Clearer Than the Truth

Duplicity in foreign affairs has sometimes served the national interest. But the case of Iraq is different

The Bush Administration "systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and ballistic missile programs," concluded a January report issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—a nonpartisan research institution, albeit one far more closely aligned with the Democratic Party than with the Republican. Not all fair-minded observers would go quite that far. But in the most generous interpretation possible, it is clear that the President and his team massaged the truth—even if we allow for significant intelligence failures generally, as well as for the great uncertainty in the months preceding the war regarding the status of Iraq's biological-weapons program specifically. That is, the Administration consistently selected evidence and suppositions that supported the policies it advocated, and just as consistently ignored or dismissed evidence and arguments to the contrary. Defenders of the Administration should, but won't, acknowledge that even before the war few of the best-informed experts at home or abroad saw the Iraqi threat from unconventional weapons in nearly as dire terms as did Bush and his advisers, and that virtually no responsible experts saw the ties between Iraq and Islamist terrorism that the Administration discerned.

Does this mean that the Administration didn't go to war in defense of what it believed were—and perhaps are—the vital security interests of the United States? No; it merely suggests that the reasons given publicly for war were not the only—or even the most important—ones. That Saddam's WMD programs posed an immediate danger now seems highly doubtful. But whether an inspections regime, "smart sanctions," and the vigilance of the international community (and of successor American administrations) could have guaranteed that Iraq wouldn't acquire those capabilities in the future is another issue entirely, and one that undoubtedly haunted Bush and his advisers. And that matter is quite separate from whatever strategic and political advantages—desirable or essential—the Administration believed a not hostile Iraq would give the United States.

So, regardless of the obfuscations that accompanied the case for war, the wisdom or folly of the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq can still be argued. This decision rested on the assumption (shared by the Administration's Democratic critics) that a "rogue state" like Saddam's Iraq cannot be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction, and that therefore, as President Clinton declared in 1998, the United States "simply cannot allow" Iraq to acquire such weapons.

But instead of debating that complex proposition, which has guided U.S. national-security policy across administrations, Democratic critics profess shock that the Bush Administration exaggerated and distorted the truth in justifying war. Although John Kerry and Wesley Clark charge that the President and his officials "misled" Congress and the public, these men should know that virtually all administrations—including those most revered by Democrats—have, to quote General Clark's criticism of the Bush Administration, "hyped" and "stretched" the truth when pushing the country to pursue national-security policies that they deemed crucial. FDR, though he claimed to embrace the neutrality that a great majority of Americans favored, in fact surreptitiously sought—long before Pearl Harbor—to maneuver the United States into war. And the Truman Administration followed Senator Arthur Vandenberg's advice to Dean Acheson (the Clinton Administration's favorite Secretary of State) to "scare hell out of the American people" by, in Acheson's words, painting a picture "clearer than the truth" regarding the Soviet menace in order to win public support for enormous defense increases and for the new and sweeping global role it perceived to be in America's interest.

The Clinton Administration's hyping and stretching of the truth in pushing for and justifying war in Kosovo—the first war the U.S.-led NATO ever waged, and one fought against a country that, however repellent, posed no threat to any member of the alliance, least of all the United States—is more recent and therefore somewhat more relevant. The Clinton Administration made war on Yugoslavia for complex reasons, including its conviction that such action was necessary to bolster America's leadership position in post-Cold War Europe (a position the Administration held to be an essential U.S. interest). However, before, during, and after the conflict, it justified the war by averring that its intention, to quote President Clinton, was to stop "deliberate, systematic efforts at ... genocide." Although Yugoslavia's counterinsurgency campaign in Kosovo was indisputably brutal, the Administration clearly exaggerated, and its rationalizations for war were clearly selective. It is largely agreed that before U.S. intervention about 1,800 civilians, mostly Kosovar Albanians but also Serbs, were killed in fighting and in Yugoslavia's ferocious efforts to uproot the Kosovo Liberation Army—efforts that included murder, but efforts that the KLA itself deliberately provoked. During the war the Administration based its claims that Yugoslavia was engaged in genocide on what it knew to be a highly dubious evidentiary foundation—unconfirmed reports passed on to NATO by the KLA, an obviously biased party and one that the State Department had called a terrorist organization. In the only in-depth investigation of the issue by a U.S. newspaper, the late Daniel Pearl and Robert Block, of The Wall Street Journal, concluded that the Yugoslavian campaign in Kosovo, to quote the headline of their piece, was "cruel, bitter, savage," but, contrary to the Clinton Administration's claims, "genocide it wasn't."

Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.


The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.


A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.


Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.


Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In