A Mind That Suits
What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.
Wednesday, July 21, 2004 :::
Attention regular readers: Instead of the usual feast of comments meant to educate, delight, and amuse, I am publishing here the notes to an op-ed piece that I am offering to various publications. The idea is that anyone who wishes to check on what I have to say can do the reading themselves. I apologize for the interruption in the fun.
Newcomers may wish to check out three "greatest hits" selections that can be found on August 10, 2003.
Background material for "The Lie Poisoning Public Life."
I make no pretense to being an expert in any of this. I am, however, a thorough and dispassionate reader.
1. General Background: Further reading
The best full length treatments that I have found concerning the war are by centrist academics.
Allies at War, by Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institute, covers nearly every aspect of the run-up to the war from a remarkably even-handed perspective. If you are only going to read one book, this is it.
While excellent, Dark Victory, by Jeffrey Record, has axes to grind. Some of them are my axes; some of them are not. Dr. Record was for many years advisor to then Sen. Sam Nunn (D.-GA), one of the finest legislators this country has ever had. Dr. Record can hardly be accused of being soft on defense, but he is a hardnosed realist to the point of being brutal. However, war is brutal, and his book repays careful reading. It is particularly good on the intellectual muddle surrounding “the Global War on Terror.” A short version of his views may be found here and should be read by anyone interested in the "GWOT."
2. Bush Lied! To begin at the very beginning
To lie: to make an untrue statement with the intent to deceive 2: to create a false or misleading impression. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
For “Bush lied” to have any meaning at all, those who level that charge must prove that the issue of Saddam’s WMD was woven out of whole cloth or radically distorted.
Single instances of lying don’t prove the case.
Off the cuff comments may or may not count.
If someone said something in an interview but they find out when they got back to the office that they were wrong, that is not a lie.
However, when Paul Wolfowitz says, “we never said there were stockpiles,” his critics are free to trot out the many, many times that Defense Department officials said exactly that.
The question: in the run-up to the war, was there an attempt to deceive? “Bush lied” must mean that, or it means nothing at all.
3. Primary sources for the case that George W. Bush and his advisors did not lie.
A very good recent summary of the situation before the war can be found by reading the transcript of acting Director of Central Intelligence John E. McLaughlin’s recent interview on NPR.
Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Pre-war Intelligence Assessment on Iraq, The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Criticism of this report from an expert but highly partisan source (Dr. Jessica Matthews of the Carnegie Endowment) can be found here, although Dr. Matthews glosses over some parts of the report that address questions she raises.
Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors. (If you want to impress your friends, the Privy Council—composed of Privy Counsellors--advises the Queen, not the Prime Minister, and so this is not a Parliamentary Inquiry.)
Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, testimony of Dr. David Kay before the Senate Armed Services Committee, January 28, 2004. This testimony has been overlooked by both sides because it does not conveniently fit into anyone’s party line.
Future Worldwide Threats to National Security, testimony of George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence, before Senate Armed Services Committee, March 9, 2004. The famous pictures of Mr. Tenet looking flabbergasted are actually his reaction to a lengthy statement from Sen. Edward Kennedy accusing the Administration of misusing the intelligence the CIA had provided.
4. The Case for “Bush Lied.”
It is telling that the Democratic Party leaders themselves are very careful to say the much softer sounding “misled,” rather than “lie,” although what they obviously want you to think is “lie.”
The most useful sources for the “Bush misled us” charge are the very, very partisan Rep. Henry Waxman of California, and the self-described non-partisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which of course cooperates fully with the very, very partisan Rep. Waxman. Nonetheless, they have provided the best anti-Bush case that can be made.
The Carnegie Endowment has a very useful page of links, and produced this equally useful report on pre-war intelligence.
Rep. Waxman’s staff produced a very thorough report, Iraq on the Record, which must be used with caution. The tenor can be detected by the fact that David Kay, the honorable and thorough first director of the Iraq Survey Group, is “Dr.” Kay, with full honors, because of course his testimony is at times useful to Rep. Waxman. Dr. Condoleezza Rice, whose testimony most emphatically is not useful to Rep. Waxman, is merely “Ms.” Rice, an inexcusable slight.
Iraq on the Record is replete with a lengthy discussion of methodology and caveats about how the database “does not include statements that appear mistaken only in hindsight.” However, it is also replete with rhetorical sleights-of-hand. E.g., it claims that Administration officials made “multiple” references to the notorious question of Iraq’s reported attempt to buy uranium in West Africa. “Multiple,” it turns out, means “six,” which, in a six-month-long debate, hardly even counts as “many.”
I will agree with Rep. Waxman that, where there was substantial disagreement among intelligence professionals, the Bush Administration should not have used the information. “Unwise,” however, is not the same thing as “dishonest.”
Rep. Waxman of course found those post-war statements where Administration officials went overboard, to put it politely, in defending their pre-war statements, but those do not go to the question of pre-war honesty.
The point I was trying to make in my op-ed piece is that the people who shout “Bush lied” are themselves dwelling in a land of half-truths, at best. That does not mean that I was ever a full-throated supporter of the war. Far from it. And in future pieces, I will be dealing with the many errors of the George W. Bush Administration, in addition to other errors of its opponents.
5. There are indeed conservatives who have tried to evade this whole issue by saying, incredibly, that the war was not about WMD. In case there is any doubt in your mind, please check this speech by Pres. Bush on October 7, 2002, during the Congressional debate on the Iraq resolution, as well as the President’s October 5, 2004 radio address. Conservative commentators felt that the October 7 speech “made the case.”
6. Significantly, in Iraq on the Record, Rep. Waxman’s staff quotes State Department sources in opposition to the belief that Saddam had a nuclear program. State Department professionals have a dismal record on enemy intelligence, preferring always to prove that confrontation is unnecessary. In the most famous incident of the Cold War, the State Dept. allowed the Soviets to build our new embassy in Moscow, even reprimanding Marines for challenging mysterious people who showed up at night on the construction site. Somehow, it turned out the embassy was one large listening device.
The Secretary of State himself came to disagree with his own people, based on CIA information. On that important issue, scan down to points 9 and 10.
Rep. Waxman did not see fit to include that dismal record in his discussion.
7. The Sixteen Words.
Oh, dear. Where to start?
The most serious charge against the current Bush Administration comes over the famous “sixteen words” in the President’s 2003 State of the Union Address.
Those sixteen words:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
The White House has since said that the evidence at the time was too weak to include in a Presidential address, but it was unwise of them to offer an “admission” so quickly, as it turned out.
At the current time, the British still stand by that intelligence, according to the Privy Council report and, according to an article in the Financial Times, so do the French and Italian intelligence services. (The copyrighted article is now, alas, available only to subscribers, and even a subscriber would find it nearly impossible to disgorge from the belly of their website. In fact, I did find it impossible, even after spending 5 minutes on the phone with their tech people. The Financial Times has one lousy website. Fortunately, I have a hard copy.)
And it turns out, judging from the Senate report, the CIA itself went back and forth.
The most famous critic of those 16 words was of course Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who has since been discredited to the satisfaction of most commentators, including the Washington Post, which had given his charges a disproportionate amount of publicity.
The best summaries of the case against him appeared in the Journal, and can be found here and here. (Link requires free registration.)
The British found Amb. Wilson's bloviating particularly irksome, and the Financial Times article quotes disarmament professionals using common sense to analyze the information in ways that Amb. Wilson found silly. He downplayed the importance of an former Nigerien official who was approached by Saddam's people to "explore" trade policies, but refused to bring up the subject in the meeting because he was certain they were looking for uranium. Amb. Wilson thought this was not enough to go on. However, as the FT notes, "As Niger's other main export is goats, some intelligence officials have surmised that uranium was what (the Iraqi official) was referring to." Such in-depth analysis appears to have bored Amb. Wilson.
Amb. Wilson’s defense of himself can be found here, along with this statement in support of him by Salon.com writer Mary Jacoby. It is amusing that she says the various conservative reviews were “orchestrated,” as if none of them individually had the brains to read the report and trash a publicity hound they all hate. I happen to know one conservative editorialist who had mentioned the case against Amb. Wilson but then decided to do a full-scale analysis later, pretty much all on his own. If an encouraging e-mail from a reader constitutes a conspiracy, then what isn't a conspiracy? We can actually walk and talk at the same time, but Ms. Jacoby apparently believes we can’t.
8. The point about the tendency of the CIA to underestimate threats should be firmly fixed in the mind, and it is a natural product of the need for the CIA to be certain of what it is doing, as Acting DCI McLaughlin makes clear in the interview mentioned in point 3, above. Other examples include generally missing the signs that the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was coming, and the rise of Islamism, or Islamic fundamentalism. As Mr. McLaughlin points out, the CIA in fact has had numerous successes in the last three years in capturing al-Qaeda leaders and cracking into the recently discovered global trade in nuclear materials.
It also needs to be remembered that the Iraqi nuclear weapons program discovered in 1991 was Saddam’s second such program, the first having been taken out by a bold Israeli night raid a decade before, so thinking he would try again was certainly justified.
9. The most thorough and honest statement from the Administration on the lack of WMD comes, not surprisingly, from the Secretary of State, who bravely went before the editorial board of the Washington Post. It repays careful study. I will return to the question of whether the war was wise and necessary, and the slander of Gen. Powell by the conservative press, in separate pieces at a later date.
10. The story about Powell’s four days in the belly of the CIA comes from his interview with the Post editorial board. I would add that Gen. Powell’s views are the most vexing for everyone. He hardly has a reputation for shooting from the hip, and passed on the Republican nomination for President in 1996 in part because he finds the rightwing of the party so uncongenial. Conservative as I am, my respect for him remains immense. It is with some delight that I find that his speeches and comments have been at once the most helpful and the most aggravating to the ideologues on both sides.
Rep. Waxman takes the easy route, and just lumps him in with everyone he dislikes. I am not sure the public would accept that.
Some conservatives gag at his name, or worse, and what a pity for them. They have wasted so much time not siding with him or at least listening to him.
The idea that he lied is ridiculous on its face, and his testimony must be considered carefully in any accounting of the war.
::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 11:53 AM