UNoriginal Spin

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President Bush was forced last week to admit that one of his chief rationales for going to war with Iraq, Saddam’s purported links to Sept. 11, was bogus. That didn’t stop him, on Monday, from larding his speech to the U.N. with dark hints about the Iraqi leader’s ties to terror. When it comes to the president’s rhetoric about Iraq, old habits are clearly hard to break.

Saddam’s terror links were only one reason for attacking Iraq. Another, of course, was the danger posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This, too, we can now file under “B.S.” An intelligence official has told the BBC that U.S. arms inspectors will soon declare that they’ve come up empty.

But Bush has never been one to let mere facts get in the way of a good story. So the president, to nobody’s surprise, contrived to weave both the World Trade Center terror attacks and the specter of Iraqi WMDs into his speech to the United Nations on Tuesday:

“Twenty-four months ago — and yesterday in the memory of America — the center of New York City became a battlefield, and a graveyard, and the symbol of an unfinished war.

Our international coalition in Iraq is meeting its responsibilities. We are conducting precision raids against terrorists and holdouts of the former regime. These killers are at war with the Iraqi people. They have made Iraq the central front in the war on terror, and they will be defeated. Our coalition has made sure that Iraq’s former dictator will never again use weapons of mass destruction.”

What the president skipped is that, whether or not the U.S. had invaded, Saddam wouldn’t have used his WMDs, for the simple reason that he didn’t have any. This from the BBC:

“No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq by the group looking for them, according to a Bush administration source who has spoken to the BBC.

This will be the conclusion of the Iraq Survey Group’s interim report, the source told the presenter of BBC television’s Daily Politics show, Andrew Neil.”

Many U.N. members never bought the WMD line in the first place, and they’re especially skeptical now, so one can only imagine the eye-rolling that greeted Bush’s speech in the General Assembly chamber. Not to mention some justified indignation when when the president seemed, dare we say it, to exploit the WTC attacks as a justification for war in Iraq. And that rather ugly habit has done little to garner support in rebuilding Iraq, as the Baltimore Sun’s editorial board notes:

“It was telling that President Bush began his major speech to the United Nations on Iraq yesterday by talking about Sept. 11 – telling, because the president himself has acknowledged that Baghdad had no role in planning or carrying out the hijackings of those four jets. Yet he still can’t resist wrapping American policy in the mantle of that terrible day. And that is a measure, perhaps, of the underlying flimsiness of the entire American enterprise in Iraq.”

Nobody is claiming that Saddam had no contact with any terrorists ever. But the president glossed over the fact that none of the guys Saddam knew were members of Al-Qaeda. This sleight of hand is having its intended effect on the media, as Eric Umansky notes in Slate‘s “Today’s Papers” posting:

“Though the papers at most mention it in passing, Bush also continued to imply (though not explicitly state) that Saddam was linked to al-Qaida: ‘The regime of Saddam Hussein cultivated ties to terror,’ said the president[…] He made no distinction between AQ and the regional (Palestinian) terrorists that Saddam once supported. (The lesson: It’s the law of diminishing accountability. If you keep repeating an exaggeration, the cost usually goes down. Most press will eventually consider it stale and move on.)”

Sure enough: Until Vice President Dick Cheney slipped up last week and actually lied outright, claiming hijacker Mohammed Atta met with Saddam Hussein, most of the press were asleep at the wheel. Steve Chapman of the Baltimore Sun argues that the hazy terror connection is the key to the Bush administration’s popularity. But it also may be raising the risk of terrorism for Americans:

“Apparently the vice president violated Mr. Bush’s strict policy, which is never to say anything bogus outright when you can effectively communicate it through innuendo, implication and the careful sowing of confusion.

At a news conference shortly before the campaign in Iraq began, Mr. Bush invoked the memory of Sept. 11 no fewer than eight times. That was enough to foster the widespread impression that we were launching a retaliatory attack, not a pre-emptive one.

But the real scandal is not that the president contrived to frame a poor, innocent dictator. It’s that he depicted the invasion as a vital part of the war on terror, and continues to do so – even as the evidence accumulates that, from the standpoint of the war on terror, it was about the worst thing we could have done.”

While the strategy of recurrent suggestion probably won’t work on UN representatives, the majority of Americans still associate Saddam with the war on terror. Derrick Z. Jackson of the Boston Globe recounts the damage done by the administration’s hypnotic repetitions:

“… To date, 304 American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians are dead because the White House riled up Americans into a rash blurring of the facts until they could no longer distinguish Sept. 11 from Saddam.

Americans believed Bush so thoroughly that 69 percent told a Washington Post poll in August that they found it likely that Saddam was ‘personally involved’ in Sept. 11. Even if that were not true, 82 percent said Saddam provided assistance to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. Americans believed the White House so much that 57 percent of Americans in a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll said the invasion of Iraq and the war on terrorism that began after Sept. 11 were the ‘same war.'”

Neoconservatives, naturally, are failing to register (or at least to admit to) the rhetorical disconnect. David Frum, ignoring Bush’s hazy deceptions, gives the speech a rave for taking another whack at the “irrelevant” U.N.

“Here, and once again, Bush is calling on the United Nations to live up to its own past resolutions and to enforce existing international agreements; once again he is declaring that the United States will enforce them even if the United Nations chooses to do nothing.

America’s detractors in the world sneeringly call President Bush a cowboy. Not quite. But he does resemble a familiar Western character: The brave man who organizes his neighbors to defend law and preserve order when the sheriff is too cowardly — or too corrupt — to do the job.”

For good measure, Frum also preemptively dismisses those criticising the speech, claiming they are simply peeved that Bush “neither apologized to the UN for ignoring it in Iraq, nor pleaded for its support.”

But where Frum is oblivious, the Nation‘s David Corn busts the president for assaulting the truth in front of the United Nations.

“A year ago, he launched his push for war with a speech before the General Assembly that was filled with distortions to set the stage for the invasion to come. This time around, Bush was defending his war against Saddam Hussein and the occupation and again relied on misrepresentations. … There was no chance that Bush was going to speak candidly about the war and occupation in Iraq. He has tied himself to the mast of his prewar fabrications.”


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