WASHINGTON—“Nothing.” Rarely does a single word convey so much, and explain so little.
The word leaped from President Bush’s lips, dismissive and defiant, as though the questioner should have known better, and perhaps should not have asked. Bush at his Monday news conference made his customary recitation of all the new and supposedly improved reasons why he went to war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, concluding that “the terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.”
Then the question came—bold and, frankly, beautiful. “What did Iraq have to do with that?’’ The president replied: “What did Iraq have to do with what?’’ Well, with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“Nothing,’’ was Bush’s reply. Except that in his mind, the “lesson of Sept. 11’’ is linked to resentment and hopelessness that roil the hearts and minds of the people of the Middle East, nurturing suicide bombers.
And so because of this, Bush said, he invaded Iraq.
As the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, there is an aching emptiness in repeating the many untruths and odious insinuations that Bush and especially Vice President Dick Cheney made in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. The totality of them was to convey to the American people the conclusion that Saddam somehow was behind the deadly attack, an assault that was plotted and executed from masterminds dwelling in Afghan camps.
The assertion has been disproved, disavowed, discredited—pick your word—time and again by the U.S. government, by foreign intelligence services, by the independent 9/11 commission, and by a growing list of authors who have accumulated a bulging portfolio of evidence showing that the Bush administration came into office in January 2001 already itching to invade Iraq.
And so, to borrow the president’s word, Sept. 11 really did have “nothing’’ to do with Iraq.
This is not an admission of error, but something more grave. It is an exposition of the tragic lack of logic that impairs the Bush administration and imperils the country. The leaps of imagination that Bush makes—still—between Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein are not entirely political calculation, meant to confuse a bewildered nation about the terrorist threat. The president’s mind and his policies are directed by this intuition. And so is the nation.
As the anniversary approaches, we hear again some voices of reason and some voices of passion, from those who tried to penetrate the sophistry and bring some clarity to the public. Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the 9/11 commission, describe in their new book “Without Precedent’’ the freakish political reaction to the panel’s conclusion that there were no operational links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. After the president publicly contradicted their findings, and the vice president attacked the press for its account of them, Kean found himself at a news conference searching for the right words: The commission found “there is no credible evidence that we can discover, after a long investigation, that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were in any way part of the attack on the United States,’’ he said.
Kristen Breitweiser, the most prominent of the 9/11 widows who became known as the Jersey Girls, voted for Bush in 2000. Her late husband, Ron, idolized Cheney. But in her new autobiography, Breitweiser recounts the fear that overtook her while watching the 2004 Republican National Convention. “I heard the expressions ‘war for a lifetime’ and ‘9/11’ repeated endlessly,’’ Breitweiser writes in “Wake-Up Call.’’ “I started thinking about Caroline and her future. I started getting scared about her safety. I didn’t want to hand her a war for the next hundred years. That wasn’t my job as a mom.’‘
If we now are embarked on a contemporary hundred years’ war, what will historians say was its cause? Certainly 9/11 was the watershed event, but before that was the founding of Israel in 1948 and before that the carving up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. What separates Bush from other world leaders who have tried to contain the centrifugal forces of the Middle East is not a lack of historical information or sound advice or allies who seek the same goals. It is his own distorted thinking, a trait that is personal and not political, and has put the United States on a path that runs through darkness.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.