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Why ask why?

Over in National Review Online, there's an article by Clifford May providing a strong rebuttal to the sudden, weird claim that Bush's State of the Union address was a lie. While everyone has concluded that the Niger documents were phony, Bush did not mention those documents in the speech, and merely cited the British government for the proposition that Iraq was attempting to procure uranium from Africa.

May questions whether any member of Congress can honestly argue that this single minor claim was that significant to his decision making -- but May actually misses the mark on this point, because he fails to note that Congress voted to authorize war in October, three months before the State of the Union was given. So it would be pretty damn difficult for members of Congress to claim that Bush's true (if inaccurate) claim in the SOTU address is the smoking gun proving that Bush lied to get the US into war.

But what about the bigger picture? Maybe Bush's January statement didn't convince Congress to vote for war in October, but it surely convinced the American public to support the war, right? Wrong. What war opponents fail to mention is that all the administration's statements, over all the months since Bush began the full court press to "sell" the war, were ultimately irrelevant:

ABC News/Washington Post Poll. Latest: March 27, 2003. N=508 adults nationwide. MoE 4.5. Fieldwork by TNS Intersearch.

"Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation with Iraq and Saddam Hussein?"

               Approve        Disapprove     No Opinion
% % %
3/27/03 69 26 5
3/23/03 71 26 3
3/20/03 65 29 5
3/17/03 64 29 7
3/5-9/03 55 38 8
2/19-23/03 55 39 6
2/6-9/03 61 37 2
2/5/03 61 32 7
1/30 - 2/1/03 61 35 3
1/28/03 58 38 4
1/27/03 57 40 3
1/16-20/03 50 46 4
12/02 58 37 5
10/02 57 38 5
9/12-14/02 65 31 4
8/29/02 52 36 12
(Data from the invaluable Polling Report, which archives poll results.)

That's right; support for (and opposition to) the war was essentially unchanged from the beginning of the process until the day the war began. Minor week-to-week fluctuations, within the margin of error. Regardless of whether you think Bush lied, this simply isn't a Gulf of Tonkin situation. Bush's factual claims didn't mislead or trick Americans into supporting the war; Americans supported the war because they agreed with the various reasons advanced for it from the beginning.

It strains credulity to suggest that these handful of words in a speech that most Americans didn't watch, that weren't seen as overly significant at the time (see, for instance, Jake Tapper's review of the speech in Salon, where he barely mentioned the uranium claim in passing) somehow constitute the proof that Bush falsely tricked us into war. In the zillions of speeches Bush and other administration officials gave over the more than six months of intensive campaigning for war, it would be shocking if everything that was said turned out to be perfectly accurate. But if these 16 words are the best that Bush's critics can come up with, then it would be difficult to conclude that Bush did anything wrong.


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Comments (2)

Partha Mazumdar:

The State of the Union may, indeed, be one of zillions of speeches. Perhaps no one watched it.

But, it is, in fact, a Constitutionally mandated speech. It is important.

Actually, it isn't a constitutionally mandated speech. The Constitution says that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;" -- nothing about speeches. (Nothing about annual, either.) Woodrow Wilson started the practice of turning the SOTU into a speech; it could just as easily be a written report.

(Or restarted, if you prefer; our first president did the same, but it was abandoned after that.)


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