George W. Bush did not always lie about Iraq

On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, it’s important to remember that George W. Bush did not always lie about Iraq and the threat it posed. He did not sell the war simply by making stuff up about the presence of WMD or exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq. That storyline is too easy. Bush and his allies did something far subtler—and more disturbing—and what they said was actually well within the canon of national security discourse, both on the left and the right. Here’s an excerpt from The Reactionary Mind:

Hovering about every discussion of war and peace are questions of life and death. Not the death of some or even many people, but, as Michael Walzer proposes in Arguing about War, the “moral as well as physical extinction” of an entire people. True, it is only rarely that a nation will find its “ongoingness”—its ability “to carry on, and also to improve on, a way of life handed down” from its ancestors—threatened. But at moments of what Walzer, following Winston Churchill, calls “supreme emergency,” a leader may have to commit the most obscene crimes in order to avert catastrophe. The deliberate murder of innocents, the use of torture: the measures taken will be as many and almost as terrible as the evils a nation hopes to thwart.

For obvious reasons, Walzer maintains that leaders should be wary of invoking the supreme emergency, that they must have real evidence before they start speaking Churchillese. But a casual reading of the history of national security suggests not only that the rules of evidence will be ignored in practice, but also that the notion of catastrophe encourages, even insists on, these rules being flouted. “In normal affairs,” Cardinal Richelieu declared at the dawn of the modern state system, “the administration of Justice requires authentic proofs; but it is not the same in affairs of state . . . . There, urgent conjecture must sometimes take the place of proof; the loss of the particular is not comparable with the salvation of the state.” As we ascend the ladder of threats, in other words, from petty crime to the destruction or loss of the state, we require less and less proof that each threat is real. The consequences of underestimating serious threats are so great, Richelieu suggests, that we may have no choice but to overestimate them. Three centuries later, Learned Hand invoked a version of this rule, claiming that “the gravity of the ‘evil’” should be “discounted by its improbability.” The graver the evil, the higher degree of improbability we demand in order not to worry about it. Or, to put the matter another way, if an evil is truly terrible but not very likely to occur, we may still take preemptive action against it.

Neither statement was meant to justify great crimes of state, but both suggest an inverse relationship between the magnitude of a danger and the requirements of facticity. Once a leader starts pondering the nation’s moral and physical extinction, he enters a world where the fantastic need not give way to the factual, where present benignity can seem like the merest prelude to future malignancy. So intertwined at this point are fear and reason of state that early modern theorists, less shy than we about such matters, happily admitted the first as a proxy for the second: a nation’s fear, they argued, could serve as a legitimate rationale for war, even a preventive one. “As long as reason is reason,” Francis Bacon wrote, “a just fear will be a just cause of a preventive war.” That’s a fairly good description of the logic animating the Cold War: fight them there—in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola—lest we must stop them here, at the Rio Grande, the Canadian border, on Main Street. It’s also a fairly good description of the logic animating the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union:

We are fighting on such distant fronts to protect our own homeland, to keep the war as far away as possible, and to forestall what would otherwise be the fate of the nation as a whole and what up to now only a few German cities have experienced or will have to experience. It is therefore better to hold a front 1,000 or if necessary 2,000 kilometers away from home than to have to hold a front on the borders of the Reich.

These are by no means ancient or academic formulations. While liberal critics claim that the Bush administration lied about or deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in order to justify going to war, the fact is that the administration and its allies were often disarmingly honest in their assessment of the threat, or at least honest about how they were going about assessing it. Trafficking in the future, they conjured the worst—“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—and left it to their audience to draw the most frightful conclusions.

In his 2003 state of the union address, one of his most important statements in the run-up to the war, Bush declared: “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late.” Bush does not affirm the imminence of the threat; he implicitly disavows it, ducking behind the past, darting to the hypothetical, and arriving at a nightmarish, though entirely conjectured, future. He does not speak of “is” but of “if” and “could be.” These words are conditional (which is why Bush’s critics, insisting that he take his stand in the realm of fact or fiction, never could get a fix on him). He speaks in the tense of fear, where evidence and intuition, reason and speculation, combine to make the worst-case scenario seem as real as fact.

After the war had begun, the television journalist Diane Sawyer pressed Bush on the difference between the assumption, “stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction,” and the hypothetical possibility that Saddam “could move to acquire those weapons.” Bush replied: “So what’s the difference?” No offhand comment, this was Bush’s most articulate statement of the entire war, an artful parsing of a distinction that has little meaning in the context of national security.

Probably no one in or around the administration better understood the way national security blurs the line between the possible and the actual than Richard Perle. “How far Saddam’s gone on the nuclear weapons side I don’t think we really know,” Perle said on one occasion. “My guess is it’s further than we think. It’s always further than we think, because we limit ourselves, as we think about this, to what we’re able to prove and demonstrate . . . . And, unless you believe that we have uncovered everything, you have to assume there is more than we’re able to report.”

Like Bush, Perle neither lies nor exaggerates. Instead, he imagines and projects, and in the process reverses the normal rules of forensic responsibility. When someone recommends a difficult course of action on behalf of a better future, he invariably must defend himself against the skeptic, who insists that he prove his recommendation will produce the outcome he anticipates. But if someone recommends an equally difficult course of action to avert a hypothetical disaster, the burden of proof shifts to the skeptic. Suddenly she must defend her doubt against his belief, her preference for politics as usual against his politics of emergency. And that, I suspect, is why the Bush administration’s prewar mantra, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”—laughable in the context of an argument for, say, world peace—could seem surprisingly cogent in an argument for war. “Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions,” Burke noted, “than ruined by too confident a security.”

As Walzer suggests, an entire people can face annihilation. But the victims of genocide tend to be stateless or powerless, and the world has difficulty seeing or acknowledging their destruction, even when the evidence is undeniable. The citizens and subjects of great powers, on the other hand, rarely face the prospect of “moral as well as physical extinction.” (Walzer cites only two cases.) Yet their leaders seem to imagine that destruction with the greatest of ease.


  1. g2-7f77829912e1318f97cee4dad19c1a2e March 17, 2013 at 11:50 am | #

    You are too kind.

  2. BillR March 17, 2013 at 12:50 pm | #

    In April 1978 Noam Chomsky did a review of Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars which is available online:

    It’s a mystery to me how this beyond worthless casuist has been taken seriously, even lionized by a little cottage industry of academics since that review appeared 35 years ago.

    • hst March 17, 2013 at 4:35 pm | #

      Thanks for linking the Chomsky review. Just goes to show how divorced from any connection to basic rules of evidence and argument-building things can get the farther away you move from the hard sciences. Incidentally, Walzer who refers to himself as a “man of the Left” has been pilloried from the Libertarian Right as well for lacking a half-way coherent notion of reasoning:

      • LFC March 20, 2013 at 4:58 pm | #

        ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ is flawed but far from worthless. You could remove every single reference to Israel from ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ and much of interest would remain in the book. I disagree with various aspects of it but it’s definitely worth reading.

  3. Paul Rosenberg March 17, 2013 at 12:54 pm | #

    While I agree that there’s a great deal of continuity that many critics overlook, it would also be a mistake to only consider the continuity, and not what sets the neo-cons apart. Along side the examples you cite, we also have Bush kicking off his PR offensive with a joint press conference with Tony Blair at which Bush cites a non-existent IAEA report–a lie so brazen that it ought to have discredited everything else he ever said.

    What’s more: (1) The effort expended in fighting Iraq simply COULD NOT have been based on existential fear. So what if Iraq DID have a nuclear bomb. How were they supposed to use it to destroy the US? Send it to us by FedEx?

    (2) Vastly exaggerating the threat of Iraq had its own rather enormous opportunity cost–it not only let the real perpetrators of 9/11 off the hook, it actually strengthened them in several entirely foreseeable ways,.

    I’m not saying any of these to reject your argument. Rather, I think that the continuity you point to is ALSO the basis on which the neo-con deviations are based. They might be considered a failure mode that had always been potentially present before, but we really *hadn’t* seen it before. Well, except when Hitler did it. But, Godwin’s Law, remember? Before 9/11 changed everything?

  4. Paul Rosenberg March 17, 2013 at 1:02 pm | #

    Almost forgot. Funny how that existential threat logic never seems to apply where the existential threat is actually REAL: Climate change. No one percent doctrine there! No sire-ee! It’s either 1000 percent certain, or it’s all a commie plot.

    • Stephen Zielinski March 18, 2013 at 8:34 am | #

      It always amazes me that our security experts and political leaders ignore the actual existential threats humanity now faces. They do so, of course, in order to support capitalism and, in some instances, make war. The United States excels at both — supporting capitalism as we know it today and making war. The American empire is as hostile to the natural environment as it is to brown skinned people who worship Allah.

      Madeleine Albright:

      “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

      Yes, of course we do.

      • Paul Rosenberg March 18, 2013 at 10:17 am | #

        “We see further into the future” (– Madeleine Albright) because we’re not about to sink below a rising sea level, like Fiji, “Ha! Ha!” (–Nelson Muntz).

  5. Joanna Bujes March 17, 2013 at 1:11 pm | #

    Yes, as for real and imagined annihilation: Palestine and Israel.

  6. Andrew March 17, 2013 at 10:31 pm | #

    I’ve read plenty of 10th anniversary articles over the past couple of days. What is disturbing to me is that while most never cease in their scorn of the Bush administration, there is little mention of the role that Clinton and the Democrats played in the conflict in Iraq nearly a decade before Bush even came into office. No mention of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, no mention of Clinton’s support of sanctions or the fact that he bombed the country twice, no mention of Madeleine Albright’s insistence that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction (back in the 1990s), no mention of the Democrats who later backed Bush, and of course, no mention of the belligerent actions of Saddam or the fact that he was sheltering terrorists like Al-Zarqawi and Abu Nidal (whom he later killed). No my friends, Bush, Haliburton and the Neocons completely made up the entire thing out of the sky and used 9/11 as a pretext (except, wait, they never actually did) so they could get ‘teh oil omg’. 10 years later…historical revisionism is well in place.

  7. Ralph Haygood March 18, 2013 at 4:28 am | #

    What about those shifty Swiss, with their “neutrality” and whatnot? And they’ve got that big nucular thingamajig underground near Geneva. They *say* it’s for “research,” but how do we know they aren’t making BOMBS? Remember, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” I say we’d better nuke ’em there, before they nuke us here – “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

    In recognition of this brilliant strategic thinking, fully in the league of Bush, Perle, and the other geniuses who brought us the Iraq War, I anticipate lucrative offers from AEI, CSP, PNAC, etc., ad nauseam and a prominent position in the next Republican administration.

  8. Stephen Zielinski March 18, 2013 at 8:44 am | #

    Iraq posed no existential threat to the people of United States. It did threaten somewhat Uncle Sam’s empire. But Bush I demolished that threat soon after it appeared as such. The criminal Clinton regime augmented the suppression of Iraq. Bush II merely finished the job.

    Let us remember that Uncle Sam poses existential threats to states and peoples around the world. America is the entity which calls for extreme counter-measures. If, therefore, Iran were seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon, that effort would be a sound real political response to American and Israeli aggression. Yet, we constantly read and here BS which defends or asserts the contrary position.

  9. Yastreblyansky March 18, 2013 at 9:16 pm | #

    “Like Bush, Perle neither lies nor exaggerates.”

    I don’t see how Perle is not lying and exaggerating there. He’s implying that they “know” things they don’t in fact know and fake-speculating about the still more terrifying things that they don’t “know”. The semiotics of lying has not been properly investigated yet, I believe, but the intention, of making us believe what they knew not to be the case (or at least knew that they didn’t know whether it was the case or not), was always there in all of them.

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