Iraqi collaboration with al-Qaeda. Before the war began, the U.S. government had captured two senior al-Qaeda leaders, Abu Zahaydah and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who in separate interrogations denied the existence of an alliance.

Abu Zahaydah told his U.S. interrogators last year that the idea of cooperation was discussed inside al-Qaeda but was rejected by Osama bin Laden, who has long considered Saddam an infidel and his secular government anathema to al-Qaeda's Islamic fundamentalism. While the Bush administration would have surely publicized an opposite answer from the captured al-Qaeda leaders, the denial of an alliance was kept under wraps. The al-Qaeda interrogations were revealed by the New York Times on June 9.

Media Allies

Rather than confess to its many errors and distortions, the administration has managed to keep control of the public debate by relying on its many media allies at Fox News, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and scores of other outlets. They continue to shout down and smirk at anyone who dares disagree with the conventional wisdom about a gloriously successful war.

Since the cessation of major fighting in Iraq, the TV networks also have shifted to other topics of supposed viewer interest, such as the Laci Peterson murder case, Martha Stewart’s indictment and Sammy Sosa’s corked bat.

In contrast to the round-the-clock coverage devoted to questions about President Bill Clinton’s trustworthiness over his personal relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the cable TV networks have treated the WMD search as more like an ongoing "hunt" that will eventually find its prey. Questions about Bush’s honesty often are treated in the context of Democratic Party partisan tactics – whether one of the candidates thinks he can score some political points – rather than as an issue of Bush’s character and integrity.

Though the U.S. news media has been more skeptical about Bush’s WMD claims now than before or during the war, the U.S. coverage pales in comparison to the far more aggressive treatment the deceptions are getting in the British press.

The U.S. pattern of soft-pedaling negative news is a continuation of the war-time pattern. During the conflict, journalists of other nations raised troubling questions and showed their viewers ghastly images of war, while their U.S. counterparts behaved more like cheerleaders trying to demonstrate their "patriotism" and keeping the worst horrors of war off the nation’s TV screens.

In the days before the invasion, there was often a giddy eagerness to get the war started. MSNBC had a nightly program called "Countdown: Iraq" and correspondents barely suppressed their anticipation for the "shock and awe" bombing that the administration promised would be the ultimate in pyrotechnics. When the initial bombing didn’t meet expectations, there was a palpable letdown. When the larger-scale attacks finally came, with mushroom clouds sprouting across the Baghdad skyline, one anchor gushed, "This is it … Absolutely awesome display of military power."

Throughout the conflict, U.S. news media outlets seemed more eager to "brand" themselves in red-white-and-blue than give the American people the fullest story possible. While images of carnage were consciously censored, happy stories were promoted endlessly, such as the hyped rescue story of Jessica Lynch.

Public Opinion

The impact of this favorable war coverage left many Americans, who originally were skeptical, feeling isolated and inclined to rally behind the troops, especially when faced with one-sided arguments about Saddam Hussein’s dangerous weapons of mass destruction. As the major conflict was ending, there was also the euphoria about victory, the hope that Iraqis would be better off without the unsavory Saddam, and the relief that U.S. troop losses were relatively light.

Now, some Americans seem to view coming to grips with the fact that Bush lied about the reasons for war to be an unnecessary downer off a pleasant high. So far, the majority of Americans indicate that they would rather keep the warm glow of victory going than hold Bush accountable.

Polls have found a kind of willful gullibility. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, taken June 9-10, reported that 64 percent said the Bush administration had not intentionally misled the people about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction while only 31 percent thought otherwise.

The poll also showed that 43 percent of Americans say they are "certain it is true" that "Iraq had biological or chemical weapons before the war," with another 43 percent saying that was "likely but not certain." Only 9 percent said it was "unlikely but not certain" and 3 percent said they were "certain it is not true."

Similarly overwhelming percentages said they believed or were certain that Iraq had ties to Osama bin Laden. Only 11 percent said that was "unlikely but not certain" and 4 percent said that unproven claim was certainly not true.

Another poll, by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, found that 68 percent of Americans continue to approve of the decision to go to war. Of those supporting the war, 48 percent believed that U.S. forces had already found weapons of mass destruction.

For Republicans, this false belief seemed to be a kind of loyalty test. Among Republicans who said they follow international affairs very closely, 55 percent said they thought WMD had been found.

Judging from the polls, it appears that many Americans have been infected with a case of collective denial or already have adjusted to the new post-Reason Age. It is somehow considered wrong to challenge the conventional wisdom, which holds that the war was an unqualified success.

Americans have sustained their support for Bush even as more and more insiders from the U.S. intelligence community quit and try to explain the weaknesses of Bush's counter-terrorism strategies. One of the latest is Rand Beers, a career counter-terrorism adviser who left Bush's White House and joined the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

"The administration wasn't matching its deeds to its words in the war on terrorism," Beers said in an interview with the Washington Post. "They're making us less secure, not more secure." Beers cited Bush's focus on Iraq as undermining the war on terror by robbing money from domestic security projects, hurting crucial alliances and creating breeding grounds for al-Qaeda.

"Counter-terrorism is like a team sport. The game is deadly. There has to be offense and defense," said the 60-year-old veteran who served on the National Security Councils of the last four presidents. "The Bush administration is primarily offense, and not into teamwork." [Washington Post, June 16, 2003]

New Paradigm

For the rest of the world, the broad American disconnect from reality must be unnerving, given the awesome power of the U.S. military arsenal. What does it mean when the most powerful nation on earth chooses fantasy over truth? What are the consequences when an American president realizes he can broadly falsify the factual record and get away with it?

The answers to these questions could decide the future of the American democratic experiment and determine the future safety of the world.

If the American people don’t demand accountability for the lies that led to war, a new political paradigm may be created. Bush may conclude that he is free to make any life-or-death decision and then unleash his conservative allies to manipulate the facts and intimidate the opposition. By inaction, the American people may be sleepwalking down a path that takes them into a land controlled by lies, delusion and fear.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., one of the few members of Congress to consistently raise questions about Bush’s case for war, said the discrepancies between Bush’s pre-war WMD claims and the facts on the ground "are very serious and grave questions, and they require immediate answers. We cannot – and must not – brush such questions aside."

Byrd also noted Bush’s curious disinterest in the truth. "What amazes me is that the President himself is not clamoring for an investigation," Byrd said in a Senate speech on June 5. "It is his integrity that is on the line. It is his truthfulness that is being questioned. It is his leadership that has come under scrutiny. And yet he has raised no question, expressed no curiosity about the strange turn of events in Iraq, expressed no anger at the possibility that he might have been misled. …

"Indeed, instead of leading the charge to uncover the discrepancy between what we were told before the war and what we have found – or failed to find – since the war, the White House is circling the wagons and scoffing at the notion that anyone in the administration exaggerated the threat from Iraq," Byrd said. "It is time for the President to demand an accounting from his own administration as to exactly how our nation was led down such a twisted path to war."

There is, of course, another possible answer to Byrd’s questions: that Bush feels he doesn’t need to tell the truth, that he can make up whatever excuse he wants in support of whatever action he chooses, that he is beyond accountability. Bush may believe that it is his right to deceive the American people, that it is their job to follow, that he is a modern-day emperor leading the nation into a new era – beyond the Age of Reason. 

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