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The question has become a roar: Did the Bush administration lie about “weapons of mass destruction” to get the country into war with Iraq?

Republican royalists resent the very idea that their president could lie. It seems to them what the awful French would call lese majesty. Of course our (lower-case) republican institutions are based on the understanding that any ruler is capable of crimes and misdemeanors, so we can hardly deny in principle that President Bush might conceivably tell a whopper.

And the Republicans themselves firmly believe (as I do) that his predecessor cut a few corners with the truth. I once surmised that Bill Clinton carried his Bible with him at all times just in case he should feel a sudden need to commit perjury.

Americans are proud of their democracy, yet for them politicians — the very men they elect to rule them — are synonymous with lying. It’s an interesting point of the national psychology. Elections are supposed to ensure, or at least increase the chances of, honorable rulers. But who believes this?

What we do find hard to believe is that anyone, even a politician, would tell a big, fat, audacious lie, fully knowing that it’s totally false and could be exposed by events. The risk would be too great. A president who did that would court electoral ruin, possibly even impeachment.

President Bush has taken to calling those who doubt his word about the Iraqi menace “historical revisionists.” It’s a little early for that. History has not yet established that Saddam Hussein had those dreaded WMDs and posed an “imminent threat” to the United States. In fact, history seems to be moving toward a different — and opposite — conclusion. The weapons weren’t used in the war and haven’t been found. Bush himself has even adopted a softer phrase: weapons program. It sounds as if he doesn’t believe his own propaganda.

Well? Does this mean he was lying all along? Not necessarily. In fact, I doubt that he was. And I don’t say this out of any fondness for him or trust in his word.

People have subtle ways of misleading without actually lying. One of these is to exaggerate their own certainty. They pretend to be sure of things when they are only guessing.

You can see this all the time in Shakespeare studies. Scholars insist that there is absolutely no room for doubt that the Stratford gent wrote the plays ascribed to him. They question the honesty and even the sanity of the skeptics. Yet the evidence for his authorship is very dubious. This doesn’t stop the scholars from writing 400-page “biographies” based on only a meager handful of documented facts.

I suspect that Bush and his fellow hawks have done something like this. For various reasons of their own, they wanted a war with Iraq. So they posited a threat that wasn’t there. After 9/11, we were all ready to believe the worst, and so were they. They took the maxim “Better safe than sorry” to its logical extreme. But the logical extreme may not be rational or even reasonable. The logical extreme of caution is paranoia.

The temptation to exaggerate a threat is especially seductive to those responsible for national defense. It may sound hard-headed, but it’s almost a form of wishful thinking. You come to want the enemy to be not only as evil but as dangerous as possible. This seems to justify any measures you take against him.

The Soviet threat was always grossly overstated. Anti-Communists (including me) recognized that Communism was evil, but forgot their own argument that it was also, ultimately, futile. It was an absurd, destructive way to organize human society. In retrospect we can see how shabby it was, how the Soviet Union was bound to collapse. But at the time, American foreign policy posited that Communism was an almost irresistible force. We gave it far too much credit. We shuddered at its promise to “bury” us, a threat that now seems risible.

This doesn’t mean that our rulers were lying to us; they largely believed what they said. It was an enormous and willful failure of judgment, history’s most expensive application of “Better safe than sorry.”

So we needn’t accuse Bush of trying to deceive us. He probably deceived himself first. With all his advisors, experts, access to secret information, and intelligence sources, he simply didn’t know what he was talking about. But this should teach us not to trust his judgment.

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• 类别: 思想 •标签: 乔治·W· 灌木 
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