Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Presidents Lie

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 24, 2003 --  

The expressions of outrage that have followed charges that President Bush lied to the American people about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" are but an exercise in partisan groupthink. Rewind five years ago to the similar outrage expressed when President Clinton denied his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The partisan claims were reversed -- with Republicans calling the president a liar and Democrats defending him with mindless loyalty -- but the essence of the charges was the same.

Perhaps the only thing more bizarre than the surprise expressed by people when they discover that a president has lied is that others actually attempt to deny it. Nobody disputes that used car salesmen intentionally mislead their customers (using the polite term for lie.) And it is a well-accepted notion that politicians will say nearly anything to get elected. Since the president is an elected official -- in other words a politician -- the American public should be skeptical of what he says.

Unfortunately, that is not what happened. After a year long sales pitch about the immediate danger of Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction," the American people enthusiastically bought the nonsense justification for the war, giving it a 64 percent approval rating in the weeks before hostilities began.1 Never mind that the term "weapons of mass destruction" is nothing but a marketing gimmick that attempts to make equivalent widely disparate technologies, ranging from militarily useless mustard gas to horrific atomic bombs that are frighteningly effective in their destructive power. Saddam certainly once had the former, but he most definitely never had the latter.

Democrats are factually correct when they point out that Bush overstated the case that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons. Like any good used car salesman -- or politician -- Bush left out qualifying details about his intelligence evidence. Bush may have believed much of what he said, and he certainly wanted it to be true. But those who pick apart the details of his claims miss the much bigger lie. The war was never about "weapons of mass destruction" in the first place. As administration officials have repeatedly said since failing to find prohibited weapons, "WMD" was "only one of the reasons" for the war. Indeed. The other reasons, to be sure, were far less disingenuous. They were also far more complex and multi-faceted than could be marketable by the administration or their one-dimensional "no blood for oil" detractors.

The bogeyman of "weapons of mass destruction" was selected by the usual party focus groups and pollsters to be the justification for war most marketable to both the American public and world opinion leaders. Having chosen their sales pitch, the White House political machine began to sell it with every flimsy speck of unreliable evidence it could find -- the truth be damned.

The big problem with this approach is that it played upon a public that is almost completely ignorant about international affairs. Of the few American voters who turn off television long enough to read the newspaper, fewer still will find any significant world coverage. Outside a handful of large coastal cities, America's press carries almost no coverage of world news. Those who are well informed about Iraq knew all along that Bush's claims about its threat to America were utter nonsense. But it is no surprise that an ignorant and gullible majority of Americans bought Bush's disingenuous sales pitch.

American troops may yet find isolated stores of chemical weapons in Iraq. If they do, it will do nothing to change the fact that the president intentionally misled Americans about the dangers posed to them by Saddam Hussein. Partisan Republicans who deny this are refusing to face reality. Partisan Democrats who try and scandalize it miss the bigger picture: all presidents lie. The proper reaction is to listen with skepticism and discover the truth for oneself.

A cynical perspective? Maybe. But an electorate of informed cynics is far more healthy for democracy than an electorate that is overly trusting and uninformed. The true scandal is not that a politician lied -- it is that Americans were too ignorant and naive to notice.

Related Web Columns:

Drinking Your Own Kool-Aid
The Terrible Costs of an Inevitable War
, March 4, 2003

America Stands Alone, March 18, 2003


1. CBS News, Poll: U.S. Backs Bush On War, March 21, 2003