June 17, 2003
of the Apologists
I was younger I used to imagine that the natural function of "public
intellectuals" – not necessarily people who are smarter than
the average Joe, but reasonably intelligent people with a bent for
policy analysis and thinking large thoughts on matters of public
consequence – was to speak truth to power, or, in the well-loved
old journalistic saw, to "comfort the afflicted and afflict
afraid I was wrong. Apparently the more natural function of public
intellectuals, at least most of them, is to explain the ways of
power to the uninformed and perhaps unthinking public at large –
or in more cynical terms, to serve as apologists for those in power.
In the wake of a certain amount of criticism of the Bush administration
over the issues of "weapons of mass destruction" – a misnomer
from the get-go in that it lumps nuclear weapons with chemical and
biological weapons that are difficult to use tactically and create
less actual mass destruction than some artillery barrages –
Bush apologists are coming out of the woodwork.
of the saddest is Byron York, who during the Clinton years acquired
a reputation, mostly fairly well deserved, as a dogged investigative
reporter rather concerned about following the evidence where it
leads rather than to a predetermined destination. In a recent
piece for National Review he offers a fullblown defense
of George W. Bush's veracity against some of his establishment-oriented
dissecting the York Defense, it is worthwhile to note that he is
facilitated in his self-assigned task by the fact that most public
intellectuals turn out to be partisans. That is, their general inclination,
as has been the case with countless courtiers down the centuries,
is to defend or to provide respectable-sounding justifications for
the regime (or permanent power-structure, the "two-party system,"
established procedures, even the permanent bureaucracy) in general,
but they tend to choose up Democratic-Republican sides.
some columnists and commentators are more inclined to find fault
with one party (and its leaders) than another, while bending over
backwards to find justifications for the more egregious. This is
hardly surprising or even especially scandalous, and most reasonably
well-informed readers have a certain capacity to don mental filters
when reading such commentators, distinguishing between the occasional
fact and the arguments that amount to (though usually stated with
a little more elegance) "so's your old man."
phenomenon makes Byron York's task a lot easier, since several of
the critics he takes to task are the sort who wanted to spin Bill
Clinton's multifarious examples of stretching the truth as nothing
more consequential than "lying about sex." In focusing
narrowly on the specific claims of a few "Bush is a liar"
critics and comparing Bush to Clinton, however, Mr. York ignores
any number of more respectable (or more accurate) critics and bypasses
a wealth of significant information, especially on the key question
of the administration's many statements on "weapons of mass
first goes after an October story by Washington Post reporter
Dana Milbank. Milbank starts with an October 7 address by Bush on
Iraq "in which the president warned that Saddam Hussein had
a growing fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could be
used, in Bush's words, 'for missions targeting the United States.'"
Milbank says the statement was wrong because a recent CIA report
said the Iraqi UAVs didn't have sufficient range to threaten the
U.S. York reprimands him because Bush's statement was more nuanced,
saying Iraq "was exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions
targeting the U.S." and Ari Fleischer later "clarified
the comment to say it referred to 'being launched from a ship or
a truck or by their being smuggled into the United States.'"
criticism of Milbank is fairly well-grounded if a bit nit-picky.
But it ignores the larger context of those UAVs. It turned out that
the only UAV the weapons inspectors found looked more like a model
airplane or a poor imitation of the Wright Brothers plane than a
sleek and dangerous-looking drone. And the occupying troops haven't
found any more of them, leading to the possible conclusion that
this was an experimental prototype rather than one of dozens or
Dana Milbank used a nit-picky reading to make Bush out to be more
of a deceiver (or a different kind of deceiver) than the text of
the speech supports, and Byron York calls him on it. But York ignores
the obvious – that drumming up fears about these UAVs was one of
the many ways Bush and other administration spokespeople used to
exaggerate the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States.
Like many of the specific examples the administration and its apologists
brought to the fore in speeches and statements, this "threat"
turned out to be nothing Iraq's neighbors had to worry about, let
alone the mighty United States.
this make Bush a liar? Posing the question that way ignores the
fact that most political deception, if done reasonably well, is
not so much a matter of outright verifiable falsehoods as exaggerations,
projections of facts into a putatively frightening future ("the
only 'smoking gun' will be a nuke dropped on the U.S. Are you willing
to wait for that?"), and interpretations of facts to create
a big picture that might have some of the little details right but
that in the end creates a misleading impression radically at variance
with the facts on the ground.
himself notes that a former administration official told him that
"What 9/11 did was teach a generation of policymakers to interpret
things in an alarmed rather than a relaxed way." He seems oblivious
to the possibility that interpreting things in a perpetually "alarmed"
manner carries any dangers of its own or can lead, step by step,
to an ultimately inaccurate picture of the threats a country faces.
most Bush apologists, York chooses not to engage the article
Seymour Hersh did for the New Yorker in May on the "Team
B" group of analysts that Asst. Sec. of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
put together in the Pentagon under the name Office of Special Plans,
headed by Abram Shulsky. The OSP did not collect intelligence itself,
but gathered intelligence collected by other agencies as well as
information from the Iraqi National Congress and other exile groups.
The CIA and the State Department tended to dismiss the INC and its
head, Ahmad Chalabi, as unreliable or dubious sources, but the OSP
tended to believe most of what the INC fed American intelligence
as quite reliable.
Office of Special Plans has gained enough notoriety that it is now
mentioned from time to time in the general media, sometimes even
as an example of administration tendencies to give credit to exaggerations.
My inclination is to believe it was extremely important, not only
as an example of the Pentagon's willingness to set up a brand new
agency specifically to massage intelligence to give higher officials
what they wanted to hear, but as an example of the willingness of
the administration – perhaps most notably Mr. Bush himself, though
I have no inside information to confirm this – to believe the most
extreme and exaggerated accounts of the Iraqi threat despite doubts
expressed in respectable branches of the government itself.
seems reasonably certain now that the OSP was set up precisely because
the administration wasn't getting an alarming enough picture of
the dire threat posed by Iraq from the usual sources – the CIA,
the DIA, the State Department. Intelligence is hardly ever the kind
of cut-and-dried proof most humans would prefer, but sometimes scattered
bits of information that makes sense only when put together knowledgeably
and creatively by informed analysts. What the standard intelligence
sources were giving the administration last fall and summer was
to some extent ambiguous or ambivalent because of the nature of
intelligence work, but all the standard sources were presenting
a picture of a fairly puny threat from an exhausted and weakened
regime despite, as several anonymous and a few named intelligence
community sources have testified, fairly severe direct and indirect
pressure to produce more compelling evidence. They weren't even
sure Iraq had those dreaded WMDs.
would hardly do as a justification for war. So the hawks in the
administration set up an agency in the Pentagon to reinterpret the
evidence. The best evidence to date (government always classifies
much more information than is remotely justifiable so it's hard
to be sure) is that the OSP consistently and on every issue interpreted
the evidence in the most alarming way possible. That was more like
it. More and more the Bush administration took to parroting the
briefings from the OSP. Quite possibly they came to believe themselves
that this was the real scoop, the result of bold and imaginative
analysis rather than the tepid stuff those stodgy old sticks-in-the-mud
in the traditional "intelligence community" had been preparing.
Red meat was preferable.
part because it is still impossible to know all the motivations
involved, it is difficult to analyze all this in straightforward,
black-and-white lie-versus-truth terms, if only because it is hard
to know what to do with a mistake or falsehood that the speaker
sincerely believes is the truth. Perhaps Dubya and Condi and Colin
really did believe all the unequivocal statements they made during
the run-up to the effect that there was simply no question at all
that Saddam possessed those dread WMDs. Perhaps they were deceived
by intelligence spun slickly and didn't go to the raw data. Perhaps,
like most of us, they wanted to believe and with whatever degree
of self-consciousness internally validated the apparent intelligence
that seemed to support what they wanted to believe and discounted
or ignored information that didn't fit into or called into question
the preferred belief system.
are a few fundamental facts, however. War advocates were willing
to go through elaborate and expensive procedures to set up bureaucratic
institutions and mechanisms that would reliably feed "friendly"
information into the White House with a certain stamp of authenticity.
Was it just Wolfowitz, or did Bush directly or indirectly ask him
to set up a shop to massage intelligence to make it look more threatening?
Whatever the details, the result was an elaborate exercise in what
we night call meta-deception on a grand scale.
whatever weapons sites or evidence of destroyed weapons might eventually
be found (the military, having already checked into the sites cited
as most likely by the OPS crowd and found nothing, is moving on
to other missions, especially in light of the burgeoning resistance
to U.S. occupation), there is simply no questions that those weapons
were not ready to be deployed with any rapidity (let alone at a
moment's notice). They posed no particular threat, let alone an
imminent threat, to Iraq's neighbors, to the United States itself,
or even to American "interests," using the broadest interpretation
that justification for war – and it evolved into the main justification
in part because it evoked the most actual fear or uncertainty on
the part of the general public – was simply deceptive. Was it an
outright conscious lie? It might be impossible to know. The top
Bushies might have actually believed what they said. If that's the
case, however, we have an instance of incompetence at analyzing
complex data, and/or massive problems in the U.S. intelligence system.
And that might actually be more troubling in the long run than the
likelihood that like most politicians several of the Bushies lied
along the way.
best poor Byron York can do on the WMD issue is the increasingly
frequent assertion that before the war just everybody, including
Germany, France and multiple war crtitics, believed Saddam did have
WMDs. "Such a consensus," York claims, "makes it
extremely difficult to argue that the president lied about Iraq
and WMD; if the administration's case was a lie, then everybody,
including much of the political opposition, was in on it.."
but that's more than a bit lame. For starters, much of the opinion
of others about WMD was based on informastion and leaks from the
administration which, as we understand in retrospect, were systematically
and probably consciously spun in the direction of finding maximum
feasible threat. And in the case of most critics, acknowledging
that Saddam probably had nasty weapons was more of a fallback position,
a way of deflecting future criticism if and when weapons were found,
than a firm conviction. "Everybody knew," people kept
saying, that Saddam had weapons, but the people with possibly countervailing
evidence in the intelligence community and the administration weren't
making their doubts public. So the apparently safe and respectable
thing was to acknowledge that it was probable.
IT JUSTIFY WAR?
important question was never whether Saddam Hussein actually had
this or that weapon. The important question was whether the possession
of this or that weapon ever justified what was a war of choice rather
than necessity in which the United States openly and unabashedly
assumed the role of aggressor against a country that had not threatened
its neighbors for more than 11 years.
York wisely does not choose to engage this question. Instead he
engages in nit-picking against a few specific critics, including
some who had a different attitude toward the lies of Bill Clinton
and are therefore vulnerable. He therefore is able to ignore more
substantial and responsible critics of the administration and its
inexorable path to war. However (although I was hardly the only
critic making good points) I would suggest that my Antiwar columns
of September 10 and October 8 on the differences between pre-emptive
and preventive war, and my September
3 and October
15 on the flimsiness of the justifications for war hold up rather
matters little whether Dubya told this or that specific lie. What
he and his subordinates did was to organize a large-scale, systematic
program, including the creation of new bureaucracies, to create
a groundswell for war with Iraq that included a great deal of deception
on an almost awesome scale.
heard conflicting reports as to whether Dubya himself and some of
his top people in the White House are angry about this and disinclined
to trust Wolfowitz and his merry neocons the next time they beat
the war drums. But the American people should remember, and perhaps
they will if we keep reminding them in a systematic, intelligent
and non-hysterical fashion.
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