Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Day of Shame

We'll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee
there's no labouring i' the winter. All that follow
their noses are led by their eyes but blind men; and
there's not a nose among twenty but can smell him
that's stinking.

[King Lear, 2.4, 66-71]

This post consists of three parts, all on Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations five years ago about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Please feel free to skip over any or all of it, as is your wont. Check out Day of Shame for more on this blogswarm. Thanks to VastLeft of Corrente for organizing this, and to Blue Gal for spreading the word.

I. Only a Frenchman Could Doubt Him

Despite a number of glaring problems with it, Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations earned widespread praise in the mainstream media at the time. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy/PR Watch have a book, The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq (Sept. 2006), that offers a superb rundown of the reactions. From chapter three, "Big Impact":

Throughout the Joseph Wilson affair, the White House argued that the yellowcake forgery was only a small element in the portfolio of evidence it presented in its case for war. Its claim about the uranium from Niger, so it argued, was only part of the evidence showing that Iraq had a covert nuclear weapon program, which in turn was only part of the evidence that that Iraq already possessed an arsenal of banned chemical and biological weapons — the "weapons of mass destruction" that were the main reason for going to war. In Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech before the war, he was quite specific. Iraq, he said, possessed "over 25,000 liters of anthrax — enough doses to kill several million people"; "more than 38,ooo liters of botulism toxin — enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure"; "as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent"; and "upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents." [1]

Eight days later, Colin Powell addressed the United Nations and laid out the charges in further detail. Powell said his evidence came from multiple, corroborating sources: Iraqi defectors, informants, intercepted radio messages, satellite photographs, and interrogation of detainees seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere since September 11. As he spoke, Powell displayed drawings, photographs, and audiotapes. [2] The speech, unusual in its details and specificity, was almost universally praised the following day by U.S. newspapers and was seen by many as decisive in the public debate over whether to go to war. Gilbert Cranberg, the former editorial-page editor of the Des Moines Register, reviewed editorial comments in forty newspapers following the speech and found "unanimity as to Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction... Journalists are supposed to be professional skeptics, but nowhere in the commentary was there a smidgen of skepticism about the quality of Powell's evidence." [3]

• A New York Times editorial called the speech a "sober, factual case," and a separate news article described it as "a nearly encyclopedic catalog that reached further than many expected." [4] An analysis of the speech by Times reporter Michael Gordon stated that "it will be difficult for skeptics to argue that Washington's case against Iraq is based on groundless suspicions and not intelligence information."

• Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, called Powell's speech "powerful and irrefutable." A Washington Post editorial agreed, adding that "It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction." [6]

• The Los Angeles times editorialized that Powell had offered "solid evidence" and declared, "The United Nations risks irrelevance unless it promptly sets a date on which it will use military force against Iraq if that nation does not disarm." [7]

• "Mr. Powell eliminated all reasonable doubt," wrote the Washington Times in an editorial, adding, "In the wake of Mr. Powell's presentation, no reasonable person can doubt that Saddam is continuing his longstanding efforts to deceive the international community about his weapons programs." [8]

• "Only the blind could ignore Powell's evidence," wrote the Dallas Morning News editorial page, adding that Powell "did everything but perform cornea transplants on the countries that still claim to see no reason for forcibly disarming Iraq." [9]

• The San Francisco Chronicle called the speech "impressive in its breadth and eloquence." [10]

• The Denver Post said Powel had presented "not just one 'smoking gin' but a battery of them, more than sufficient to dispel any lingering doubts about the threat the Iraqi dictator poses." [11]

• California's San Jose Mercury News said Powell made his case "without resorting to exaggeration, a rhetorical tool he didn't need." [12]

What these editorials and analysis all had in common was their assumption that a major speech by the secretary of state could not possibly have been based on exaggeration or outright fabrications. As the Washington Times put it, the choice was to "concede" Powell's case "or be prepared to call Mr. Powell a liar." [13] No one was prepared to call Colin Powell a liar. Newspapers did not attempt to fact-check his presentation until months after it was delivered. The first notable critique appeared four months later, when U.S. News & World Report wrote about Powell's own incredulous reaction to the first reaction to the first draft of his speech — "I'm not reading this. This is bullshit!" [14] A couple of months later, Associated Press reporter Charles J. Hanley went through the speech, point by point, and wrote a devastating 2,500-word critique. [15] It would eventually become known that Powell's speech to the United Nations was riddled with statements that his own staff had flagged as "weak" and/or "not credible," but this fact did not emerge until later, after the United States had already gone to war, and the failure to find weapons in Iraq prompted congressional investigations and public scrutiny. [16]

White House claims about Iraq — and the failure of journalists to question those claims — were reflected in public opinion. Surveyed on July 2003, 70 percent of Americans said they believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the war began. This belief died slowly. In January 2005, 54 percent still believed it — even though the Iraq Survey Group, the U.S. team charged with looking for WMDs, had by then completed its final report, in which it declared that it had found no evidence of weapons or even of significant weapons programs. [17]

"Know" Means "Know"

The Bush administration did not merely say it suspected that Iraq had weapons. It claimed to know for certain, and even to know where they were located. "We do know, with absolute certainty," said Dick Cheney, that Saddam Hussein "is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon." [18] In Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations, he said, "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more." [19] President Bush made the same claim in his televised address to the nation announcing the start of war: "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." [20]

The claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was not just a component of the administration's case for war. It was its main argument...

(I haven't included the footnote information here, for readability. Contact me if you want/need any of the source details. Or buy the book!)

All these editorials and articles pale in comparison, though, to the hyperbole of Fox News and their pals, and several other pundits at supposedly "serious" outlets. Many pundits were positively falling over themselves to praise Powell or otherwise prove their manhood by proxy, urging for war, excoriating those damned skeptics. Perhaps the nadir was Richard Cohen, the day after Powell's presentation (emphasis added):

This is where Colin Powell brought us all yesterday. The evidence he presented to the United Nations -- some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail -- had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise.

II. Powell's Culpability

It's worth remembering the situation Powell was in. Cheney and Rumsfeld were waging an all-out assault on Powell and the State Department for ideological, bureaucratic, and ferociously personal reasons. Bush allowed this to happen. See this Hilzoy post for more on the deep dysfunction of Bush's White House, and Powell's acceptance of the same. Powell was probably the most realistic and wise of the major players in the Bush administration, and he was indeed sidelined and marginalized, but he was far from blameless.

Powell's also since tried to rewrite his role. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Powell claimed that he spent 2.5 hours "vainly trying to persuade President George W Bush not to invade Iraq." That directly contradicts his interviews with Bob Woodward, ABC, and other outlets, not to mention his interviews with Karen DeYoung for her book on him. In an extended excerpt for The Washington Post, DeYoung wrote,

In fact, Powell had never advised against the Iraq invasion, although he had warned Bush of the difficulties and counseled patience. He had no reason to resign over Iraq, he told questioners.

The entire article is well worth reading (and DeYoung discussed it with readers here). Even giving some semantic license to Powell, in all previous accounts (at least that I've seen), he emphasized how brief his conversation with Bush on the subject was: "You break it, you bought it," and so on.

There's far, far more. The blog A Tiny Revolution has closely followed Powell's claims over the past few years, and compared his public statements with what's since been discovered about what he knew and when. Jonathan Schwarz has kindly summarized and compiled that past work in "Lie After Lie: What Colin Powell Knew Five Years Ago Today, And What He Told The World." Do check it out.

It's important to note that not everyone got it wrong, either on the war, or reading Powell. The previously linked Glenn Greenwald post on Richard Cohen's blather also features Howard Dean's sober and on-target response to Powell and the Bush administration's case to war. Greenwald tackled similar issues in "Why is being right or wrong on Iraq so irrelevant?" There are many, many blog posts on the pundit hawks, why they were so wrong and why they too are culpable, but Harold Meyerson's "Their War, Too" is a nice overview.

III. Excessively Florid Personal Reflections Brimming O'er With Righteous Indignation

To my eyes, early on it was apparent that the Bush administration wanted to go to war. That alone was reason not to trust them. The simple truth that war should be avoided if at all possible, that it is a measure of last resort at best, was another, related reason. Bush offered reasons for going to war that made no sense, and did so in a highly misleading manner, such as saying that Hussein gassed his own people. That occurred back in the late 80s, before the "first Gulf War," when Hussein was our ally and before Rumsfeld (as famously photographed) met him to assure him he could count on American support. Why, if Bush's case was so good, and his cause so just, was he being so deceptive? The Bush administration and their allies practiced a "throw everything out and see what sticks" approach that was highly unconvincing and suspect. Throughout Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, I kept asking, "Where's the evidence?" It'd didn't add up, and his tone and approach were cause for great concern. He appeared eager for a fight. Alarmist rhetoric should always be distrusted. War-mongering should always be distrusted. Salivating over violence should always be distrusted. Why was Iraq suddenly such a grave threat, seemingly out of nowhere? If what Cheney was saying was true, why the hell hadn't we heard about it earlier, and for years previously? Even if Iraq actually had WMD, was it necessarily an imminent threat? And even if Iraq actually had WMD, somehow wasn't contained and was a serious, imminent threat, why would weapons inspections not work? Why was an Authorization of Military Force possibly necessary before such inspections? Why the hell would anyone trust Bush or the other saber-rattlers?

I mention all this because I wasn't blogging at the time, although I had plenty of conversations about it, and I've been plotting a series of posts on war I expect to complete before the year is out. But to my eyes, it was clear Bush wanted war and was offering shoddy justification. To my alarm, the majority of pundits and politicians didn't seem bothered by this.

I also mention this because I remember Colin Powell's presentation. I remember I felt some relief he was going to deliver one, because at the time I trusted Powell, at least much more than other members of the Bush administration. I listened to his presentation willing to be convinced. Part of me might have even wanted to be convinced, because it seemed clear to me even before Bush's 2002 SOTU that we were likely to go to war with Iraq, and that troubling prospect was a bit more palatable if it was actually necessary. It is more comfortable to believe that our leaders can be trusted with such matters. It's a classic cognitive dissonance. It's a reasonable assumption — or at least, an understandable assumption — that surely the Vice President of the United States wouldn't lie about something so serious. Surely Secretary of State and former general Colin Powell, who understood the costs of war, wouldn't lie when lives hung in the balance.

The thing is… I wasn't convinced. I have friends, and know of plenty of public figures, who were convinced by Powell, or at least trusted him, the person, the figure, the soldier. My response to the United Nations was, "That's it? That's all there is?" and dismay. A few aerial photos of buildings and trucks, which could have been anything? Ambiguous intercepted conversations? I remember talking over it with a few people at the time who felt the same. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, knowing we were almost certainly going to war based on flimsy reasons.

Powell was used, and consented to be used, to sell the American public on the idea that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, even though the Bush administration knew there was plenty of reason to doubt that was the case. Powell could have and should have refused to play along, or resigned, but he put personal loyalty and his own job prospects above his duty to the American people.

For all that, war still could have been averted. Even with the majority of power players claiming or thinking WMD existed, Bush could have let the weapons inspectors do their job. But that was never part of the plan for Bush, Cheney and the rest of the gang. Congress could have refused to go along with the AUMF or enacted any of several amendments to restrain Bush. They didn't. Powell alone doesn't let them off the hook, either.

Perhaps I should keep all this for my later series, but basically, I don't think opposing the invasion of Iraq required any special knowledge or insight. Regardless of the intelligence, even if WMD existed, weapons inspections could have worked. The only two things necessary to oppose invading Iraq was a decent bullshit detector and the simple, easily-obtained wisdom that war is hell and is to be avoided at all costs. Those that went along with the Bush line had too high a tolerance for bullshit, even on the most grave matters, and too low a threshold for supporting war, arguably the most consequential issue there is.

That's not to mention an apathetic or cowardly failure by the press to call Bush on obvious lies, as he tried to rewrite essential history mere months after the fact. And such atrocious mendacity (or rank incompetence) continues.

All of this is why, while I'm generally opposed to violence (except for comedic violence, or hitting my head against the wall), that opposition is sorely tested when I read the whining of still unrepentant hawks such as Michael O'Hanlon. He's expertly eviscerated here by Brad at Sadly, No!

I'm very sick of hearing hawks argue that if they were wrong, they were wrong for the right reasons, and those of us of who were right were right for the wrong reasons. Bullshit. I understand being a clueless imbecile brings with it the reflexive need to protect one's self with plenty of self-aggrandizing, ego-fluffing bullshit, but really, enough is enough. Hacks pretending to be wonks tend to be terribly prickly, but besides that, the whole deal of not saying "I told you so," to someone like O'Hanlon comes with an expectation. That expectation is that a halfway decent human being of average intelligence, who actually possessed the good will he claims to have had, would note his colossal error, not to mention the clusterfuck that is Iraq, bemoan the terrible devastation and loss of human life, feel horrible, and learn from it. O'Hanlon, and more "liberal" hawks than I care to mention, haven't fulfilled their side of that gentleman's agreement. (Decide for yourself whether the right-wing hawks who are still triumphantly unrepentant are better or worse, or merely deserving of a different circle in Dante's Inferno.) Who was right and who was wrong isn't quite as important if the folks who were wrong actually learn. When they don't (or perhaps even if they do), they shouldn't be allowed to make such decisions anymore. If they feel insulted, it's because they should be insulted, and insulted often, because their willful obtuseness is itself insulting, and dangerous. As Brad puts it:

The people responsible for pushing our country into its largest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam are well deserving of contempt. If anything, I wish Barack would show more public contempt for these clowns. If he were to, say, propose locking Ken Pollack up in stocks and providing his fellow citizens with an unlimited supply of vegetables, I bet he’d win in a damn landslide.

Let me spell it out, using O'Hanlon as an example. Had he been wise, he never would have held the views he did in the first place. Had he any intellectual integrity, he would have acknowledged his colossal error long ago. Had he any empathy, he would have had many sleepless nights, thinking of all those people dead, displaced or otherwise made miserable by his policies and positions. Had he any shame, he'd have left the public stage long ago, or at least shut up about how he's being picked on for getting such a clear moral issue as a war of choice so monumentally wrong (more on this in a later post). Sometimes it takes an awfully expensive education to make a man such a fucking moron. But I guarantee most Iraqi civilians, even before the invasion, wouldn't make O'Hanlon's mistake, not with the memory of the devastating Iran-Iraq war so fresh. I'm pretty sure more than a few junior high school students who have never experienced war directly wouldn't make the same mistake, either. The problem with O'Hanlon is, he'll keep on going, because he feels his reputation is at stake, which depends on him having been right, not on actually being right. It's nothing more than vanity, but more people could die as a result.

There's a famous conflict I'm sure Powell, O'Hanlon, Cohen and all the rest have studied to some extent. It's called World War I, but in its day, it was the Great War, and the War to End All Wars. Sadly, it wasn't the last. But one of the most striking aspects of WWI is that all the major nations fighting in it were eager to go to war. They had no idea what they were in for, and ignored the potential lessons of the American Civil War. They could have avoided the war, which was absolutely horrific. Invading Iraq was likewise completely avoidable, if only the will and wisdom were there.

The key, dire lesson of Colin Powell's day of shame is that more such days are bound to come, and they must be watched for and prevented if at all possible. Powell's always presented himself as the good soldier, the loyal Kent to Bush's Lear, but in truth, he and all the others are but rank knaves, and there's not a nose among twenty that will say, that's him that's stinking.

Powell's day of shame is ours, too, if we forget its lesson, or do anything less than fight to prevent another. Part of that fight is telling the truth, and hanging the albatross of unnecessary war around the neck of all such vain wretches as Powell, O'Hanlon, Cohen, Kristol and the rest. Let them be cautionary tales. Let the stench of their crime be apparent, and shock the senses of all they meet 'til it shocks their own consciences awake. The greatest trick for avoiding tragedy is never to mistake such villains for heroes.

A Doré engraving for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)

(Hey, I said it was excessively florid...)

(Update: I've corrected some typos and edited very slightly for clarity. A late night.)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


pissed off patricia said...

I remember watching him on tv and seeing his "evidence", and thinking that this is the lamest thing I have ever seen. The recording that was supposed to be to Iraqi men talking about moving something was actually seen as credible. It was all so bad that it was embarrassing.

Comrade Kevin said...

With all her terrible power and new responsibilities, combined with her illusions of innocence and her legends of immunity from frustration and defeat, (America stands in greater need than she ever did of understanding her own history.

Our European friends, appalled by the impetuosity and naivete of some of our deeds and assumptions, have attributed our lack of historical sophistication to the lack of a history--in their sense of the word.

America's apparent immunity to the tragic and ironic aspects of man's fate--that charmed and fabled immunity that once made America the Utopia of both the common men and the philosophers of Europe--has come to be pictured as Europe's curse.

For the fear that haunts Europeans is the fear that America's lack of a common basis of experience and suffering will blind her to the true nature of their dilemmas and end by plunging them into catastrophe. But the Europeans are not entirely right.

America does have a history.

It is only that the tragic aspects of that history have been obscured by the national legend of success and victory and by the perpetuation of infant illusions of innocence and virtue.

America has had cynical disparagement of her ideals from foreign, unfriendly, or hostile critics. But she desperately needs criticism from historians of her own who can penetrate the legend without destroying the ideal, who can dispel the illusion of pretended virtue without denying the genuine virtues.

Such historians must have learned that:

1. Virtue has never been defined by national or regional boundaries
(Regardless of what Karl Rove and Dick Cheney might say).

2. Morality and rectitude are not the monopolies of factions or parties. (See above)

They must reveal the fallacy of a diplomacy based on moral bigotry, as well as the fallacy of of one that relies on economic coercion through the fancied indispensability of favored products.

Their studies would show the futility of erecting intellectual barricades against unpopular ideas, of employing censorship and repression against social criticism, and of imposing the ideas of the conquerer upon defeated peoples by force of arms.

Such historians would teach that economic systems, whatever their age, their respectability, or their apparent stability, are transitory and that any nation which elects to stand or fall upon one ephemeral institution has already determined its fate.

The history they write would also constitute a warning that an overwhelming conviction in the righteousness of a cause is no guarantee of its ultimate triumph, and that the policy which takes into account the possibility of defeat is more realistic than one that assumes the inevitability of victory.

C. Vann Woodward, 1952.

Batocchio said...

Thanks, POP and CK! Good stuff!

Brave Sir Robin said...

Wow, that was an exceptionally eloquent and purposeful post.