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The Big Lie
Tim Francis-Wright

Many a populace has found, in retrospect, that its leaders have lied in order to grease the skids of war. The Big Lie can make wars seem inevitable or adversaries seem intolerable. In American history, the classic Big Lie was the phantom skirmish in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964. Lyndon Johnson turned a truly harmless moment into the justification for an enormous escalation of hostilities in Vietnam. The Bush administration is pushing at least three Big Lies. While it was difficult for American politicians to refute Johnson in 1964, it is easy to refute Bush in 2002. Most politicians, however, have been willing to acquiesce to the Bush administration's facile case for war.

The first Big Lie of the Bush administration, exemplified by comments made by Condoleeza Rice on 26 September, is that Iraq is somehow connected to al-Qaeda. The administration has also implied that Saddam Hussein could give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. The Bush administration hopes that the American public and our allies around the world will believe that our potential adversaries are inherently linked to one another.

In truth, the militant Islamists in Al-Qaeda view the secular government of Iraq as anathema. They have no truck with a dictator like Hussein, regardless of his antipathy to the United States; bin Laden is a Saudi Arabian who seeks to bring Islamic law to the rest of the world. In the early 1980s, Saddam Hussein was a key American ally because he was simultaneously anti-Communist and anti-Shiite. At the same time, the mujahedeen in Afghanistan were, inconveniently, merely anti-Communist.

The germ of truth in the Bush administration's linking of Iraq to Al-Qaeda is that Saddam Hussein has for years supported Palestinian terrorism. His government provided a haven for the late and unlamented Abu Nidal and his essentially defunct band of terrorists. In addition, his government has provided cash rewards to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. While these deeds are indeed reprehensible, they are far from unmatched in the Arab world, and they hardly amount to an affinity for, much less an alliance with, al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. Other than a disputed report of an Iraqi agent meeting with an al-Qaeda operative in Prague, the Bush administration has no evidence of any sort of alliance whatsoever.

The second Big Lie of the Bush administration, stretching back to the state of the union address is that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea comprise an "axis of evil" that is allied with anti-American terrorists. Until the recent revelations about the North Korean nuclear program, this claim appeared merely baseless. Iran and Iraq have hardly become friendly after their fruitless yet deadly war with each other between 1980 and 1988. Iran and Iraq are no more part of any axis, other than a merely geographic one, than the United States and Cuba are. And North Korea is hardly part of any political axis, much less an axis with Iraq and Iran.

The revelation that North Korea had effective traded ballistic missile technology for uranium enrichment technology only makes more mendacious the claim, even an implied one, of a link between Iraq and North Korea. The axis that emerges from actual facts is that Pakistan and North Korea have formed a partnership that is truly dangerous to all of Asia. The news was damaging enough to the Bush administration's painting of Iraq as Public Enemy Number One that it withheld the news until after Congress had voted to authorize force in Iraq. If North Korea now appears to have a truly dangerous nuclear program, as opposed to the potentially dangerous one in Baghdad, an attack on Iraq becomes far less imperative.

The third Big Lie of the Bush administration is closely related to the second one. The prospect of Saddam Hussein controlling nuclear weapons is a sobering one, and the Bush administration has long held that its stance toward Iraq is based in large part on its ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons. In fact, the Bush administration takes a remarkably relativist stance towards nuclear weaponry.

In 1994, the Clinton administration convinced the North Korean government to stop its current work on developing nuclear weapons. North Korea was chemically separating the fissile plutonium (Pu239) from spent fuel rods from an existing nuclear plant. The Clinton administration ensured that the fuel rods, which could produce more Pu239, would be under international supervision. In return, North Korea would receive fuel oil from the United States and would eventually receive new nuclear reactors that would be less useful to a weapons program. (Many commercial nuclear reactors produce both Pu239 and other isotopes of plutonium: the mixture of isotopes is bad for building bombs.) While North Korea had successfully extracted Pu239 from some of its fuel rods, mere possession of plutonium does not a nuclear weapon make. Without the technology to compress spheres of plutonium uniformly, no amount of plutonium will make a viable nuclear weapon. Besides the technical problems with producing plutonium, it is astoundingly toxic and therefore difficult to purify and to machine.

This month's news includes evidence that North Korea had secretly started a separate track towards nuclear weapons production, through separation of fissile uranium (U235). In nature, only 0.7% of uranium atoms have the correct number of neutrons to sustain an atomic chain reaction. A country can enrich uranium, by separating out the other isotopes of uranium, to 3% or so for use in light-water power reactors, or to 90% or higher, for use in nuclear weapons. Weapons-grade uranium has an advantage over plutonium for a weapons designer, because uranium does not require compression to make a viable weapon. However, enriching uranium is technologically difficult, because chemical processes will not separate the various isotopes. Separation requires facilities to create uranium hexaflouride gas, and a huge number of centrifuges to separate the U235 from the other isotopes.

North Korea has informed the United States that it now views its 1994 agreements as null and void. But the Bush administration has backed itself into a corner. First, it has called for war over a nuclear program that may well be far less advanced than the North Korean program, yet it does not want to press for war on North Korea. Second, it cannot object too loudly to North Korea's renunciation of its previous agreement, because the United States has set recent precedent for that. The United States has already formally withdrawn from the ABM Treaty with Russia because the ABM Treaty no longer fit American interests. North Korea has essentially informed the United States that the 1994 accord no longer fits its interests. Third, if the Bush administration acts too harshly against North Korea, surely someone will notice that Pakistan deserves harsher treatment. Pakistan openly aided the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the home of al-Qaeda, during the 1990s. It is the most recent proliferator of nuclear weapons, and it gave important nuclear technology to North Korea. Yet Pakistan is now an important ally of the United States.

When the country in question is Israel, the United States is happy to ignore the presence of nuclear weapons. When the country in question is India, the United States tolerates the recent proliferation of nuclear weapons. When the country is Pakistan, the United States has tolerated not only recent proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also active support to the nuclear program of another country. Only in the "axis of evil" are nuclear weapons suddenly a problem, even if they do not yet exist.

There is much not to like about Saddam Hussein or his regime. But a war against Iraq really ought to be a course of last resort. History will judge which wars are truly just. The Bush administration does not care about history. The Big Lies are just too tempting to tell.

None of these Big Lies has had the ring of truth to it, yet the Bush administration continues to tell each of them for all to hear. Painting Saddam Hussein to be as dangerous and menacing as possible was vital to its strategy to win as many votes for war in Congress as possible. Nevertheless, a few dissenting voices emerged, some from the more liberal voices in Congress like Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, and some from unexpected moderates and conservatives like Robert Byrd of West Virginia or Jim Leach of Iowa. But the leadership of the Democratic Party in Congress was remarkably acquiescent. Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, and Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, should have jumped at the chance to point out the Republican Big Lies. Instead, both publicly announced support for the resolution to authorize force. I suppose that Americans should take heart that roughly one-quarter of Congress can stand up to the President. But one-quarter is far less than one-half.

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