Donald Trump threw down the gauntlet at the last GOP presidential debate with his declaration that the Bush administration lied us into war, and the reverberations are still roiling the political waters on both the right and the left. If his candidacy does nothing else, it will have performed a great service to the nation by re-litigating this vitally important issue and drawing attention to the outrageous lack of accountability by the elites who cheered as we turned the Middle East into a cauldron of death and destruction. Trump has ripped the bandage off the gaping and still suppurating wound of that ill-begotten war, and the howls of rage and pain are being heard on both sides of the political spectrum.
On the neoconservative right, Bill Kristol’s sputtering outrage is a bit too studied to be taken at face value: is he really shocked that no one is coming to the defense of himself and his fellow neocons, who elaborated (with footnotes) the very lies that led us down the primrose path to what the late Gen. William E. Odom called “the worst strategic disaster in our history”?
Kristol’s Weekly Standard magazine promoted every conceivable narrative pointing to Saddam Hussein as the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks, no matter how fantastic and bereft of evidence. Here he is accusing the Iraqis of being behind the dissemination of anthrax through the mails. Here is his subsidized magazine denying that the forged Niger uranium documents – the basis of George W. Bush’s claim in his 2003 State of the Union that Iraq was building a nuke – were an attempt to lie us into war. Here is neocon propagandist Stephen Hayes retailing a leaked “secret” memo to give credence to the debunked story of a meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence.
Every single one of these tall tales has been so thoroughly disproved that it’s enough to recall them in order to embarrass the perpetrators beyond redemption. Kristol & Co. served as a clearing house for these outright fabrications, which were then utilized by the Bush administration to make the case for war. And yet we have Peter Suderman, a senior editor over at Reason magazine, deriding Trump’s calling out of George W. Bush and his neocon intelligence-fabricators as a “conspiracy theory” on a par with birtherism and the weirdo 9/11 “truth” cult:
“[H]e is flirting with a kind of 9/11 trutherism when he accuses the Bush administration of having knowingly lied in order to push the country into war in Iraq, as he did in Saturday’s GOP debate.
“Now, as Byron York wrote on Twitter yesterday, you can reasonably interpret that charge as a general nod toward the idea that the Bush administration hyped the war effort beyond what the actual evidence could support, that the case for the war was, well, trumped up and ultimately misleading, built on insufficient proof, overconfidence, and mistaken assumptions. But Trump’s attack also leaves room for more radical, less grounded conspiracies about Bush and the war as all, and I suspect this is not an accident.
I would respectfully suggest that it is Suderman who needs “grounding” in the facts of this case. I would refer him to a project undertaken by our very own Scott Horton, whose radio program is essential listening for anyone who wants to be so educated: Scott has prepared a reading list on the occasion of the anniversary of the Iraq war, one that Suderman might want to make use of.
Of special interest is Seymour Hersh’s account of the Office of Special Plans, run by Abram Shulsky. This denizen of the murkier depths of the US intelligence community is a devotee of the philosopher Leo Strauss, who believed – as one scholar cited by Hersh put it – “that philosophers need to tell noble lies not only to the people at large but also to powerful politicians.” The OSP, set up in order to do an end run around the official intelligence community, specialized in retailing the tallest tales of Iraqi “defectors,” later proven to be self-serving fiction.
In another account of the administration’s tactics, Hersh describes how raw (and cherry-picked) “intelligence” marked “secret” was “funneled to newspapers, but subsequent C.I.A. and INR [State Department] analyses of the reports – invariably scathing but also classified – would remain secret.” Hersh points out that when the crude forgeries known as the Niger uranium papers – the basis for George W. Bush’s contention that Iraq was seeking uranium in “an African country – were exposed by the IAEA, Vice President Dick Cheney went on television and denounced the UN agency as being biased in favor of Iraq. Is this someone who was concerned with the truth?
Karen Kwiatkowski, who worked in close quarters with this parallel intelligence operation, says "It wasn’t intelligence‚ – it was propaganda. They’d take a little bit of intelligence, cherry-pick it, make it sound much more exciting, usually by taking it out of context, often by juxtaposition of two pieces of information that don’t belong together." Those who didn’t toe the neocon party line were purged, and replaced with compliant apparatchiks.
So was this simply ideological blindness, or outright lying? Robert Dreyfuss and Jason Vest, writing in Mother Jones, cite neoconservative foreign policy expert Edward Luttwak, who “says flatly that the Bush administration lied about the intelligence it had because it was afraid to go to the American people and say that the war was simply about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Instead, says Luttwak, the White House was groping for a rationale to satisfy the United Nations’ criteria for war. ‘Cheney was forced into this fake posture of worrying about weapons of mass destruction,’ he says. ‘The ties to Al Qaeda? That’s complete nonsense.’”
Yet the American people didn’t know that at the time. The pronouncements of the Bush administration, and the War Party’s well-placed media network, led 70 percent of them to believe that the Iraqi despot was behind the worst terrorist attacks in American history – to the point that, even after this canard had been debunked (and denied by the White House) a large number of Americans still believed it. Not only that, but they believed the Iraqis had those storied “weapons of mass destruction,” and that the Bush administration was entirely justified in launching an invasion.
This is what Max Fisher’s account of the Trump-generated imbroglio fails to take into account. Fisher, who analyzes foreign policy issues for the left-of-center Vox.com, writes:
“Trump’s 10-second history of the war articulated it as many Americans, who largely consider that war a mistake, now understand it. And, indeed, Bush did justify the war as a quest for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to exist.
“The other Republican candidates, who have had this fight with Trump before, did not defend the war as their party has in the past, but rather offered the party’s standard line of the moment, which is that Bush had been innocently misled by ‘faulty intelligence.’
“But neither version of history is really correct. The US primarily invaded Iraq not because of lies or because of bad intelligence, though both featured. In fact, it invaded because of an ideology.”
“…This is perhaps not as satisfying as the ‘Bush lied, people died’ bumper sticker history that has since taken hold on much of the left and elements of the Tea Party right. Nor is it as convenient as the Republican establishment’s polite fiction that Bush was misled by "faulty intelligence."
Fisher’s long account of how the neoconservatives agitated for war in the name of an “idealistic” ideology that sought to transform the Middle East into a “democratic” model is accurate as far as it goes. Yet the idea that the neocons were – or are – above fabricating evidence to make their case is naïve, at best. “If the problem were merely that Bush lied,” says Fisher, “then the solution would be straightforward: Check the administration’s facts. But how do you fact-check an ideology …?”
What if the ideology justifies lying for a “noble” end? And of course the Bush administration’s facts were checked, both during and after the war (see above): what we can conclude from this fact-checking is that the policymakers 1) Started out with an agenda, 2) Suppressed all evidence that contradicted it, and 3) Made up “factoids” out of whole cloth, the most egregious being those contained in the Niger uranium forgeries and the outright lies disseminated by Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress.
We can see how the neoconservatives within the administration constructed a parallel intelligence-gathering apparatus, independent of – and usually in opposition to – the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community. We can further see how their intelligence product was “stovepiped” up to the highest echelons, and landed on the President’s desk unvetted and unconfirmed. All the safeguards against compromising the US intelligence stream were dismantled – to what purpose? Fisher doesn’t think to ask this vital question. Instead, he attributes it to “ideology”;
“It does not appear that the administration encouraged them to lie, but rather that deep-rooted biases led top officials to dismiss the mountains of intelligence that undercut their theories and to favor deeply problematic intelligence that supported it.
“… By all appearances, administration officials believed their allegations of Iraqi WMDs were true and that this was indeed sufficient justification. Why else would the US launch a desperate, high-profile search for WMDs after invading – which only ended up drawing more attention to how false those allegations had been?
“Rather, they had deceived themselves into seeing half-baked intelligence as affirming their desire for war, and then had sold this to the American people as their casus belli, when in fact it was secondary to their more high-minded and ideological mission that would have been too difficult to explain. That, more than overstating intelligence on WMDs, was the really egregious lie.”
But of course they had to launch a hunt for the WMD they knew weren’t there – after all, they had justified the war on this basis. And so what if they were never found? They got away with it, didn’t they? There was never any real investigation into the intelligence-gathering activities of the Office of Special Plans, or of efforts to suppress dissent within the mainstream intelligence agencies. This was scotched by the politicians, who never followed through with their “phase two” investigation of the murky circumstances surrounding the administration’s activities.
By the time it was revealed that the war critics were right and that there weren’t any WMD in Iraq, the neocons’ goal had already been accomplished – the destruction of Iraq and the establishment of a permanent pretext for a US military presence in the region. Whatever consequences would follow the revelation of the deception – and deception it was – would be borne by the hapless George W. Bush, who was never the sharpest blade in the drawer to begin – and whom the neocons soon threw overboard as someone not willing or able to carry out their full agenda.
The US intelligence stream had been contaminated for a purpose: some entity with an agenda that included getting us inextricably involved in the Middle East over the long term. But who?
Karen Kwiatkowski, who worked in the office that was to become the Office of Special Plans, is an eyewitness:
“In early winter, an incident occurred that was seared into my memory. A coworker and I were suddenly directed to go down to the Mall entrance to pick up some Israeli generals. Post-9/11 rules required one escort for every three visitors, and there were six or seven of them waiting. The Navy lieutenant commander and I hustled down. Before we could apologize for the delay, the leader of the pack surged ahead, his colleagues in close formation, leaving us to double-time behind the group as they sped to Undersecretary Feith’s office on the fourth floor. Two thoughts crossed our minds: are we following close enough to get credit for escorting them, and do they really know where they are going? We did get credit, and they did know. Once in Feith’s waiting room, the leader continued at speed to Feith’s closed door. An alert secretary saw this coming and had leapt from her desk to block the door. ‘Mr. Feith has a visitor. It will only be a few more minutes.’ The leader craned his neck to look around the secretary’s head as he demanded, ‘Who is in there with him?’
“This minor crisis of curiosity past, I noticed the security sign-in roster. Our habit, up until a few weeks before this incident, was not to sign in senior visitors like ambassadors. But about once a year, the security inspectors send out a warning letter that they were coming to inspect records. As a result, sign-in rosters were laid out, visible and used. I knew this because in the previous two weeks I watched this explanation being awkwardly presented to several North African ambassadors as they signed in for the first time and wondered why and why now. Given all this and seeing the sign-in roster, I asked the secretary, ‘Do you want these guys to sign in?’ She raised her hands, both palms toward me, and waved frantically as she shook her head. ‘No, no, no, it is not necessary, not at all.’ Her body language told me I had committed a faux pas for even asking the question. My fellow escort and I chatted on the way back to our office about how the generals knew where they were going (most foreign visitors to the five-sided asylum don’t) and how the generals didn’t have to sign in.”
Israeli generals walking in and out of Feith’s office was the least of it. Feith himself, along with Richard Perle, David Wurmser and his wife Meyrav (all with links to Feith’s Office of Special Plans), had once prepared a strategy paper for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in office. Entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” the paper recommended a general offensive against Israel’s neighbors:
“Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”
Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer showed in their book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, that the Jewish state’s American amen corner played an instrumental role in agitating for the Iraq war. As they pointed out, “A Clean Break”
“[C]alled for Israel to take steps to reorder the entire Middle East. Netanyahu did not follow their advice, but Feith, Perle and Wurmser were soon urging the Bush administration to pursue those same goals. The Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar warned that Feith and Perle ‘are walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments … and Israeli interests.’”
Whose interests were they pursuing while they manufactured talking points based on “faulty” intelligence in order to bamboozle Congress and the American people into fighting Israel’s war on Saddam Hussein?
But that was just the beginning of the long tortured road they led us down. As Ariel Sharon told a visiting delegation of American congressmen at the time, Iran, Libya, and Syria were next on Israel’s agenda:
“’These are irresponsible states, which must be disarmed of weapons mass destruction, and a successful American move in Iraq as a model will make that easier to achieve,’ said the Prime Minister to his guests, rather like a commander issuing orders to his foot-soldiers. While noting that Israel was not itself at war with Iraq, he went on to say that ‘the American action is of vital importance.’”
Two down, one to go.
Much of the “faulty” intelligence that found its way to the desks of Bush and Cheney originated with foreign intelligence agencies, and there is plenty of evidence that much of it came straight from Tel Aviv. Certainly the Israelis had an interest in using the United States military as a cat’s-paw against their traditional Arab enemies, notably Iraq. And the defense of Israel was often cited by the administration as a justification for targeting Saddam Hussein. This wasn’t the first time a foreign entity launched a covert operation to lure the United States into an overseas conflict, and it certainly won’t be the last – that is, unless and until we learn the real lesson of the Iraq war.
Yes, it was ideology that led us to commit ourselves to become the policemen of the Middle East – but the adherents of that ideology utilized methods that included fabricating “evidence” of Iraqi WMD. One aspect of neoconservative ideology conveniently left out of Fisher’s otherwise comprehensive analysis of the neocon mindset is their dedication to Israel as a model “democracy” and our ideal ally which must always be defended. An odd omission, to say the least.
If we look at the Iraq war as a wildly successful covert operation to lure us into a position from which it is almost impossible to extricate ourselves – all to the advantage of a certain Middle Eastern “democracy” beloved by the neocons – then the whole disastrous episode begins to make sense. If such is the case, then why should the perpetrators care if no WMD were found after the invasion? It would be no skin off the Israelis’ noses: Bush would get the blame, not Bibi. And of course the operatives inside the administration responsible for skewing the intelligence could always claim to have been mistaken: after all, everybody thought the WMD were there, and in any case they would never be held to account. Since when is anybody in our government held accountable for anything?
Yes, I know, this is a “conspiracy theory,” and therefore we aren’t allowed to consider it, let alone examine the facts that back it up. Nations never engage in conspiracies, and government officials never lie.
And if you believe that, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in purchasing….
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.