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Deceiving the Dead


One can only wonder at the temerity of the timing for the release of the latest book by a former Bush administration insider – Scott McClellan’s What Happened – on May 26, 2008, Memorial Day.

The irony – maybe cynicism is a better description – that drips from this volume by the former White House Press Secretary is so thick that even the  normally ubiquitous “unidentified high-ranking White House official” is hard to find for comment.

Take, for example, the book’s title, What Happened. As it stands, the title suggests an accurate, “straight-talking” account (recall John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express”) of the behind-the-scenes debates, the options and recommendations of presidential advisors, and the decisions Bush finally made. But so direct is McClellan’s attack on the coterie of advisors and even of Bush himself that those named may be reeling from the literary equivalent of boxing’s one-two punch.  If so, the book title is better put as a question from a disoriented pugilist who has gone down for the count:: “What Happened?”

McClellan opens up in the preface where he writes that History seems poised to side with the judgment  of the American people (including himself) “that the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder…. No one… can know with absolute certainty how the war will be viewed decades from now when we can more fully understand its impact. What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary.”

This was not the only – or by far the most damning statement, about the Bush White House and the president himself. McClellan writes:

“He [Bush] is not one to delve into all the possible policy options – including sitting around engaging in extended debate  about them – before making a choice. Rather, he chooses based on his gut and his most deeply held convictions. Such was the case with Iraq.”

Everyone is entitled to their deepest held convictions – but only for themselves. When one moves beyond the self, especially when the step up the ladder involves governing a country of 300 million people which just happens to have the ability to destroy the planet with nuclear weapons, surely the American public and people all around the globe are entitled to more from a U.S. president than “flying by the seat of his pants.

McClellan  faults Bush’s national security team, particularly  the National Security Advisor ands now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for not compensating for Bush’s aversion to exploring all options before making decisions. But then, it may have made little difference, for Bush, once he had decided that Saddam Hussein had to go, simply ignored the intelligence that pointed away from war and the justifications he used to elicit support from the American public.

McClellan’s sub-title for his book is an apt summary of this president and this administration: “Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.”

McClellan was part of that deception. As such, does he himself understand the irony of releasing his book on a day when we honor the memories of those killed in combat – in a combat that did not have to be, in a war whose whole rationale rested on lies?

We owe the world “big-time.” We must do better with the next president.  One might think we could not do worse. But  it will demand the attention and the participation of the U.S. voters  in November’s ballot to ensure we get the best person in the White House. After Iraq, it is the least we can do for the rest of the world.

Col. DAN SMITH is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at


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