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Bush’s Iraqi Smoke

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The Bush administration long ago set the record for misleading the American people. Compared to President George W. Bush and his minions, Bill Clinton was an amateur.

And don’t think that’s a small achievement. It isn’t easy to choose words that will both deceive and allow the speaker to claim later that he did not lie. That takes talent.

In recent days administration officials have been softly backing away from some of their most apocalyptic statements during the run-up to the war in Iraq. Vice President Cheney says he misspoke when he claimed earlier that Saddam Hussein had acquired nuclear weapons. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz now says that multitudes of al Qaeda operatives were not working with Hussein. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he has seen no evidence that Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. President Bush concurs.

Predictably, the Bush cheerleading squad chants that the administration never misled the American people on those matters. It all depends on what the meaning of “never” is.

It is an utter falsehood to assert that the president never led the American people to believe that Iraq was involved in 9/11. All right, he never said: “Saddam Hussein plotted with Osama bin Laden to attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon.”

But he did say, on declaring an end to major combat in Iraq last May, “Terrorists declared war on the United States, and war is what they got.”

Ponder that for a moment. Bush had just sent the armed forces into Iraq to depose its government and to establish American control of the country. On declaring victory he uttered words that could have no other intent than to directly tie Hussein to the 9/11 attacks. What else could that sentence mean? Hussein personally did not issue a declaration of war against the United States. His armed forces did not attack Americans before the invasion. He was a brutal totalitarian dictator, but he was not a terrorist by the conventional definition. On the other hand, bin Laden did declare war on the United States, and al Qaeda personnel flew airplanes into three buildings on U.S. soil.

Thus when Bush said, just as the formal war on Iraq ended, that “terrorists declared war on the United States, and war is what they got,” it could have meant only one thing: Saddam Hussein was an accomplice in the al Qaeda 9/11 operation. And 70 percent of the American people believed him.

But now the president says Hussein was not involved. In other words, never mind.

The dissembling goes on with respect to the elusive weapons of mass destruction. Here the strategy is to so confuse the American people with shifting statements that they will throw their hands up in confusion and comfort themselves by assuming the president knows what he’s doing. To listen to this administration and its boosters you’d think no one ever claimed that Hussein had WMD which threatened the American people. In recent days it’s been said that rather than weapons, Hussein had the capability to acquire weapons, or the intent to acquire the capability, or the wish to form the intent to acquire the capability. To Rumsfeld the matter is so trivial now that when he was in Iraq he was too busy to ask the head of the search team how things were going.

But of course the new party line on WMD is nonsense. We were told by both the American and British governments that such weapons could be launched with 45 minutes’ notice and that the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud.

In true Orwellian fashion the administration now talks as if the only reasons for conquering Iraq were to liberate its people and to shift the war on terrorism from America to Baghdad. But even here they can’t quite get their stories straight. Cheney says Iraq was the “geographic base” for the 9/11 terrorism. But if that’s so, what was the Afghanistan war about? Shouldn’t the vice president and president harmonize their account of things?

This administration is so good at generating smoke the Environmental Protection Agency ought to charge it with violating the Clean Air Act.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.