Get facts straight before crying 'liar'

Posted: Jun 27, 2003 12:00 AM

I haven't written much about the ongoing brouhaha over whether President Bush "lied" America into the war with Iraq.

The main reason for my silence is that it's a monstrously stupid argument -and usually deliberately so. But I have better reasons for my wait-and-see approach.

First, let's deal with the stupidity. The really dumb argument is that Bush simply made up the whole thing. This line is rarely offered explicitly by serious people because it is so illogical. But you will hear it alluded to by Democratic presidential candidates like Howard Dean or John Kerry who don't mind leaving the impression that Bush is a deceitful warmonger. And you will certainly find this "idea" buzzing around the fever swamps of the left, mostly on the Internet.

The basic problem with this analysis is it requires that Bush knew the truth but said the opposite. After all, a lie is only a lie if you know the truth and then say something very different. So in this case, Bush needed to know something nobody had an inkling of.

As Kenneth Pollack, formerly on Bill Clinton's national security staff, recently noted in The New York Times, "At no point before the war did the French, the Russians, the Chinese or any other country with an intelligence operation capable of collecting information in Iraq say it doubted that Baghdad was maintaining a clandestine weapons capability."

The United Nations weapons inspectors reported time and again throughout the 1990s that Saddam had not disarmed. The only time he could have disarmed was during the four-year period when no inspections took place. No serious person thinks Saddam did that. Even French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin admitted last November, "The security of the Americans is under threat from people like Saddam Hussein who are capable of using chemical and biological weapons."

In fact, Bush must have known Bill Clinton was wrong, too. Either that, or Bill Clinton was a liar as well. Because in 1998, Bill Clinton spoke forcefully to the American people about the grave threat posed by Iraq's mounting chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

On Dec. 19, 1998, right after Bill Clinton was flouting the will of our allies and the U.N. by launching a military strike against the Iraqis, President Clinton told the American people in a televised address: "Earlier today, I ordered America's armed forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq. ... Their mission is to attack Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors. ... Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons."

The strike was wildly popular with most prominent Democrats at the time, most of whom -including presidential candidates Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry -were strong Iraq hawks until a few months ago.

But according to the purist "Bush lied" school, not only was everyone wrong about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, but Bush secretly knew it and didn't say so. Moreover, he was so convincing in his lies he was able to mislead Democratic leaders, veterans of the Clinton administration and the global intelligence community. And you thought Reagan was an actor.

Now, there are intelligent anti-Bush arguments out there. The most defensible, and therefore most serious, is that Bush exaggerated one threat or another, particularly the danger from Saddam's nuclear weapons program. It's certainly true that the White House was wrong to place so much credence on forged documents purporting to show Saddam was trying to purchase uranium in Niger.

But the more intelligent the criticisms of Bush become, the less useful they are for scoring cheap political points.

And that brings me to the main reason I've kept my tongue on this whole issue. We don't know enough yet. Worse, every week something we thought we knew turns out not to be true.

Saddam's dead. No, he isn't. But Chemical Ali is dead. Oh wait, maybe he isn't.

Baathists are heading to Syria. No, wait that's not true. The Baghdad Museum looting was the disaster of the millennium. Whoops, it was a minor problem. Recently at a British media forum, leading journalists admitted that the U.S. "attack" on the Palestine Hotel, which killed two journalists, was "overblown." Don't even get me started on Jessica Lynch.

More important, just this week we learned that an Iraqi scientist was ordered by Uday Hussein to keep vital parts and documents for a nuclear weapons program under a rose bush in his garden. In a separate discovery, U.S. troops found scads of documents in a warehouse relating to various weapons programs. And, they found 300 sacks of castor beans -the principal ingredient for the toxin ricin -which were conveniently mislabeled "fertilizer."

If Bush lied, we'll find out. And if he did, he should face the consequences. But because I'm not an opportunistic Democratic presidential candidate or batty Bush-hating journalist, I don't mind waiting a few months to get my facts straight.

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