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A Whole School of Trout in the Milk: What We Already Know About Iraq From the People Who Launched the War

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Message David Michael Green
Now that Scott McClellan – a member of the Bush inner circle dating back to Texas days – has come out of the closet, it becomes increasingly unimaginable how any of the true-believers can continue to truly believe. But they do.

One wonders what it would take to dissuade these folks from their faith-based politics and the belief that the war in Iraq was justified. Will they need Laura Bush to actually turn on her husband? What if George’s pastor came out and divulged that the president had broken down and confessed all, begging the lord’s forgiveness?

It’s unlikely even those would be sufficient. And anyhow, the White House would go into its standard defensive posture that it employs whenever this happens, describing the truth-teller as "sad", lamenting his obvious psychological pathology without of course coming out and saying quite that, wondering aloud why he’s never spoken out before. Indeed, it’s a wonder that McClellan wasn’t better prepared for this completely scripted response to his revelations, especially as he had used it himself against Richard Clarke, Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame.

Anyhow, all the true believers watching Fox will continue to truly believe. As the mayhem of the Bush years dwindles into numbed, robotic destruction and the tragedy of once noble national aspirations not only ruined but now also forgotten, it becomes ever more painfully obvious why these folks cannot let go, no matter how compelling nor how broad the growing mountain of evidence.

They are simply frightened to death. Frightened of bad people, frightened of brown people, frightened of terrorist threats blown ridiculously out of proportion, frightened of existential meaningless, frightened of cosmic insignificance. And now, to that weighty pile, must be added this: They are so frightened of their own complicity in bringing death, disaster, destruction and ungodly sorrow to Iraq that they can now only resort to astonishing levels of self-delusion to maintain their sanity. At this point, I almost don’t blame them anymore. They were so lazy, so stupid, so callow, so mean-spirited, so prejudiced that they bought into a crime of epic (and epochal) proportions and can no longer imaginably bear taking responsibility for the damage they’ve produced. And yet, people continue to suffer and die. Every day spent still supporting the war out of fear or laziness or stupidity or any of the rest is another day’s additional responsibility, another oil tanker of blood poured on hands long ago soaked to the bone.

And that responsibility is grave indeed. We don’t know (because the White House doesn’t want us to know) how many Iraqis have perished for Mr. Bush’s Folly, but the best estimates are over one million. We know that almost five million have been turned into refugees. Combined, that is over one-fifth of this country’s population. We know that over 4,000 Americans have been sacrificed, with tens of thousands gravely wounded and uncounted more tens of thousands psychologically traumatized. We know that our country’s reputation has been shattered, and that we’ve spent our children’s future livelihoods to pay for it by borrowing from them, without even asking for the money. That is a very large load to bear, so now people are compounding their original sin with additional ones, because they are so frightened of what they’ve caused that they’d rather continue causing more of the same than confront their responsibility, even when a Scott McClellan comes along and sticks it in their face.

The truth is, though, we never needed McClellan’s revelations to begin with. Just a bit of simple logic, combined with even a small, half-filled pail of basic factual information would have rendered the war rationale absurd from the beginning, well before an invasion morphed into an occupation, which morphed then into a debacle. Saddam’s Iraq was no threat to anybody in 2003. I mean, how threatening can a guy be who has already lost control of two-thirds of his own airspace, while his citizens are dying of malnutrition by the hundreds of thousands from internationally-imposed sanctions? How scary can a country be, when it has neither attacked yours, nor threatened to? Whatever happened to the logic of deterrence, a mechanism that prevented an infinitely more powerful Soviet Union from attacking the US through forty years of cold war? Why was Saddam bad when he attacked his neighbors in Kuwait, but not when he did the same thing to Iran, with American support and encouragement? Why was he considered evil for using chemical weapons when we wanted to go to war against him, but not when he actually was doing it, during which time the very same people in the US government protected him from international rebuke? If we knew where the WMD were, why didn’t we just tell the inspectors where to look? Why was Iraq such a threat that the inspectors couldn’t be allowed to finish their work, which would have required only a month or two more time? If Saddam was already so threatening, wouldn’t invading his country be just the thing to trigger an attack by him, using his WMD? Weren’t we supposed to be fighting the people who did 9/11, not a country that had nothing whatever to do with that? Why was Iraq all of a sudden such an immediate and urgent threat in March of 2003, when it hadn’t been less than a year earlier? Why did nearly the whole rest of the world condemn this war of choice?

We could go on and on from there. But there isn’t really much point. Anyone who wanted to think through the implications of the Bush administration’s line on Iraq could have instantly realized that it was a load of crap, even before the subsequent revelations. Now, of course, we know even more about what happened, making the war an even more sadly ridiculous proposition. There are many examples of these post-hoc logical absurdities to add to the pre-war ones just described, but my favorite is the juxtaposition of the incredible urgency to attack Iraq (and Iran) over WMD development, while the administration continues to yawn over North Korea, the one country on their own embarrassingly juvenile "Axis of Evil" list (hey, which super-hero cartoon series did they pull that nonsense out of?) that actually did go nuclear on their watch.

To the logic and the facts, however, we also now have a large raft of testimony. Laura Bush may not yet have weighed in, though in many ways we’ve got even better than that. We have the voices of the architects themselves. We actually have Bush and Cheney and their PNAC cronies previewing the war and giving its real rationale. We have Wolfowitz and Card and Zelikow and Rove explaining the lies. We have Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill witnessing them. We have Rumsfeld incriminating himself. We have the Downing Street Memos memorializing the process of deceit. And now we have McClellan confirming all of the above from within the inner circle.

I’m reminded, looking at the totality of this information, of Thoreau’s line about evidence. Remarking on the difficulty of definitively proving an allegation in many cases, he nevertheless noted that it can sometimes be done, notwithstanding even the fervent denials of the culprits. Suspecting his milkman of watering down the delivered product, Thoreau said, "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk".

When it comes to Iraq, there is a whole school of trout in the milk. And, yet, we’re not talking about circumstantial evidence here. We’re talking about confessions and direct witnessings of the crime. A forthright examination of this litany of evidence gives lie to the war from well before the invasion began, and does so merely by using the words of those who were there.

We can begin with the Project for a New American Century, which is such a who’s who of Bush administration officials that it became pretty much a euphemism for the administration itself, and its policies. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Libby, Bolton, Armitage, Abrams, Perle, Khalilzad, Zoellick – all of these and lots more were either members of PNAC or signatories to its most important documents.

The organization had agitated since its founding in 1998 for an invasion of Iraq, sending an open letter to Bill Clinton demanding just that in the name of American security, and calling for – as its name makes clear – a world dominated by American military power. Their real agenda is revealed in their own words: "While the unresolved conflict with Iraq [the no-fly zones following the Gulf War] provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein". There’s a word for all that. It’s called empire. When they didn’t get their war in 1998, PNAC issued a report in 2000 under the guise of Rebuilding America’s Defenses, which sounded the same tune, calling again for the ouster of Saddam, and noting ominously that the "process of transformation" they were calling for in arming the country and making its foreign policy more belligerent, "is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor".

When they got their new Pearl Harbor on September 11, 2001, they jumped immediately into action. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered his staff that very afternoon to get the "best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not." At Camp David a few days later, Terrorism Czar Richard Clarke would find himself astonished to hear Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz arguing to attack Iraq – even though it had had nothing to do with 9/11 – because there were good bombing targets there, but few in Afghanistan. Clarke – a Republican who voted for Bush in 2000, and worked for the three previous presidents as well – also reported that during that same weekend, Bush pulled him aside and jabbed his chest, ordering him to find a link between 9/11 and Saddam. When he checked for a second time and could not produce one, Condoleeza Rice tossed his report back to him unread, telling him he wasn’t understanding what the boss wanted.

Outside the administration (but not really, since these were all essentially the same people), PNAC was arguing this same preposterous linkage: "Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism."

Meanwhile, Bush and Cheney themselves had long already been thinking about the benefits of a nice war in Iraq. Russ Baker reported what Bush had told his would-be autobiography ghostwriter (until they removed him from the job for being too forthright, showing up early one morning and demanding all the tapes and files from candid interviews done with Bush in 1999), family friend Mickey Herskowitz: "One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief. My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it. If I have a chance to invade. if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency."

Herskowitz also relates how the people around Bush viewed the lessons of contemporary history, including Reagan’s Grenada adventure, Thatcher’s Falklands War, and Carter’s mistake in not having one: "They were just absolutely blown away, just enthralled by the scenes of the troops coming back, of the boats, people throwing flowers at [Thatcher] and her getting these standing ovations in Parliament and making these magnificent speeches." Indeed, Herskowitz quotes Cheney as offering this formula for a successful presidency: "Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade." Leaving aside the minor operational technicality that he forgot about actually winning the war, I cannot think of a single more cynically debased statement or concept I’ve encountered in my entire life. There are now over a million people dead because of the Iraq invasion. How does someone like Dick Cheney sleep at night knowing he has caused so much grief to so many innocent people? Are there really batteries strong enough to power the pacemaker needed to keep a heart like that beating? Or did he have a secret transplant at some point, and the surgeon’s assistant unknowingly grabbed the jar with the criminal sociopath’s heart in it for the operation?

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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