Grand Delusion

Two Leaders Who See What They Want to See

By Richard Cohen

The Washington Post

Tuesday, June 22, 2004; Page A17

I believe Cheney.

I believe the vice president when he claims that there was a link of some sort between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda -- and by intended implication with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. I believe, that is, that he is not necessarily lying, not making things up. I believe, in other words, that Cheney's -- and President Bush's -- insistence on this association is just more evidence that the two of them are blinkered by ideology and seeing precisely what they want.

I'll tell you a story. There was a man who went to see a psychiatrist. First, the shrink showed him a picture of crossed sticks and then one of hundreds of little dots. "What's that?" the shrink asked. Snakes and ants having sex, the man replied. The shrink told the man he was obsessed with sex. "What do you expect," the patient replied, "when you keep showing me dirty pictures?"

In life as in jokes, you see what you want. Cheney and Bush (protocol would insist on Bush first, but we know better) always saw a link between Hussein and al Qaeda. That link was tenuous at best, but it was supported by this or that meeting or sighting or the presence of someone in Iraq with links to Osama bin Laden. Aficionados of the Mafia will recognize the telltale signs. This person is linked to this person who is associated with that person who is married to yet another person who was once in business with the brother-in-law of yet another person. Once you have that mind-set, the Mafia is everywhere.

It is the same with intelligence. Very little of it is definitive. We have learned that the hard way. Even the mobile chemical labs in Iraq precisely identified by spy satellites turned out to be something else. Human intelligence can be even more problematic. It turns out, after all, that we knew next to nothing about what was going on in Hussein's inner circle.

Were there contacts between Hussein's regime and al Qaeda? Maybe. It's not inconceivable that someone in the regime wanted to keep an ear open. Were those contacts nefarious? Who knows? Did they lead in some way to the events of Sept. 11? It appears not. No evidence suggests that's the case, and the lack of such evidence is not proof of anything. It is not up to the critics of the war to prove the negative any more than it is up to astronomers to prove that the dark side of the moon is not made of green cheese. A little intellectual discipline is in order here.

It's not surprising that an administration already bent on war would interpret every dot, every squiggly line, as evidence that Hussein and bin Laden were in cahoots. This made sense to Bush and Cheney since, as we have found out to our dismay, they cannot distinguish between one kind of evil and another. Every possible suggestion of cooperation somehow became proof. This was particularly the case with Cheney when it came to weapons of mass destruction. He seized on the murkiest of reports to proclaim that Iraq had "reconstituted" its nuclear weapons program, which, lo these many months later, has yet to be found. So deluded were our top guys that they invaded Iraq expecting that the major problem would be how to clean up after all the victory parades.

Was Cheney lying or was he merely so driven by ideological or intellectual conviction that to him the occasional tree became a forest? It's hard to say. As my colleague Al Kamen reports, the vice president did indeed say it was "pretty well confirmed" that one of the Sept. 11 terrorists, Mohamed Atta, had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official. Actually, that meeting has never been confirmed, and Cheney, for obvious reasons, has recently unconfirmed his statement, insisting he was never so definitive. Kamen confirmed he was.

But just as Cheney and Bush missed the forest for the trees, so do those who defend them and insist that the Sept. 11 commission overstated the case by reporting (in a draft) that "no collaborative relationship" existed between Iraq and al Qaeda. The fact remains that Hussein's fingerprints are not on the attacks of Sept. 11 and that the United States went to war for stated reasons that have simply evaporated -- weapons of mass destruction and that vaporous link between two very bad men. This brings me not to a joke but to the wisdom of the late Don Quixote, who says something to remember when this or that intelligence report is trumpeted by Cheney or Bush in justification of an unjustified war.

"Facts are the enemy of truth."