The New Yorker, MIGHT AND RIGHT, by Philip Gourevitch, June 9, 2003

Two weeks ago, on the first day of his first foreign trip since the fall of Baghdad, President Bush went to Auschwitz. The symbolism could not have been more heavy-handed: with the international press full of images of the grisly excavations of Saddam Hussein’s killing fields, the President claimed the memory of the six million to explain his “war on terror,” invoking the Nazi gas chambers and crematoriums as “a sobering reminder of the power of evil and the need for people to resist evil.” Bush ended his trip in the same spirit, telling a cheering throng of American troops in Qatar, “The world is now learning what many of you have seen. They’re learning about the mass graves. They’re learning about the torture chambers. Because of you, a great evil has been ended.” It’s true that stopping Saddam’s tyranny is the most heartening and unambiguous consequence of the war in Iraq. But Bush did not take over that country on a humanitarian impulse. As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has said, although Saddam’s “criminal treatment of the Iraqi people” was a “fundamental concern” for Washington’s war planners, it was “not a reason to put American kids’ lives at risk, certainly not on the scale we did it.” Rather, according to the repeated claims of the Administration, our kids were put at risk in order to disarm Iraq of its chemical and biological weapons, which, intelligence assessments were said to show, posed an urgent threat to our national security.

So where is Saddam’s terrible arsenal? Bush, on his way to Auschwitz, took time out to tell Polish television, “We found the weapons of mass destruction.” That wasn’t true. After more than two months of searching, American forces in Iraq had yet to discover any trace of biological or chemical agents. All they have found is a pair of tractor trailers, which appear to have been fitted out as weapons laboratories but never used. The President’s readiness to present this discovery as a finding of the weapons themselves follows a pattern of distortions on the part of the Administration—hypotheticals proclaimed as facts, suspicions and fears spun as clear and present dangers, actions taken accordingly—throughout the planning, marketing, and prosecution of the war.

Why, exactly, are we in Iraq? Regardless of whether one supported or opposed the war, one cannot escape the impression that the weapons, some of which may yet be found, were a pretext for a campaign whose larger motives and purposes the Administration has never seen fit to articulate to the public. As the war drags on, a sense of reality is lacking in the Bush camp’s triumphalism; Americans are still killing and dying in almost every news cycle, and Iraqi resentment is mounting against an improvised occupation that has set the nation free mainly in the sense that it is ungoverned. Against this background, the charges now circulating that Bush’s war cabinet depended on false or, worse, falsified intelligence to exaggerate the threat of those weapons in the first place is much more than a technicality.

The press reports are damning. The Washington Post quotes C.I.A. analysts complaining that they felt steady pressure from Vice-President Dick Cheney, from Wolfowitz, and from their own boss, George Tenet, to amplify the danger of Iraq. The Times has picked up the thread of reporting in this magazine by Seymour M. Hersh about the Pentagon’s creation of its own intelligence organ, with the apparent purpose of producing the sort of allegations about Iraqi weapons and links to terrorists that C.I.A. analysts would not supply. U.S. News & World Report describes how Secretary of State Colin Powell, before he made the Administration’s case against Iraq to the United Nations Security Council, rejected as weak and insubstantial intelligence material prepared for him by Cheney’s office. At one point, Powell reportedly threw the Vice-President’s pages in the air and said, “I’m not reading this. This is bullshit.” The historical precedent that these reëxaminations suggest is not, as the President would prefer, the Second World War but the Tonkin Gulf affair of 1964, when an alarmist report of an unconfirmed attack against an American warship in the South China Sea served Lyndon Johnson’s White House as a pretext for an escalation of the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile, in London, Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing the fury of both sides of the aisle in Parliament over his claim before the war that he had intelligence showing that Saddam’s chemical agents were weaponized and could be deployed at just forty-five minutes’ notice. “It is about the gravest accusation that can be made in politics,” the Daily Telegraph, which strongly supported the war, wrote. “Blair stands charged, in effect, with committing British troops on the basis of a lie.” Both the Prime Minister and the President have indignantly dismissed the suggestion that they hyped—or, as the British put it, “sexed up”—the case for war, and both have said that with a bit more time the truth will out. In London, the outing will be done by Parliament, which has compelled Blair to submit to a full inquiry into the use and possible abuse of intelligence reporting in the buildup to the war. Americans should be prepared for a similar investigation, if Congress can muster the courage and the clarity to command it. Because Bush launched his reëlection campaign shortly after the marines pulled down Saddam’s statue in Baghdad, any public excavation of the Administration’s drive to war is bound to be fraught with partisan politics. But, in a country where the previous President’s lies about consensual adulterous relations were considered ground for impeachment, truthtelling about the gravest affair of state—the waging of war—must stand as a paramount value.

A few days after Bush toured Auschwitz, the Pew Research Center released a survey of international opinion, canvassed from some twenty countries, which found that “the war has widened the rift between Americans and Western Europeans, further inflamed the Muslim world, softened support for the war on terrorism, and significantly weakened global public support for the pillars of the post-World War II era—the U.N. and the North Atlantic alliance.” And the war in Iraq is far from over. What is at stake there, and in the war against terrorism of which it is but a chapter, is the nature of America’s standing as the defining power of our age. We are told that we went into Iraq to make the world safer, yet, even as the remaining members of Bush’s axis of evil, Iran and North Korea, pursue nuclear-arms programs, many of the countries that allied with us against Saddam are wondering if they were falsely led. Nobody can regret that Saddam is gone. But, in the unipolar world that the Bush Administration seems bent on forging, our security will depend as much on our credibility as on our physical might.