Bush strikes wrong tone with speech

In one of the most intellectually incoherent major speeches a minor president has ever delivered, George W. Bush last week blamed “some Democrats and anti-war critics” for changing their minds about the war in Iraq and now saying the administration deceived them.

“It is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began,” the president said. Yes, sir, but it is even more deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how history was rewritten in the first place.

It is the failure to acknowledge this – not merely that he made mistakes – that is so troubling about Bush and others in his administration. Yes, the president is right: Foreign intelligence services also thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Yes, he is right that members of Congress drew the same conclusion – although none of them saw the raw intelligence the White House did. He is right, too, that Saddam Hussein had simply ignored more than a dozen U.N. resolutions demanding that he reopen his country to arms inspectors. When it came to U.N. resolutions, Saddam was notoriously hard of hearing.

We can endlessly debate the facts of the Iraq War – and we will. More important, though, is the mind-set of those in the administration. From the president on down, the people who had those facts – or, as we shall see, none at all – mangled them in the cause of war with Iraq. For example, the insistence that Saddam was somehow linked to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, – a leitmotif of Bush administration geopolitical fantasy – tells you much more than whether this or that fact was right. It tells you that to Bush and his people, the facts did not matter.

Bush has repudiated nobody for incompetence and dishonesty regarding Iraq. Instead, some – former CIA Director George “Slam Dunk” Tenet comes to mind – have received presidential medals. What’s more, evidence aplenty exists that the sloppy thinking, false analogies and bad history that led to the Iraq War remain the cultural style of the White House. The president’s recent speech, for instance, conflates all sorts of terrorist incidents – from Israel to Chechnya – neglecting that they are specific to their regions and have nothing to do with al Qaeda. Every bombing somehow becomes an attack on Western values “because we stand for democracy and peace.” Oh stop it!

At the moment, no one can have confidence in the Bush administration. It has shown itself inept in the run-up to the war and the conduct of it since. Almost three years into the war, the world is not safer, the Middle East is less stable and Americans and others die for a mission that is not what it once was and cannot be what it now is called: a fight for democracy.

It would be nice, as well as important, to know how we got into this mess – nice for us, important for the president. It wasn’t that he had the wrong facts. It was that the right ones didn’t matter.

(E-mail Richard Cohen at cohenr@washpost.com)