FOR A MAN often clumsy with words, George W. Bush proved himself a master of misdirection during his Tuesday night press conference.
His poll numbers sinking under the weight of war, the president implied that Iraq was somehow linked to Sept. 11 without ever actually asserting that. Similarly, without quite saying as much, Bush also left the distinct impression that the threat from Saddam had been so serious that he would have invaded Iraq even if he had known Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction.
Most of that sleight of tongue came in the president's long opening statement, which was addressed to a prime-time televison audience. Referring to the roadside bombings and hostage takings in Iraq, the president said: "We've seen the same ideology of murder in the killing of 241 Marines in Beirut, the first attack on the World Trade Center, in the destruction of two embassies in Africa, in the attack on the USS Cole, and in the merciless horror inflicted upon thousands of innocent men and women and children on Sept. 11, 2001."
Although that sentence doesn't make a direct assertion, it certainly seems to imply, wrongly, past Iraqi complicity in the best-known instances of anti-US terrorism outside Iraq, and particularly in Al Qaeda's Sept. 11 attack. That even though, as the president conceded last year, the administration has no evidence Iraq was involved in Sept. 11.
At another point, the president intoned: "Iraq will either be a peaceful democratic country, or it will again be a source of violence, a haven for terror and a threat to America and to the world." Now, as both Iran and Kuwait could testify, Iraq surely has been a source of violence in the past. But that sentence, with the positioning of the word "again," makes it sound as though Iraq has also been a regular staging ground for anti-US terrorism.
And, near the end of his prepared remarks, Bush declared: "The terrorists have lost the shelter of the Taliban and the training camps in Afghanistan. They've lost safe havens in Pakistan. They've lost an ally in Baghdad."
Taken together, the effect of Bush's comments was to conflate postinvasion violence and terrorism inside Iraq with prewar terrorism outside Iraq and to suggest a connection between the deposed regime and Sept. 11.
Indeed, it's become obvious that as he runs for reelection, Bush will continue to insinuate that Iraq was linked to Al Qaeda's prewar terrorism in the hope that voters will continue to associate Iraq with Sept. 11.
And also in the hope they'll conclude that, despite the lack of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam presented such a "gathering threat" that dealing with him required military action on the administration's timetable.
There, the most revealing comment came when the president was asked to assess his biggest mistake after Sept. 11. Bush maintained he couldn't immediately think of any. But as he mentally surveyed the decisions he had made, the president had this to say: "I would have gone into Afghanistan the way we went into Afghanistan. Even though [sic] what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would have called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein." He then proceeded to suggest that WMDs might yet be found.
Interestingly, the president didn't quite say that he would have gone to war anyway, though that was his clear implication. (When, during his Feb. 8 appearance on "Meet the Press," Bush was specifically asked whether it had been worth the loss of American life to depose Saddam given that no WMDs have turned up, he argued that it had.)
Now, it would be one thing for the commander in chief to try to claim that in going to war with Iraq, he had acted on the best intelligence at the time, however flawed (and hyped) the reports turned out to be. Certainly other countries' intelligence agencies, a wide range of experts, and many who had followed the situation (including this columnist) believed Iraq had WMDs.
However, it strains credulity for Bush to suggest that he would have invaded Iraq -- and found himself in the current mess -- even if he had known Saddam did not possess a WMD arsenal. Certainly he never would have sold the Congress or the country on such a war.
All in all, Tuesday's press conference was a performance that would do credit to an illusionist -- but one completely unworthy of a president.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.