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Ignoring the Facts

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, November 17, 2005

In one of the most intellectually incoherent major speeches ever delivered by a minor president, George W. Bush blamed "some Democrats and antiwar critics" last week for changing their minds about the war in Iraq and now saying they were deceived. "It is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began," the president said. Yes, sir, but it is even more deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how history was rewritten in the first place.

It is the failure to acknowledge this -- not merely that mistakes were made -- that is so troubling about Bush and others in his administration. Yes, the president is right: Foreign intelligence services also thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Yes, he is right that members of Congress drew the same conclusion -- although none of them saw the raw intelligence that the White House did. And he is right, too, that Saddam Hussein had simply ignored more than a dozen U.N. resolutions demanding that he reopen his country to arms inspectors. When it came to U.N. resolutions, Hussein was notoriously hard of hearing.

We can endlessly debate the facts of the Iraq war -- and we will. More important, though, is the mind-set of those in the administration, from the president on down, who had those facts -- or, as we shall see, none at all -- and mangled them in the cause of going to war with Iraq. For example, the insistence that Hussein was somehow linked to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- a leitmotif of Bush administration geopolitical fantasy -- tells you much more than whether this or that fact was right. It tells you that to Bush and his people, the facts did not matter.

It did not matter that Mohamed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 terrorists, never met with Iraqis in Prague, as high-level Bush officials claimed. It did not matter that Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was finding no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. None of that mattered to Vice President Cheney, who warned of a "reconstituted" nuclear weapons program, promoted the nonexistent Prague meeting and went after legitimate critics with a zealousness that Tony Soprano would have admired: "We will not hesitate to discredit you," Cheney told ElBaradei and Hans Blix, the other important U.N. inspector. ElBaradei recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Cheney's gonna have to wait for his.

Nobody has been repudiated by Bush for incompetence and dishonesty regarding Iraq. Instead, some -- former CIA director George "Slam-Dunk" Tenet comes to mind -- have received presidential medals. What's more, there's evidence aplenty that the sloppy thinking, false analogies and bad history that led to the Iraq war remain the cultural style of the White House. The president's recent speech, for instance, conflates all sorts of terrorist incidents -- from Israel to Chechnya -- neglecting that they are specific to their regions and have nothing to do with al Qaeda. Every bombing somehow becomes an attack on Western values "because we stand for democracy and peace." Oh, stop it!

It would be nice, fitting and pretty close to sexually exciting if Bush somehow acknowledged his mistakes and said he had learned from them. But more important -- far more important -- is what this would mean for the conduct of foreign policy from here on out. Repeatedly in his speech, Bush mentioned Syria, Iran and North Korea -- Syria above all. If push comes to shove there, it would be nice to have absolute confidence in American intelligence and the case for possibly widening the war. If we are to go to the mat with North Korea or the increasingly alarming Iran, then, once again, it would be wonderful to have the confidence we once had in the intelligence community -- as imparted to us by our president. Is there or is there not a threatening nuclear weapons program on the horizon?

At the moment, no one can have confidence in the Bush administration. It has shown itself inept in the run-up to the war and the conduct of it since. Almost three years into the war, the world is not safer, the Middle East is less stable, and Americans and others die for a mission that is not what it once was and cannot be what it now is called: a fight for democracy. It would be nice, as well as important, to know how we got into this mess -- nice for us, important for the president. It wasn't that he had the wrong facts. It was that the right ones didn't matter.

cohenr@washpost.com

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