William Saletan: 'Trust, don't verify: W's incredible definition of credibility'
By William Saletan, Slate
One thing is for certain, though, about me, and the world has
learned this: When I say something, I mean it. And the credibility of
the United States is incredibly important for keeping world peace and freedom.
That's the summation President Bush delivered as he wrapped up his press conference Tuesday night. It's the message he emphasized throughout: Our commitment. Our pledge. Our word. My conviction.
Given the stakes in Iraq and the war against terrorism, it would be
petty to poke fun at Bush for calling credibility "incredibly
important." His routine misuse of the word "incredible," while
illiterate, is harmless. His misunderstanding of the word "credible,"
however, isn't harmless. It's catastrophic.
To Bush, credibility means that you keep saying today what you said
yesterday, and that you do today what you promised yesterday. "A free
Iraq will confirm to a watching world that America's word, once given,
can be relied upon," he argued Tuesday night. When the situation is
clear and requires pure courage, this steadfastness is Bush's most
useful trait. But when the situation is unclear, Bush's notion of
credibility turns out to be dangerously unhinged.
The only words and deeds that have to match are his. No correspondence
to reality is required. Bush can say today what he said yesterday, and
do today what he promised yesterday, even if nothing he believes about
the rest of the world is true.
Outside Bush's head, his
statements keep crashing into reality. Tuesday night, ABC's Terry Moran
reminded him, "Mr. President, before the war, you and members of your
administration made several claims about Iraq: that U.S. troops would
be greeted as liberators with sweets and flowers; that Iraqi oil
revenue would pay for most of the reconstruction; and that Iraq not
only had weapons of mass destruction but, as Secretary of Defense
Rumsfeld said, 'We know where they are.' How do you explain to
Americans how you got that so wrong?"
Inside Bush's head, however, all is peaceful. "The oil revenues,
they're bigger than we thought they would be," Bush boasted to Moran,
evidently unaware that this heightened the mystery of why the revenues
weren't covering the reconstruction. As to the WMD, Bush said the chief
U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq had confirmed that Iraq was "hiding
things. A country that hides something is a country that is afraid of
getting caught." See the logic? A country that hides something must be
afraid of getting caught, and a country afraid of getting caught must
be hiding something. Each statement validates the other, sparing Bush
the need to find the WMD.
Bush does occasionally cite other people's statements to support his
credibility. Saddam Hussein "was a threat to the region. He was a
threat to the United States," Bush told Moran. "That's … the assessment
that Congress made from the intelligence. That's the exact same
assessment that the United Nations Security Council made with the
intelligence." Actually, the Security Council didn't say Iraq was a
threat to the United States, but never mind. The more fundamental
problem with Bush's appeal to prewar assessments by Congress and the
Security Council is that these assessments weren't reality. They were
attempts—not even independent attempts, since the administration
heavily lobbied both bodies—to approximate reality. When they turned
out not to match reality, members of Congress (including Republicans)
and the Security Council (including U.S. allies) repudiated them.
Not Bush. He's impervious to evidence. "I look forward to hearing the truth as to exactly where [the
WMD] are," he told Time's
John Dickerson at the press conference. A year after Saddam's ouster
and four months after Saddam's capture, Bush continued to insist that
"people who should know about weapons" are still "worried about getting
killed, and therefore they're not going to talk. … We'll find out the
truth about the weapons at some point." You can agree or disagree with
this theory. But you can't falsify it.
Bush doesn't see the problem. He's too preoccupied with
self-consistency to notice whether he's consistent with anything else.
"I thought it was important for the United Nations Security Council
that when it says something, it means something," he told Moran. "The
United Nations passed a Security Council resolution unanimously that
said, 'Disarm or face serious consequences.' And [Saddam] refused to
disarm." Never mind that the Security Council didn't see what Bush saw
in terms of Iraqi disarmament and didn't mean what Bush meant in terms
of serious consequences. Never mind that this difference in perception
was so vast that Bush ducked
a second Security Council vote on a use-of-force resolution. What's
important is that when the Security Council says something, it must
mean something, even if the something the Council said isn't the
something Bush meant.
As Tuesday night's questions turned to the 9/11 investigation, Bush
retreated again to the incontrovertible truths in his head. "There was
nobody in our government, at least, and I don't think [in] the prior
government, that could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such
a massive scale," he told NBC's David Gregory. Never mind that somebody
who had worked in Bush's administration and the prior
administration—namely, counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke—had raised precisely this concern about the 1996 Olympics. Never mind that the president's daily intelligence brief on Aug. 6, 2001—titled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in U.S."—had
warned Bush, "FBI information since  indicates patterns of
suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for
hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of
federal buildings in New York." These were external phenomena and
therefore irrelevant. What mattered was that Bush couldn't "envision" the scenario.
Three times, Bush repeated the answer he gave to Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times:
"Had there been a threat that required action by anybody in the
government, I would have dealt with it." Outside Bush's head, the
statement was patently false: The 9/11 threat required action, and Bush
failed to deal with it. But inside Bush's head, the statement was
tautological: If there were a threat that required action, Bush would
have dealt with it; Bush didn't deal with it; therefore, there was no
threat that required action. The third time Bush repeated this
answer—in response to a question about whether he owed an "apology to
the American people for failing them prior to 9/11"—he added, "The
person responsible for the attacks was Osama Bin Laden." This is how
Bush's mind works: Only a bad person can bear responsibility for a bad
thing. I am a good person. Therefore, I bear no responsibility.
On 9/11, as on WMD, Bush mistakes affirmation for verification,
description for reality, and words for deeds. "I was dealing with
terrorism a lot as the president when George Tenet came in to brief
me," he told Chen. "I wanted Tenet in the Oval Office all the time. And
we had briefings about terrorist threats." This was Bush's notion of
dealing with terrorism: being briefed by the CIA director. The world
that mattered was the Oval Office.
Did the briefings lead to action outside the office? No, because there
was no "threat that required action." What about the Aug. 6 brief? "I
asked for the briefing," Bush told Chen. "And that's what triggered the
[Aug. 6] report." Tuesday's Washington Post
tells a different story: "According to senior intelligence officials
familiar with the document, work on it began at the end of July, at the initiative of the CIA analyst
[who] wanted to raise the issue" of Bin Laden's threat to the U.S.
mainland. But Bush can't believe that someone outside his head was
trying to tell him something. He's certain he "triggered" the brief.
That's why, as he explained to Chen, he "didn't think there was
anything new" in it: He assumed it was his idea. He doesn't understand
that the point of a briefing is to be told something you hadn't already
This explains the most amazing part of Bush's answer to Chen: "What was
interesting in [the brief] was that there was a report that the FBI was
conducting field investigations. And that was good news, that they were
doing their job." Here is a president who reads that the FBI has found
"patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with
preparations for hijacking" and concludes that all is well because the
FBI is "investigating" such activity. Why does Bush make this mistake?
Because he doesn't understand that the "suspicious activity" is the
subject of the brief. He thinks the "investigations" are the subject.
He thinks he's being told about his version of reality—the world inside
his administration—not the world of plots beyond his awareness.
How does Bush square his obtuseness to the threat from Bin Laden with
his obtuseness to the absence of a threat from Saddam? "After 9/11, the
world changed for me," he explained Tuesday night. That's Bush in a
nutshell: The world changed for him.
Out went the assumption of safety, and in came the assumption of peril.
In the real world, Bin Laden was still a religious fanatic with global
reach, and Saddam was still a secular tyrant boxed in by sanctions and
no-fly zones. But in Bush's head, everything changed.
To many Americans, the gap between Bush's statements about the months
before 9/11, on the one hand, and the emerging evidence about those
months, on the other, raises doubts about the credibility of their
government. To other nations, the gap between Bush's statements about
Iraqi weapons, on the one hand, and the emerging evidence about those
weapons, on the other, has become the central reason to distrust the United States in other matters of enormous consequence, such as North Korea's nuclear program.
To all of this, however, Bush is blind. He doesn't measure his version
of the world against anybody else's. He measures his version against
itself. He says the same thing today that he said yesterday. That's
why, when he was asked Tuesday whether he felt any responsibility for
failing to stop the 9/11 plot, he kept shrugging that "the country"—not
the president—wasn't on the lookout. It's also why, when he was asked
to name his biggest mistake since 9/11, he insisted, "Even knowing what
I know today about the stockpiles of weapons [not found in Iraq], I
still would've called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein." Bush
believes now what he believed then. Incredible, but true.
William Saletan is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.
Reprinted from Slate: