Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lies and the selling of the Iraq war

It is generally accepted that there are two types of falsehood. In the first type, the utterer says something that is not so, but honestly believes it to be the case. In the second, the perpetrator knows that the statement is false but makes it anyway. The second case is what we commonly term lying. In the 18th century the claim that phlogiston is needed for burning was an error but not a lie; today such an assertion is in fact a lie.

Accusations of lying should be used sparingly, because they inevitably suggest bad faith. I confess that I am dismayed by the widely posted stickers stating "Bush lies, who dies?" as they imply that Bush habitually lies, and does so in order to procure unnecessary deaths. By overstatement, these stickers risk alienating centrists who might otherwise come to accept that the Iraq war was a mistake.

But are the stickers really an overstatement? The claim that the Bush administration was simply misinformed rather than lying in the run-up to the Iraq war will not hold up. The assertion that there were no deliberate lies stems from a number of observers. Some of them have, to their credit, revised their earlier wholehearted support of the war. Among those who are rightly critical of a number of aspects of the prosecution of the war, but still deny that the Bush administration engaged in deliberate lying, is Andrew Sullivan on his blog.

There has certainly been deliberate lying about Saddam Hussein’s purported involvement in 9/11. Cheney continued to repeat the canard of Mohammad Atta’s meeting with Iraqi operatives in Prague long after it had been shown to be without foundation. In a more general way—utilizing the dubious "unified field" concept of the war on terror-—Bush continues to promote the association. Both Osama ben Laden and Saddam Hussein are terrorists, so the claim goes, so they must be connected. Well, surely the Tamil Tigers are terrorists too, but no one alleges that they had anything to do with 9/11. As has been repeatedly pointed out “terror” is a technique, like blitzkrieg or sniping, and not some unified metaphysical entity.

Tony Blair was certainly lying when he claimed that Saddam had rockets that could deliver WMDs to Britain in a matter of hours.

The allegation that Saddam was seeking yellowcake from Niger was in all likelihood lying, though defenders of the administration still claim that there was a smidgen of evidence. It is curious, though, that they will not release the information they have on the forgery that led to this claim.

As regards the WMDs it is certainly not the case that
e v e r y expert believed in them. There was, it seems, a body of dissent within the CIA. In the rush to war, though, this opinion was swept aside. Now (November 14, 2005) Bush is claiming that Congress had the same information he had. That is surely untrue, as the administration presented the information selectively to Congress. That is the technique known as suppressio veri, where one offers some aspects of the truth, while deceptively omitting others.

In my view the WMD question has been oversimplified into a matter of false extremes. Before the war many of us accepted that Saddam might have retained small quantities of WMDs. If that was the problem, clearly the solution was to find and destroy them. Why not give the team of Hans Blix a chance to do just that? Yet in the rush to war the continued existence of the WMDs was a must for the Bush administration. They did not want to have them destroyed, or to be confronted with a finding that none existed.

Some antiwar commentators make a mistake in labeling exaggerations lies. One, for example, says that the administration claim that foreign fighters are playing a major role in the insurgency is a lie. In fact it is only an exaggeration. There are foreign fighters, and while the absolute numbers are apparently small, they are a major source for the suicide bombers.

Art historians sometimes distinguish between forgeries and falsifications. Forgeries are outright fakes, created with the sole intent to deceive. Falsifications occur when art works that are genuine in some context are passed off as belonging to another. Some version of this distinction would be useful in connection with the Iraq war.

Possibly relevant is a recent account of the concept of bullshit. As analyzed in a small book by Harry Frankfurt, bullshitting is not exactly lying, and bullshit remains bullshit whether it's true or false. The difference lies in the bullshitter's insouciant disregard for anything more than a semblance of facts in the physical world: he "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

The arguments of the Bush group are bullshit in that they combine true statements with dubious ones in a poorly blended mixture, which relies on an uncritical mindset on the part of its target audience to achieve a specious plausibility.

Still the concept of bullshit seems too casual to describe the enormous web of deception and exaggeration that has led to the Iraq war. It has been some years in the planning starting almost ten years ago with the efforts of the Project for the New American Century, headed by Richard Perle.

The following general pattern seems to have occurred. First, interest groups develop rationales for their own agenda, seeking to market them in governmental circles. If (from their point of view) they are lucky, they implant their rationales at the heights of the political establishment. Yet even after "the fix is in" it is necessary to create a set of arguments that will sway public opinion. This is where the higher bullshit comes in. Surely, such inventions have a long tradition. One might think of the Shakespeare play, in which king Henry V summons the archbishop of Canterbury to present a spurious legalistic argument authorizing his invasion of France. Or in France itself, three centuries later, Louis XIV incited his archivists and lawyers to turn up old evidence for French posessions in Alsace and other border regions, so that he could justify his invasion of these territories.

The rule seems to be as follows. First comes the decision to invade. Then the b.s. barrage, in its higher form if possible, but always an olla podrida of fact, half-fact, and outright lies.


Blogger Jaafar said...

Gee whiz, "bullshit" is exactly the term for what you have written!

9:45 AM  

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