I Was Wrong, but So Were You
Parsing Bush's new mantra.
President George W. Bush has suddenly shifted rhetoric on the war in Iraq. Until recently, the administration's line was basically, "Everything we are saying and doing is right." It was a line that held him in good stead, especially with his base, which admired his constancy above all else. Now, though, as his policies are failing and even his base has begun to abandon him, a new line is being trotted out: "Yes, we were wrong about some things, but everybody else was wrong, too, so get over it."
Quite apart from the political motives behind the move, does Bush have a point? Did everybody believe, in the run-up to the war, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? And are Bush's Democratic critics, therefore, hypocritically rewriting history when they now protest that the president misled them—and the rest of us—into war by manipulating intelligence data?
President Bush made this claim—and thus inaugurated the new line of counterattack—at a Veterans Day speech last Friday before a guaranteed-to-cheer crowd at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, one of the few American military bases that no sitting president had ever visited. (The White House transcript of the 50-minute speech notes a breathtaking 47 interruptions for applause.)
As with many of the president's carefully worded speeches on the subject, this one contains fragments of truth—for instance, nearly everyone, including the war's opponents, did think back in the fall of 2002 that Saddam had WMDs—but they serve only to disguise the larger falsehoods and deceptions.
Let's go to the transcript:
Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs.
This is not true. Two bipartisan panels have examined the question of how the intelligence on Iraq's WMDs turned out so wrong. Both deliberately skirted the issue of why. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence deferred the second part of its probe—dealing with whether officials oversimplified or distorted the conclusions reached by the various intelligence agencies—until after the 2004 election, and its Republican chairman has done little to revive the issue since. Judge Laurence Silberman, who chaired a presidential commission on WMDs, said, when he released the 601-page report last March, "Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us agreed that that was not part of our inquiry."
There's something misleading about Bush's wording on this point, as well: The investigation "found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments." The controversy concerns pressure from the White House and the secretary of defense to form the judgments—that is, to make sure the agencies reached specific judgments—not to change them afterward.
They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein.
This is an intriguingly ambiguous statement. What does he mean by "our assessment of Saddam Hussein"? Of the man—his motives, intentions, wishes, fantasies? In which case, he's right. Most of the world's intelligence agencies figured Saddam Hussein would like to have weapons of mass destruction. If he means an assessment of Saddam Hussein's capabilities, though, he's wrong: Several countries' spy agencies never bought the notion that Saddam had such weapons or the means to produce them in the near future.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George Bush by Ed Landrock/KRT; photograph of Bush on the Slate home page by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.