Maybe the White House should start footnoting George W. Bush’s speeches so we know whom to turn to anytime we hear a lie fall from his lips.

The preposterous assertion that tax cuts for millionaires grow the economy? Oh, you need to talk to Philips down there in the Budget Office — he’s the guy who actually vetted that line.

The notion that mucking up the Arctic will solve our long-term oil dependency? The president didn’t really write that, or even mean it — he just read it. Better check with Morris over in Energy.

And that phony story about Iraq trying to buy nuclear materials from Niger, the one we’re told that the CIA kiboshed twice but then, supposedly, let appear in the State of the Union on the third go-round?

For that one, we’re going to need much more than a footnote. This one’s gonna take a whole Reader’s Companion to sort out. First, we heard that CIA Director George Tenet was to take the fall for letting those 16 words stand. Then, National Security Adviser Condi Rice told us the false statement was actually true, but just not true enough to have been left in the speech.

Defense Secretary Donald “Strangelove” Rumsfeld took it up another notch, telling the American people that the discredited assertion was, indeed, “technically correct” — a phrase destined for enshrinement in the political Hall of Shame along with such classics as “inoperative,” “no controlling legal authority,” and “It depends what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.’”

I, for one, am not very picky. I’m even willing to accept the fiction that the president of the United States should not be held personally responsible for what he says in a State of the Union address — a sort of Oval Office Ted Baxter. Okay, fine by me. Let’s make it simple: If no one can absolutely nail down that the president lied to us, then let’s just settle for this: The government lied to us on Iraq.

But who didn’t know this? The now infamous 16 words are hardly the point. The Bush administration juiced up the entirety of its arguments in favor of a pre-emptive war, convincing broad swaths of the American people of the absurd idea that Iraq was an imminent threat to our own national security (a much different argument than the undeniable truth that Saddam posed a threat to his own people). The administration propagandists, led by the president, deliberately conflated Hussein’s past record of building and using weapons of mass destruction with his current capacity to export annihilation — which apparently was zilch. They also cynically and falsely suggested that Hussein had some direct link to 9/11. They so doctored their case — they so stampeded the population — that they persuaded more than two-thirds of the country that, after letting Hussein languish for a dozen years, it now actually made some sort of crucial difference if we went to war in 15 or 30 days instead of 45 or 60 or 600.

Yes, the Bush administration’s story about the Niger nukes is fraudulent. But so is much of the current debate boiling around it. Next time you hear John Kerry or Dick Gephardt or Tom Daschle or Joe Lieberman deplore the prevarications of the White House on this matter, keep in mind this uncomfortable fact: They, along with a pack of other Democrats, voted Bush full authority to prosecute this war months before the president even told his little fib about African uranium. These Democrats bear much the same responsibility as Bush for the Iraqi debacle. Bush bullied and bullshitted to get his way, and the top Democrats fully accommodated him.

What we should be debating now isn’t so much how we got into Iraq, but how to get out — that’s if anybody can figure out how. The estimated cost of occupation just doubled — to an eye-popping $100 billion or more over the short term. And this at a time of a record-setting $450 billion federal deficit. On the ground, American troops are suffering an average of two dozen military attacks and one dead soldier every 24 hours. The guerrilla war is growing, not receding, and American troop morale — by all accounts — sags more every day. Meanwhile, the hyped-up promises of democracy have resulted in only a patchwork “governing council,” handpicked by and subordinate to American-occupation Pro Consul Paul Bremer.

The light at the end of the tunnel? We don’t even know yet if we’re in a tunnel, or a swamp, or a quagmire or a blinding sandstorm.

The greater tragedy here is that Bush, and his Democrat accomplices, have put us — and the Iraqi people — into a no-exit situation. Scoring partisan political points in revealing government lies might be fun, but it tells us nothing about what we should do now. The Democrats never had a credible alternative to the Bush policy, and they still don’t.

At least in Vietnam, U.S. withdrawal was always an immediate, viable option. But in Iraq? Withdraw and leave exactly what behind? We have incurred a great debt to the Iraqi people, and it would be a dishonor and a tragedy to leave them to be consumed by chaos. Even “peace candidate” Howard Dean calls for more, not fewer, U.S. troops in Iraq. Those additional troops are probably already on the way as we might infer from Secretary Strangelove’s most recent public ramblings. And while a beefed-up American presence might contribute a modicum of order — maybe — it in no way resolves the deeper issues of occupation, democracy and growing anti-Americanism.

The best way out of this nightmare is to internationalize the occupation and hope that a more multilateral effort, with a lower American profile, can cool passions and accelerate the establishment of stable, indigenous governing institutions in Iraq. But just which countries will now join this costly and risky venture, that with the passing of every day is revealed more and more to have been leveraged on lies?

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