Touring Vietnam in 1965, Michigan Gov. George Romney proclaimed American involvement there "morally right and necessary." Two years later, however, Romney -- then seeking the Republican presidential nomination -- not only recanted his support for the war but claimed that he had been hoodwinked.
"When I came back from Vietnam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get," Romney told a Detroit TV reporter who asked the candidate how he reconciled his shifting views.
Romney (father of Mitt) had visited Vietnam with nine other governors, all of whom denied that they had been duped by their government. With this one remark, his presidential hopes were dashed.
The memory of this gaffe reverberates in the contemporary rhetoric of many Democrats, who, when attacking the Bush administration's case for war against Saddam Hussein, employ essentially the same argument. In 2006, John F. Kerry explained the Senate's 77-23 passage of the Iraq war resolution this way: "We were misled. We were given evidence that was not true." On the campaign trail, Hillary Rodham Clinton dodged blame for her pro-war vote by claiming that "the mistakes were made by this president, who misled this country and this Congress."
Nearly every prominent Democrat in the country has repeated some version of this charge, and the notion that the Bush administration deceived the American people has become the accepted narrative of how we went to war.
Yet in spite of all the accusations of White House "manipulation" -- that it pressured intelligence analysts into connecting Hussein and Al Qaeda and concocted evidence about weapons of mass destruction -- administration critics continually demonstrate an inability to distinguish making claims based on flawed intelligence from knowingly propagating falsehoods.
In 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously approved a report acknowledging that it "did not find any evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgments." The following year, the bipartisan Robb-Silberman report similarly found "no indication that the intelligence community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
Contrast those conclusions with the Senate Intelligence Committee report issued June 5, the production of which excluded Republican staffers and which only two GOP senators endorsed. In a news release announcing the report, committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV got in this familiar shot: "Sadly, the Bush administration led the nation into war under false pretenses."
Yet Rockefeller's highly partisan report does not substantiate its most explosive claims. Rockefeller, for instance, charges that "top administration officials made repeated statements that falsely linked Iraq and Al Qaeda as a single threat and insinuated that Iraq played a role in 9/11." Yet what did his report actually find? That Iraq-Al Qaeda links were "substantiated by intelligence information." The same goes for claims about Hussein's possession of biological and chemical weapons, as well as his alleged operation of a nuclear weapons program.
Four years on from the first Senate Intelligence Committee report, war critics, old and newfangled, still don't get that a lie is an act of deliberate, not unwitting, deception. If Democrats wish to contend they were "misled" into war, they should vent their spleen at the CIA.
In 2003, top Senate Democrats -- not just Rockefeller but also Carl Levin, Clinton, Kerry and others -- sounded just as alarmist. Conveniently, this month's report, titled "Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information," includes only statements by the executive branch. Had it scrutinized public statements of Democrats on the Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees -- who have access to the same intelligence information as the president and his chief advisors -- many senators would be unable to distinguish their own words from what they today characterize as warmongering.
This may sound like ancient history, but it matters. After Sept. 11, President Bush did not want to risk allowing Hussein, who had twice invaded neighboring nations, murdered more than 1 million Iraqis and stood in violation of 16 U.N. Security Council resolutions, to remain in possession of what he believed were stocks of chemical and biological warheads and a nuclear weapons program. By glossing over this history, the Democrats' lies-led-to-war narrative provides false comfort in a world of significant dangers.
"I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop communist aggression in Southeast Asia," Romney elaborated in that infamous 1967 interview. That was an intellectually justifiable view then, just as it is intellectually justifiable for erstwhile Iraq war supporters to say -- given the way it's turned out -- that they don't think the effort has been worth it. But predicating such a reversal on the unsubstantiated allegation that one was lied to is cowardly and dishonest.
A journalist who accompanied Romney on his 1965 foray to Vietnam remarked that if the governor had indeed been brainwashed, it was not because of American propaganda but because he had "brought so light a load to the laundromat." Given the similarity between Romney's explanation and the protestations of Democrats 40 years later, one wonders why the news media aren't saying the same thing today.