I must confess to a mounting impatience with the advocates of the president's war policy who now seem zealously intent on short-circuiting any serious debate about the rationale for the war by denying, obfuscating or simply lying about the premises of the very debate itself.
There are two basic ways this is being done. One is to toss around words like 'conspiracies' and 'plots' in order to discredit their opponents without seriously engaging their ideas. The second is to utterly distort what the WMD debate was all about.
I've been traveling for the last few days (out-of-pocket, 38,000 feet in the air, etc.) and am only now catching up on my reading. So perhaps I've missed some better examples. But certainly one of the best is the sneering OpEd Robert Kagan wrote in the Post on Saturday.
It's starts with the familiar rhetoric ("There is something surreal about the charges flying that President Bush lied when he claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction") and ends with it too ("So if you like a good conspiracy, this one's a doozy. And the best thing about it is that if all these people are lying, there's only one person who ever told the truth: Saddam Hussein.")
Along the way, we get the heart of the argument: It's false, dishonest or just ridiculous to charge President Bush with deceiving the American people about Saddam's WMD because so many other worthies said just the same thing. Who? Hans Blix, John Deutsch, Tony Blair, German intelligence, Bill Cohen, Bill Clinton, everyone. In other words, just about everybody who could credibly be called part of the foreign policy establishment.
Each of these guys -- and Kagan could have mentioned many others -- said at one point or another that Saddam continued to maintain a serious stockpile of chemical and likely also biological weapons. This is all true, of course, so far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far if you start off by being disingenuous about what the debate even involves.
The president's defenders want to frame the argument like this: the president said there was WMD; his critics said there was WMD. If he's wrong, everybody was wrong. If there was a 'plot' to deceive the American people, as Kagan would have it, even the president's critics were in on the plot. So what kind of plot would that be?
This is just a head-fake with an advanced degree and it's deeply dishonest.
The public didn't get sold on this war because Saddam had nerve gas, or botulinum or even anthrax. True or not, a lot of people believed that. (I believed it -- and I still have a very hard time believing Saddam doesn't have chemical munitions stored somewhere.) The public got sold on the war because the administration argued consistently and vociferously that Saddam was on the brink of amassing far more fearsome weapons -- particularly nuclear weapons ("We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud") and that he had growing operational ties to terrorists to whom he might give these weapons or even some of his less threatening chemical agents.
It was fairly clear before the war that neither of those claims were true. Since the war it has become clearer by the day that they were almost certainly not true.
Those were the imminent threats that made the war necessary in March. No waiting for inspections, no building up of alliances, nothing. There was an imminent threat and countries respond militarily to imminent threats.
The only thing that's pretty clear is that there was no imminent threat. And there is a growing body of evidence -- much of which was known, frankly, before the war -- that the administration did everything it could to push the claim that there was an imminent threat using what was often very, very weak evidence. I don't think 'lie' is necessarily the best word for it. I think a more apropos analogy is a lawyer's brief. You pull together every piece of evidence you can find -- good, bad, flimsy, obviously bogus, uncertain, it doesn't matter, just throw it all in -- and you make the best case you can with what you have. You put in everything that helps your case and forget about everything that hurts it. And the case was that there was an imminent threat that required war against Iraq. I repeat, imminent.
In many cases I think the folks who pushed these arguments knew they weren't true. But to them, the ends justified the means.
In other cases, though -- and these are the more important and intriguing ones -- I think they believed that Saddam was such a bad guy that these things must be true. Or if they weren't true now, they would be soon enough. So, same difference.
Fareed Zakaria has an excellent column in this week's Newsweek in which he discusses the roots of this tendency. Many of the same folks who played key roles in the build up to the Iraq war make similar overestimations about the Late Soviet Union and later China. (You'll find some similar, if less elegant and erudite, ideas on these folks and this tendency in my earlier article "Practice to Deceive.")
We now need a serious congressional inquiry that will explain what was conscious deception, what was willful blindness tinged by a deep-seated ideological zeal, and what was simply an unwillingness to credit the reports of Intelligence Community analysts with whom the folks in the administration had deep-seated policy disagreements.
It does Kagan no credit to tar critics as conspiracy theorists or muddy up the water enough so that the debate can't be had. (If he wants to have it out with that minority of yahoos who claim that the US cooked up all the claims about WMD to get into Iraq and snatch away the country's oil, that's his choice.)
The fact is that the administration and its advocates are now doing everything they can to run away from a year's worth of arguments about the imminent threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Quoting one of their patron saints, conservatives are often fond of saying that 'ideas have consequences.'
Lies do too.