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Are We Feeling Duped Yet?

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A lot of silly things have been said about Iraq’s alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, such as that Saddam Hussein could be ready to launch in 45 minutes. But perhaps the silliest of all is the Republicans’ charge that even to ask whether the Bush administration misled the American people is to engage in partisan politics.

Note the double standard. It’s politics to point out that a couple of months after the Hussein regime fell no unconventional weapons have been found. But to even wonder whether the war was politically motivated is beyond the pale. “How dare you suggest that a president of the United States would put American troops in harm’s way for political reasons?”

The faux naiveté is precious. Presidents have been waging politically motivated wars almost since the country was founded. Attempting to separate war from politics is futile. As Karl von Clausewitz famously said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

Thus those who in war’s aftermath question the pre-war propaganda can hardly be uniquely guilty of playing politics. As for that cliché “politics stops at the water’s edge,” an old Washington Post editor, Felix Morley, had the best answer: politics stops at the water’s edge only when policy stops at the water’s edge.

It shouldn’t be necessary to prove that presidents are capable of lying us into war. Real-life examples are well known. Harry Truman took the United States into a war on the Korean peninsula right after his secretary of state told the world that South Korea was outside America’s “defense perimeter.” Why? Politics: the Democrats couldn’t bear the thought of Republicans’ charging them with “losing Korea” so soon after China went communist.

Lyndon Johnson turned U.S. involvement in Vietnam into a full-fledged war on the basis of a nonexistent attack on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Biographer Robert Caro has documented that Johnson kept escalating the war even though he believed he could not win it. Why? Politics: again, he was trying to protect the Democrats from the stigma of being soft on communism.

Note: those presidents knew that their wars were unrelated to the security of the American people. U.S. entry was motivated by politics. So why should anyone have a hard time believing that President Bush would, let us say, bend the truth to get us into war in Iraq?

The president’s apologists don’t have a glimmer of how ridiculous they sound. For example, they say Bush’s critics are inconsistent because, while they wanted the UN weapons inspectors to have more time, they think the U.S. teams should have come up with something by now. But this glosses over some important facts. The UN inspectors did not have the benefit of the touted U.S. intelligence that supposedly would have led them to the weapons. The U.S. teams have that information, as well as full run of the country and the ability to take Iraqis into custody and interrogate them. It is proper for our expectations about the U.S. search to be higher.

Moreover, U.S. forces have had more time to find the weapons than we have been led to believe. It has been reported that special operations forces were checking suspected weapons sites even before the war began. So many places have been inspected that the searchers are bored and irritated. They are tired of rushing to a place only to find nothing. When some hot intelligence sent them to one of the palaces of Hussein’s son to inspect a suspicious warehouse and some tanks, they found a car port and a supply of propane for cooking.

As the Los Angeles Times reported recently from Iraq, “A veteran U.S. intelligence official here said he is furious over the inaccurate intelligence reports that have sent weapons teams racing to a series of empty sites. ‘I’m sitting here, and “frustrated” isn’t the word anymore,’ said the official, who has a senior role in the hunt and spoke on condition of anonymity. ‘I feel almost duped.’”

When are the American people going to start feeling that way?

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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.