Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What Did "We" Know, and When Did "We" Know It?

We're now approaching the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and Democracy Now! had a remarkable exchange today between longtime media critic Norman Solomon and Colonel Lawrence Wilkinson, who as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff helped him prepare Powell's notoriously mendacious presentation to the United Nations of the case for war.  Wilkerson surprised me by being fairly forthright: "George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others had decided to go to war with Iraq long before Colin Powell gave that presentation. ... It added to the momentum of the war. ... Frankly, we were all wrong. Was the intelligence politicized in addition to being wrong at its roots? Absolutely."

Solomon quite properly pointed out that "We weren't all wrong," that many people at the time were right: they shredded Powell's presentation immediately, and opposed the war.  The trouble, of course, was that the critics weren't "we": they weren't government insiders or mass media personalities, who almost unanimously and uncritically supported Bush and Powell and their war.  I noticed while listening to the program (as you can by clicking through on the first link above) that some of those TV news guys reacted to Powell's speech as if he were a football player who'd kicked the winning goal, as if war were a football game.  I'm thinking mainly of Sean Hannity, though it may not come across unless you hear his voice --
This irrefutable, undeniable, incontrovertible evidence today. Colin Powell brilliantly delivered that smoking gun today. Colin Powell was outstanding today. I mean, it was lockstep. It was so compelling, I don’t see how anybody at this point cannot support this effort.
 -- and Morton Kondracke: 
It was devastating, I mean, and overwhelming. Overwhelming abundance of the evidence. Point after point after point with—he just flooded the terrain with—with data.
But why not?  War is sport and football is a continuation of war by other means.

Solomon came down very hard on Wilkerson, stressing the lack of accountability for the men (they were mostly male) who fabricated the case for war, part of
a pattern of impunity—impunity to lie, impunity to deceive and distort, impunity that is personal, that is professional and is governmental. And that kind of impunity, which has caused so much death and misery in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, is being fast-forwarded, is prefigurative for where we are now.
He accused Wilkerson and his colleagues of using the long-discredited "We were just following orders" excuse.  Wilkerson's response was interesting, not quite what I expected.  First he tried to dismiss Solomon as
someone who makes comments as if he’d never been in government a day in his life or never been in—associated with power at this level. But I will say, first of all, that when I said "we," quote-unquote, I meant those in government, not people like him or Scott Ritter or anybody else who were protesting that Iraq didn’t have WMD at the time.
You see?  He made it explicit that "we" means only our ruling elites.  The rest don't count, even if they were right.  Solomon pointed out that whatever support there was for the war was a result of the relentless propaganda barrage, excluding critical and dissenting voices.  Wilkerson then tried to paint Solomon as a cultured despiser of The People:
I find it very difficult to, in the whole, say that all of those entities that you just described to include the American people were led down the primrose path by the propaganda flowing out of the White House and the Congress and elsewhere. That presents a picture of a pretty purblind, apathetic, ignorant public, representatives in the government and elsewhere. I can’t support that kind of broad-brush painting of the situation.
Amy Goodman then mentioned a million people protesting the war in the US alone before it even began; she might also have mentioned millions more around the world.  As Noam Chomsky says, it was virtually unprecedented to have so much activism against a war before it started.  Wilkerson then tried to justify the war after all.  There were, he claimed, good reasons to believe Bush's fabricated case for war:
—which was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, had used them against his own people. No one thought he would get rid of them, since his number-one enemy, Iran, was kept at bay, certainly in part, because he possessed them. I think there was a pretty good feeling across the world, not just in the United States, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And by the way, there is no question, I don’t think, in anyone’s mind, that once the international sanctions were off Saddam Hussein and once the international focus was off of him, he would go right back to building weapons of mass destruction again, including a pursuit of a nuclear weapon. So, let’s not make this too much of a—of, essentially, a calumny on the American people, their representatives in the Congress and all of those in the government.
NORMAN SOLOMON: It’s not a calumny on the American people at all. It’s an accurate accusation that the administration of George W. Bush, which Colonel Powell—former General Powell and you served—

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: You thought for yourself. You thought for yourself. Why can’t other Americans think for themselves?

NORMAN SOLOMON: —lied and deceived and spun for war continuously. And that’s reality. And the public responded to that.
I've probably quoted more of the debate than I should, and I recommend anyone who's interested to at least read the transcript, or watch the video.

Wilkerson surprised me because he ingenuously described the highest levels of government as an echo chamber where wishful thinking and outright lies bounce around and drive out any alternate, let alone critical or dissenting ideas.  To dissent, far from being desirable, is disloyalty.  Since war is the default approach to foreign policy, with diplomacy merely a frustrating form of foreplay, high officials inevitably look for reasons to go to war.  But these are rationales, not reasons: as the Downing Street Memo put it, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

To this day many people will say, and evidently want to believe, that the President knows more than we do, so we should trust his claims about policy.  This is probably the opposite of the truth: the President is at the center of the echo chamber, sealed off from the real world.  It doesn't have to be that way, since there is an expensive and well-organized staff organization whose job is to follow the media and brief the President on what it reports.  Clearly this process is highly selective, not merely weeding out but ignoring and excluding media that aren't part of the echo chamber.  The elite media get their information from (often anonymous) government sources who may or may not be trustworthy, but usually aren't.  This material is then fed back to the President in the daily press briefings. The President and his advisors, therefore, are probably less well-informed than many citizens outside this feedback loop who follow a wider range of media.  One example of how this can go wrong is President Obama believing at first the the Supreme Court had overturned the Affordable Care Act, partly because he relied on CNN instead of reading the opinion, and partly because the President and his partisans expected the law to be overturned.

Wilkerson asked Solomon why "the American people didn't think for themelves", but the question is why no one in the government thought for themselves.  Wilkerson even complained that Solomon hadn't come pounding on his door with the information that would have proven Bush and Powell wrong!
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: You did not call.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Are you saying Colin Powell would have met with us to talk about this information? It wasn’t secret at all, as well you know.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: We met with a number of people.

NORMAN SOLOMON: You knew how to reach Scott Ritter.
Of course Wilkerson had already dismissed Ritter, and Solomon himself, as ignorant nobodies whose opinions don't count.  His "we" only refers to those who count, even though he's explicit that those people were ignorant and even malignant.  Wilkerson got up in front of Democracy Now!'s audience -- who aren't "we" either, from his viewpoint -- and announced that the wise insiders who are qualified to guide our nation into the future aren't wise at all.

The reason all this is still important, and not the vain looking backward our President has so often deplored, is that we face a similar situation now, though it hasn't yet reached critical mass.  The US government and elite media continue to claim that Iran is a threat because of its "nuclear program," and the more they're corrected the more they keep repeating it.  Aside from that, we have the President continuing to talk about various crises -- Social Security and other "entitlements," health care, unemployment, the deficit (and the "fiscal cliff," averted for now but yawning not far ahead), and education, -- while making it clear that he has no more idea what he is talking about than Bush did, and doesn't care.  Or he's simply lying.  (Ah, the old Lying or Incompetent? conundrum.)  A president who wanted to hear a wider range of information and opinion could do so, at least in theory.  It would take some effort and would surely encounter resistance, but it could be done.  President Obama, however, won't be the president to do it.