None of the conservatives running for president want to be associated with the last Republican president — not even his brother (for whom stepping away is rather complicated). After all, George W. Bush left office with an approval rating hovering in the low 30s, and his grandest project was the gigantic catastrophe of the Iraq War, which we're still dealing with and still debating. If you're a Republican right now you're no doubt wishing we could talk about something else, but failing that, you'd like the issue framed in a particular way: The war was an honest mistake, nobody lied to the public, and anything bad that's happening now is Barack Obama's fault.
For the moment I want to focus on the part about the lies. I've found over the years that conservatives who supported the war get particularly angry at the assertion that Bush lied us into war. No, they'll insist, it wasn't his fault: There was mistaken intelligence, he took that intelligence in good faith, and presented what he believed to be true at the time. It's the George Costanza defense: It's not a lie if you believe it.
Here's the problem, though. It might be possible, with some incredibly narrow definition of the word "lie," to say that Bush told only a few outright lies on Iraq. Most of what he said in order to sell the public on the war could be said to have some basis in something somebody thought or something somebody alleged (Bush was slightly more careful than Dick Cheney, who lied without hesitation or remorse). But if we reduce the question of Bush's guilt and responsibility to how many lies we can count, we miss the bigger picture.
What the Bush administration launched in 2002 and 2003 may have been the most comprehensive, sophisticated, and misleading campaign of government propaganda in American history. Spend too much time in the weeds, and you risk missing the hysterical tenor of the whole campaign.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of weeds. In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity completed a project in which they went over the public statements by eight top Bush administration officials on the topic of Iraq, and found that no fewer than 935 were false, including 260 statements by President Bush himself. But the theory on which the White House operated was that whether or not you could fool all of the people some of the time, you could certainly scare them out of their wits. That's what was truly diabolical about their campaign.
And it was a campaign. In the summer of 2002, the administration established something called the White House Iraq Group, through which Karl Rove and other communication strategists like Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin coordinated with policy officials to sell the public on the threat from Iraq in order to justify war. "The script had been finalized with great care over the summer," White House press secretary Scott McClellan later wrote, for a "campaign to convince Americans that war with Iraq was inevitable and necessary."
In that campaign, intelligence wasn't something to be understood and assessed by the administration in making their decisions, it was a propaganda tool to lead the public to the conclusion that the administration wanted. Again and again we saw a similar pattern: An allegation would bubble up from somewhere, some in the intelligence community would say that it could be true but others would say it was either speculation or outright baloney, but before you knew it the president or someone else was presenting it to the public as settled fact.
And each and every time the message was the same: If we didn't wage war, Iraq was going to attack the United States homeland with its enormous arsenal of ghastly weapons, and who knows how many Americans would perish. When you actually spell it out like that it sounds almost comical, but that was the Bush administration's assertion, repeated hundreds upon hundreds of time to a public still skittish in the wake of September 11. (Remember, the campaign for the war began less than a year after the September 11 attacks.)
Sometimes this message was imparted with specific false claims, sometimes with dark insinuation, and sometimes with speculation about the horrors to come ("We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," said Bush and others when asked about the thinness of much of their evidence). Yet the conclusion was always the same: The only alternative to invading Iraq was waiting around to be killed. I could pick out any of a thousand quotes, but here's just one, from a radio address Bush gave on September 28, 2002:
The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given. The regime has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist groups, and there are al Qaeda terrorists inside Iraq. This regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile material could build one within a year.
What wasn't utterly false in that statement was disingenuous at best. But if there was anything that marked the campaign, it was its certainty. There was seldom any doubt expressed or admitted, seldom any hint that the information we had was incomplete, speculative, and the matter of fevered debate amongst intelligence officials. But that's what was going on beneath the administration's sales job.
The intelligence wasn't "mistaken," as the Bush administration's defenders would have us believe today. The intelligence was a mass of contradictions and differing interpretations. The administration picked out the parts that they wanted — supported, unsupported, plausible, absurd, it didn't matter — and used them in their campaign to turn up Americans' fear.
This is one of the many sins for which Bush and those who supported him ought to spend a lifetime atoning. He looked out at the American public and decided that the way to get what he wanted was to terrify them. If he could convince them that any day now their children would die a horrible death, that they and everything they knew would be turned to radioactive ash, and that the only chance of averting this fate was to say yes to him, then he could have his war. Lies were of no less value than truth, so long as they both created enough fear.
And it worked.