America Needs Straight Talk About Iraq

One of Bush's strengths is his moral certitude. It is also one of his greatest weaknesses, especially when his straight talk morphs into embellished speech.

After a Tom Cruise-like landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush told the nation, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."


Over his shoulder was a huge banner that read, "Mission Accomplished."


The mounting U.S. casualties, the escalating number of injuries and the dozen or so daily attacks suggest Bush offered more bravado than veracity that day.


One of Bush's strengths is his moral certitude. It is also one of his greatest weaknesses, especially when his straight talk morphs into embellished speech.  


His moral certitude was commendable when he refused to demonize Muslims and distanced himself from Christian fundamentalists who wanted a holy war.


His moral bravado was lamentable when he pushed for war and has worsened since the capture of Baghdad.    


Bush and his administration gave three reasons for war: the existence of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological and nuclear); Iraq's active support of terrorism; and the establishment of democracy in Iraq.


So far, the search for weapons of mass destruction has come up empty, despite the administration's forceful assertions that Iraq had and would use such weapons. Moreover, administration leaders brashly claimed they knew where the weapons were.


Speaking to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, "Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."


With CIA Director George Tenet sitting behind him, Powell said that Iraq had at least seven mobile biological agent factories, an estimated 25,000 liters of anthrax and between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agents.


Powell did not refer to Iraq's alleged effort to obtain uranium from Niger.


That claim was made a week earlier in the president's 2003 State of the Union address. Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."


However, Tenet admitted last Friday that the inclusion of those 16 words "was a mistake," for which he said he and his agency were responsible.


Tenet's admission came only after weeks of finger pointing in Washington, in which different government entities blamed one another for the failure of intelligence and the gross overselling of the nuclear threat.


According to press reports, government agencies knew the report about Iraq seeking uranium from Niger was false, and they knew that as early as March 2002. The CIA even removed that reference from the president's October 2002 speech. Yet it appeared inexplicably three months later in his State of the Union address.


What is clear is that the administration sounded the nuclear alarm for over a year. Even on the eve of war, they asserted that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. They said that if Iraq got highly enriched uranium, it could have a nuclear device in less than a year. They created fears and played on them.


Now we know that at the very best, our government went to war on deeply flawed information, and at the very worst, our government went to war on the "wings of a lie." 


Ironically, sources in the British government last week "virtually ruled out the possibility of finding weapons" of mass destruction, according to BBC.


The second reason for war was Iraq's terrorist ties.


Powell said there was a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaida terrorist network." Bush and others repeatedly claimed substantial linkage between Islamic terrorists and the secular government of Iraq.


So far, no evidence has been forthcoming to validate their claims.


The third reason was the establishment of democracy in Iraq. The truth of that justification will take decades to prove.


Unfortunately, we cannot rewind the rush to war. We are jammed up in Iraq. We are stuck with a $3.9 billion per month military occupation bill, not including reconstruction costs, and the prospects of 145,000 American troops remaining in Iraq "for the foreseeable future."


What should the Christian community do now?


First, we must encourage the practice of discernment. We should say publicly and frequently that questioning political statements is a required act of Christian citizenship. We should say that the blind acceptance of presidential and congressional statements is a failure of our Christian duty and lacks patriotic integrity.


Discernment differs from brooding cynicism and has no kinship with anti-government spirit. Discernment seeks the truth for the welfare of the social order.


Second, we must insist on straight talk. We should say to politicians that the "we know but can't tell you" routine is unacceptable. We should say "no" to word parsing from an administration that said it shot straight.


But we need to do more than say what isn't acceptable. We need to tell politicians that straight talk includes qualifiers and humility. We can handle compound sentences, as well as admissions of uncertainty. The acknowledgment of complexity and ambiguity are morally superior to misleading certitude.   


Third, we must call for open congressional hearings about the war. We need to know whether the Bush administration politicized the interpretation of intelligence. We also need to know how long we will occupy Iraq and at what costs.


Christian leaders were among the clearest and most consistent voices against the rush to war. We need their moral wisdom and courage to help us find a safe way home.


Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and

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