How Likely is a 'Lie'?

Posted: Apr 11, 2006 6:32 PM

One of the most notable effects of the current polarization of American politics is the readiness of President Bush's opponents to charge that he has "lied." That's a pretty serious accusation, though certainly not unprecedented. We all remember "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky."

But in President Bush's case, the charges center on various things he is supposed to have said in order to build support for the invasion of Iraq. "Bush lied -- people died" is probably the simplest form of the accusation. It doesn't bother to level a specific charge, let alone offer evidence to support it. Many people are willing to settle for an accusation that vague, because their belief in Bush's villainy is so overwhelming that it doesn't need specificity.

But that still leaves plenty of people who are reluctant to call the president a liar without a certain amount of evidence. Well, then, how about those famous weapons of mass destruction? Bush certainly declared that Saddam Hussein had them, didn't he? -- and, what's more, that they were the main reason we had to attack him. Yet no such weapons were ever found. Isn't it possible that Bush knew Saddam didn't have them, and simply lied in charging that he did?

The trouble is that it's impossible to believe Bush would make such a charge, and use it as the principle justification of the invasion of Iraq, if he knew that it was false and would be proved false within a matter of weeks. A truly accomplished liar will cover himself better than that.

So the critics have turned to smaller but arguably better-supported charges of lying. One of the most durable has been the matter of the alleged yellowcake. This is a predecessor of the uranium used in nuclear weapons, and the administration had cited, as evidence of Saddam's intentions, reports that he had been trying to buy this material from the African nation of Niger. The reports have subsequently been denounced as false, and based on forged documents planted on British intelligence. The British nevertheless insist that the reports are true, but they are certainly under a cloud and we will assume, hereinafter, that they are false.

There is no doubt that President Bush cited these reports in support of his case against Saddam. But, for his doing so to have been a "lie," he would have to have known the reports were false. And, once again, it is preposterous to think that, in building his case against Saddam, Bush would deliberately insert a false charge that could only (and did) damage the case.

Similar considerations fatally undermine the (unrelated) charge that Bush deliberately violated statutory and constitutional restrictions by ordering the surveillance of phone calls between the United States and abroad, where one of the parties is reasonably believed to be an Al Qaeda operative. Let's assume that Bush believed such surveillance would be illegal, but was determined to order it anyway. Would he then (as he did) tell the leaders of both parties in both branches of Congress, and the ranking members of both parties in both intelligence committees, what he was doing?

The loose charges of "lying" that are being hurled against Bush these days are symptomatic, not of any genuine deliberate dishonesty on Bush's part, or even of a sincere belief to that effect on the part of his critics. They are simply evidence of the sort of brickbats that are becoming conventional as American politics spirals downward into the gutter. That spiral, in turn, is a product of the sheer desperation the Democrats have felt ever since they lost (unfairly, as they saw it) the presidential election of 2000, and its ratification in 2004.

Perhaps, if the Congressional elections this November result in the Democrats winning one or both Houses of Congress, their fever will abate, and our political rhetoric will regain a little of the balance it has lost.