The question of the L-word keeps coming up. Did the president
and his chief advisors lie? I think this is the wrong question
to be asking. The real issue is betrayal of trust.
The president has been criticized for using the following
as justifications for the Iraq war: We went to war in Iraq
because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that
threatened us. He was reconstituting his nuclear weapons programs
(the aluminum tubes, the uranium from Africa). He had huge
stocks of chemical and biological weapons that could be launched
quickly in aerial vehicles that threatened the United States.
Saddam was working with Al Qaeda. Iraqis had “trained Al Qaeda
members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.”
It appears these were all falsehoods. The tubes couldn’t be
used for enriching uranium; there was no uranium anyway, and
no reconstituted nuclear-weapons programs. The vast stockpiles
of chemical and biological weapons have not been found, and
would be well past their use date anyway. The aerial delivery
vehicles could not go more than a few hundred miles and could
not threaten the United States. There is no evidence that
Saddam had anything to do with the Al Qaeda attack on the
United States, or that there was any cooperation between Saddam
and Al Qaeda, although 70 percent of Americans believe it,
according to a recent Washington Post poll, and perhaps
a higher percentage of men and women in the military.
President Bush’s speech on Sept. 7 used language that had
the same implications. [We] “acted first in Afghanistan, by
destroying training camps of terror, and removing the regime
that harbored Al Qaeda. . . . And we acted in Iraq, where
the former regime sponsored terror, possessed and used weapons
of mass destruction. . . . Two years ago, I told the Congress
and the country that the war on terror would be a lengthy
war, a different kind of war, fought on many fronts in many
places. Iraq is now the central front.”
Here is the impression that a great many Americans have been
left with, especially our men and women in the military and
their families: We went to war in Iraq, first, to defend our
country against terrorists, second, to liberate that country—selflessly,
at great sacrifice, not out of self-interest.
These are false impressions, and the president continues to
create and reinforce them.
Are they lies? Or are they merely exaggerations, misleading
statements, mistakes, rhetorical excesses and so on? Linguists
study such matters. The most startling finding is that, in
considering whether a statement is a lie, the least important
consideration for most people is whether it is true!
The more important considerations are: Did he believe it?
Did he intend to deceive? Was he trying to gain some advantage
or to harm someone else? Is it a serious matter, or a trivial
one? Is it “just” a matter of political rhetoric? Most people
will grant that—even if the statement happened to be false—if
he believed it, wasn’t trying to deceive, and was not trying
to gain advantage or harm any one, then there was no lie.
If it was a lie in the service of a good cause, then it was
a white lie. If it was based on faulty information, then it
was an honest mistake. If it was just there for emphasis,
then it was an exaggeration.
These have been among the administration’s defenses. The good
cause: liberating Iraq. The faulty information: from the CIA.
The emphasis: enthusiasm for a great cause. Even though there
is evidence that the president and his advisers knew the information
was false, they can deflect the use of the L-word. The falsehoods
have been revealed and they, in themselves, do not matter
much to most people.
But lying, in itself, is not and should not be the issue.
The real issue is a betrayal of trust. Our democratic institutions
require trust. When the president asks Congress to consent
to war—the most difficult moral judgment it can make—Congress
must be able to trust the information provided by the administration.
When the president asks our fighting men and women to put
their lives on the line for a reason, they must be able to
trust that the reason he has given is true. It is a betrayal
of trust for the president to ask our soldiers to risk their
lives under false pretenses. And when the president asks the
American people to put their sons and daughters in harm’s
way and to spend money that could be used for schools, for
health care, for helping desperate people, for rebuilding
decaying infrastructure, and for economic stimulation in hard
times, it is a betrayal of trust for the president to give
It is telling what was not in the president’s Sept. 7 speech.
He sought help from other nations, but he refused to relinquish
control over the shaping of Iraq’s military, political and
economic future. It was, to a large extent, the issue of such
control that lay behind the U.N. Security Council’s refusal
to participate in the American attack and occupation. The
reason for the resentment against the United States, both
in Europe and elsewhere, stemmed from a widespread perception
that American interests really lay behind the invasion of
Iraq. Those interests are: control over the Iraqi economy
by American corporations, the political shaping of Iraq to
suit U.S. economic and strategic interests, military bases
to enhance U.S. power in the Middle East, reconstruction profits
to U.S. corporations, control over the future of the second-largest
oil supply in the world, and refining and marketing profits
for U.S. and British oil companies. The ‘Iraqi people’ would
get profits only from the sale of crude, and those profits
would go substantially to pay American companies like Halliburton
In other words, it looks like the war was a war for the long-term
U.S. control of the Middle East and for the self-interest
of American corporations, and not a selfless war of liberation.
We see this in the administration arguments that, since the
United States has shed the blood of its soldiers and spent
billions, it is entitled to such spoils of war. The argument
is an investment argument: The war was an expensive investment
and the United States deserves the return on the investment
of lives and money. Such arguments make the war look like
much more than mere self-defense and a selfless war of liberation.
If the real rationale for the Iraq War has been self-interested
control—over oil resources, the regional economy, political
influence and military bases—if it was not self-defense and
not selfless liberation, then President Bush betrayed the
trust of our soldiers, the Congress, and the American people.
Mere lying is a minor matter when betrayal is the issue.