Washington is in high dungeon these days over the events leading up to the Iraq war.
Democrats charge President Bush with misleading the Congress and the electorate over prewar intelligence. Last week, Sen. John Kerry said Mr. Bush’s handling of the war was “one of the great acts of misleading and deception in American history.”
Bristling at the charge, Vice President Dick Cheney rejoined that such attacks are among the “most dishonest and reprehensible charges that have ever been aired” in Washington.
If anything good comes out of this heated debate, it is perhaps the consensus that on the momentous decision of war or peace, presidential deception is repugnant. Can this principle of presidential honesty and candor find an enduring place in our politics?
The Democrats who are condemning President Bush hope that we will forget about their passive role on the U.S. military mission in Bosnia. Much to their chagrin, however, this month marks the tenth anniversary of the Balkans undertaking — so it is worth recalling how that mission got underway. President Clinton announced the deployment of troops in a nationally televised address. Mr. Clinton said this mission would be “precisely defined with clear realistic goals” that could be achieved in a “definite period of time.”
What kind of time frame did the president have in mind? Mr. Clinton assured skittish viewers that this mission “should and will take about one year.” The White House and the State Department then went to work to sell the mission to a skeptical Congress.
Throughout the 1996 election year, the Clinton administration led voters to believe that it would adhere to the one-year deadline. Even on the eve of the election, in late October 1996, State Department spokesperson Nicholas Burns adamantly denied that there were any changes in the Clinton plan to withdraw 15,000 American soldiers from Bosnia that December. As far as the voters were concerned, Bosnia was a non-issue — especially since the Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole, failed to express any interest in prolonging the military mission.
A few weeks after securing his re-election, however, President Clinton suddenly announced a change.
“Quite frankly,” the president declared, the “rebuilding process” was taking longer than anticipated. And because of that unexpected delay, thousands of U.S. troops would have to remain in Bosnia — not just for a few extra weeks, not just for another year, but for an additional 18 months. And, note well, that Mr. Clinton did not dismiss his secretary of defense because of poor planning. Mr. Clinton spoke matter-of-factly and made it seem as if this lamentable extension of the mission resulted from an honest error in his own judgment.
We now know that our intervention would last nine years, not one. To deflect attention from the misleading prewar intelligence, one can expect some partisan activists to trot out the line, “Well, when Clinton lied, nobody died.”
Thankfully, hostile action killed no American or NATO personnel in Bosnia, but watch that misleading spin. Scores of people died during NATO’s bombing raids, including civilians. It was a real war. The salient point is that Mr. Clinton and his national security team did not think the American people would accept a long-term intervention in the Balkins, so they packaged the mission as a one-year affair, after which our troops would quickly come home.
Some scholars take the view that if a president’s aims are worthy enough, deception can be justified. Professor Thomas Bailey of Stanford University examined the foreign policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the months preceding our entry into World War II and concluded that he “repeatedly deceived the American people.”
The Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor was, to be sure, a vicious surprise attack, but contrary to his paeans for peace, FDR was anxious to get America into the war. That FDR was deceptive about his intentions seems indisputable. The controversy among scholars is whether some of his secret intentions and provocations were justified.
Professor Bailey, among others, defended Mr. Roosevelt. “Because the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats, our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long term interests,” writes Mr. Bailey. Presidents must therefore act like physicians, who must sometimes tell lies “for the patient’s own good.”
Can you imagine the uproar if Messrs. Bush and Cheney responded to the recent Democratic attacks by saying, “Yes, we did lie about Iraq, but it was for the good of the country”? Sen. Ted Kennedy would doubtless call for impeachment proceedings.
This is an important moment for American politics. If there is to be a congressional investigation into the prewar intelligence on Iraq, let us have an investigation into the Bosnia mission as well. If there is no stomach for this double endeavor, Congress ought to establish some neutral criteria for prewar representations regarding future conflicts, criteria that can lay down markers for all presidents in all circumstances.
Does an impeachment proceeding for deception depend upon which political party controls the White House? Does honesty and candor about war depend upon the particular war aims of the president? Does impeachment for deceit depend upon how well the war is going? Or is candor on such a fundamental matter simply indispensable to the proper functioning of a constitutional republicin all circumstances? Let’s put some neutral criteria to a vote so that we can get some of these opportunistic and hypocritical politicians on the record.
Timothy Lynch is an attorney and director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute.