Persuasion, Distortions, Exaggerations, and Lies
My post on Monday, in which I argued that it was not un-American to question the president's apparent plan for unilateral action against Iraq, generated a fair bit of commentary, both on other blogs and by email. One email in particular, by Richard Aubrey, deserves comment ( I feel free to identify Mr. Aubrey by name because he repeated many of his arguments, expressly directed toward my post, in comments at Dave Trowbridge's Redwood Dragon). Aubrey wrote:
Quick and many others do not insist on unthinking agreement with the president. You say that as if you believe that's what he and others want, but I suspect you actually know better.
It happens that the president believes what Quick and others believe, which they think is brilliant of him.
As to whether the Daschle & Co. tactics are unpatriotic: Of course they are. The issue is not whether they can do things which are very likely to get a good many of us killed and still claim to be patriotic. The question is whether they care. There is no evidence they do.
There can be disagreement, but honest disagreement needs to look honest. Theirs does not. It has no basic solution to any problem but Democratic legislative power. . . .
Aubrey expanded on his argument in response to a post by Dave Trowbridge:
Cooper says a person can be patriotic without blindly parroting the president's views. In fact, many of us are glad the president is parroting our views. Cooper doesn't give those with whom he disagrees any credit for independent thinking. It is only the superior folks like himself who have two brain cells to rub together.
The fact is that if the president and we who think the president is pretty smart for doing things more or less our way are right, disagreeing is not patriotic. And disagreeing for the sake of being in the always-sainted minority regardless of facts is not at all patriotic, but self-indulgent.
At one level, Aubrey misunderstands me. I recognize the possibility that people of goodwill, analyzing the available evidence, might believe that unilateral action against Iraq is appropriate. In other words, I do not contend that only unthinking people could possibly support the president. Misguided as I might think those people are, I recognize that different people process information, even the same information, through different internal filters, the result of a lifetime's worth of differences in experience. From my own perspective, based on my own upbringing, education, and experiences, I conclude (based on information presently available to me) that the administration's course of action is ill-considered. Thus, for me to advocate unilateral action against Iraq, despite my better judgment, would require unthinking agreement with the president.
Aubrey denies the possibility that my views are honestly held. If he's right, he says, then disagreement is unpatriotic (not to mention self-indulgent). But here's the point: I don't know that he's right. The quality of the information that is available to members of the general public is always incomplete, especially on matters that relate to national security. We are thus left in a position where we have to decide what information is trustworthy and what is not.
Which leads to the second point of disagreement between Aubrey and myself: whether, and to what extent, the Bush administration has engaged in exaggerations, distortions, misdirections, and outright lies in its attempt to build public support for action against Iraq. I'll readily concede that some of the Democrats' actions—in particular, the now-abandoned notion that debate on Iraq should be put off until after the fall elections—have had an unpleasant political odor (and the decision of Reps. Bonior and McDermott to criticize the president from Baghdad was downright stupid). But honest debate requires honesty on both sides, and there's been little of that from the administration.
In my post last Monday, I focused on one instance of dishonesty in particular. In early September, the president stated that, according to a 1998 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iraq was within six months of developing nuclear weapons. A spokesperson for the IEAE denied that any such report existed. When asked for clarification, a White House spokesperson said that the report was from 1991, not 1998. Again, the IEAE denied that it had issued such a report. As Dave Trowbridge wrote at his site:
The White House had two chances to get it right. They didn't. Bush's statement could be a simple error, or careless briefing. The press secretary's statement is either a lie, or wanton stupidity, or a lack of concern for the truth.
Aubrey finds this example of an administration untruth unconvincing. He argues that the underlying information is accurate, and that the failure to identify the source correctly is trivial. In his comments to Dave's post, he states first that the information came from Jane's, then from an unnamed British think tank; finally, he asserts that the statement came from Vice President Cheney, who relied on unnamed intelligence sources. Nowhere does Aubrey provide a link, to a statement by the vice president or to any other source.
If the statement were true, and if it referred to the present status of Iraq's weapons program rather than to what may or may not have been the case before Desert Storm, it would go a long way toward justifying a preemptive strike of the type that Israel undertook in 1981. But the administration has not yet provided evidence that would warrant such a conclusion. And, as the entity seeking to initiate the use of military force, the burden is certainly on the administration to provide the evidence.
Aubrey also suggests that this example is the only instance of a lie told by the administration in support of unilateral action against Iraq. But the administration's case has been rife with exaggerations, distortions, half-truths, and untruths. Here are but a few examples:*
- The administration goes back and forth on whether September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001. It advanced the argument in August, despite the fact that the FBI had determined that Atta was in Virginia Beach at the time of the supposed meeting.
- In mid-August, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld argued that the presence of Al Qaeda personnel within Iraq showed Saddam Hussein's support of the group. A week later, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged that the Al Qaeda members in question were in Kurd-controlled parts of the country, beyond Hussein's reach.
- The administration pointed to Iraq's attempts to import aluminum tubes as evidence of Iraq's efforts to build nuclear weapons. The tubes, the administration contended, were meant to be used in centrifuges in the production of enriched uranium. A recent report by the Institute for Science and International Security contested the administration's conclusion, asserting that the tubes in question were not appropriate for centrifuges. The report also asserted that the administration was trying to silence government experts on nuclear technology who disagreed with the administration's position.
- The original draft resolution on the use of force that the administration submitted to Congress asserted, as one justification for acting against Iraq, "the high risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its Armed Forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so." To which journalist Josh Marshall responded:
Maybe the Iraqis would give WMD to terrorists. Maybe. But does anybody really think Saddam is going to launch a surprise attack against the United States?
It turns out that one White House correspondent also found that line questionable and asked an administration official about it. The administration official—who was well-placed and in a position to know—told the reporter that the resolution's original language was much more specific and made clear that the reference was to US interests in the Middle East or military installations in the region. However, late in the process of drafting the resolution that wording got swapped out in exchange for the current, more dramatic language.
The implication from the administration official seemed to be that of course everyone knows that Iraq isn't going to launch a surprise attack against the US but, you know, read between the lines, etc.
These examples all seem to have a kernal of truth to them. But in each case the administration has exaggerated the significance of the available data and used the exaggeration to push hard for action that the data arguably does not support. When this happens again and again, there is reason to question the administration's fundamental honesty on the important question of whether war is justified. There is, after all, something of a tradition in this country (one embracing both parties) of fabricating justifications for military action. In 1964, the Johnson administration trumpeted two unprovoked attacks by North Vietamese forces against an American naval vessel—the first of which was almost certainly provoked and the second of which never occurred—as justification for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. In 1990, the first Bush administration, in an effort to build support for what became Desert Storm, disseminated stories that Iraqi troops in Kuwait had removed babies from incubators and left them to die, a story that was later revealed to be a lie.
And while the Democrats have been criticized, sometime properly, for politicizing the debate over Iraq, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Bush administration is doing the same. Back in January, presidential advisor Karl Rove told an RNC gathering that Republicans should use war as a political issue in the fall campaign. And in September, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card explained the timing of the administration's push for action against Iraq by saying, "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."
There is, in other words, plenty of reason to question the truthfulness of the administration's case as well as its motive for advancing the case at this time. My opposition to the administration's approach to Iraq is not based on partisanship pure and simple. It is not based on reveling in being in a political minority, sainted or not. It is based on a sincere belief that the administration's course of conduct will ultimately damage important American interests, even if the invasion of Iraq is quickly successful. Mr. Aubrey believes that I am wrong. I will grant him the sincerity of his belief; I wish that he would grant me the sincerity of mine.
More broadly, I wish that Mr. Aubrey, and others like him, would acknowledge the possibility of error, or at least the possibility that reasonable people might have honest disagreements. In my civil procedure class, I teach about a procedural device called summary judgment. When, after discovery, a party believes that its case is far stronger than the other party's case, the party will ask the court to enter a summary judgment, which the court will do if, on review of all the evidence, it is convinced that no reasonable jury could possibly find for the opposing party. In making this decision, the judge doesn't simply decide how the judge would decide the case if she were a juror. Rather, to enter a summary judgment, the judge has to be convinced that even if a jury decided to give the opposing party every reasonable benefit of the doubt, it still could not possibly find for that party. The judge, in other words, has to recognize and take seriously the possibility that, even though she is inclined to view the case in a particular way, other reasonable people, reviewing the same evidence, might come to a different conclusion. Every year, there are a few people in the class who simply cannot take seriously the notion that someone could disagree with them and still be a reasonable person. By all appearances, Mr. Aubrey would fit in well with those few unfortunates.
* Many of these examples are compiled at Bushwatch. While I generally stay away from the *watch sites, which tend to be too far over the top for my tastes, the examples compiled here are all drawn from reports in the mainstream media.