If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.—Joseph Goebbels
Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.—Franklin D. Roosevelt
On his June 10 radio broadcast, conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly tried to discredit author Al Franken and filmmaker Michael Moore by likening them to Nazis. What he said was, "Joseph Goebbels was the Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi regime and whose very famous quote was, ’If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth'. ... And that's what Stuart Smalley [Al Franken] and Michael Moore and all of these guys do." Likening Moore to Nazi propaganda filmmaker Lefi Reifenstahl, O'Reilly said, "... It's the same thing, by the way. Propaganda is propaganda."
It is particularly unwise of an administration ally like O'Reilly to bring up the notion of propaganda—and the Nazis' genocide—at this precise moment in our history because the Bush administration's modus operandi has been, since the very beginning, to control public opinion through carefully constructed propaganda, purposefully vague language and lies by omission. They saw opportunity in the fact that the nation is generally too busy or too blasé to pay much attention to foreign affairs; after five minutes of TV news or glancing at the headlines, we grasp only the big ideas, not the details. This administration believed that they could, using a heavy dose of demagoguery, sell anything to the American people, even the idea that Iraq was somehow connected to 9-11.
When it became clear that the attacks of 9-11 were carried out by al Qaeda, headquartered in Afghanistan, we invaded that country. But we now know that the White House was eager to invade Iraq even before 9-11 and still more focused on Iraq in the days immediately following 9-11. In his book Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward describes how Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld kept planning the Iraq war a secret even from national security team members. Woodward even quotes President Bush as saying, "I knew what would happen if people thought we were developing a potential war plan for Iraq."
Perhaps it was a personal vendetta (if you've seen Fahrenheit 9/11 the image of Bush saying Hussein “tried to kill my daddy” is fresh in your mind) or perhaps, despite evidence to the contrary, they really believed Iraq was involved. Nevertheless, the White House knew their case for war was far from iron-clad, if not illegitimate. In order to sell the idea, the administration employed what former Vice President Al Gore described as "a systematic abuse of the truth and institutionalization of dishonesty as a routine part of the policy process." In order to sway the pendulum of the populace to their side, they had to make it look like Iraq was—at least partly—responsible for 9-11.
As Gore described it in a speech last week, "President Bush repeatedly gave our people the clear impression that Iraq was an ally and partner to the terrorist group that attacked us, al Qaeda, and not only provided a geographic base for them but was also close to providing them weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs."
Of course, Bush never said it exactly that way and he didn't have to. The language of the 2002 bill authorizing military action against Iraq was so vague that it allowed the president to "take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organization, including those nations ... who planned, authorized, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such persons or organizations." It gave the president nearly unlimited authority to wage war.
Out of several nations we knew were in bed with terrorists (including Pakistan and Iran) Bush chose Iraq, the second-largest oil-producing nation on Earth, the one run by a dictator who had tried to kill his daddy.
But oil and family feuds are not enough to convince a nation to spend $150 billion and sacrifice thousands of young lives. What could convince them? That old Cold War standby, thermonuclear annihilation. The words weapons of mass destruction are merely a new fear-inducing euphemism for the bomb. In his annual State of the Union Address to Congress on Jan. 20, 2004, Bush did not mention that so far no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons had been found by inspectors who had repeatedly searched Iraq since the U.S. invasion. What he did say was, "Already the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations." His wording of WMD-related program activities was purposefully vague because he knew the evidence was far from concrete.
Bush and Cheney didn't waste much time explaining that our evidence on WMD wasn't concrete. He did not share the Kay Report's findings that, "Multiple sources [say] that Iraq did not have a large, ongoing, centrally controlled CW [chemical warfare] program after 1991. ... To date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material. ... No detainee has admitted any actual knowledge of plans for unconventional warheads for any current or planned ballistic missile." Clearly Bush's statements go beyond making an argument based on the best evidence available. It's lying by omission. If we had known the whole truth, would the public have supported the war so strongly? Not according to recent polls.
In March of 2003, during the war in Afghanistan but before the invasion of Iraq, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 88 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had supported terrorist groups with plans to attack the United States. More importantly, nearly 70 percent believed "it was likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the attacks carried out by al Qaeda," according to USA Today.
Those numbers were far higher in September 2003 when NBC's Tim Russert asked Vice President Cheney his opinion of the country's belief that Saddam was behind the 9-11 attacks. Cheney replied, "I think it's not surprising people make that connection." Indeed, Cheney, nor anyone else in the White House, should have been surprised that the American people believed Iraq to be behind 9-11; it was the belief they were working hard to establish.
Both Bush and Cheney had long been linking Hussein and Iraq with al Qaeda and 9-11 every chance they got. In a Sept. 12, 2002, address to the United Nations General Assembly, Bush warned that if Saddam were to give WMD to "his terrorist allies, then the attacks of 9-11 would be a prelude for far greater horrors." One month later he described Hussein as, "a man that we know has had connections with al Qaeda," and that "Hussein would like to use al Qaeda as a forward army." Meanwhile, Cheney linked Iraq and 9-11 in dozens of speeches and television appearances.
Of course, events of the past two years and the investigations of the bipartisan 9-11 Commission have shown virtually all of the most-cited evidence against Iraq to be untrue. The WMD that could be deployed within 45 minutes? Don't appear to exist. The meeting in Prague? No proof it happened. Yellowcake uranium from Niger? A hoax. On June 16, 2004, the 9-11 Commission reported they could find "no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." This they concluded using the same sources available to the White House.
But even when confronted with what appears to be evidence that refutes his story, Bush sticks to it. On June 17, 2004, at an Army base in Washington state, he said, "On September 11, we learned that threats gathering on the other side of the world can arrive suddenly and bring tragedy to our great nation. On that day, the enemy declared war on the United States of America, and war is what they got." Technically, of course, he means al Qaeda, but by leaving those words out, the inference is clear: He means Iraq. That is the country we invaded with far more force and expense than we used to hunt al Qaeda in Afghanistan, after all.
At the end of the day there will still be those among us who ask: So what? So what if the connection with al Qaeda didn't exist and the WMD never materialized? Saddam was still a threat and we needed to get rid of him to make our world safer and at least in theory, or perhaps fantasy, bring democracy to an oppressed country.
Here's so what: Because of this war the world is a more dangerous place. Because we invaded Iraq thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians have been killed. While Iraq may not have been a breeding ground for international terrorists before the war, it certainly is now. Iraqis fighting against the American occupation need all the help they can get, and they're more than happy to take it from wherever it comes. We now have a Muslim world so united in their anger at the occupation that terrorists are praised for murdering any Americans they can find, gleefully dragging their charred bodies through the streets.
Furthermore, it is tragic and ironic that Bush's so-called "fight for democracy" may have done irreparable damage to our own democracy. Its cost has surpassed all estimates, taking money that could have been spent on making sure Americans have access to things like health care and education. President Eisenhower once said, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." Or as former Vice President Gore put it, "Whenever a chief executive spends prodigious amounts of energy convincing people of lies, he damages the fabric of democracy and the belief in the fundamental integrity of our self-government." Our self-government, our great democratic ideal, is worth nothing if our leaders thwart the people's ability to make decisions based on the trust that our leaders tell us the truth.