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The Washington Post editorial of Wed., July 16, is too profound a work of art to consign to the parrot’s cage without proper salute. Let us gaze upon it (head tilted upward, of course, toward the executive suites) a moment longer to fully appreciate the severe beauty of its well-wrought earnings statement.
A couple of questions have crystallized about the Bush administration’s handling of intelligence information on Iraq.
We begin quietly, in the common tongue, with “a couple of questions.” Not dozens of glaring inconsistencies, nugatory equivocations, incredible improbabilities. Just “a couple of questions.”
First, were U.S. and allied intelligence agencies wrong when they reported that Saddam Hussein continued to possess weapons of mass destruction and the means to produce them?
Lists are helpful. Otherwise the complexities of argumentation easily overwhelm the fragile reader. Only the carping partisan might interrupt the stately progression of thought to interject that the Bush and Blair administrations, not “U.S. and allied intelligence agencies,” unambiguously reported what the first item claims they did.
Second, did the Bush administration deliberately distort the intelligence reports to convince Americans that war was necessary?
The intelligence, according to reporting in the Post and elsewhere, was never, ever indisputable. Since the administration pretended no reservation, doubt, or hesitation, the interrogative is nonsensical. In that it masterfully subordinates reason to the Post editorial board’s subtler logic and greater end, the appearance of judicious probity.
A yes to the first of those questions would confirm a major failure by U.S. intelligence, one that would cause serious damage to U.S. foreign policy and demand a strict accounting of what went wrong.
Hmmph, hmmph, harumph. These are serious matters. Hmmph. They may cause temporary impediments to digestion. The text draws upon our empathy, and like all the classics, humanizes us. We would spare the editorial board its suffering by pointing a column inch above and shouting, “Look, look! The first question is inoperative! Trouble yourself no further!” If only the tiny group of insiders could hear! But they can’t! That is dramatic irony.
If the second supposition proved true, those war opponents and Democratic presidential candidates who claim a major presidential scandal is unfolding might find some traction.
And only war opponents and Democratic presidential candidates. Not people appalled by, say, intellectual dishonesty, political corruption, subversion of democracy, blatant violation of international law, military occupation, white-collar theft, and murder for political gain. No. Just war opponents, with their tired, naive slogans, and selfish, unfair Democratic presidential candidates.
For the moment, however, the answer to the first question is not yet known, though the failure of U.S. forces to find banned weapons is disturbing.
Ah, the madeleine! A flash of the reader as a child, hand straining upward, waving eagerly. “I know, I know! Call on me!” Teacher never does. How vulnerable we are, how small. We bomb. We litter foreign earth with uranium. We imprison. We kill. We then occupy bases built with no-bid contracts. We extract resources to recompense ourselves for our trouble. All with discredited evidence. Is that a crime? An unspeakable outrage were the offices of the Washington Post rather than Iraq the victim? No. It is disturbing. Be patient. Evidence may turn up. Someday. Let’s not jump to conclusions. Here is a lesson only great literature can teach. Abandon your notions of right and wrong. Among states and national newspapers like the Post, the laws of little men cease to apply.
And so far there is no hard evidence that President Bush or his top aides knowingly falsified the case for war.
Here the paragraph ends, and rightly so. The reader must pause to take in the full majesty of this assertion. They thundered of how much, what, where, when, who: toxins, tubes, chemicals, installations, drones, labs. They made headlines. They set the debate. It was conclusive. But they knew not what they did! Citizen, forgive them. Judge not lest ye be judged. If they had hearts, could you see into them? People, learn humility. If President Bush or his top aides never spoke of oil, of empire, of midterm elections, but only of the imminent danger of Iraq’s vast arsenal of deadly weapons, is that a knowing falsification? Certainly not. No hard evidence exists that such factors encroached upon the judgment of our leaders. If they had, they would have said so. Unless they didn’t know about them. Or forgot to tell us.
A new paragraph begins, and the tempo quickens.
In the absence of evidence, there has been an extraordinary amount of attention paid to marginal issues most recently, those 16 words in President Bush’s State of the Union speech that said, accurately, that British intelligence believed Iraq had been seeking to obtain uranium in Africa.
The word in the speech was “learned,” not “believed,” but quibbling over words, how petty, especially when addressing accuracy. How very nonexecutive. Inescapable is the reader’s smallness of mind, triviality of purpose. It embarrasses her to again nigglingly point out that it is not British intelligence’s belief that is indisputable, but Tony Blair’s, and that however that may be, it is generally evidence, not belief, that is called upon to account for theft and murder. Where is the evidence? Reader, shuffle off the burdens of thought and it is there, like an imaginary friend. Words work magic. They make you young again.
In fact, British intelligence did believe that and still does, even though one set of documents purporting to show an Iraqi procurement mission in Niger proved to be forgeries.
Just close your eyes, and click your heels together three times and say, “There’s not only Niger. There’s not only Niger. There’s not only Niger.” You see how easy it is? You need no documents, no piddling proof like a store-bought centrifuge. Your mind is your toy.
Last week the White House announced that the sentence should not have been included in the speech, because the CIA knew of the Niger forgery and had not been able to confirm the broader British report.
Because the Internet was down, darn those techies! Otherwise the government, all-knowing except when it knows nothing, would have learned and confirmed, as opposed to believed, the provenance of British reports, with a little assistance from Glen Rangwala. But that would have been cheating. Ignorance is the higher morality.
The claim was deleted from other administration statements, but some White House officials, banking on the British, apparently pressed for its inclusion in spite of the CIA’s doubts.
I confess I grow misty each time I read this touching line. How trusting our officials are! They need no testimony, no documents, no satellite photos from cousins across the pond, especially for a little war. They know how hard evidence is to find! All those drawers. The inefficiency of the bureaucracy. And don’t forget the postage! It is in the details that literature draws back the curtain on truth.
If so, that would represent one of several instances in which administration statements on Iraq were stretched to reflect the most aggressive interpretation of the intelligence.
An ominous note intoned, the paragraph ends. Our chewed nails are the objective correlative of our anxiety. George, Dick, Donald, Condi, Colin, Paul, Richard aggressive? Surely extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice? And it is in defense of liberty. Everyone at the Post agrees on that. It is absurd, ridiculous, insulting, scandalous, partisan, unpatriotic, base, and unfounded to think otherwise. And now our vigilant Virgils will show us why.
Yet that does not mean the decision for war was based on false information.
Of course not. It is too early to say. Tens of billions too early. Hundreds and thousands of lives too early. How restless we are as a people. It is a telling sign of indiscipline, of moral and intellectual decline. Lucky we are that the Washington Post editorial board is ready to set us right.
The Africa nugget, after all, formed a small part of the president’s argument and like other questionable parts of the administration’s case, it was widely disputed before the war.
Savor the allusiveness of the language. “The Africa nugget.” Like a nugget of gold or fool’s gold. So small, so insignificant it is. And what, after all, can we truly know? Is not all human knowledge vain conceit, disputable, mutable, beyond cold proof? We must not expect certainty, for if we did, how could we protect ourselves from imaginary weapons through unprovoked attack? Know thyself, the philosopher said. Do not undertake to know the world, for much is classified.
The heart of the argument that Iraq had repeatedly defied disarmament orders from the United Nations was endorsed in December by all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, and remains indisputable.
Is not artifice above nature? Indisputably, so too is an artificial heart: The U.N. endorsed the argument. If evidence for the endorsement was trumped up, that matters not. If bribery and coercion extracted it, that matters not. If the administration dared not call for a second vote to legitimize the war it howled for, in the name of peace, because even after the trumpery, bribery, and extortion, it stood no chance whatever of Security Council authorization, that matters not. We got it, and we1re keeping it. So what if we defy the United Nations. We1re bigger that they are. Nyah! Cryyy-baby. Cryyyy-baby!
Similarly, the conclusion that Saddam Hussein had retained chemical and biological weapons was one shared by the Clinton administration as well as every major Western intelligence service.
Thousands of gallons, or a mason jar on a dusty shelf, it’s all the same in the Platonic realm. But wait, is that an expiration date on the mason jar? November 1992? I don’t see what more evidence we need. That’s why the Iraqi dictator wouldn’t let inspectors in. That’s why the eagerly endorsing nations couldn’t wait to take on the tyrant. All texts intertwine. All roads lead to Baghdad. The Post editorial board is our trusty native guide.
That conclusion is now being challenged, but it hasn’t yet been disproved; nor has it been established that Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons program.
Ah, but not too trusty! Only the initiate will grasp the nuances of Post logic, which flows in an unbroken stream from the Inquisition, the Starr chamber, and the Stalinist show trial. Prove that you are not guilty, sir. Show us the evidence that you do not own a duck. You cannot? You convict yourself, sir, with your own words. And did you not once, 12 years past, look up the definition of “duck”? Clearly you had a duck program. Your life and property are forfeit, sir. And your little dog’s too.
Indeed, the recent unearthing of designs and machinery for producing bomb-grade material in a scientist’s garden seems more suggestive than the discrediting of the report on Niger.
It is suggestive! Oh, your servant grows excited! Also found were an arrowhead and the alternator from a 1962 Ford Galaxy 500. Clearly Iraq has much to hide. With those parts, after a good cleaning with a wire brush, and only several million others, Iraq could have posed an imminent threat to the United States, someday. Imagine! Let the mind roam. That’s what reading is for.
The third paragraph ends there, with the snake in the garden. We survived the encounter, and we are purified. Now are we worthy to receive the ultimate wisdom from the elevator bank that leads on high.
The excessive heat generated by this secondary issue reflects the troubling but, for the moment, unresolvable uncertainty about why Iraq’s WMD have not been found.
From the ancient to the postmodern. Our moment is of “unresolvable uncertainty.” That is our burden. What good can come of questioning authority, of piling doubt upon doubt? Trust. Believe. Let other minds and bodies chase phantoms in the equatorial heat. A better world is coming. It is all around us. We have only to close our eyes to see. Just as the White House need not credit the professionals of its bureaucracy, the editorial board need not read the reporting that emanates like a nauseous vapor from the lower floors. They have ascended. What use have they for facts, for intellectual honesty, for truth? Truth is vexed by “unresolvable uncertainty”; power is all. According to senior administration sources. Run next to the full-page ad to reelect the president.
Mounting anxiety in Congress and among the public about how the postwar occupation is going feeds this surrogate debate as well.
It is surrogate, hence it is trivial. At last the Washington Post is itself remade. Its reputation rests on what it now, older and wiser, knows to be trivial: the abuse of government power. Ah, it was younger then. Now it is powerful, secure in its former virtue. It has ripened. It is what it once fought. It covers up what it once sought to expose. So the wheel turns.
It is vital that a debate go forward, and that the Bush administration be prepared to respond to it constructively.
Life in the old girl yet, eh? Let the show go on! Let us debate what we are given to debate. The time to investigate is past. The Post teaches us what it is to grow old. It takes us from venturesome youth to the armchair at the end of life’s journey. There we await the Bush administration’s constructive contribution. And it is sure to arrive. Look at all the editorial board has given: credulity to the incredible, probity to the corrupt, respect to the disreputable. Now it sleepily nods, lulled by fanciful dreams of constructive contributions from killers, liars, whores, and thieves. Good night, sweet Post.
If intelligence assessments were wrong, Congress must probe why they were, and whether political pressures had any influence.
Hmmph, hmmph. “If” they were wrong. Even now. “If.” “Whether” the books were cooked. “Whether.” How unreal the world seems. Like a dream. Yes S like a S dream. Zzzzzz.
But first it is necessary to determine the facts.
We’d wake you to see them, but your gaze is as blank as paper that signifies nothing so much as its own dead wood. Word is, Washington Post, you died in your sleep. Any comment? Don’t be embarrassed. The dead are always the last to know of their own demise. Not even a no comment? Then best not to keep the parrot waiting. He always asks for the editorial page. A role model.
Despite what some of the rhetoric from both sides might suggest, that job has not yet been done.
To entertain us while we wait, the administration and its loyal page pledge to trot out more mushroom clouds a-blooming because of lack, not surfeit, of evidence. Because this time it’s for real.
Into these truth-loving hands we commend thee, O American soil.
And there the story ends. But don’t despair, gentle reader. Tomorrow is another day, with another story. And another after that. And another. And…
The novel is dead; long live the editorial page.
JON BROWN can be reached at: email@example.com