Wednesday, December 14, 2005

War and choice: President Bush's deceptive admission of responsibility

In a thoroughly misleading article on its website, CNN is reporting that "President Bush took responsibility Wednesday for 'wrong' intelligence that led to the war". But did he?

Here's what he said (see the full transcript here): "As president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq. And I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities. And we are doing just that."

But for what exactly did he take responsibility? For:

  1. "the decision to go into Iraq"; and
  2. "fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities".

We all know President Bush is responsible for the decision to go to war. He's the president. Who else could be responsible (well, see below)? And it's fine to say that he's responsible for fixing "what went wrong". But by "what went wrong" he meant the pre-war proliferation of bad intelligence. As he put it in his speech, "much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong". But this wasn't solely an American problem, for "many intelligence agencies around the world judged that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction".

There are at least three significant problems here.

First, Bush deflects responsibility by diffusing it, by blaming intelligence failures on "many intelligence agencies around the world". We may have gotten it seriously wrong, he is saying, but so did everyone else. But does this even matter? It was the U.S. that went to war in Iraq, that was the dominant member of the so-called "coalition of the willing".

Second (and perhaps most important), both the CIA and non-U.S. intelligence agencies expressed grave reservations about Saddam's alleged WMD stockpiles and programs. The real problem is not that "our intelligence capabilities" were faulty but that the intelligence itself may have been manipulated or at least selectively edited and shaped to suit a preconceived plan to go to war -- or at least shaped and edited so that going to war seemed to be the responsible thing to do. So Bush says that he takes responsibility both for the decision and for the intelligence failures that led to that decision, but he isn't sincere about the latter and, for obvious reasons, he neglects to explain how the political channels that connected the intelligence to the decision may have distorted the intelligence and brought about a bad decision based on distorted (or selective) intelligence.

Third, Bush claims elsewhere in his speech that he was not in fact responsible for the decision to go to war: "Given Saddam's history, and the lessons of September the 11th, my decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision. Saddam was a threat, and the American people, and the world is better off because he is no longer in power." Whenever Bush has no sound case to make for the war in Iraq, he raises the specter of 9/11.

Unlike some of his right-wing supporters, he has stopped making explicit connections between Iraq and 9/11. But the implicit message is clear. Here's what Bush is really saying: Saddam was a bad guy for a number of reasons, but that may not have been enough to go to war, nor to justify the loss of American life to a public that has lost confidence that their president knows what he's doing. But don't forget about 9/11, a turning point in American history. Since America was attacked, with thousands of Americans killed, any response to terrorism, however understood, is justified.

But here's where the logic breaks down: The U.S. is fighting jihadist terrorists in Iraq. Jihadist terrorists attacked America on 9/11. Therefore, even if there wasn't a connection between Iraq and 9/11 (and there wasn't), the war in Iraq is a key part of the war on jihadist terrorism. BUT (and this is a "but" that Bush doesn't delve into): Saddam may have sympathized with jihadist terrorists in Israel, but his Iraq was a modern, secular state ruled by an authoritarian cult of personality. The 9/11 terrorists were Saudis, not Iraqis. Al Qaeda was largely based in and around Afghanistan, not in Iraq. At most, Saddam posed a conventional, state-based threat to the Middle East, as he did to Kuwait back before the Gulf War, but he was not (is not) a jihadist. Jihadism thrives in Iraq today only because the U.S. is there, only because Bush chose to go to war and to set up a new Iraqi regime. In this sense, the world is not safer for Saddam's removal. Bush wants to defend his war in Iraq in terms of the war on terror, but it has been his war in Iraq that unleashed terrorism in Iraq.

Which is why I and so many others have argued over and over again that the war on terror should have been waged elsewhere, more fluidly and flexibly, not in Iraq, a non-terrorist state that has been turned into yet another breeding ground for jihadism.

Finally, did Bush honestly take responsibility for the decision to go to war? Consider this: "The United States did not choose war. The choice was Saddam Hussein's." Things may not have gone well, thousands of Americans and even more thousands of Iraqis may have been killed, and the future may be dangerously uncertain, but in Bush's view he had no choice. He did what he had to do because someone else started it.

No, this doesn't let Saddam off the hook. He was a tyrant who murdered his own people and the Iraqis are certainly better off with out him. But Bush has only taken selective responsibility for this war of choice -- in truth, he hasn't taken responsibility at all.

He's like the Bart Simpson who once rose to sudden fame on Krusty's show for uttering a single impish line: "I didn't do it."

But he did. And so did President Bush.

Without yet taking real responsibility.

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