Lying at the Top (09/03)

As the rationale for the most recent US intervention abroad unravels, outrage and disbelief have been expressed over the possibility that President Bush and his team "misled" Congress and the public. When Bush asserted in his 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein was seeking African uranium, was he simply misinformed or purposely deceiving us?

At various points, administration spokesmen also asserted that Iraq was a) responsible for the 9/11 attacks, b) directly linked to al-Qaeda, c) trying to import aluminum tubes to develop nuclear weapons, d) still hiding vast stocks of chemical and biological weapons from the first Gulf War, e) capable of developing smallpox, f) obstructing weapons inspectors, and g) able to deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. None of this is turning out to be true.

Close examination of Bush’s January address reveals other shady phrases. These include a pledge to "keep Social Security sound and reliable" ($150 billion removed from the "lockbox" this year alone), a promise that he wouldn’t "pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations" (not counting a $7 trillion national debt), and assertions that his Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives will improve the environment.

The real question, however, isn’t whether the President has been intentionally lying, but rather why anyone is surprised. Presidential prevaricating about major policies is a standard tactic, dating back to the nation’s early days.

After escalated provocations with Mexico until he obtained the necessary pretext in 1846, President James Polk announced, "War exists," thus explaining away how it happened. After defeating Spain, William McKinley said he wanted to "uplift and civilize and Christianize" the Filipinos, and "by God’s grace do the very best we could by them." But they’d already declared independence, so doing the best actually meant allowing the worst – killing and burning villages during a 12-year war of resistance.

In 1947, Harry Truman wanted to "assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way." The pledge didn’t stop him from approving CIA manipulation of elections in Greece and Italy.

When asked about a US operation to overthrow the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1953, the State Department called the charges ridiculous and untrue. This saved President Eisenhower the burden of lying himself. In his memoirs, however, Ike stepped up, still denying the US had anything to do with the coup.

President Johnson’s most famous fib was his 1964 announcement that two US destroyers had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. This trumped up incident provided a pretext to escalate war in Vietnam. The following year, he railed about "atrocities" in the Dominican Republic. The reports weren’t true, but gave him an excuse to occupy the country.

Nixon, of course, misled about many things, from bombing Cambodia to covering up dirty tricks. But Reagan was equally adept. The Organization of Caribbean States pleaded for the 1983 US intervention in Grenada, he claimed. Actually, the pleading came from the other side. He also repeatedly denounced the Russians for spraying toxic chemicals over Afghanistan. Turns out it was just pollen-laden feces dropped by honeybees over Laos and Cambodia. Afghanistan wasn’t affected.

Experts differ over whether the first war with Iraq was a set up. But there’s no dispute about George Bush’s 1988 claim that he never met Manuel Noriega, not even when he was CIA director. He was later forced to admit the truth.

Clinton certainly lied about "having sex with that woman." But more crucial deceptions escaped much notice. Bombing a Sudanese drug factory in 1998, for example, he called it a front for nerve gas production, an assertion that proved false. More crucial, he didn’t mention that the US had been conducting a covert campaign to destabilize Sudan’s government for two years, passing on military equipment to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. That was a touchy subject, since the guerrillas were using women and children as forced labor, mortaring urban areas, killing relief workers, and shooting down civilian airliners.

As for the current Bush, the full scope of his misadventures with candor may not be clear for some time. But they surely started before his crusade to oust Hussein. One example is his relationship with Enron’s Kenneth Lay, much closer than he chose to admit after the bogus bookkeeping was exposed.

In short, Presidents have frequently resorted to fabrication and mendacity in shaping public opinion. And even impeaching one isn’t likely to change that, since many of the biggest lies are embraced, at least initially, by most members of Congress, and disseminated without enough scrutiny.

Is the real problem the presidency itself? As Historian Barbara Tuchman suggests, has it just become too complex and powerful to be left to the "fallible judgment of one individual?" Maybe. But if the past is a guide, one thing is sure: Presidents will probably continue to "mislead" at times until more effective limits on executive power are imposed.

– Greg Guma