Shortly after he was reelected, President Bush declared that American voters had had their “moment of accountability” regarding the Iraq war. Since he had gotten slightly more than 50 percent of the votes in the November 2004 election, that meant that they had ratified his policies and that Bush was free to do as he chose in the coming years.
Almost all of the Founding Fathers would have recognized Bush’s interpretation as dictatorial tripe. But it is also worthwhile to examine the war frauds by which Bush and Dick Cheney won a second term. This is especially relevant, since Bush and Cheney may use similar frauds to attack Iran.
Bush and Cheney were reelected in large part because they inoculated scores of millions of Americans against the evidence of the deceits and failures of the U.S. war in Iraq. They swayed tens of millions of Americans to take their beliefs from their rulers, not from the facts.
Americans may be more gullible on foreign policy in part because of their greater global ignorance. A 2002 survey for National Geographic found that “roughly 85 percent of young Americans (ages 18 to 24) could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Israel on a map.” Almost 30 percent of the young adults surveyed could not locate the Pacific Ocean and 56 percent were unable to locate India. As the old saying goes, “War is God’s way of teaching people geography.”
In the days after 9/11, when pollsters asked Americans who they thought had carried out the 9/11 attacks, only 3 percent of respondents suggested Iraq or Saddam Hussein as culprits. But Bush and Cheney strove to make Americans believe that Saddam was linked to 9/11 or closely associated with the terrorist group that carried out the attack. The Saddam—al-Qaeda link was the linchpin for exploiting 9/11 to justify preemptive attacks around the globe.
In his official notification of invasion sent to Congress on March 18, 2003, Bush declared that he was attacking Iraq “to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” Bush tied Saddam to 9/11 even though confidential briefings he received informed him that no evidence of any link had been found. In a speech to troops shortly after Baghdad fell, Bush characterized his attack on Iraq as “one victory in the war on terror that began September 11.”
Months of accusations and insinuations by the Bush administration profoundly affected Americans’ perceptions of Iraq and the war. A February 2003 poll found that 72 percent of Americans believed that Saddam was “personally involved in the September 11 attacks.” Shortly before the March 2003 invasion, almost half of all Americans believed that “most” or “some” of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens. Only 17 percent of respondents knew that none of the hijackers was Iraqi.
Throughout 2004, the Saddam—al-Qaeda link was repeatedly officially debunked. A 9/11 Commission staff report on June 16 concluded that there was no evidence of a “collaborative relationship” between Saddam and al-Qaeda. The findings were trumpeted in headlines across the nation. Despite this broad coverage of the report, 55 percent of Bush supporters wrongly believed that the 9/11 Commission reported that “Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda,” according to a University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes poll a few weeks later. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked Americans “whether you agree or disagree with [the 9/11 Commission] finding [that] Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government did not collaborate with al-Qaeda in attacking the United States on 9/11.” Almost half of the respondents disagreed.
Any lingering doubts on this topic should have been quashed on July 9, 2004, when the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a 511-page report on the CIA and Iraq. The report concluded that the CIA “reasonably assessed … that these contacts [between Saddam and al-Qaeda] did not add up to an established formal relationship.” The report also recognized that the CIA accurately concluded that “to date there was no evidence proving Iraqi complicity or assistance” in the 9/11 attacks. The report noted that the CIA’s accurate judgments on Saddam, al-Qaeda, and the non-link to 9/11 “were widely disseminated [prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq], though an early version of a key CIA assessment was disseminated only to a limited list of Cabinet members and some sub-Cabinet officials in the administration.” Neither Bush nor Cheney permitted the facts to impede their rhetoric on Iraq.
Encouraging Americans to believe that Saddam was behind 9/11, and to see the Iraq war as vengeance for 9/11, made it far easier to justify an unprovoked attack on a nation that posed no threat to America. A September 2004 Newsweek poll found that 42 percent of Americans believed that Saddam was “directly involved in planning, financing, or carrying out the terrorist attacks.” As of mid October, “75 percent of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda, and 63 percent believe that clear evidence of this support has been found,” according to a University of Maryland poll.
The Bush campaign’s portrayal of the invasion of Iraq as a necessary part of the war on terrorism saved the president. The 55 percent of voters who said that the war in Iraq is “part of the war on terrorism” went for Bush by a 4 to 1 margin. The 43 percent who said Iraq was not part of the war on terrorism voted for Kerry by an 8 to 1 margin.
Weapons of mass deception
The Bush team’s invocations of Saddam’s supposed vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction convinced Americans that the United States could not afford to wait for the UN weapons inspection process to continue. In a March 17, 2003, speech giving Saddam 48 hours to abdicate power, Bush declared, “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” Bush also justified the invasion of Iraq by appealing to UN resolutions that, he said, “authorized” the United States and other governments “to use force in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.”
The constant references to WMDs by Bush administration officials burned the issue into Americans’ minds. Several months later, almost a quarter of Americans wrongly believed that Iraq had actually used its weapons of mass destruction against American forces during the fighting in March and April 2003.
In the weeks and months after the fall of Baghdad, Bush repeatedly asserted that U.S. forces had discovered WMDs or that Saddam had weapons programs. “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories,” Bush declared to journalists on May 29, 2003. Five weeks later, he again claimed vindication because “we found a biological lab” in a truck trailer. However, CIA investigators concluded that the trailer had nothing to do with an Iraqi WMD program.
On January 28, 2004, David Kay of the CIA testified to two Senate committees on the result of the almost-finished great WMD hunt. As CBS News noted, “Kay was chosen last year as the Iraq Survey Group leader in part because he was convinced weapons would be found.” Kay’s group included a thousand people and cost about a billion dollars (on top of the costs of the invasion supposedly motivated by WMDs). But Kay announced to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we were almost all wrong” about Iraq’s possessing WMDs. Kay’s tell-tale “almost all wrong” phrase was hyped in front-page headlines across the nation and got massive airtime on television news and talk shows.
Despite the publicity that Kay’s comments received, a March 2004 poll by the University of Maryland found that “63 percent of Bush supporters thought, incorrectly, that [Kay] had concluded that Iraq had at least a major WMD program.”
On October 7, 2004, Americans heard from Charles Duelfer, also of the CIA and the chief U.S. weapons inspector chosen by Bush to go to Iraq and complete the work of the Iraq Survey Group. Duelfer’s team issued a thousand-page final report that offered literary analysis (speculating on how Hemingway’s short story “The Old Man and the Sea” appealed to Saddam Hussein) in lieu of any WMD discoveries. Duelfer’s report was widely seen as the final demolition of the Bush administration’s original casus belli. The report, coming out the day before the second presidential candidates’ debate, generated front-page headlines. Yet a University of Maryland poll taken after the report’s release found that 57 percent of Bush supporters incorrectly believed that Duelfer “concluded that Iraq did have either WMD (19 percent) or a major program for developing them (38 percent).”
WMD delusions persisted through Election Day. Another University of Maryland poll, shortly before the 2004 election, found that “72 percent of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major program for developing them (25 percent).” Fifty-six percent assumed that most experts believed Iraq possessed WMDs at the time of the U.S. invasion. Bush supporters also wrongly believed that the invasion of Iraq was welcomed around the world.
Bush supporters’ approval of the war depended largely on their delusions. They were asked, “If, before the war, U.S. intelligence services had concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and was not providing substantial support to al-Qaeda,” what should have been done? “Fifty-eight percent of Bush supporters said in that case the U.S. should not have gone to war. Furthermore, 61 percent express confidence that in that case the President would not have gone to war.”
The October 2004 University of Maryland report explained that Bush supporters “continue to hear the Bush administration confirming these beliefs. Among Bush supporters, an overwhelming 82 percent perceive the Bush administration as saying that Iraq had WMD (63 percent) or a major WMD program (19 percent)…. Seventy-five percent of Bush supporters think the Bush administration is currently saying Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda (56 percent) or even that it was directly involved in 9/11 (19 percent).”
Stephen Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, commented, “To support the president and to accept that he took the United States to war based on mistaken assumptions likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance, and leads Bush supporters to suppress awareness of unsettling information about prewar Iraq.” The more information about the war that people suppressed, the easier it became for them to support Bush and to view opponents of the war as unpatriotic, un-American, or otherwise possessed by demons.
George W. Bush has not yet had his “moment of accountability” for his war in Iraq. If there is justice, then there will be a full investigation of the lies by which the president and his team paved the way to attack.
In the meantime, Americans should remember the Iraq war frauds and radically discount any White House racketeering for the next war.
James Bovard [send him mail] is the author of the just-released Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil. He serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website.