A small journalistic cottage industry has grown up demonstrating that the Bush Administration took the nation to war against Iraq under false pretenses. The industry has been highly productive. Administration officials claimed certain knowledge that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction when they had no such knowledge. They claimed that the Iraqi government was seeking uranium ore from Niger months after the CIA had already disproven the charge. They claimed that Iraq had ties with Al Qaeda in the absence of any evidence of such ties, and much evidence to the contrary. When the intelligence agencies produced conclusions the Administration didn’t like, it pressured them to come up with different conclusions. And so forth.

A parallel but less noticed collapse of Administration policy has been occurring with regard to another region. As early as the State of the Union address, George W. Bush announced a radical change in US policies for dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The United States, the President said, would “prevent” the spread of the weapons by the pre-emptive use of military force. “We will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes and terrorists to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” The words “will not permit” are the words of an ultimatum. They place the military prestige of the country making them on the line as clearly as language can. The threat was of course carried out in Iraq–with the nugatory results just mentioned.

In another country, North Korea, however, the nuclear programs were real. They were not only real; they led (according to both the North Korean and the US governments) to the actual production of nuclear weapons. Yet the United States did nothing. Administration spokesmen repeatedly declared that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear arms was “not a crisis.” How, observers demanded to know at the time, could it be a crisis for Iraq to have a nuclear weapons program (which then was still thought to exist) but not a crisis for North Korea to have an actual nuclear arsenal?

Since then, the United States has backed off even further, declaring that the new American objective is merely to prevent North Korea from exporting its nuclear materials. The United States would “absolutely not” permit such behavior, Secretary of State Powell told Tim Russert on Meet the Press. An Administration official told the New York Times, “The President said that the central worry is not what they’ve got but where it goes.” But the fact remains that the clearly articulated threats of the world’s only superpower in regard to the most serious issue facing it and the world–nuclear danger–turned out to be hollow. Yet the debacle has been met with silence.

Those who rejected the original strategy as reckless and unworkable didn’t call Bush to account, because they liked the default better than the policy. Those–most of them Republicans–who approved of the policy stayed silent because they didn’t want to criticize a President of their own party. One group likes the collapse on substantive grounds; the other won’t attack it on political grounds. (Yet even now, Republicans excoriate President Clinton for accepting the negotiation of an Agreed Framework with North Korea to deal with its nuclear program in 1994.) In truth, as Michael Levi of the Brookings Institution has pointed out in The New Republic, stopping exports is as infeasible as pre-empting North Korea’s nuclear program was in the first place. The new goal is merely a way of saving face.

In one respect, the treatment of Iraq and North Korea were opposite: In the first, the United States knocked out a government to get at nuclear weapons that, as far as we know, weren’t there; in the second it backed off in the face of nuclear weapons (and a large conventional force) that were there. But in another respect, the policies were alike: The words and commitments made by the Administration on one day had evaporated the next.

The sequel in Iraq was also surprising. A month after American forces had taken control of Iraq, they had not secured its nuclear facilities. Had the Administration, knowing full well that it was deceiving the public about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, failed to take its own claims seriously because it knew they were not true?

A further wrinkle in this increasingly strange story came recently when the President said (in words already cited in this space) that the United States has “found weapons of mass destruction.” He was referring to two vans discovered in Iraq that may or may not have been built to produce biological weapons. If someone states to the world that he has a black dog when he does not, he is lying. But what do you call it if, in full sight of all, he says he has a black dog while pointing to a white dog?

It is cognitive torture. Just as hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, a lie is the tribute that vice pays to truth: The element of concealment pays respect to the hearer’s demand to be told what is true. But if the “lie” is out in the open–if any fool can see that the dog is white–then truth itself is disrespected.

At that moment, attention must shift from the deceiver to the deceived. The corruption threatens to spread from the teller to the hearer–from the Administration to the country, from them to us. Today lies, exaggerations, contradictions and broken promises litter the mental landscape, like uncollected garbage, polluting and poisoning the intellectual and moral air. A fog of amnesia covers the scene. What was said ten minutes ago is forgotten. What was promised yesterday never appears, and no one cares. What is needed now is not so much more investigation as an awakening of will. The question is no longer what the government is doing but whether the public will hold it to account. Does the public like to hear the lies as much as the Administration likes to tell them, or will our self-respect demand a response? Cognitive torture calls for cognitive indignation. And indignation should lead to action.