BUSH DIDN’T LIE

I’m sympathetic to the president’s case that he was not the only one who supported war against Saddam because of the threat of WMDs. The consensus at the time – and it was shared by opponents and supporters of the war – was so overwhelming that Saddam’s WMDs were a premise of everyone’s case, pro and con. Maybe Scott Ritter and Baghdad Bob get a pass on this. But not many others. Nevertheless, all the rest of us were wrong. Were we lied to? I see no reason yet to believe we were – in the strong sense that deliberate untruths were consciously uttered. Was the post-9/11 atmosphere sufficient to blind many people to the possibility that they might be wrong about this premise? Certainly, that’s the case for me. I wasn’t skeptical enough. I followed the groupthink. I shouldn’t have. It’s also true, I think, that in the effort to ensure that the CIA was doing its job, some around the veep’s office and elsewhere may have seized on materials of dubious, if not discredited, validity. In retrospect, they were not skeptical enough either – and they have a much higher responsibility in this respect than bloggers or even Democrats who do not have full access to the full intelligence.

HIS NO-WIN BOTTOM LINE: But what I’m describing here is a failing, not a sin. It may deserve criticism on the grounds of incompetence, but not, I think, moral condemnation on the grounds of duplicity. The “Bush Lied!” screams are as cheap as they are very hard to substantiate. Moreover, it’s easy to get lulled into the fact after four years of no further atrocities on the mainland that we do not face grave dangers. After 9/11, I give government officials a pass on over-estimating threats to the country. Moreover, I don’t doubt the sincerity of Bush and Cheney in making their case for war on the WMD grounds (although, again, it’s baloney to say that that was the only ground they based their argument on). I’m open to debate on the Niger stuff and the aluminum tubes, but these are not central to the broad WMD case. I’m also open to the argument that the administration could have been more careful in their rhetoric. Talk of mushroom clouds was not exactly conducive to calm debate. But my bottom line is: These guys made a hard call in perilous times for good reasons. It turns out they were also wrong in one critical respect. That’s the judgment we have to grapple with – and it’s not very emotionally satisfying for either side. Above all, it’s not good for the president. In this debate, Bush has to choose between being called a liar or someone who made a profound, if forgivable, misjudgment in the gravest decision a president ever has to make. That’s no-win. “Hey, guys, I’m not a liar. I just got the intelligence completely wrong, and waged a pre-emptive war partly on the basis of that mistake. Sorry.” Not exactly a strong position. Oddly enough, I think Bush would have been more easily forgiven by the public if he’d been less defensive about it at the moment the WMD argument collapsed after the invasion. But he refused to acknowledge the obvious, dismissed the embarrassment, tried to change the subject and then just went silent. Once again, he mistook brittleness for strength. These many small decisions not to trust the American people with the full, embarrassing truths about the war has, in the end, undermined trust in the president and therefore support for the war. For that lack of candor, the president is paying dearly. So is the war in Iraq.

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