There are weeks when I detest our political-media culture. And this is such a week.
When Bill Clinton was faced with incontrovertible evidence that he had misled his family, his friends and the public about his bizarre affair with Monica Lewinsky -- that is, semen stains on a blue dress -- he had to face the music. He conceded he had acted improperly and had lied about his scandalous behavior. The shouting-heads on the left and the right then only had to argue over the consequences of Clinton's misconduct and the suitable punishment.
When George W. Bush has been confronted with evidence that everything -- yes, everything -- he said before the war about Iraq's WMDs was absolutely false, he has refused to acknowledge that he peddled misinformation (or disinformation). He just keeps on dancing. And many in the media have enabled his sidestepping. While the debate over Bush's use -- or abuse -- of the WMD argument for war in Iraq should be over and done with, the White House and its allies in the media refuse to admit the undeniable. It's no surrender, no retreat. If they don't stop arguing the point, then they do not have to accept responsibility.
This has been going on ever since Bush's main rationale for war -- that Iraq was a "direct" threat because it possessed WMDs and a revived nuclear weapons program -- began unraveling after US forces in Iraq found no signs of any of this. A few days ago, Bush's case for war received what should have been its death blow when the Washington Post reported that the Iraq Survey Group, the outfit in charge of the WMD hunt, had quietly closed up shop before Christmas. The Bush administration pulled the plug on the ISG for an obvious reasons: There was nothing to look for. But after this news leaked, Bush once more declined to concede that his prewar assertions had been distant from the truth.
In an interview with Bush, a Washington Post reporter asked him about the nonexistent WMDs: "We haven't found the weapons of mass destruction as predicted. The postwar process hasn't gone as well as some had hoped. Why hasn't anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments?"
This was not the same as pressing Bush to explain why he had repeatedly declared Iraq had WMDs, why he had overstated the CIA's overstated intelligence. Still, Bush ducked the issue of his prewar statements: "Well, we had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I'm grateful." In other words, Hey, whatever works; as long as I'm elected I need not be accountable. The Post reporter did not pose a follow-up question.
Bush was following the lead established by his chief denier of reality, Scott McClellan. At the daily White House press briefing on the day it was reported the WMD search was kaput, McClellan was grilled by reporters who asked if Bush owed the public an explanation for his pre-invasion statements. McClellan repeatedly noted that Saddam Hussein had "the intent and capability to produce weapons of mass destruction" and had been trying to undermine the sanctions imposed upon Iraq so he could then "begin his weapons programs once again."
But -- as we all know -- before the war Bush declared many times that Hussein had real WMDs, not merely the desire to be a WMD bigshot. There was, Bush said back then, "no doubt" Iraq possessed WMDs. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for one, put it rather bluntly: "There's no debate in the world as to whether they have those weapons ... We all know that. A trained ape knows that." Well, there was a debate and Rumsfeld's trained ape, it turns out, was not so smart. Yet rather than say Bush blew it big time, his mouthpiece tossed out a phony argument.
That's to be expected. And the Bush-backers in the media predictably followed suit. On Fox News Channel, I debated National Review editor Rich Lowry on this matter -- a topic that should no longer be subject to debate. Lowry would not concede that Bush had misinformed the nation on the path to war. Adopting an everybody-did-it defense, Lowry quoted Democrats such as Bill Clinton, who, before the war, had said that they believed Hussein possessed WMDs. But these Dems generally did not advocate rushing to war while the inspections process, which was succeeding, was underway.
In any event, it was not their responsibility to ascertain whether Iraq posed an immediate threat to the United States in March 2003. That job belonged to Bush. The host of the show, Martha MacCallum, suggested that Iraq might have hidden its WMDs in Syria or elsewhere. She was parroting one of the canards of the war's cheerleaders. The reports of both David Kay and Charles Duelfer, the successive heads of the ISG, noted that Iraq had no WMD production capability in the years before the war. Consequently, there were no WMDs that could have been hidden. Yet here was a news anchor still raising that possibility.
Over on NPR, I had to square off against Washington Times editorial editor (and former Newt Gingrich press secretary) Tony Blankley. He, too, stuck to the Hussein-wanted-WMDs-one-day stance. He maintained that the empty-handed conclusion of the WMD hunt was "not a big news story" and that Bush, prior to the invasion, had argued that the danger was the "potential nexus" between terrorists and rogue states that could develop WMDs.
This was a mischaracterization -- to be polite about it. Bush had not depicted Iraq as a state that might obtain WMDs. The "nexus," according to Bush, was not potential but actual. (Bush also errantly claimed that Iraq had an operational relationship with al Qaeda; the independent 9/11 commission and the CIA have concluded there is no evidence of such an alliance.) Blankley, echoing McClellan's talking points, said that Hussein had the "intentions" to reestablish WMD production. "The threat," he remarked, "would be there if we hadn't gone on in."
But before the invasion Bush insisted that the WMD threat was already present. I have no recollection of Bush saying, "We must invade Iraq today -- not because it has WMDs at this time, but because it will someday if we do not invade right now." Did I miss something?
Bush was flat-out wrong about WMDs. Yet the White House ignores this, the right-wing pundits keep their facts-free spin alive and many within the mainstream media cannot or will not cut through this fog of phony war. Accountability? Not on any of these dials. Not even for a moment.
David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com, where this originally appeared. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).