Who's Got the Wrong Values Now?

By E. J. Dionne Jr.

The Washington Post

Tuesday, July 13, 2004; Page A15

It's notable that in a week when the major reasons the administration offered for the war in Iraq were undercut by a Senate intelligence committee report, our presidential candidates devoted themselves to talk about "values."

The idea that our country fought a war on false premises is astonishing -- and it has a lot to do with the "values" of this administration.

President Bush's government was unrelenting in trying to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein posed an immediate threat to us, that he had scary weapons, that he was tied to al Qaeda and thus to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is wholly inadequate to shuck all this off on the CIA. The president was determined to scare the hell out of the country and make the case for war by whatever means necessary.

"Chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained," Bush said in a speech to religious broadcasters in February 2003. "Secretly, without fingerprints, Saddam Hussein could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists or help them develop their own. Saddam Hussein is a threat. He's a threat to the United States of America."

This was the president talking, not the CIA. Note that he's not telling us we should wage war against the evil Hussein for humanitarian reasons -- that was not the central rationale then, though it is now -- but because Hussein posed a threat to us that we have learned he did not. Yesterday, Bush defended his decision to go after the nation that "once had the worst government in the Middle East." And he implied that Libyan disarmament was a byproduct of his actions in Iraq. Even if that's true, Bush's current argument is a much-revised version of his original case for war.

It wasn't the CIA but the president's closest advisers who resorted to the most purple and incendiary rhetoric to make sure we'd support the war. And the administration's talkers were especially eager to use their fiery rhetoric in the run-up to the 2002 midterm elections.

"We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," declared national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on Sept. 8, 2002. The same weekend, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "Imagine a Sept. 11 with weapons of mass destruction. It's not 3,000; it's tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children." And Vice President Cheney spoke with utter certainty about Hussein: "We know we have a part of the picture, and that part of the picture tells us that he is, in fact, actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons."

Again, was it the CIA at fault here or was the administration determined to do all it could to get us to buy into a war it was already determined to fight? What "values" freed it to exaggerate the flimsy evidence it had ("we know we have part of the picture") to get Americans thinking that Saddam Hussein could turn one of our cities into a Hiroshima or Nagasaki?

Did the phony claims influence the course of the debate on the war? Of course they did. Listen to Sen. Pat Roberts, the loyal Republican from Kansas, in response to Tim Russert's question on "Meet the Press" as to whether what Roberts knows now would have led him to change his vote on the war.

"I don't know if I would have or not," replied Roberts, the intelligence committee chairman. "I think the whole premise would have changed, I think the whole debate would have changed, and I think that the response would have changed in terms of any kind of military plans." As for his colleagues' votes for the war, Roberts said: "I doubt if the votes would have been there."

Bush gave a powerful speech in York, Pa., last week describing his "values." He declared: "The culture of America is changing from one that has said 'If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame somebody else' to a culture in which each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life."

That's a great idea. Applying it to the president means that he, not the CIA, is responsible for the case that was made for the war in Iraq. By the president's own logic, he can't blame a bunch of bureaucrats ("if you've got a problem, blame somebody else") for his administration's eagerness to offer the most lopsided picture possible of the threat Hussein posed.

"If it feels good, do it." Bush is absolutely right that this is an inadequate approach to the decisions we face in life. The "values" that lead Bush to reject this concept should pertain especially to decisions to start wars and to the methods used to sell them.

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