War Stories

Evasions, Half-Truths, and the State of the Union

Can we trust this year’s speech?

How’s that again?

This time, at least, there were no blatant lies in the national-security section of the State of the Union address. The speechwriters, no doubt watched over by a hyperalert Condoleezza Rice, made sure to avoid a reprise of last year’s scandal over false claims of an Iraqi hunt for yellowcake. Instead, however, the scribes piled on so many half-truths and evasions, often in disingenuous phrasings, as to erase the customary distinction between mere deceit and sheer falsehood.

Let’s take them one by one.

“We must continue to give our homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us.”

Yet this is precisely what President Bush has failed to do. His homeland security budget for fiscal year 2004 was smaller than the budget for FY 2003. He has yet to order a serious effort to develop or procure WMD-detecting sensors. Security of cargo on ships and commercial airliners is riddled with holes. The borders are sieves. Most local police and fire departments lack the money, gear, and training to prevent, or to deal with the aftermath of, terrorist attacks.

“Nearly two-thirds of [al-Qaida’s] known leaders have now been captured or killed.”

Good. But the remaining one-third constitutes a distressingly large number still at large—not least Osama Bin Laden, President Bush’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster-villain of last year’s chest-pounding address. More worrisome still is that phrase “known leaders.” The real concerns, as Donald Rumsfeld’s hand-wringing memo of last October acknowledged, are the unknowns (or, as he put it in a different context, the “unknown unknowns”—the stuff we don’t even know we don’t know) and the haunting question of whether, through our (for the most part quite proper) tactics in tracking down terrorists, we might be spawning new recruits in the process.

“[In Afghanistan], our coalition is leading aggressive raids against the surviving members of the Taliban and al-Qaida.”

Now we are. The Taliban are not so much “surviving” as returning, re-entering the country through the many doors we left open—and exploiting the discontent we allowed to seethe—after proclaiming that mission complete. To its credit, the Bush administration has renewed its attention to Afghanistan, even to the point of getting NATO to help, but it took a while.

“[In Iraq] men who ran away from our troops in battle are now dispersed and attack from the shadows.”

First, that happened because the Bush administration decided the war was over after the statue of Saddam toppled and because the occupation forces weren’t nearly large enough to secure the country in any serious way. Second, as the CIA and others have observed, the insurgents attacking U.S. troops aren’t just Saddam loyalists and foreign jihadists. They’re also Iraqis—Sunnis and, more and more, Shiites—who simply don’t like the occupation.

“Our forces are on the offensive, leading over 1,600 patrols a day and conducting an average of 180 raids a week.”

It’s a puzzle why Bush’s staff wrote this sentence or, having done so, kept it in the speech. It inexorably brings to mind related, but less assuring, statistics—the weekly rate of Iraqi attacks and U.S. casualties.

“We’re working with Iraqis and the United Nations to prepare for a transition to full Iraqi sovereignty by the end of June.”

Again, now we are, sort of. Until very recently, when the realities on the ground finally pressed too hard to ignore, the Bush administration did everything it could to keep the United Nations out of such preparations, to deny that any outside powers were necessary.

“Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better. Last month, the leader of Libya voluntarily pledged to disclose and dismantle all of his regime’s weapons of mass destructions programs. … Nine months of intense negotiations involving the United States and Great Britain succeeded with Libya.”

Almost certainly the war in Iraq, especially the collapse of Saddam’s reign, had a sobering effect on Col. Qaddafi. Still, it is worth noting that his weapons of mass destruction program amounted to little more than a handful of centrifuges and a smattering of uranium; he wasn’t close to mounting a real project, much less to building a bomb. Also, the reference to “nine months” raises questions. That indicates the “intense negotiations” got under way last March—before the war began. Bush didn’t say much about, at best, uneven attempts to dash the nuclear ambitions of Iran or North Korea—a failing that, in North Korea’s case, can be placed squarely on Bush’s refusal to negotiate.

“Some in this chamber, and in our country, did not support the liberation of Iraq.”

This is a low blow. In last year’s address, the war was sold only peripherally as a campaign of liberation; its main pitch was to chop off the world’s most dangerous possessor of biological, chemical, and—any day now—nuclear weapons.

“The Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities…”

Here is where the speechwriters most fastidiously avoid last year’s dread “16 words” syndrome. Note that the sentence mentions not “weapons of mass destruction” but “weapons of mass destruction-related,” and not even “programs” but “program activities.” This careful phrasing is in keeping with David Kay’s report, which is replete with phrases that, skimmed swiftly, suggest much danger but, read closely, indicate next to nothing. (For a detailed analysis of the report, click here.)

“Some critics have said our duties in Iraq must be internationalized. This … is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and the 17 other countries that have committed troops to Iraq.”

Let’s go to the numbers (courtesy of globalsecurity.org). Some of these countries do have fairly substantial numbers of troops in Iraq. Britain has about 11,000. A few of them have something like the equivalent of a battalion: Italy, 3,000; Ukraine, 2,000; Spain, 1,300; the Netherlands, 1,100; Australia, 1,000; Poland, 630. The others can only be called token: Bulgaria, 470; Thailand, 443; Denmark, 367; El Salvador, 360; Hungary, 150; Japan, 41. (Norway has only naval forces in the area; the Philippines’ numbers are unrecorded but doubtless minuscule.) Few of these troops are detailed, or even trained, for combat. None (except Britain’s and Italy’s) comes close to the levels committed by the genuine coalition of forces that President Bush’s father amassed for the Gulf War of 1991. In that earlier war, several Arab and European countries deployed whole divisions on the ground and wings of jet fighters in the air.

More to the point, Bush’s critics on this point are concerned not just with spreading the costs and the burdens but also with legitimizing the transition to Iraqi sovereignty. The issue isn’t so much which countries send troops as who’s making the decisions.

“There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.”

This is a textbook definition of a red herring. Even the U.N. Charter explicitly allows the right to unilateral self-defense. The question, of course, is whether Saddam Hussein constituted a threat to the security of the United States. Last year’s address spent much time contending that he did, citing the tons of anthrax, warehouse loads of bioweapons, and secret laboratories full of nuclear gear that Saddam had at his disposal—and the links between Iraq and al-Qaida that could bring these dangers to our shores. This year, the speechwriters might have contemplated reminding the American people of the case. But, to their credit and their caution, they decided not to give it a single word’s credence.