The (very) big lie

Posted: Nov 21, 2005 12:05 AM

It is said that a big lie can work if it is repeated often enough. For weeks, leading Democrats have been hammering away at the Big Lie that George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Starting on Veterans Day, Bush, Dick Cheney and others in the administration embarked on a "pushback," arguing that Bush -- and many leading Democrats, including some now part of the Big Lie campaign -- accurately characterized the intelligence at the time.

Bush, Cheney and the administration have the truth on their side. Exhaustive and authoritative examinations of the prewar intelligence, by the bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2004, by the Silberman-Robb Commission in 2005 and by the British commission headed by Lord Butler, have established that U.S. intelligence agencies, and the intelligence organizations of leading countries like Britain, France and Germany, believed that Saddam Hussein's regime was in possession of or developing weapons of mass destruction -- chemical and biological weapons, which the regime had used before, and nuclear weapons, which it was working on in the 1980s.

To the charges that Bush "cherry-picked" intelligence, the commission co-chaired by former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb found that the intelligence available to Bush but not to Congress was even more alarming than the intelligence Congress had.

The Silberman-Robb panel also concluded, after a detailed investigation, that in no instance did Bush administration authorities pressure intelligence officials to alter their findings.

Much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. But Bush didn't lie about it. Some Bush supporters argue that the pushback now is a mistake, because it prevents the administration from focusing on events going forward. But the damage to Bush's credibility is real, and he needs to repair it to speak credibly about the future.

At the same time, we must remember that the United States and our allies did not go to war solely because of weapons of mass destruction. There were other reasons, which Bush articulated at the time and which have been vindicated by events.

One of them was to remove from power one of the most brutal regimes on Earth. Mainstream media have enjoyed focusing on isolated prison abuses by U.S. forces and, in the past week, by Iraqis. (Have the media ever focused so closely on prison conditions in our past wars?) But these abuses are nothing compared with what the Saddam Hussein regime did every day. Rape rooms, prisoners fed into shredders, hundreds of mass graves: Do we really want to forget that the liberation of Iraq has vastly improved the lives of millions of people there?

Another goal was to advance freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Not just to help the people there, but to change the mindset of the region that produced the attacks of Sept. 11. Before 2003, the dictators and authoritarian rulers of the region focused their peoples' inevitable discontents on the United States and Israel.

Now, the progress toward democracy in Iraq is leading Middle Easterners to concentrate on the question of how to build decent governments and decent societies. We can see the results -- the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the first seriously contested elections in Egypt, Libya's giving up WMDs, the Jordanian protests against Abu Musab Zarqawi's recent suicide attacks and even a bit of reform in Saudi Arabia. In Syria, The Washington Post's David Ignatius reports, "people talk politics here with a passion I haven't heard since the 1980s in Eastern Europe. They're writing manifestos, dreaming of new political parties, trying to rehabilitate old ones from the 1950s."

Almost surely none of this would have happened without the liberation of Iraq. And there democracy goes forward: Seventy-eight percent voted for the Constitution last month, and democratic parties are contesting the elections to be held next month.

Against this backdrop, mainstream media headlined the call for withdrawal of Democratic Rep. John Murtha, who has long been skeptical about the war. The propagators of the big lie against President Bush are trying to delegitimize not only him, but also all the progress that has been made as a result of Iraq, progress both toward freedom for Middle Easterners and toward a Middle East that will no longer threaten the United States.