Justifying war: the "you were stupid" defense

A columnist in the Daily Torygraph writes:
True, Bush and Blair asserted that he had WMD stockpiles which would be found. But this was not the reason for war. Such claims were only made to bolster the case to a public that seemed incapable of grasping that the reason for war was not the presence of WMD but the absence of evidence that it [sic] had been removed.
If we are making "claims" that aren't true - or, at the very least, claims that we know cannot be supported by any evidence but which we nevertheless present as being confirmed beyond all doubt - to "bolster" a case, isn't that the same as saying that we are "sexing-up" our case?

Thought so.

But that's not the reason I am citing this ham-handed apology, though its very clumsiness, and the fact that the author is often forced to admit things that fatally undermine her argument, is a good reflection of the sorry intellectual and moral state these days of the pro-war camp. No, what is striking about this column is the frank admission that Bush and Blair had to exaggerate (or "bolster") because their publics were simply too stupid to understand what was really at issue.

This is yet another lie, of course: Bush and Blair opened up with the claim that Saddam held massive stockpiles of WMD and that he was a serious threat to all of Western civilization. They did not begin by talking about "absences of evidence" or other such nonsense - this came after no WMD turned up. So it was not even a case of these leaders dumbing down their message to reach the "man on the street", but rather an initial decision to tell their citizens that they knew something which they knew they did not know. But, for such columnists, deceit and leader-worship are habits that are apparently hard to break.

We are seeing many ad hoc defenses being erected by people desperate to salvage their credibility, most of which rely on a blatant rewriting of history to some degree: the CIA is to blame, not Dear Leader; "it was never about WMD for me"; "Bush never said imminent", and the war was actually to save the UN from itself; and so forth.

The most telling, though, is the "you were too stupid to really understand the deep strategic thinking of Bush and Blair" line. This defense really lays bare the complete contempt for public opinion and intelligence that was a major component of the case for war as laid out by Bush and Blair and their self-apppointed spokespersons in the media. The underlying sentiment to such a defense, of course, is that a government has the right to tell its citizens whatever it likes with no regard for the truth or consequences and, moreover, that citizens should already understand and appreciate this. People who complain about this type of governance, or expect that government officials should be held accountable for their wild-eyed and preposterous claims, are looked upon as slightly doltish oddities.

For example: did you take everything Bush and Blair said seriously? The huge stockpiles of WMD? Western civilization only 45 minutes away from final doom? Well, according to Christopher "Don't Call Me Chris" Hitchens, you are guilty of indulging in "tiny-minded literalism". The lesson, I suppose, is to take Bush's pronouncements a little more metaphorically: it wasn't that real nuclear (or even "noo-kyoo-lurr") weapons were the threat but, perhaps, Saddam's "inner nuclear weapon"; that awful scenario involving the "mushroom cloud" was just another way of visualizing the (mushroom-shaped) question mark that was America's foreign policy in 2002; or, as Roger Ailes points out, "45 minutes" should have been understood as "some finite amount of time" (and "Chris" - if you really think that "antiwar liberals", led by Maureen Dowd, are preventing Bush from carrying out a "purge" at the CIA, I recommend that you redefine "contrarian" so that it doesn't mean "contrary to logic and reality").

So: Joe Q. Public, you were stupid. The Daily Torygraph and Christopher Hitchens say so, and why would they lie to you? You fucked up - you trusted them. There's nothing wrong with that - the shame is on them. The challenege is not to be fooled again. Holding these scoundrels accountable would also help. If nothing else comes out of this mess, perhaps people will be a little more skeptical about what their governments tell them in the future. Some liberals are upset because the Bush administration's behavior has cuased them to develop a deep mistrust of government in general. Sorry, but that's a good thing. Government isn't something that just runs on its own, like some kind of perpetual motion machine. Citizens have to be involved. And in a representative democracy, the question citizens should ask themselves when considering an official pronouncement is not "Why shouldn't I believe this?", but rather "Why should I believe this?".

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