THOSE who forget history may be doomed to repeat it, but who could imagine we’d already be in danger of replaying that rotten year 2003?
Scooter Libby, the mastermind behind the White House’s bogus scenarios for ginning up the war in Iraq, is back at Washington’s center stage, proudly defending the indefensible in a perjury trial. Ahmad Chalabi, the peddler of flawed prewar intelligence hyped by Mr. Libby, is back in clover in Baghdad, where he purports to lead the government’s Shiite-Baathist reconciliation efforts in between visits to his pal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.
Last but never least is Mr. Libby’s former boss and Mr. Chalabi’s former patron, Dick Cheney, who is back on Sunday-morning television floating fictions about Iraq and accusing administration critics of aiding Al Qaeda. When the vice president went on a tear like this in 2003, hawking Iraq’s nonexistent W.M.D. and nonexistent connections to Mohamed Atta, he set the stage for a war that now kills Iraqi civilians in rising numbers (34,000-plus last year) that are heading into the genocidal realms of Saddam. Mr. Cheney’s latest sales pitch is for a new plan for “victory” promising an even bigger bloodbath.
Mr. Cheney was honest, at least, when he said that the White House’s Iraq policy would remain “full speed ahead!” no matter what happened on Nov. 7. Now it is our patriotic duty — politicians, the press and the public alike — to apply the brakes. Our failure to check the administration when it rushed into Iraq in 2003 will look even more shameful to history if we roll over again for a reboot in 2007. For all the belated Washington scrutiny of the war since the election, and for all the heralded (if so far symbolic) Congressional efforts to challenge it, too much lip service is still being paid to the deceptive P.R. strategies used by the administration to sell its reckless policies. This time we must do what too few did the first time: call the White House on its lies. Lies should not be confused with euphemisms like “incompetence” and “denial.”
Mr. Cheney’s performance last week on “Fox News Sunday” illustrates the problem; his lying is nowhere near its last throes. Asked by Chris Wallace about the White House’s decision to overrule commanders who recommended against a troop escalation, the vice president said, “I don’t think we’ve overruled the commanders.” He claimed we’ve made “enormous progress” in Iraq. He said the administration is not “embattled.” (Well, maybe that one is denial.)
This White House gang is so practiced in lying with a straight face that it never thinks twice about recycling its greatest hits. Hours after Mr. Cheney’s Fox interview, President Bush was on “60 Minutes,” claiming that before the war “everybody was wrong on weapons of mass destruction” and that “the minute we found out” the W.M.D. didn’t exist he “was the first to say so.” Everybody, of course, was not wrong on W.M.D., starting with the United Nations weapons inspection team in Iraq. Nor was Mr. Bush the first to come clean once the truth became apparent after the invasion. On May 29, 2003 — two days after a secret Defense Intelligence Agency-sponsored mission found no biological weapons in trailers captured by American forces — Mr. Bush declared: “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.”
But that’s all W.M.D under the bridge. The most important lies to watch for now are the new ones being reiterated daily by the administration’s top brass, from Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney on down. You know fiasco awaits America when everyone in the White House is reading in unison from the same fictional script, as they did back in the day when “mushroom clouds” and “uranium from Africa” were the daily drumbeat.
The latest lies are custom-made to prop up the new “way forward” that is anything but. Among the emerging examples is a rewriting of the history of Iraq’s sectarian violence. The fictional version was initially laid out by Mr. Bush in his Jan. 10 prime-time speech and has since been repeated on television by both Mr. Cheney and the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, last Sunday and by Mr. Bush again on PBS’s “NewsHour” on Tuesday. It goes like this: sectarian violence didn’t start spiraling out of control until the summer of 2006, after Sunni terrorists bombed the Golden Mosque in Samarra and forced the Shiites to take revenge.
But as Mark Seibel of McClatchy Newspapers noted last week, “the president’s account understates by at least 15 months when Shiite death squads began targeting Sunni politicians and clerics.” They were visible in embryo long before that; The Times, among others, reported as far back as September 2003 that Shiite militias were becoming more radical, dangerous and anti-American. The reasons Mr. Bush pretends that Shiite killing started only last year are obvious enough. He wants to duck culpability for failing to recognize the sectarian violence from the outset — much as he failed to recognize the Sunni insurgency before it — and to underplay the intractability of the civil war to which he will now sacrifice fresh American flesh.
An equally big lie is the administration’s constant claim that it is on the same page as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as we go full speed ahead. Only last month Mr. Maliki told The Wall Street Journal that he wished he “could be done with” his role as Iraq’s leader “before the end of this term.” Now we are asked to believe not merely that he is a strongman capable of vanquishing the death squads of the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, his political ally, but also that he can be trusted to produce the troops he failed to supply in last year’s failed Baghdad crackdown. Yet as recently as November, there still wasn’t a single Iraqi battalion capable of fighting on its own.
Hardly a day passes without Mr. Maliki mocking the White House’s professed faith in him. In the past week or so alone, he has presided over a second botched hanging (despite delaying it for more than two weeks to put in place new guidelines), charged Condi Rice with giving a “morale boost to the terrorists” because she criticized him, and overruled American objections to appoint an obscure commander from deep in Shiite territory to run the Baghdad “surge.” His government doesn’t even try to hide its greater allegiance to Iran. Mr. Maliki’s foreign minister has asked for the release of the five Iranians detained in an American raid on an Iranian office in northern Iraq this month and, on Monday, called for setting up more Iranian “consulates” in Iraq.
The president’s pretense that Mr. Maliki and his inept, ill-equipped, militia-infiltrated security forces can advance American interests in this war is Neville Chamberlain-like in its naiveté and disingenuousness. An American military official in Baghdad read the writing on the wall to The Times last week: “We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem. We are being played like a pawn.” That’s why the most destructive lie of all may be the White House’s constant refrain that its doomed strategy is the only one anyone has proposed. Administration critics, Mr. Cheney said last Sunday, “have absolutely nothing to offer in its place,” as if the Iraq Study Group, John Murtha and Joseph Biden-Leslie Gelb plans, among others, didn’t predate the White House’s own.
In reality we’re learning piece by piece that it is the White House that has no plan. Ms. Rice has now downsized the surge/escalation into an “augmentation,” inadvertently divulging how the Pentagon is improvising, juggling small deployments in fits and starts. No one can plausibly explain how a parallel chain of command sending American and Iraqi troops into urban street combat side by side will work with Iraqis in the lead (it will report to a “committee” led by Mr. Maliki!). Or how $1 billion in new American reconstruction spending will accomplish what the $30 billion thrown down the drain in previous reconstruction spending did not.
All of this replays 2003, when the White House refused to consider any plan, including existing ones in the Pentagon and State Department bureaucracies, for coping with a broken post-Saddam Iraq. Then, as at every stage of the war since, the only administration plan was for a propaganda campaign to bamboozle American voters into believing “victory” was just around the corner.
The next push on the “way forward” propaganda campaign arrives Tuesday night, with the State of the Union address. The good news is that the Democrats have chosen Jim Webb, the new Virginia senator, to give their official response. Mr. Webb, a Reagan administration Navy secretary and the father of a son serving in Iraq, has already provoked a testy exchange about the war with the president at a White House reception for freshmen in Congress. He’s the kind of guy likely to keep a scorecard of the lies on Tuesday night. But whether he does or not, it’s incumbent on all those talking heads who fell for “shock and awe” and “Mission Accomplished” in 2003 to not let history repeat itself in 2007. Facing the truth is the only way forward in Iraq.