Sticking to Falsehoods Means Sticking to Failure

A new poll shows that as of mid-March, 57% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had given substantial support to al-Qaeda. Worse, 45% actually say that “clear evidence” has been found in Iraq to support this allegation! As for weapons of mass destruction 45 percent say they believe Saddam had them before the recent war, and 22 percent say that he had a major program for developing them.

There is no documentary or physical evidence for any of these assertions.

The only good thing about the poll is that it showed that a majority of Americans now believes the Iraq war will not bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East (56% did believe it in May 2003), and 51% believe that Iraqis want US troops out of their country (this may actually be overly simplistic).

The poll was commissioned by the "University of Maryland’s Program in International Policy Attitudes, conducted by Knowledge Networks from March 16 to 22, was released yesterday. It surveyed 1,311 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points."

Why would so many Americans cling to patently false beliefs? One can only speculate of course. But I would suggest that the two-party system in the US has produced a two-party epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. If it were accepted that Saddam had virtually nothing to do with al-Qaeda, that he had no weapons of mass destruction (nor any significant programs for producing them), and that no evidence for such things has been uncovered after the US and its allies have had a year to comb through Baath documents – if all that is accepted, then President Bush’s credibility would suffer. For his partisans, it is absolutely crucial that the president retain his credibility. Therefore, rather than face reality, they re-jigger it to create a fantasy world in which Saddam and Usamah are buddies (as in the Jimmy Fallon/ Horatio Sanz skits on the American comedy show, Saturday Night Live), and in which David Kay (of whom respondents say they’ve never heard) never recanted his earlier belief that the WMD was there somewhere.

Of those who maintain that Iraq actually did have WMD, 72% say they are going to vote for Bush.

If 57% of Americans believe that Saddam was supporting Usama in the late 1990s through 2003, it means that not insignificant numbers of Democrats believe this. It shows that the Democratic party leadership has not developed an effective critique of Bush administration approaches to the ‘war on terror,’ and that in effect the Republicans are poaching on Democratic territory successfully in this regard.

It is bad for the country for policy to be made based on falsehoods, and it is even worse for failed policies not be be recognized as such because the public clings to myths.

I saw how the mythical opinions are generated at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations where I testified last Tuesday. Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger testified, and began his testimony with a long quote from Usama Bin Laden about how the US was timid and had easily been chased out of Lebanon and Aden with a few bombs. It was an odd way to begin a hearing on what has gone wrong in Iraq.

I don’t have my degree in Neocon studies, but as I thought about this, it occurred to me that Schlesinger must count as one of the early Neocons, having gone over to Nixon at a time when the junior members of the club still clustered around Democrat Scoop Jackson. As a historian, I respect several of Schlesinger’s achievements, and I know for a fact that he was very suspicious of Nixon during Watergate and put in safeguards against Nixon going to the officer corps and trying to declare martial law. But it is also clear that Schlesinger has what can charitably be called blind spots on the Middle East. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, British official Lord Cromer became alarmed at his views: "But it was the substance of Schlesinger’s remarks which set alarm bells ringing. ‘[One] outcome of the Middle East crisis,’ he told Lord Cromer, ‘was the [sight] of industrialised nations being continuously submitted to [the] whims of under-populated, under-developed countries, particularly [those in the] Middle East.’ Schlesinger did not draw any specific conclusion from this but the unspoken assumption came through … that it might not … be possible to rule out a more direct application of military force.” That is, he was at least talking about invading Saudi Arabia and occupying its oil fields, and he appears to have had rather dismissive views of Middle Easterners. (The area is not under-populated, by the way; the Middle East if we include from Morocco to Iran, and Turkey to Saudi Arabia, surely has a population comparable to that of the US). And, after the recent Iraq war, Schlesinger seemed to argue that no Arab would ever again lift a hand against the United States, since they had been taught a decisive lesson.

So it seems clear to me that Schlesinger was trying to shape his Senate testimony so as to hint around that the Iraq War was somehow connected to al-Qaeda, even though we all know that it wasn’t. The only one who challenged Schlesinger on this was Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee:

"SEN. CHAFEE: I know these gentlemen have good opinions, but they don’t speak for the administration. Those are the people we’re going to get the answers from ultimately. But nonetheless, Secretary Schlesinger, in your opening comments, you quoted some very chilling testimony from Osama bin Laden. Why use that testimony at a hearing on Iraq?

"MR. SCHLESINGER: The mention of that is to discuss why it is that the United States is engaged in the Middle East, because we were attacked, because of a declaration of war against Americans.

"The question of Iraq, which is what you point to, it may or may not have been, as some stated, central at the time we went in. It may have been secondary or peripheral at the time we went in. But the administration is quite right that it is now the central front in the war against terrorism, because much of what we see in Fallujah today are terrorists who have come from the outside world. They are the ones primarily who have been setting the car bombs and have been doing the training.

"So it has now become central, even for those who might, at the outset, not have thought it central.

"SEN. CHAFEE: Well, it’s become central because we invaded. But certainly I think you’d even agree there’s never been any connection between Osama bin Laden and Iraq. They’re very, very different issues. And Afghanistan is –

"MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I think you’ve had –

"SEN. CHAFEE: – a long way from Iraq.

"MR. SCHLESINGER: I think you’ve had testimony, or a letter, at least, from George Tenet talking about the contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam going back at least a decade. But that is – we are there. We are where we are. And the consequences of not winning, of not being successful, would be disastrous not only for the United States –

"SEN. CHAFEE: I agree with that, but I don’t think there’s any connection with al Qaeda. We’re there and now we have to be successful. I agree with that."

Actually, George Tenet has testified that there was no relation between Saddam and 9/11. What is interesting here is how completely honest and aboveboard Chafee was being, in taking on the Neocon Consensus. That consensus has been adopted by the Right of the Republican Party as its election playbook, and it is repeated on Fox Cable News, on rightwing talk radio, at Republican fundraisers, dinners, and in television interviews all through the Red States. So far the Republican Right has been able to keep its partisans with it on these matters. You might think that a Republican like Chafee standing up for the truth is a good sign. And it is, of course, in some ways. But the Associated Press worries that centrist Republicans like Chafee and Spector are a “dying breed.”

Still, that Senator Lugar agreed with ranking minority Senator Biden to hold the hearings at all was clearly an expression of extreme anxiety about where Iraq policy is going and about the potential catastrophe that lies ahead if his party cannot begin facing facts. (Biden has been courageous and straightforward that we are in big trouble; Lugar tends to signal it in more low-key ways). Senator Hagel clearly also has severe concerns. The Democrats, not being obliged to try to reelect a sitting president, in general are more clear-sighted on the problems right now, but many of the Republicans are also clearly alarmed. There wasn’t much partisanship at the hearings, since after all, Iraq affects all Americans. The only exception was Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who seemed angry about the hearings and kept throwing leading questions only at Richard Perle. It seems clear that the momentum of the Republican Party at the moment is in the hands of the Brownbacks and the Santorums, and it is they who are shaping opinion among the rank and file, aided by the Limbaugh megaphone.

If nearly half the country cannot even see that things are going badly wrong in Iraq, one despairs that anyone will work up the political will to try to fix the problems before it is too late.