Saturday, January 26, 2008

Lies, damned lies, and political commentary

Hopefully, most folks have heard about this story here, showing that the Bush administration spread nearly a thousand false public statements about their planned invasion of Iraq.

In a discussion on the topic, a friend of mine brought up this, a response to the study.

This is as good as any opportunity to show how critical thought has often vanished from much of political discussion.

First, let's take a look at the Center for Public Integrity's claims.

Their main claim is that the Bush administration engaged in a "carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq". How false can that statement be?

Well, the administration certainly engaged in a "carefully orchestrated campaign". That's a matter of historical record. No one can honestly claim that the administation did not push, and push hard, for an invasion.

It's also true that we know, for sure, that much of what was given to us in that time was misinformation... we might question whether it was "disinformation", but the information we were given was certainly mistaken, or worse.

So, if we're going to be super-literalists, we can say that the main point is perfectly true. We can pretend that, because each single piece is true, the entire statement is true.

Ah, but the banner on top of the page shows the difficulty here. The banner reads "THE WAR CARD orchestrated deception on the path to war. "A carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation" sounds like "deception", even though each piece, broken apart, includes the possibility of mistake.

Pajamas Media considers this to be a lie. They feel that folks should be more forgiving of the Bush Administration. If some intelligence analysts had one opinion, and other analysts had another, they feel that it's okay if Bush didn't bother to figure out the truth before committing our forces to war. Because, after all, this war isn't a big deal... thousands upon thousands of innocent Iraqis have died, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, many thousands of our soldiers have been killed and woulded... what makes the truth so all-fired important, that Bush had to search it down?

And I agree, that's a good principle, if you're teaching, especially if you're teaching children. You let them make reasonable mistakes, and you praise them for trying hard, and then, you praise them for small, and successively larger successes, until they are competent at the skill you are teaching.

But the Presidency is not a learning experience. It's a job for a person who is already competent. I'm not willing to take "but he tried really hard, and other people were wrong too!" as an excuse.

Pajamas Media's position is, I feel, summed up in this paragraph:

They did not, as it would seem to be fair, base the study upon what was known at the time in the 2001-2003 run-up to the war in Iraq. The premise for the report seems to be reflected in the title of the report, that there was orchestrated deception on behalf of senior Bush Administration officials, not statements made upon inaccurate or misleading intelligence information as events unfolded.

There are two things that need to be addressed here.

First, you don't act based on a guess, not when people's lives are at stake[1]. If you don't have complete information - and it's quite clear that we did not - you don't claim to have complete information. One of the lies told during the run up to the war was by Dick Cheney, when he said "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction". There was doubt; he knew it. Even the most excruciatingly fair parsing demands that he would only have been honest if he'd said "I have no doubt...". At the very least, presenting incomplete information without the proper qualifications is a lie of omission.

The vast majority of the intelligence that we had was based upon guesses. Strongly supported, well educated guesses, mind you, but guesses. We had almost no reliable human intelligence, and we had reason to question all of the information we did have.

The administration did not tell the American people that there were good reasons to question the analysts' conclusions, and did not present the intelligence as "good guesses by competent analysts". Instead, the rhetoric took on a sense of urgency that, in itself, added to the deception.

The second thing that needs to be addressed is a common fallacy of the right on this issue. They constantly rail upon how the intelligence supported Bush, even if there were different opinions on the matter. However, what we know of the intelligence is based upon what President Bush chooses to declassify. He will not release information showing that he was wrong, that he was reckless, that he refused to listen. He will, however, release information that he feels helps support him.

To excuse his behavior because of his claims about the intelligence reports he received is to indulge in circular reasoning. Because he is honest, and wouldn't lie about what the intelligence reports all said, he is honest, and didn't lie, about the information he and his people told us in the run up to the war. But we have no reason to think he is honest.

Not when we know he intended to invade Iraq, if given an excuse, from the beginning of his Presidency. Not when we know that, on September 12th, 2001, he asked Richard Clarke to look for a link between Saddam and the attack on our nation the previous day. Not when he consistently trumpeted information that supported his cause, without acknowledging the real questions that any person should have had before we invaded.

These issues raise real questions about whether he was as brutally honest about a life-and-death situation as he should have been. And given that he was so incredibly wrong, and given that he had the chance to learn better, we have to ask the hard question: given that he was wrong, so many times, in so many ways, given that he did not share any of the significant doubts and questions with us, what evidence do we have that he was not intentionally deceptive?

That President Bush pushed hard for war is a historical fact. That he made many, many misstatements is also a historical fact. That he could have investigated further, that he could have dug deeper, that he could have expressed the real doubts that had been expressed to him, is also a fact.

Yet these facts are all too frequently brushed aside, because they would lead to us asking questions that a lot of people - war supporters, especially - do not want to answer.

The facts are plain. The best that can be said is that Bush was wrong in many, many instances, and was at least mildly deceptive because he didn't mention the doubts and questions. If this dishonesty were not about something involving the lives of many thousands of people, it might be excusable.

But he has caused enormous suffering and countless deaths. It is not excusable to be so terribly wrong when it would have been so easy to be right.

The Center for Public Integrity is of the solid opinion that Bush was deceptive. It's a reasonable thing to state, and better supported than "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction". If the Center is to be attacked by Pajamas Media for overstating the case, I think there are other people that Pajamas Media should be attacking as well.

[1] I grant there are rare circumstances where one might have to take action on a best guess, because the failure to do something at that moment would cause irreparable harm. However, there was no such pressure during the run-up to the Iraq war. Everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was bottled up at that time, and unable to attempt a successful military strike. Waiting was an option.

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