It was a set-up question. Conservative radio talk-show host Michael Medved was trying to bait me, to push me into saying something so out of whack about the commander in chief that I would destroy my own credibility before the audience of his nationally syndicated show. It was a ruse I’ve become quite familiar with in recent weeks, since I published a book demurely titled The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. In scores of media interviews, right-wing hosts have pressed me to pronounce Bush the all-time biggest SOB-of-a-liar in the White House and essentially accuse him of being a psycho. I have resisted the invitations, choosing to stick to my just-the-facts case that Bush has misled the public on a host of issues — the war in Iraq, his tax cuts, global warming, Social Security, his own past and more. The goal of these interlocutors is to dismiss any harsh critique of Bush as nothing more than angry-left name-calling. I obviously believe Bush has lied often and consistently about grave matters, but I have shied away from labeling Bush “pathological” and the like.
Now I wonder about that.
What forced this reconsideration was a speech Bush delivered in late November to several thousand troops at Butts Army Air Field in Fort Carson, Colorado. On this occasion, Bush served up the usual rah-rah about the war on terrorism. But as he was hailing the U.S. military, he remarked, “Working with a fine coalition, our military went to Afghanistan, destroyed the training camps of al Qaeda and put the Taliban out of business forever.”
Out of business forever?
That was a false statement. Days before Bush’s speech, a U.S. helicopter crashed near Kabul, and five American soldiers were killed. These troops were hunting Taliban remnants. Two days before the speech, a rocket was fired at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul; Taliban insurgents were the prime suspects. On November 16, a U.N. aid worker was assassinated, apparently by the Taliban. In Kandahar, the Taliban was threatening to harm Afghans who participated in local elections.
None of this has been secret, even if events in Afghanistan receive less media coverage than the Laci Peterson case. In recent weeks, a stream of news reports has noted that the Taliban is on the rise and mounting an increasing number of attacks. These assaults have impeded much-needed reconstruction projects. In mid-November, a U.N. mission reported that the Taliban attacks were endangering democracy in Afghanistan.
What then could account for Bush’s truth-defying assertion about the Taliban? After all, it was a statement ridiculously easy to disprove. (The Bush bashers of Moveon.org immediately sent out a mass e-mail citing this remark as further evidence that Bush is a misleader.) Was Bush really trying to hornswoggle the troops and the American people? In a way. I assume that had he bothered to think about this line, he probably would have realized that it was inaccurate and that there was no reason to claim the Taliban was stone-cold dead when he could have truthfully declared that the U.S. military (under his command) and its Afghan allies had routed the Taliban. It was not as if Bush said to himself, Aha! I know what I’ll do. I will boast that I eliminated the Taliban — even though anyone who follows this stuff knows a Taliban resurgence is under way — and fool people into believing I am winning the war on terrorism.
Bush was more likely engaged in the deceit of triumphalism — ignoring facts and saying whatever sounds good to juice up the public. It was hype, extreme rhetoric, utterly divorced from events on the ground. This statement was a report from Planet Bush, not the world as it exists — a demonstration of Bush’s penchant to embrace (and peddle) self-serving fantasy over the obvious truth.
The dishonesty underlying the Taliban line was transparent. In the same speech, Bush also practiced (yet again) a more nuanced form of dissembling. He told the crowd that the war on terrorism began with 9/11, and that “we will not rest until we bring these committed killers to justice. These terrorists will not be stopped by negotiations, or by appeals to reason, or by the least hint of conscience . . . We must, and we will continue to, take the fight to the enemy.” So far so good: The terrorists who mounted the 9/11 attacks are bad and must be defeated. Then Bush distorted the picture: “Terrorists need places to hide, to plot and to train, so we’re holding their allies, the allies of terror, to account.” And he cited Afghanistan and Iraq.
The implication was that somehow Iraq had afforded direct assistance to the people who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. But there has been no proof that the mass-murdering perps of 9/11 used Iraq to hide, plot or train. Even though Bush conceded in September that there was “no evidence” tying Hussein to 9/11, he still endeavors to draw a straight line from the 9/11 evildoers to Iraq.
He displayed a similar disingenuousness during his surprise, 150-minute-long Thanksgiving Day visit to the American troops at the Bob Hope mess hall at the Baghdad airport. “You are,” he told the GIs, “defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so that we don’t have to face them in our own country.” That comment — which Bush had said previously — sure seemed designed to create the impression that the war in Iraq is about beating back al Qaeda, the only terrorists Americans have had to face in their “own country.” In the weeks after Baghdad fell, reports out of Iraq raised the possibility that anti-American jihadists linked to or motivated by al Qaeda were pouring into Iraq to do battle with the United States. But a week before Bush told the troops they were battling “terrorists” in Iraq who might otherwise be gunning for their loved ones on the streets of America, two of Bush’s top commanders in Iraq — Major General Charles Swannack Jr. and Major General David Petraeus — said that they had seen little sign that a significant number of al Qaeda loyalists or wannabes had flocked to Iraq. The enemy they are facing, the pair asserted, were mainly Baathist remnants. And there is no reason to believe these murderous thugs would be planning raids on domestic U.S. targets if the U.S. military were not chasing after them in Iraq.
So Bush tells us the ongoing war in Iraq is a strike against the forces that hit America on 9/11 and would do so again (were it not for the invasion of Iraq), and he proclaims the Taliban extinct. None of this is supported by the readily available information provided by the media or Bush’s own military. Making such melodramatic and misleading claims may or may not be pathological, but it certainly isn’t a sign that Bush has a healthy relationship with reality.