Paul Pillar

The Lie Continues

Dan Froomkin in the Huffington Post provides one of the better descriptions of how former President George W. Bush has been propagating a big lie regarding the war in Iraq that his administration initiated over seven years ago. The lie in question does not concern specific evidence used to justify the war, or even spurious assertions that were part of the selling of the war, such as about a supposed alliance between a regime and a terrorist group. Misrepresentation in the sales campaign involved outright falsehoods less than it entailed rhetorical artifices that got Americans to make just enough of a perceptual leap to believe what the administration wanted them to believe. The lie instead is Bush's contention—which he continues to make, most recently in his memoir—that the launching of the war was the product of a long and careful deliberation which considered all the relevant evidence and all the available alternatives to an invasion. Froomkin notes that Bush's contention in his book that he came to the decision to invade “only reluctantly and after a long period of reflection” is a “flat-out lie.”

The lie extends not only to Bush's personal behavior but to the operation of his administration's national security apparatus. There was no policy process to consider whether the war was a good idea—no meetings, no options papers, nothing. Deliberations about the Iraq War were about how to sell the war to the public, and to a lesser extent about executing the war; there were no deliberations about whether to launch the war in the first place. Bush and the other principal war-makers in his administration decided very quickly after the terrorist attack in September 2001—which produced a burst of public militancy that made a war of aggression in Iraq politically feasible for the first time—that their opportunity had finally come to carry out the great neoconservative experiment of injecting democracy into the Middle East through the barrel of a gun. Bush contends that almost a year later he was still ruminating at his ranch about pursuing a diplomatic track. In fact, by then the war plan had been set months earlier, and the White House was about to move the sales campaign into high gear. As for the presumed weapons of mass destruction that figured so prominently in that campaign, the bureaucracy did not present the administration, before it started the march to war, with any judgments on the subject that were remotely alarming or a call for action. The administration never requested the intelligence estimate on the subject that later would become notorious, and Bush never even read it (nor did his national security adviser). Far from being the prime mover of the war decision, the weapons issue was merely—as arch war promoter Paul Wolfowitz would let slip near the end of a long interview—a convenient rationale on which people in different parts of the government could agree.

The evidence contradicting Bush's contention, some of which Froomkin reviews, is voluminous and includes memoirs, accounts by investigative reporters, and other material. Maybe Mr. Bush's propounding of a notion so blatantly contrary to the historical record is just another manifestation of his already well known inability to admit a mistake. Maybe as part of whatever process of rationalization and reduction of dissonance has been going on inside his own mind, he has come to believe his own tale. What is harder to understand is why he has not been more broadly called to account for such a fabrication. Probably part of the explanation is that the Big Lie has worked in a way similar to how it has worked under other regimes in other countries; if you repeat a theme long enough and persistently enough, an indoctrinated public begins to believe it. In the current case, another part of the explanation is the public's favoring of explanations that remove accountability as far as possible from the public itself—blaming disasters on something like the mistakes of an unelected bureaucracy rather than the mendacity of leaders the public itself has elected.

The importance of this does not have to do with thrashing George W. Bush. It has to do with understanding how an expedition that has been incredibly costly and damaging to U.S. interests was undertaken through an atrocious non-process, and through that understanding to try to reduce the chance that anything like this will ever happen again.