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Richard Cohen

Grand Old Prevarication

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page A23

NEW YORK -- On the very day that George Bush changed his mind and said that the war on terrorism was in fact winnable, the following things happened: Suicide bombers killed 16 people in Israel; 12 Nepalese service workers (dishwashers, etc.) were massacred in Iraq; five Afghans were accidentally killed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan; nine people were killed by a suicide bomber at a Moscow subway station, and five more American servicemen were reported dead in Iraq. For worldwide terrorism, it was not a bad day.

Events such as these -- in other words, the truth -- are not permitted to impose themselves on a national political convention, particularly one specifically designed to turn a funeral into a wedding. Instead we get the march of the bromides (Is this a great country, or what?), the standard recitation of distortions (Rudy Giuliani's speech, which was neither fair to John Kerry nor accurate about him) and rhetorical affidavits from the president's own family attesting to his character, his cuteness and the fact that he has, despite all evidence to the contrary, an interior life. Laura Bush says her husband worried about whether to go to war.

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All of this is more or less standard stuff, a convention of any organization being a grand opportunity to lie. This is particularly true of our two great political parties, which have not, when you come to think of it, survived for so long by leveling with the American people. But the point does come -- or at least it ought to -- when the gag reflex kicks in. I reached that point when, in speech after speech, the war in Iraq was described as a defensive one in which America had no choice. This total and purposeful misreading of history came out of the mouth of almost every speaker, including the sainted John McCain.

Bush himself sets the party line. No fact changes his conviction that the war in Iraq is justified. It does not matter to him that the stated reasons for it -- those weapons of mass destruction -- did not exist. Without missing a beat, he simply changed his war aims. It is now, in retrospect, the removal of Saddam Hussein. And if you challenge him on that, he comes back with a so's-your-mother response that goes like this: Are you sorry Hussein's gone?

Of course not. But the reasons Bush gave Matt Lauer for the war are sheer nonsense: "Well, because Saddam Hussein had terrorist ties, and he had the capacity at the minimum to make weapons of mass destruction. And he could have passed that capacity on to enemies."

But every government commission under the sun, save ones concerned with inland fisheries, has concluded that Hussein had no relevant ties to al Qaeda. And while he certainly had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction, so do a plethora of countries -- some, such as Iran and North Korea, of the nuclear kind. As for passing such weapons on to our enemies, that didn't happen in Iraq and probably wouldn't have. Hussein was a selfish sort who liked to keep his weapons close. Paranoids usually do.

This war against terrorism may not really be winnable, any more than the wars against cancer or drugs have been. In fact, an argument can be made that we are now worse off than we were on Sept. 10, 2001. Osama bin Laden is still at large, and nearly 1,000 Americans have died in Iraq -- a calamitous diversion in this so-called war against terrorism.

The thinking that links unrelated events or movements into something called worldwide terrorism -- this attempt to make events conform to rhetoric -- is precisely what led the United States into the quagmire of Vietnam. Now, as then, we are being told that we were attacked or hated or whatever because we are free. Not so. Americans died on Sept. 11 because of what Americans had done: established bases in Saudi Arabia and unambiguously supported Israel. It is the right thing to do, but it comes at a cost.

The insistence that something is true does not make it true. The constant repetition of a party line is just hot air. When it comes to terrorism, Bush got it right -- momentarily and probably accidentally -- and then reverted to type. In his view, we are winning the war on terrorism and will win it outright on that great come-and-get-it day. From his mouth to God's ears, as the expression goes -- but, so far at least, the terrorists themselves are not listening.

cohenr@washpost.com


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