July 22, 2003

by Joe Sobran

     I recently cited an anecdote related by C.S. Lewis, 
but couldn't recall which of his books I'd read it in, 
and I may have gotten it slightly wrong. I ran across the 
story again last night in REFLECTIONS ON THE PSALMS, so 
now I can quote Lewis's own words.

     He was riding a train one night during World War II 
in a compartment full of young English soldiers: "Their 
conversation made it clear that they totally disbelieved 
all that they had read in the papers about the wholesale 
cruelties of the Nazi regime. They took it for granted, 
without argument, that this was all lies, all propaganda 
put out by our own government to 'pep up' our troops. And 
the shattering thing was, that, believing this, they 
expressed not the slightest anger. That our rulers should 
falsely attribute the worst of crimes to some of their 
fellow-men in order to induce other men to shed their 
blood seemed to them a matter of course. They weren't 
even particularly interested. They saw nothing wrong in 

     I wonder how many people really believed all the 
things President Bush and Prime Minister Blair of Britain 
said about Saddam Hussein in order to "pep up" war fever. 
Weren't these just the sort of charges politicians always 
make when they want a war?

     The current flap about whether Bush was lying in his 
state of the Union speech seems to me somewhat overblown. 
He said that British intelligence had "learned" -- not 
"suspected" or "believed," but positively "learned" -- 
that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant 
quantities of uranium from Africa."

     This turns out to be untrue. Bush says he regrets 
having said it, but passed the buck to his intelligence 
agencies. Ari Fleischer, his departing press secretary, 
sought to minimize its significance by noting, "The 
president has moved on. And, I think, frankly, much of 
the country has moved on as well."

     Well, the British public isn't moving on. They're 
steamed. Blair may be forced to resign, especially since 
the incident has now resulted in the apparent suicide of 
a top government scientist.

     The American media are steamed too. So are the 
Democrats. They are raising sharp questions about Bush's 
veracity and judgment, and about whether he exerted 
pressure on those intelligence agencies to twist their 
data to make Saddam appear even worse, and more menacing, 
than he really was. Were we bamboozled into another 
needless war?

     But Fleischer is right. The country has moved on. It 
was never really interested in whether Saddam had all 
those "weapons of mass destruction," including nukes. 
Nobody thought he would dare to attack this country even 
if he had them. So it hardly matters now that he never 
did have them.

     Bush got his war, and he won it. That's why much of 
the country still supports him and would do so even if it 
were proved that he lied brazenly. He's perceived as a 
"strong" president. Many people simply like strong 
rulers. Millions of Russians still have a positive 
opinion of Joe Stalin for the same reason.

     But let's look for the silver lining. Much as I 
despised Bill Clinton, I thought he performed an 
invaluable service by lying so relentlessly: he increased 
distrust and suspicion of government. He undermined the 
overblown prestige of the presidency.

     Bush, though less obviously mendacious, is 
continuing this service. Of course his enemies will 
accuse him of lying. What is more important is that from 
now on, even his friends will never be quite sure they 
can believe him. He has permanently devalued his own 
words. The next time he tries to tell us that Iran or 
North Korea poses a serious threat to us, even his most 
ardent supporters will hesitate to express agreement, for 
fear of sounding like his dupes or lackeys.

     Even Bush may be wary of sounding like Bush. I doubt 
that he will want to repeat such slogans as "axis of 
evil," "weapons of mass destruction," "liberation," and 
even "democracy" to justify future military action. Some 
people who cheered this time may be hooting next time.

     He will at least need a fresh verbal arsenal of 
propaganda. And if Tony Blair pays the ultimate political 
price for going along with him, he will also need to find 
a new international sidekick.

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