If you want to know how the Iraq debate got so acrimonious, the tipping point was when mainstream Democrats went from accusing Bush of bungling the Iraq war to accusing him of lying to get America into that war. His crime, at this point, became not merely one of error but one of deliberate deception. The basic liberal reasoning is that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, therefore Bush has been misleading the American people all along.
At one time these charges of lying were restricted to the political left. In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, The Nation claimed that Bush went to war based on “falsehoods and deceptions.” Al Franken took the charge a step further, alleging that “the President loves to lie.” Activist Cindy Sheehan insisted, “My son died for lies. George Bush lied to us and he knew he was lying.”
But of late even mainstream Democrats have started to talk this way. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was a relatively hawkish national security advisor in the Carter administration, recently faulted Bush for going to war in Iraq on “false pretenses.” What follows from this premise is that Bush cannot now be trusted in anything he says, whether about the need for more troops in Iraq or the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program.
It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to fault Bush for being wrong about the weapons of mass destruction. But unlike pundits and rival presidential candidates, statesmen do not have the benefit of hindsight. They must act in the moving current of events, using information that is available to them. At the time there was little doubt across the political spectrum that Saddam Hussein was pursuing WMDs. Hussein himself acted as if he had such weapons, constantly evading the efforts of United Nations inspectors to monitor Iraqi weapons facilities.
Bush had to weigh the risk of invading Iraq and being wrong, against the risk of not invading Iraq and being wrong. In the first case, he would be risking American troops in an unpopular war that would, nevertheless, result in the removal of a vicious dictator. In the second case, he would be risking Hussein acquiring a deadly weapon, which could end up in the hands of terrorists. If as a consequence a massive bomb exploded in Chicago killing half a million Americans, then who would take the responsibility? Weighing the risks, Bush decided it would be better to take preventive action and invade Iraq.
In retrospect, Bush was wrong to invade Iraq at the time that he did, in the way that he did. With the benefit of hindsight, I think Bush might have done better to focus on Iran which had nuclear aspirations of its own and was pursuing them—it turns out—with greater effectiveness than Saddam Hussein. Statesmen, however, not have the luxury of making decisions in retrospect.
Consider a similar decision made by President Roosevelt. In the period leading up to World War II, a group of émigré German scientists warned Albert Einstein that the Germans were building an atomic bomb under the guidance of that country’s greatest scientist, Werner Heisenberg. Acutely aware of the dangers of Hitler possessing an atomic bomb, Einstein took this information in the fall of 1939 to President Roosevelt, who commissioned the Manhattan Project. The United States built the bomb, and later dropped two of them on Japan.
Many years later, Americans discovered that the Germans were nowhere close to building an atomic bomb. Their project was on the wrong track, and it seems to have stalled in its infancy. Some historians believe that Heisenberg was trying to thwart the project from the inside. Be that as it may, in retrospect we now know that the intelligence that led to the Manhattan project was wrong. But no one goes around saying, “Einstein lied” or “FDR lied.” They didn’t lie; they used the information they had to make a tough decision in a very dangerous situation.
The same is true of Bush. Acting against the somber backdrop of 9/11, he may have acted in haste, and he might have acted in error, but he did not act in bad faith. Therefore the claim that “Bush lied” is itself a lie. By acknowledging this, we remove some of the poison that currently infects the Iraq debate, and help lay the groundwork for a constructive discussion of America’s future role in Iraq and in the Middle East.