By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Along with such creations as American POWs still being held in Vietnam and the Bill Clinton drug-smuggling operation at a remote Arkansas air strip, the unhinged right wing has now invented the myth that Democratic members of Congress have called President Bush "a liar" about Iraq. An extensive computer search by myself and a Post researcher can come up with no such accusation. That's prudent. After all, it's not clear if Bush lied about Iraq or was merely the "useful idiot" of those who did.
The term "useful idiot" is not a reflection of IQ. I resurrect it from the Cold War days when anticommunists used it to contemptuously describe certain communist sympathizers. I think sometimes the phrase probably went through the dark mind of Vice President Cheney and certain other Bush administration officials who must have known that their dear president was exaggerating the case for war. Cheney, for one, is too smart and too calculating not to have known that the envelope was being pushed past the point of verifiable truth.
In fact, the man who just recently took a McCarthyite swipe at Democratic war critics had no equal in exaggerating Saddam Hussein's (nonexistent) nuclear weapons program. In just one month -- August 2002 -- Cheney repeatedly warned of its imminent danger. The first time, he said that if Hussein was "left to his own devices, it's the judgment of many of us that in the not-too-distant future, he will acquire nuclear weapons." Later that month he described Hussein as a "sworn enemy of our country," adding that he constituted a "mortal threat" to the United States. "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," the vice president also said that month. "Among other sources, we've gotten this from firsthand testimony from defectors, including Saddam's own son-in-law."
But as a Post story by Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus from August 2003 makes clear, Cheney could not have known what he said he knew. In the first place, Hussein's son-in-law was dead, killed in 1996 when he made the dubious career move of returning to Iraq. What's more, when Hussein Kamel was still a defector and being debriefed in Jordan, he said he had no knowledge of a current nuclear weapons program. Iraq's uranium enrichment program -- a prerequisite for a weapons program -- had been dormant since the Gulf War in 1991.
This was typical Cheney -- and, to a lesser extent, Condi Rice and other members of the Bush administration. Their incessant references to "mushroom clouds" or "nuclear blackmail" might have at one time been understandable -- although still a huge, irresponsible reach. But well before the war began, it was becoming clear that Saddam Hussein had not a nuclear weapon to his name. The program that United Nations and other inspectors had stumbled on after the Gulf War -- the program that surprised U.S. officials and encouraged them to believe that Hussein could hide anything -- had by then been proved to no longer exist. U.N. inspectors simply could find no evidence of it -- and neither could anyone else. As the prime reason for war, a nuclear weapons program had no basis in fact.
What is both amazing and appalling about Bush is that he seems not to care. The way things look now, he will go down in history as an amiable dunce -- Clark Clifford's scathing and misapplied characterization of Ronald Reagan -- who took his country to war for reasons that did not exist. This is a blunder without peer in American history and possibly an assault on democracy: The people, through their representatives, are supposed to make an informed decision about war. It is incredible to me that Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about sex, but nobody -- that's nobody -- in the entire Bush administration has been fired, not to mention impeached, for this shedding of American blood. Cheney, a man of ugly intolerance for dissent, should have been the first to go. His has been a miserable, dishonest performance -- which he continues to this day.
The restraint of responsible war critics has been remarkable. Despite a recent headline on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page -- "What If People Start Believing That 'Bush Lied'?" -- the "L" word has been prudently withheld by elected Democrats. But you would think that Bush himself would wonder about how he's gotten to this place where he looks like such a fool: wrong on the biggest issue of his presidency. He went out there and told the American people things that were not true. Does that mean he lied? Maybe not. Maybe he was just repeating the lies of others.