Suppose that you live in a tough neighborhood where a cadre of vicious gangs has been allowed for a generation to run rampant over an acquiescent population. At long last, the police department responds to the people's complaints, promising to do something about the problem. But, the police chief warns, it won't be easy. The bad guys have a reputation for using some pretty ugly tactics. Worse yet, the rumor is that they've also got a cache of even uglier weapons that they haven't used yet. It could take a while, the police chief says bluntly, to get things under control. And the process might be both messy and painful.
The operation is launched, and little by little, the gangs give way. The gangs' top leaders, in fact, are quite quickly rounded up. But the structure of violence throughout the neighborhood proves to be more deeply entrenched than the police had estimated. One puzzle remains: What happened to that cache of especially ugly weapons the gangs were rumored to have? Did someone destroy them? Did someone sneak them away to another city? Or did they never really exist in the first place?
Does it really matter? Some folks couldn't care less; the gangs are slowly disappearing and the neighborhood is reveling in its new freedom from their control. For others, though, the issue of the lost weapons is overwhelming-more important even than whether the neighborhood itself is rid of the gangs. It isn't, these folks argue, just that the police chief was wrong about the presence of such weapons. The very fact that he was wrong is to them prima facie proof that he was actually lying about the matter from the start.
Enough for the parable. In reality, the people of America are locked in just such a debate-the crux of which focuses on whether the administration of George W. Bush is trustworthy. Lost in all the noise and media din are two very basic distinctions: First, whether Mr. Bush and his team were indeed wrong on the weapons issue; and second, if they were wrong, were they also dishonest.
It is widely assumed, of course, that the Bush team was dead wrong. If Saddam Hussein really had stashes of big weapons, shouldn't they have been discovered by now? And indeed, the continuing inability over the last 30 months to find such weapons is a big embarrassment to Bush defenders.
But it needn't be. The main argument from the beginning was that Iraq and the surrounding region were being dominated by bullies, and that the people of that region deserved better. The specific methods the bullies used to enforce their domination were almost incidental. Bush people have never suggested that the presence of weapons of mass destruction was the only, or even the main, excuse for freeing the Iraqi people. The presence of such weapons, if such a presence were real, was one more in a long list of indicators that these were dangerous people.
So if the Bush administration is not as wrong about Iraq as his opponents and the media have wanted everyone to believe, neither is there a necessity for the Bush people to be as dishonest as the president's opponents and the media have wanted everybody to believe. Not in their original reasons for going to war, nor in their defense of those reasons since then, has there been a motivation to lie.
Mr. Bush would help himself by reminding everybody of these realities: "It was as bad as I said. It may not have been as bad in precisely the same way as my experts and I thought. But it was ultimately just as bad. I didn't have to lie to you then, and I don't have to lie to you now, to prove how bad a situation the world faced in the Middle East. So long as there are people in the neighborhood continuing to call explicitly for whole nations to be wiped off the face of the earth-as there were even last week-we in the civilized world dare not look the other way."
And Mr. Bush should remind everybody as well that he never promised a quick and easy solution to issues about which he was not wrong. He should go back to his 2002 and 2003 speeches and quote the portions where he said explicitly that it would be a long and costly struggle.
When charges of dishonesty saturate the national conversation, it's worthwhile to go back and test who the real culprits might be.