Fred Hiatt's preposterous editorial denouncing anyone who accuses Bush of having "lied" about Iraq has sparked renewed interest in this question. On some level, though, it's completely absurd that this question has dominated our national debate with, in particular, the "serious" and "grownup" position being that you can never say Bush lied. After all, we're right now in the middle of a major presidential campaign. The campaign, as campaigns tend to be, is waged by big league politicians. And I've heard Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and all the rest all try to mislead the voters on a whole variety of subjects over the course of the months.
Nobody finds this particularly shocking. Indeed, anyone who doesn't recognize that there's a lot of BS and hocus pocus out there on the campaign trail would be dismissed as a naive child.
Meanwhile, the war sales pitch was deeply dishonest. No fair-minded person could possibly deny that the overall effect of the way the administration talked about Iraq was designed to get people to believe that there was a short-term threat that Saddam Hussein would transfer a nuclear weapon to al-Qaeda for use against the United States of America. It's equally clear that this was not supported by the evidence. But more to the point, it's perfectly clear that the whole pitch was made in bad faith. The administration had a different, more nuanced and more medium-term set of concerns about Iraq. It believed that preventive war was the best way to deal with those concerns. And it also believed, correctly I think, that the public would not support an action of pure "anticipatory self-defense." Thus they took bits and pieces of real intelligence plus some very flimsy stuff plus some made up stuff plus some rhetorical excess and they weaved their dishonest tapestry.
The reason a lot of people seem reluctant to admit that this is what happened is that they were in on the scam. No doubt Fred Hiatt understood perfectly well that the administration was presenting an alarmist account of the Iraq issue, calculated to induce panic and misunderstanding rather than accurate assessments of the situation. It's just that Hiatt believed, as did most elites on the right and the hawkish segment of the left, that the sheeplike American were insufficiently attuned to the genius of aggressive warfare and that a good scare story was needed to roust them from their isolationist slumbers.
But then it turned out that the war was a disaster, and the much-feared "isolationist" impulse which said that war is a tool to be used to counter bona fide aggression rather than on speculative ventures was vindicated. So now everyone wants to pretend that it was an honest mistake, some kind of whacky mix-up like the time I took a huge gulp of vodka thinking it was water then spit it out all over the table, rather than a serious ideas-driven blunder that deserves to discredit the ideas that motivated it.