When Presidents Lie

One by one, President Bush's lies are unraveling—the lies used to justify talk of mushroom clouds over America, the lies that led a majority of Americans to believe Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. The yellowcake uranium in Niger. The weapons stories peddled by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi's and Ahmad Chalabi's goons. The meeting between Mohammed Atta and Iraqi operatives in Prague. The aluminum tubes for processing uranium. All these are now known to be lies, intelligence that had been discredited and discarded by the CIA or State Department before being seized as war rationales by the eager chicken hawks of the White House Iraq Group.

Once stripped away, there remains not one shred of evidence that in 2002–03 Iraq posed any threat whatsoever to the security of the United States—much less an imminent threat, which is the only rationale, under American and international law, that makes it permissible to short-circuit the diplomatic process and launch an unprovoked invasion. We now know all this, too late for more than 2,000 American soldiers and untold scores of thousands of Iraqis.

Why are we surprised?

In modern times, this is what presidents do, Democrats as well as Republicans. The bigger the stakes, the bigger the lies, and there are no bigger stakes than war. They lie to Congress, they lie to the American public, they lie to the world.

In 1964, it was the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution, whereby Lyndon Johnson parlayed a fictitious assault upon two U.S. destroyers into a dramatic escalation of the war in Vietnam.

In 1990, even with the world mortified by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the Bush 41 White House overcame fierce public and congressional resistance to war with a wholly concocted story about Iraqi soldiers pulling the plugs on the incubators of Kuwaiti babies.

In 2002–03, it was—well, everything.

In each case, Congress, as well as the public, was kept in the dark. The fundamental checks and balances of the Constitution, which allow only Congress to declare war, were subverted.

Let's remember this the next time elected leaders try to cajole a reluctant public into war. There are tremendous institutional incentives for chief executives to call the military into action. Eisenhower knew what he was talking about when he warned of the dangers of the permanent military- industrial complex. The patriotism war whips up is always good for a bump in the polls and gets a pass from uncritical media. A lot of people make a lot of money from war, and lots of other people, people who don't matter to leaders, suffer. Power is seductive, and politicians who crave power enough to win the most powerful job in the world are invariably never satisfied. They always want more. It's a story as old as humankind.

Perhaps given how catastrophic the invasion of Iraq has been—for Iraqis, for America's military, for the federal budget, and for our moral standing in the world—there will come to be an "Iraq Syndrome"—a reluctance to do something like this again anytime soon, just as there was a "Vietnam Syndrome" after that 10-year war. But we're not there yet. Powerful people, particularly in and around the Bush White House, continue to peddle war as the answer of first resort for a variety of diplomatic conflicts, from Syria to Iran to North Korea to Venezuela and even to China. They would be easy to dismiss as Strangelovean lunatics had it not proved so ridiculously easy to sell wars in the past.

All you have to do is lie. Once you're in—as we saw in Vietnam and are seeing again in Iraq—no matter how badly it goes, even the war's critics will be reluctant to call the whole thing off.

The anger of Democrats (and a few Republicans) over the recent revelations of the lies of George W. Bush and the White House Iraq Group is completely justified. There is no greater betrayal of our nation than the misuse of the military and no greater moral sin than ordering up a policy that effectively ensures the murder of thousands.

But Democrats like John Kerry and John Edwards, who are only now slowly coming around to criticizing the war, have themselves to blame as well. History and common sense told us at the time that there was a high probability the White House was lying. Such Democrats and Republicans owed it to themselves, their party, their constituents, and their country to question and investigate White House claims far more closely than they did.

The lies of George W. Bush's White House are, in my opinion, an impeachable offense. I've said so for two and a half years. But if there is no "Iraq Syndrome"—if Democrats as well as Republicans seize upon these misdeeds but then continue to call for the casual projection of American military power anywhere and everywhere in the world—then the lives lost in Iraq really will have been in vain.

It's up to us to learn the lesson.


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