Politics & Policy

Prophet for Political Profit

Reverend of the Left.

Jim Wallis — who is described on the website of Sojourners as a “bestselling author, public theologian, preacher, speaker, activist, and international commentator on ethics and public life” — also fancies himself as one who is in the “prophetic tradition.” That would include, according to Wallis, “the values of love and justice, reconciliation, and community that Jesus taught and that are at the core of what many of us believe, Christian or not.” Wallis is also author of a book which calls for “a new politics of compassion, community, and civility.”

Apparently the man who is in love with love, reconciliation, and civility is having to deal with some other, less admirable emotions, these days.

Wallis watched CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday night, which revealed the results of an investigation into the source of key pieces of information which were used by the Bush administration in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. (The source is an Iraqi defector whose until now was known as “Curveball” and whose real name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan). This led to Mr. Wallis writing this shrill posting on his blog on Monday morning:

I believe that Dick Cheney is a liar; that Donald Rumsfeld is also a liar; and that George W. Bush was, and is, clueless about how to be the president of the United States. And this isn’t about being partisan – I was raised in a Republican family with two Republican parents that I loved more than any two people in the world. I’ve heard plenty of my Republican friends and public figures call this administration an embarrassment to the best traditions of the Republican Party and an embarrassment to the democratic (small d) tradition of the United States. They have shamed our beloved nation in the world by this war and the shameful way they have fought it. Almost 4,000 young Americans are dead because of the lies of this administration, tens of thousands more wounded and maimed for life, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also dead, and 400 billion dollars wasted—because of their lies, incompetence, and corruption.

But I don’t favor impeachment, as some have suggested. I would wait until after the election, when they are out of office, and then I would favor investigations of the top officials of the Bush administration on official deception, war crimes, and corruption charges. And if they are found guilty of these high crimes, I believe they should spend the rest of their lives in prison – after offering their repentance to every American family who has lost a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, or sister. Deliberately lying about going to war should not be forgiven.

There are a raft of reckless comments to sort through in these two paragraphs.

To begin with: Wallis offers no evidence that Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld lied, perhaps because no such evidence exists. For them to be liars mean they would have knowingly told a falsehood, which is simply not the case. Beyond that, you would not tell a lie that you knew would be exposed as a lie within months after it was told. Does Wallis really believe the Bush administration knew there were no WMDs in Iraq but decided to tell it any way, knowing that once the lie was exposed support for the war (and the administration) would collapse? Only a person who is suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome would believe such a thing.

The reality is that the president based his decision to go to war on badly flawed information, which is serious enough.

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is the intelligence community’s authoritative written judgment on specific national-security issues. The 2002 NIE provided a key judgment: “Iraq has continued its [WMDs] programs in defiance of U.N. resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of U.N. restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.” And thanks to the bipartisan Silberman-Robb Commission, which investigated the causes of intelligence failures in the run-up to the war, we now know that the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) and the Senior Executive Intelligence Brief “were, if anything, more alarmist and less nuanced than the NIE” (emphasis added). We also know that the intelligence in the PDB was not “markedly different” from that given to Congress, including Democrats who supported the war.

The Silberman-Robb report also found “no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community’s prewar assessments of Iraq’s weapons programs. . . . Analysts universally asserted that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments.” What the report did find is that intelligence assessments on Iraq were “riddled with errors”; “most of the fundamental errors were made and communicated to policy makers well before the now-infamous NIE of October 2002, and were not corrected in the months between the NIE and the start of the war.”

In addition, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s bipartisan Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq concluded this: “The committee did not find any evidence that intelligence analysts changed their judgments as a result of political pressure, altered or produced intelligence products to conform with administration policy, or that anyone even attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to do so.”

Second, the person who most famously based his testimony of the account of “Curveball” was not Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld but Secretary of State Colin Powell — more often an opponent rather than an ally of the “neo-conservative hawks” who so alarm Wallis. When Secretary Powell gave his presentation to the United Nations on February 5, 2003, he believed what he said was true. I can say that without fear of contradiction for two reasons: first, Secretary Powell is an honorable and honest man; and second, he knew that if his testimony was shown to be wrong, his career would be forever stained.

Secretary Powell went out to Langley and spent days (and nights) there in an effort to source his claims. He obviously believed he had. Powell was wrong, as was the administration, and it ranks as among the worst intelligence failures in our history. But to imply, as Wallis does, that Colin Powell and the others are guilty of official deception, war crimes and corruption charges is deeply irresponsible, to say nothing of deeply uninformed.

Third, as Wallis must surely know, the list of prominent Democrats who believed Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs is long; it includes Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, Harry Reid, Richard Durbin, Ted Kennedy, and many others. But for some reason Wallis seems unwilling to aim his outrage at his political allies. A true “prophet” would.

Fourth, Wallis has shown a persistent capacity to overlook the malevolence of Saddam Hussein. Saddam’s regime was one of the most sadistic and aggressive in modern history. It started a war against Iran (which claimed more than a millions lives) and used mustard gas and nerve gas. A decade later Iraq invaded Kuwait. Iraq was a massively destabilizing force in the Middle East; so long as Saddam was in power, rivers of blood were sure to follow. But Jim Wallis, who would have us believe he is consumed with seeking justice, seems not to care.

Fifth, Jim Wallis might want to acquaint himself with the reports by David Kay and Charles Duelfer.

Upon his return from Iraq, weapons inspector David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), told the Senate: “I actually think this may be one of those cases where [Iraq under Saddam Hussein] was even more dangerous than we thought.” His statement when issuing the ISG progress report said: “We have discovered dozens of WMD-related program activities” that were part of “deliberate concealment efforts” that should have been declared to the U.N. And, he concluded, “Saddam, at least as judged by those scientists and other insiders who worked in his military-industrial programs, had not given up his aspirations and intentions to continue to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”

And among the key findings of the September 2004 report by Charles Duelfer, who succeeded Mr. Kay as ISG head, are that Saddam was pursuing an aggressive strategy to subvert the Oil-for-Food Program and to bring down U.N. sanctions through illicit finance and procurement schemes; and that Saddam intended to resume WMD efforts once U.N. sanctions were eliminated. According to Mr. Duelfer, “the guiding theme for WMDs was to sustain the intellectual capacity achieved over so many years at such a great cost and to be in a position to produce again with as short a lead time as possible. . . . Virtually no senior Iraqi believed that Saddam had forsaken WMDs forever. Evidence suggests that, as resources became available and the constraints of sanctions decayed, there was a direct expansion of activity that would have the effect of supporting future WMD reconstitution.”

Beyond all this, though, is a larger point: There is an immense double standard that exists in American life, and especially in the American media. The “Religious Right” is often accused — and sometimes fairly accused — of being intemperate, uncivil, staggeringly simplistic, and uninformed when they speak out on matters of public policy. Yet this is precisely what Jim Wallis — whose rantings will garner far less attention than those of Pat Robertson or, when he was alive, Jerry Falwell — is doing. Wallis’s words could easily emerge from the fever swamps of the Left.

I have written before about how the politicization of religious faith can lead to its corruption. That is sometimes true of the “Religious Right;” as Jim Wallis has reminded us, it is also sometimes true of the religious Left.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Jim Wallis is lying in writing what he did. I simply believe he is deeply uninformed and politically tendentious, animated, and blinded by his political biases. And while he claims to be public theologian and a prophet, he’s a good deal closer to being a James Carville or a Paul Begala — though at least the latter don’t pretend to be “prophets” who are hovering above politics in a disinterested and morally serious fashion. Nor do they wrap their screeds in the garb of religious faith, pretending to be agents of reconciliation and civility when in fact they are simply undermining any possible claim to moral or intellectual seriousness.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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