'Five Lies' Excerpt: Bait and Switch

This excerpt from "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq" is taken from the book's first chapter.

As presented to the American people by our president, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was an essential component of the “war on terror,” itself the linchpin of the vague, impossibly broad, and hyper-aggressive Bush doctrine that the president had formulated publicly in the days after 9/11.

5 lies At its root, these stratagems were supposed to make Americans safer, although Bush’s language – full of John Wayne colloquialisms like “smoke ’em out” and “hunt ’em down” – often seemed much more reminiscent of the exhortations of a vengeful jihadi cleric than that of a confident and protective patriarch, as he seemed to aspire to appear. After resounding military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, by late spring 2003, many in the White House were exuberant and willing to say off the record that the now-famous photo of Bush striding across the deck of an aircraft carrier in full Top Gun gear would be Exhibit #1 in the 2004 presidential campaign. As it turns out, they were celebrating too soon.

Much of what has ensued is now familiar ground for those who have been following current events, and all too obviously similar to previous colonial debacles: the confusing blend of spontaneous local opposition and disciplined guerrilla organizations, economic and political chaos, and a “checkpoint culture” of tense, dangerous engagements between foreign troops and native civilians that wears on both. Instead of making us look strong, we have exposed the limits of raw power to make history.

In his eloquent February 27, 2003 letter of resignation to Secretary of State Colin Powell, diplomat John Brady Kiesling, who had served under four presidents, made a prescient warning about what lay beneath the White House’s hubris, as well as how it threatened the very United States leadership in global affairs it claimed to exemplify:
The September 11 tragedy left us stronger than before, rallying around us a vast international coalition to cooperate for the first time in a systematic way against the threat of terrorism. But rather than take credit for those successes and build on them, this administration has chosen to make terrorism a domestic political tool, enlisting a scattered and largely defeated Al Qaeda as its bureaucratic ally. We spread disproportionate terror and confusion in the public mind, arbitrarily linking the unrelated problems of terrorism and Iraq. The result, and perhaps the motive, is to justify a vast misallocation of shrinking public wealth to the military and to weaken the safeguards that protect American citizens from the heavy hand of government. September 11 did not do as much damage to the fabric of American society as we seem determined to do to ourselves . . .

We are straining beyond its limits an international system we built with such toil and treasure, a web of laws, treaties, organizations, and shared values that sets limits on our foes far more effectively than it ever constrained America’s ability to defend its interests.
This war was no gimme, however. There was considerable resistance outside of Washington to go to war without the cloak of United Nations cooperation and/or a broad coalition of real allies. And, as we have seen, even some powerful figures inside the Beltway, such as Scowcroft and Zinni, were publicly opposed to it.

To steer the United States into a preemptive war with a country 6,000 miles away, the Bush administration had to establish five key “facts” in the public’s mind as a precursor to deploying hundreds of thousands of troops and spending billions of dollars in the effort:
1. Iraq had something to do with 9/11 and/or Al Qaeda.

2. Iraq illegally possessed chemical and biological weapons which were a threat to the United States and/or its allies.

3. Iraq was fast pursuing and might even already possess the means to build and deliver a nuclear bomb.

4. Occupying Iraq would not only be a “cakewalk,” but we would also find in the aftermath a nation full of people who would welcome us and cooperate fully in the rebuilding of their country.

5. Iraq was a nation which, with U.S. aid and guidance, could within a short time become a democratic model for the rest of the region.

These five lies were hardly arbitrary, but chosen with a clear under-standing of what it takes to overcome the innate isolationism of Americans. To wage war, the American public needs to feel an immediate sense of clear and present danger, be it Pearl Harbor or the menacing presence of Soviet nuclear weapons placed in Cuba. We are poorly educated about the world beyond, but have an innate grasp of power relationships, understanding that if you can’t hurt us we don’t have to think much about you.

The fact that Iraq holds under its dry soil the world’s second largest oil reserves only complicated the pitch for occupation: Americans don’t like to think of themselves as imperialists, getting their hands dirty to secure wealth. Thanks to our history as a former colony, U.S. foreign policy has always been clothed in the rhetoric of moral exceptional-ism – the idea that wars must be undertaken at least partly for the greater good of humanity.

The larger vision behind the invasion of Iraq – as the first step toward the creation of a new American empire – was unlikely to win a ringing endorsement from a nation that likes to think of itself always as the “good guy in the white hat.” Despite Saddam’s many excesses, most Americans wouldn’t have minded if Saddam Hussein were to be overthrown, choke on a pretzel, or be stoned for adultery – and all Iraq’s oil siphoned into the Great Lakes, for that matter – but they were damned unlikely to want to risk American lives to accomplish any of it.

And then, after the unbelievable horror of 9/11, shocked out of our post–Cold War illusion of omnipotence, Americans – whether liberal or conservative – sought security, revenge, and reaffirmation of our long-held belief that we are the world’s beacon of light. Faced with these strong and often conflicting emotions, the White House offered a simple panacea: an open-ended “war on terror,” posed as a new “crusade” to wreak havoc on America’s enemies and anybody who would harbor them. U.S. presidents know that to sell a war to the American people, they need at least two basic ingredients: self-defense and moral duty. In terrorism, the Bush administration found the perfect enemy – shadowy, insubstantial, and infinitely malleable to interpretation. In his 2002 State of the Union speech, flushed with the resounding victory in Afghanistan, Bush proclaimed:

“Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes, are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning....These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield, and we must pursue them wherever they are. So long as training camps operate, so long as nations harbor terrorists, freedom is at risk and America and our allies must not, and will not, allow it.”

Forget the Taliban. It was now time for a full-blown “axis of evil,” a wish list of targets that could be picked off one by one in this unending war; unfortunately for Saddam, Iraq was #1. Over the coming year, the Bush administration would persistently work to convince the American public that: one, Saddam has already attacked the United States through his connections with Al Qaeda; and two, he could and would do so again using biological and chemical weapons or, if we were to waste any more time, a nuclear bomb.

In chapters two, three, and four, we deconstruct each of these myths – Saddam’s link to Al Qaeda, his threatening stash of bio-chemical weapons, and his nuclear weapons program – in detail. As these chapters reveal, the Bush administration did not have good evidence to support its allegations. It instead combined vague assertions, outright falsehoods, and exaggerated rhetoric that were repeated over and over again until they were established as “facts” in the public debate.

While establishing Saddam’s credentials as a terrorist required “imaginative” uses of intelligence, the moral card was much easier to play in the post-9/11 era. The national tragedy brought out the uglier side of American exceptionalism: the need to objectify entire nations as “evil.” Whatever the motives for war, Americans have always needed to believe in their righteousness in waging it.
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