Lies are deadly stuff. Like all poisons, they have to be handled carefully. "Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive," writes the poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott. Mark Twain was practical about it, too: "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."
Lies are particularly lethal in politics. They create a cauldron of double toil and trouble, nearly always in unpredictable ways. When a president lies, he's asking for it. "I am not a crook," said Richard Nixon, and he was driven from office. "I did not have relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," said Bill Clinton, and he was impeached. Now we're told, and told and told, that George W. Bush lied to get us into a war in Iraq. That could be impeachable stuff, too. A poll taken for The Wall Street Journal/NBC News suggests that 57 percent of Americans believe that George W. "deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq." In Europe, the percentage is even greater, and in the Middle East, nobody ever believes anybody about anything (and with good reason).
Somebody is clearly lying to somebody, proving that "A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on." But even a casual examination of the public record demonstrates that the president is not the liar.
The lied-about president finally pulled his boots on with a speech on Veterans Day, reproaching not just the liars but those who listen to lies: "It is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began." He reminded those with short memories that a bipartisan Senate investigation found that no pressure had been applied to alter the intelligence findings about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Look again, he said, at more than a dozen United Nations resolutions citing Saddam Hussein's possession and development of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction.
John Bolton, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, cites the record of the Iraqis' own admission that they had developed chemical weapons, and their later assertion that they had destroyed them.
"They were obstructing the inspectors, and it was perfectly reasonable to think that they still had those capabilities," the ambassador told me over lunch (of roast chicken) this week in Washington. "In retrospect we should have done better at probing that assumption." But that doesn't diminish what was once reasonable to believe. He calls attention to the remarks of Chief Inspector Hans Blix in a briefing to the Security Council in 2002, that it was imperative that Iraq furnish strong proof of the claim that there were no biological, chemical or nuclear weapons left in Iraq.
" . . . [I]t would need to provide convincing documentary or other evidence," Mr. Blix said of Iraq at the time. "Production of mustard gas is not exactly the same as production of marmalade." Only months before we went to war against Iraq, Mr. Blix found 122-mm chemical rocket warheads in a bunker 105 miles southwest of Baghdad, and wrote that "they could also be the tip of a submerged iceberg." (Icebergs in the desert? But we got his point.)
If, as Mr. Blix now claims, he was only being cautious and that the president "misled himself," Mr. Blix gave the president considerable assistance.
Norman Podhoretz notes in Commentary magazine that the chief of staff for Colin Powell, when he was the secretary of state, said "the consensus of the intelligence services 'was overwhelming' in the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq that Saddam definitely had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and that he was also in all probability well on the way to rebuilding the nuclear capability that the Israelis had damaged by bombing the Osirak reactor in 1981." There was also a credible belief that Iraq would be able to make a nuclear weapon in months to a year after it acquires 'sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.'"
The list of Democrats who believed as the president did, and fell all over themselves saying so, is a long list, and includes Bill Clinton; Madeleine Albright, his secretary of state; Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd; and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the current leader of the Democrats in the House. If you don't believe me, you can Google 'em.
The warning by William James has a particular resonance for our time: "There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it."