“…interviews last week with historians, advertising executives, pollsters and Democratic and Republican image-makers turned up this consensus: Mr. Bush has to do a better job–or at least a more extensive job–of selling Americans on Iraq and the American occupation, no matter what anyone might think of the policy itself.” –Elizabeth Bumiller, New York Times, “Hard Sell: In a Democracy, the President Is Also Salesman in Chief”

“Everything that happened yesterday is irrelevant.” –Advice for Bush from G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French-born medical anthropologist who has done psychological consumer research for Seagram, Procter & Gamble and Ford, quoted in the same article

A year has passed since Congress authorized George W. Bush to launch a war against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Each of the justifications for the war put forward by the Administration has now proved either entirely imaginary or so remote as to appear fanciful. The President said that the United States must go to war because Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was ready to use them, but the American team, led by David Kay, sent to discover those weapons has now, after four months of searching, had to report that it has found none. The President said that Saddam gave support to Al Qaeda, but no such support has been demonstrated. The President said he was going to war to establish a democracy in Iraq so splendid that all the Middle East would emulate it (Iraq would be “a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region,” he said in February), but six months after the war’s end Iraq remains virtually without a government, and resistance to the American occupation is on the rise. The United States has been led into war on false pretexts before. A case in point is the provoked and falsified attacks on American naval vessels in the Tonkin Gulf, which were used to stampede Congress into voting for the Tonkin resolution authorizing the Vietnam War. But never before has an Administration’s entire justification for war–not just its triggering incident–proved to be a mirage. (In Vietnam, the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam really were seeking to take over South Vietnam, and did so. In Iraq, by contrast, there really are no known weapons of mass destruction or known support for Al Qaeda.)

All this has by now been redundantly demonstrated, to the point of overfamiliarity, and public debate must shift to another subject: Will anyone be held accountable for the disaster (whose cost, still rising, remains beyond calculation)? Or has the past indeed been made “irrelevant,” as Mr. Rapaille recommends? So far, the President appears to be following the Rapaille strategy.

He has adopted a practice of brushing aside the factual world with simple, declarative, false statements. For example, during his visit to Poland in late May, he declared, in defiance of all accepted information, “We’ve found the weapons of mass destruction.” The statement, unsupported by evidence or even verbal backup from other Administration officials, was so strange it was widely uncommented upon. Everyone knows what to say if an official says something that later turns out to be false (for instance, that Saddam bought uranium in Africa). The suffix “-gate” is attached to it, and a process of sleuthing out the facts and tracing the origins of the falsehood ensues. But what are people to say or do or even think if the President states something that is already known by the whole world to be untrue? The problem arose again in the aftermath of the Kay report. The President had gone to war, he said, because Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Kay was unable to find any. The President announced his vindication. Can black become white if the President says it is? Can the past be erased by White House fiat?

The Congressional supporters of the resolution have been wordier. Their evasions of accountability are too numerous to catalogue, but an interview that Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, who voted for the resolution but is now a keen critic of the President, gave to Tim Russert can suffice as an example of the genre. Kerry is angry. “Were you misled by the intelligence agencies?” Russert asked. “Were you duped?”

“No, we weren’t…. The bottom line,” he said, “is that we voted on the basis of information that was given to us that has since then been proven to be incorrect.”

Then did he regret his vote for the resolution? If the information on which he voted for war was false, wasn’t the vote a mistake–perhaps an understandable mistake but nevertheless a grievous one? By no means. “I don’t wish I’d been a naysayer from the start. I did the right thing. My vote was a vote for the security of the United States of America based on the information we were given.”

An example of a rare straight answer to the kind of question Russert was asking was given by Representative John Murtha, a conservative Democrat who voted for the resolution and now regrets it. “I am part of it. I admit the mistake,” Murtha said. “We cannot allow these bureaucrats to get off when these young people [in Iraq] are paying such a price.” He also said, “Somebody’s got to be held responsible.”

The most important actor in the story of the support for the war, however, is of course the voting public, which, according to polls, overwhelmingly supported the war when it was launched but now doubts the wisdom of its choice. Accountability, ultimately, rests in its hands. Will it hold the Administration responsible for the disaster? The answer may turn out to lie in two curious findings of polls conducted since the end of the conventional fighting. One was that, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in early April, 72 percent of the public thought the war would be worthwhile even if no biological or chemical weapons were found. The other was that, according to a recent Washington Post poll, 69 percent of the public believed it likely that Saddam Hussein was involved in planning or supporting the attacks of September 11.

Both beliefs are startling–the first because the Administration had tirelessly cited the Iraqi weapons threat as its chief reason for going to war, the second because there is no evidence of any involvement by Saddam in September 11. Many observers have criticized the White House for slyly and indirectly giving credence to the latter illusion, and criticized the press for failing to dispel it. There is justification for both criticisms, but deeper forces may be at work. Connecting the war on Iraq to September 11 has always been difficult work for the Administration. Many of its members had made no secret of their wish to overthrow Saddam Hussein long before the attack on American soil. (In 1998 neoconservative commentators William Kristol and Robert Kagan; Richard Perle, now a member of the Defense Policy Board; Elliott Abrams, now National Security Council Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs; Richard Armitage, now Deputy Secretary of State; John Bolton, now Under Secretary of State; Donald Rumsfeld, now Defense Secretary; and Paul Wolfowitz, now Deputy Secretary of Defense, sent President Clinton a letter calling for the United States to attack and overthrow Saddam.)

The elaborate argumentation by which the Administration sought to present this pre-existing wish as part of the post-9/11 “war on terror” has always been strained and difficult to follow as well as factually doubtful. Saddam seeks weapons of mass destruction–the argument ran–he supports terrorists; terrorists, too, want weapons of mass destruction; he may grant their wish; they may use them against the United States; therefore we must overthrow Saddam. Tenuous as this logic was, it had the political virtue of tying the war on Iraq to the 9/11 attacks.

A large part of the public, it appears, may have accepted the conclusion while overlooking the argumentation. That is, it may have seen the Iraq war as–somehow or other–a response to September 11 while never quite absorbing the allegation that provided the supposed link: the supposed Iraqi nuclear, biological and chemical threat. After all, September 11–not the President’s speeches thereafter–was the emotional and political earthshaker in the hearts and minds of the American people. The public’s reactions in the future may therefore depend on whether it continues to associate September 11 with the war. But recent events, including the casualties suffered by US forces in Iraq, are tending to force the two apart in the public mind. The moment–will it be a year from now, when the presidential election is held?–that the public ceases to connect the attack and the war may well be the moment it holds the Administration accountable for the disaster it has brought to the United States and the world in Iraq.

Of all the responsibilities of government, the decision to go to war is the most grave. Can an Administration take the country to war on false pretexts and get away with it? A year ago, the issue was war and peace. Now the issue is the integrity of the American political system. Not democracy in Iraq or even the entire Middle East–that fading mirage–but democracy in the United States is now at stake.