Bush's Alternate Reality

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 21, 2008; 1:16 PM

President Bush on Wednesday said something demonstrably false and inflammatory about Iran -- asserting that the Iranian government has "declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people."

The Iranians have never done any such thing -- and for Bush to say so at a time of great tension between the two countries is bizarre at best.

So why did he say it? Was he actively trying to misrepresent the situation? Was it just a slip of the tongue? Or does he believe it, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary?

It seems unlikely that Bush would choose this particular venue to launch a disinformation campaign: His comment came midway through a softball interview with an obscure U.S.-funded Farsi-language radio station, on the occasion of Persian new year. And the Iranian audience knows best that what he said is untrue. Such a blatant distortion only strengthens the Iranian government's position that Bush is a liar.

So did Bush just misspeak? The White House certainly suggested that yesterday, with a spokesman insisting that Bush had simply spoken in "shorthand," combining Iranian threats against Israel with concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

And yet, as disturbing as the third possibility is -- that Bush is operating in an alternate reality -- it's supported by this simple fact: He's said almost exactly the same thing at least once before.

As Olivier Knox of AFP pointed out on Aug. 6, Bush said at a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that day: "It's up to Iran to prove to the world that they're a stabilizing force as opposed to a destabilizing force. After all, this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon."

Then, as now, there was no official retraction.

Washington wisdom has it that whatever military action against Iran Bush and Vice President Cheney might have been hatching was shelved after a national intelligence estimate released late last year concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years earlier.

But a variety of reports have indicated that neither Bush nor Cheney were persuaded. For instance, Michael Hirsh wrote for Newsweek in January that in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush "all but disowned the document." In yesterday's column, I described Cheney's brazen refusal to endorse its central conclusion.

In short, it seems clear that Bush remains convinced that the Iranians continue to pursue nuclear weapons. Does he also somehow believe they've acknowledged this publicly? Or that they may as well have? Is this the kind of stuff that Cheney -- often the last person to talk to Bush before important decisions -- whispers in his ear?

It's worth getting Bush on the record about exactly how he understands the facts here.

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