Clearer Than the Truth

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

By Benjamin Schwarz

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."

Of course, there's every reason to assume that the Clinton Administration evaded, distorted, and exaggerated for the most honorable reasons—that is, in pursuit of what it saw as America's vital foreign-policy interests. And, of course, there's every reason to assume the same of the Bush Administration. Why have American Presidents so commonly misrepresented and stretched the truth in matters of national security? The answer lies largely in this country's enviable geopolitical position and military strength. Given that America is separated by vast oceans both from its potential adversaries and from areas of potential geopolitical instability, national threats have nearly always been more a matter of supposition, and of future consequences, than of present reality. In 1966, while discussing how losing South Vietnam might diminish American credibility and threaten the country's security, one of Robert McNamara's closest aides, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, allowed that "it takes some sophistication to see how Vietnam automatically involves our [vital interests]." The assumption that the public won't understand—or won't buy—the often esoteric logic behind American national-security policy has long made it tempting for both Democratic and Republican administrations to make their arguments "clearer than the truth." In the case of the current Administration, it was far easier to warn of an immediate threat than it was to defend the complicated and debatable proposition that now was the best time to forestall a potential threat.

If there's nothing original, historically speaking, in the Bush Administration's distortions and exaggerations, are those actions nevertheless particularly insidious? The answer is yes—and largely because of factors that this Administration has perceptively grasped and forthrightly articulated. The President has made a persuasive case that the September 11 attacks represent a threat to the United States that is of unprecedented immediacy and magnitude. For the first time in its history the country confronts enemies that seek not geopolitical advantage but our national annihilation—and they must be destroyed, because they cannot be deterred. The Administration has correctly asserted that the war against al-Qaeda and its ilk cannot be won on the defensive, and—partisan and simplified objections to "pre-emptive war" aside—the United States must act to thwart latent threats before they develop fully. Furthermore, this war can be waged and won only by using the most sensitive intelligence, which perforce means that much of the contest will be covert; and even when military action is overt, the full dimensions of and reasons for that action must often remain unrevealed. Therefore, the public must place enormous trust in its government.

In justifying war against Iraq, the Administration suggested ties between a mortal adversary (al-Qaeda) and what was at worst a worrisome future adversary (Saddam)—ties whose existence nearly every knowledgeable observer has called into question. Furthermore, the Administration conflated the dangers posed by terrorists with those posed by tyrants, and said that the same sort of pre-emptive measures must be applied to both. This is a dubious argument, and one that must be rigorously examined rather than continually asserted. (It is ludicrous to suggest, as President Bush has, that a Saddam-ruled Iraq armed with chemical weapons—weapons that it possessed in 1991, but was deterred from using against the U.S. in the Persian Gulf War—poses the same kind of threat and requires the same kind of response as, say, an al-Qaeda-ruled and nuclear-armed Pakistan.)

Here's the rub: Congress and the public will most likely have to grant to this and future administrations vast and unprecedented latitude to take pre-emptive paramilitary and military measures—measures that may even appear to be in violation of international law. The public may well have to accept a large degree of ignorance regarding such actions and the reasons behind them. This Administration has not misled or distorted more than have most previous ones. But it is operating in a new world, and it has squandered the trust that we are called upon to give it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/04/clearer-than-the-truth/302928/