Matters of Emphasis

New York Times, Apr. 29, 2003 (Opinion)
http://www.nytimes.com/
By PAUL KRUGMAN

“We were not lying,” a Bush administration official told ABC News. “But it was just a matter of emphasis.” The official was referring to the way the administration hyped the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. According to the ABC report, the real reason for the war was that the administration “wanted to make a statement.” And why Iraq? “Officials acknowledge that Saddam had all the requirements to make him, from their standpoint, the perfect target.”

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A British newspaper, The Independent, reports that “intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic were furious that briefings they gave political leaders were distorted in the rush to war.” One “high-level source” told the paper that “they ignored intelligence assessments which said Iraq was not a threat.”

Sure enough, we have yet to find any weapons of mass destruction. It’s hard to believe that we won’t eventually find some poison gas or crude biological weapons. But those aren’t true W.M.D.’s, the sort of weapons that can make a small, poor country a threat to the greatest power the world has ever known. Remember that President Bush made his case for war by warning of a “mushroom cloud.” Clearly, Iraq didn’t have anything like that — and Mr. Bush must have known that it didn’t.

Does it matter that we were misled into war? Some people say that it doesn’t: we won, and the Iraqi people have been freed. But we ought to ask some hard questions — not just about Iraq, but about ourselves.

First, why is our compassion so selective? In 2001 the World Health Organization — the same organization we now count on to protect us from SARS — called for a program to fight infectious diseases in poor countries, arguing that it would save the lives of millions of people every year. The U.S. share of the expenses would have been about $10 billion per year — a small fraction of what we will spend on war and occupation. Yet the Bush administration contemptuously dismissed the proposal.

Or consider one of America’s first major postwar acts of diplomacy: blocking a plan to send U.N. peacekeepers to Ivory Coast (a former French colony) to enforce a truce in a vicious civil war. The U.S. complains that it will cost too much. And that must be true — we wouldn’t let innocent people die just to spite the French, would we?

So it seems that our deep concern for the Iraqi people doesn’t extend to suffering people elsewhere. I guess it’s just a matter of emphasis. A cynic might point out, however, that saving lives peacefully doesn’t offer any occasion to stage a victory parade.

Meanwhile, aren’t the leaders of a democratic nation supposed to tell their citizens the truth?

One wonders whether most of the public will ever learn that the original case for war has turned out to be false. In fact, my guess is that most Americans believe that we have found W.M.D.’s. Each potential find gets blaring coverage on TV; how many people catch the later announcement — if it is ever announced — that it was a false alarm? It’s a pattern of misinformation that recapitulates the way the war was sold in the first place. Each administration charge against Iraq received prominent coverage; the subsequent debunking did not.

Did the news media feel that it was unpatriotic to question the administration’s credibility? Some strange things certainly happened. For example, in September Mr. Bush cited an International Atomic Energy Agency report that he said showed that Saddam was only months from having nuclear weapons. “I don’t know what more evidence we need,” he said. In fact, the report said no such thing — and for a few hours the lead story on MSNBC’s Web site bore the headline “White House: Bush Misstated Report on Iraq.” Then the story vanished — not just from the top of the page, but from the site.

Thanks to this pattern of loud assertions and muted or suppressed retractions, the American public probably believes that we went to war to avert an immediate threat — just as it believes that Saddam had something to do with Sept. 11.

Now it’s true that the war removed an evil tyrant. But a democracy’s decisions, right or wrong, are supposed to take place with the informed consent of its citizens. That didn’t happen this time. And we are a democracy — aren’t we? 

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