A confederacy of conspiracists

It would be frightening if there are as many hard-core conspiracy theorists as the number of believers in 'Bush lied!' suggests.

One of the most widely held conspiracy theories in the history of the United States is the assertion that President Bush lied in order to launch the Iraq war.

The theory alleges that high-level Bush administration officials privately knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but publicly maintained there were WMD in order to build support for invading that country. WMD, according to this view, was only a pretext for what most proponents of the "Bush lied!" school of thought believe was the real reason for going into Iraq: oil.

By definition, "Bush lied!" means there was a multifaceted conspiracy that included not only as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice, but also Colin Powell, then serving as secretary of State; British Prime Minister Tony Blair; the CIA; British intelligence; and even the Clinton administration, all of whom maintained that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD.

But sensational conspiracy theories - the kind that contradict the evidence - rarely turn out to be true.

The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, the Robb-Silberman Commission report, and Britain's Butler report found that the Bush administration did not lie, distort, or prod intelligence agencies to alter their findings on WMD. Robb-Silberman concluded that it was "the paucity of intelligence and poor analytical tradecraft, rather than political pressure, that produced the inaccurate pre-war intelligence assessments."

No longer promoted by small groups of people on the left fringe, believers in the "Bush lied!" conspiracy have grown to encompass a large segment of the population. More than half of respondents to a Washington Post/ABC poll believed that the Bush administration deliberately misled the public before the war. It even includes the Democratic leadership in Congress; Senate minority leader Harry Reid claimed "This administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq."

At a protest rally in Washington last year, "Bush lied!" signs were everywhere. The Washington Post ran a story that no doubt typified the conspiracy-minded mentality of many of the attendees of that rally. After train delays in New York resulted in some attendees arriving late, they blamed the delays on a Karl Rove conspiracy. "This has Rove's fingerprints all over it," a passenger told the Post. And it does not appear she was joking.

Conspiracy theorists tend to ascribe the worst of motives to their political opponents. Big political events, particularly those with controversial or undesirable outcomes, from the conspiracist's viewpoint, do not happen against a backdrop of policymakers faced with difficult options in a world full of uncertainty; they happen deliberately out of sinister, self-serving motives.

A conspiracy theory is "far more coherent than the real world, since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities," wrote noted historian Richard Hofstadter in his 1952 book The Paranoid Style in American Politics. To a conspiracist, the failure to find WMD occurred simply because Bush was lying all along, and not because of intelligence mistakes, ambiguities, and uncertainties.

As vehicles for attaching simple explanations to complex phenomena, for ascribing illicit motives to what are actually well-meaning efforts, and for scapegoating political enemies, conspiracy theories are tailor-made for demagogues. They play them up for all they are worth in an effort to attract gullible followers. The allegations arise from deep-seated emotions rather than from evidence.

Because they do not understand their political opponents' thinking processes that lead to certain events or decisions, conspiracists devise theories that support their worldview. Many proponents of "Bush lied!" harbor a deep distrust of capitalism, and especially the oil industry. Given that Bush and Vice President Cheney worked in the oil industry, and that Iraq has oil, they conclude that the Iraq war must be because of oil.

The recent movie "Syriana" depicts a conspiracy theory involving Big Oil as the evil and corrupt puppetmasters of US policy in the Middle East. The documentary "Why We Fight" places the US defense industry in the role of the puppetmaster.

The central preconception of the conspiracist's style, writes Hofstadter, is "the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character." The object of the conspiracy theorist's wrath, Hofstadter writes, "makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys or profits from the misery he has produced."

It would be entirely legitimate to criticize the Bush administration for not being more skeptical of intelligence reports on WMD, or for not putting more faith in the weapons inspectors, or for being overly and perhaps naively optimistic about achieving stability in a post-Saddam Iraq. But to say that "Bush lied!" not only contradicts the evidence, but also reveals the conspiracy mentality of the accusers.

One hopes there are not as many people with this mentality as the number of believers in "Bush lied!" suggests. Perhaps some of them, such as Democratic leaders in Congress, are jumping onto the "Bush lied!" bandwagon only in order to score political points. If that is the case, they had better jump off, or else risk being seen as crackpot conspiracists.

Note: In my last article I wrote that President Bush asserted in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq "purchased" uranium in Africa. He actually said "sought." And this line in the speech was indeed cleared with the CIA, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report. So it may not be evidence of "cherry picking" after all, as former CIA analyst and Bush critic Paul Pillar suggests.

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