By Schell, Jonathan | The Nation, October 27, 2003 | Go to article overview


Schell, Jonathan, The Nation

"... interviews last week with historians, advertising executives, pollsters and Democratic and Republican image-makers turned up this consensus: Mr. Bush has to do a better job--or at least a more extensive job--of selling Americans on Iraq and the American occupation, no matter what anyone might think of the policy itself."--Elizabeth Bumiller, New York Times, "Hard Sell: In a Democracy, the President Is Also Salesman in Chief"

"Everything that happened yesterday is irrelevant."--Advice for Bush from G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French-born medical anthropologist who has done psychological consumer research for Seagram, Procter & Gamble and Ford, quoted in the same article

A year has passed since Congress authorized George W. Bush to launch a war against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Each of the justifications for the war put forward by the Administration has now proved either entirely imaginary or so remote as to appear fanciful. The President said that the United States must go to war because Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was ready to use them, but the American team, led by David Kay, sent to discover those weapons has now, after four months of searching, had to report that it has found none. The President said that Saddam gave support to Al Qaeda, but no such support has been demonstrated. The President said he was going to war to establish a democracy in Iraq so splendid that all the Middle East would emulate it (Iraq would be "a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region," he said in February), but six months after the war's end Iraq remains virtually without a government, and resistance to the American occupation is on the rise. The United States has been led into war on false pretexts before. A case in point is the provoked and falsified attacks on American naval vessels in the Tonkin Gulf, which were used to stampede Congress into voting for the Tonkin resolution authorizing the Vietnam War. But never before has an Administration's entire justification for war--not just its triggering incident--proved to be a mirage. (In Vietnam, the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam really were seeking to take over South Vietnam, and did so. In Iraq, by contrast, there really are no known weapons of mass destruction or known support for Al Qaeda.)

All this has by now been redundantly demonstrated, to the point of overfamiliarity, and public debate must shift to another subject: Will anyone be held accountable for the disaster (whose cost, still rising, remains beyond calculation)? Or has the past indeed been made "irrelevant," as Mr. Rapaille recommends? So far, the President appears to be following the Rapaille strategy.

He has adopted a practice of brushing aside the factual world with simple, declarative, false statements. For example, during his visit to Poland in late May, he declared, in defiance of all accepted information, "We've found the weapons of mass destruction." The statement, unsupported by evidence or even verbal backup from other Administration officials, was so strange it was widely uncommented upon. Everyone knows what to say if an official says something that later turns out to be false (for instance, that Saddam bought uranium in Africa). The suffix "-gate" is attached to it, and a process of sleuthing out the facts and tracing the origins of the falsehood ensues. But what are people to say or do or even think if the President states something that is already known by the whole world to be untrue? The problem arose again in the aftermath of the Kay report. The President had gone to war, he said, because Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Kay was unable to find any. The President announced his vindication. Can black become white if the President says it is? Can the past be erased by White House fiat?

The Congressional supporters of the resolution have been wordier. Their evasions of accountability are too numerous to catalogue, but an interview that Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, who voted for the resolution but is now a keen critic of the President, gave to Tim Russert can suffice as an example of the genre. …

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