TRUDY RUBIN: White House hype undercuts U.S. goals

Here's what is most disturbing about the fact that the president hyped the case for an Iraq war with shady data.

He doesn't seem to think it matters.

If you have a product to sell – like soapsuds, or an Iraq war – the spin you use doesn't matter at all.

That's certainly the impression one got from the Bush performance at a rare presidential news conference on Wednesday. Asked whether the United States lost credibility by building its case for Iraq war on flimsy evidence, the president bobbed and weaved. He said he based his decision for war on “good, sound intelligence.”

Why then did the White House have to doctor the case for war?

The president has yet to reveal why the White House pressed the CIA to OK tricky State of the Union language that implied Saddam was uranium-shopping in Africa – even though administration officials knew this info was spurious. Bush also dodged a question on evidence of Saddam's ties to al-Qaeda. Yet he and his team implied for months that such a link was a justification for war, despite the inability of U.S. intelligence experts to discover any strong al-Qaeda ties.

Clearly, the White House didn't think the real Saddam threat was sexy enough to persuade Americans to go to war. That real threat? If sanctions collapsed, the Iraqi despot would have restarted his weapons programs and might have produced – or bought – a nuke that threatened the oil-rich Middle Eastern region.

I think the administration could have made that case, if it had been straight with the American public. It would, however, have required a much tougher sales job because there was no immediate provocation. So the administration exaggerated the nature and urgency of the danger – and persuaded most Americans there was a direct link between Saddam and 9/11. Without any good, solid intelligence.

Perhaps the president even believed the hype. Perhaps – as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday – the administration believes that the lesson of 9/11 “is that you can't wait until proof after the fact.”

According to this logic, it didn't matter if there were proof of Saddam's imminent danger. Follow that logic further and the White House could remove any foreign leader without proof of imminent threat.

Yet the administration clearly didn't think it could make such a case openly. Nor could it argue – as Bush officials do now – that the reason to oust Saddam was because of his brutality to his own people. The Bush administration had opposed purely humanitarian interventions in the past and still does. If we were going to go to war to save innocent civilians from butchery, American troops would have landed on Liberia's shore weeks ago.

No, the justification for an Iraq war had to be more gripping. Ergo the discredited hype about Saddam's shopping expedition for African uranium, and the exaggerated references to possible al-Qaeda links.

Why does this pattern of deception matter, now that Saddam is gone? It matters because an official tendency to deceive can become habit-forming.

The administration did more than oversell the war. It oversold the prospects of easy peace – and Iraqi democracy – to win support for the battle. Deception turned into self-deception about the aftermath of an Iraq war.

That pattern of deception and self-deception goes on and threatens to harm the war on terrorism and the future of Iraq.

The administration has yet to level with the public about the future costs of Iraqi occupation. There are too few troops in Iraq to do the job right, and, military sources tell me, the mix of troops is wrong. In part this is because the Pentagon was unwilling, until very recently, to admit that U.S. troops are now confronting a guerrilla conflict in Iraq.

Nor has the administration given the U.S. civilian occupation authorities the staff and funds to do the job right in Baghdad. Again, the spin that all in Iraq is fine – save for some leftover Saddam loyalists – conflicts with the urgent need to put more personnel and money into Iraq.

Meantime, according to a fascinating piece by Jane Mayer in the Aug. 4 New Yorker, intelligence resources badly needed in the search for Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders have been diverted to Iraq.

Unless the White House halts the hype, it can't adequately confront the problems in Baghdad. But if the president can't talk straight about why we went to Iraq, can he confront reality now that we're there?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubinphillynews.com.