TCS Daily

The Uranium War

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - July 16, 2003 12:00 AM

The topic on everyone's mind (and lips) these days is President Bush's January State of the Union address. I have heard it said many times - mostly in the liberal press - that President Bush lied when he said that Iraq tried to purchase uranium in Africa. (Actually, what he said is that British intelligence had made a report to that effect.) This is a reckless charge, given the extant evidence.

A lie is a falsehood told with intent to deceive. All lies are falsehoods, but not all falsehoods are lies. Lies are always at least presumptively wrong, but falsehoods can be innocent. Unless you are certain that (1) S's false statement was known by S to be false at the time it was made and (2) S made the statement specifically to deceive someone, don't call it a lie. It debases the discourse, which is already debased enough. It is also unfair to S. Shouldn't presidents (at least) be given the benefit of the doubt? And don't respond that President Bill Clinton didn't get the benefit of the doubt. Two acts of uncharitableness don't make a charitable act.

I will leave the question of President Bush's knowledge and intention ("what he knew and when he knew it") to others, for I have nothing substantive to add to that discussion (nor do most folks commenting about it today). But let me be clear about something. It would trouble me greatly if a false statement, even one of which he was unaware, crept into President Bush's State of the Union address. I would want to know how it got there. I would worry that, if one false statement crept in, others may do so as well. Citizens deserve to be told the truth by their elected representatives. Democracy, in which we have so much invested, depends on it.

What I want to examine is the question whether a false statement made by President Bush in his State of the Union address undermines the justification for the war in Iraq. I have heard it said ad nauseam that, since the justification for the war rested on Iraq's having a nuclear capacity, the fact that Iraq had no such capacity makes the war unjustified. Let me make some assumptions so as to sharpen the issue. First, let's assume that Iraq had no nuclear capacity, or even an intention to acquire such a capacity, at the time the United States military crossed its borders. Second, let's assume that President Bush knew about Iraq's lack of a nuclear capacity at the time he made his State of the Union address. In fact, let's assume the worst: that President Bush told a bald-faced lie.

I have made the assumptions most favorable to President Bush's critics. But these assumptions still don't render the war unjustified. In fact, I doubt very much that the hypothesized lie made any difference to most people's thinking about the justification for war. The only people who have reason to complain about the so-called lie are those who supported the war only because they believed President Bush when he said (falsely) that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Niger. These are people who, without this belief, would have opposed the war, but who, with the belief, supported it. Are you in that class? I didn't think so. I doubt that many people are.

Many of us believed the war to be justified even without an Iraqi nuclear threat. To us, President Bush's "lie" (still assuming this for the sake of argument) is immaterial. We did not rely on it, so it does not affect our assessment of the morality of the war. In our view, the falsehood was a "harmless error." This legalism sheds light on the debate. There are two types of error that trial judges commit: harmful and harmless. Only the former are a basis for reversal and retrial. Mistakes were made, the appellate court says, but they were immaterial to the outcome. They were trivial, formal, or merely academic. This legal doctrine has obvious merit, for if every error, however harmless, were a basis for reversal and retrial, few cases would reach closure and we would have no resources for other public goods. No trial is perfect, after all.

Another legal doctrine that applies to this situation is detrimental reliance. If you promise me something and don't keep the promise, I am entitled to recover damages from you only if I detrimentally relied on your promise. If I did not rely on it, or if I relied but not to my detriment, I have not been harmed and will not be allowed to recover damages. Critics of President Bush must show not just that he misled (or, more strongly, lied to) them, but that they detrimentally relied on his misrepresentation. In this context, that would mean showing all of the following: (1) Had President Bush not made the false or misleading statement, I would have opposed the war (i.e., believed it to be unjustified); (2) I believed President Bush's statement; and (3) as a result of my belief, I supported the war (i.e., believed it to be justified).

The first of these statements is what philosophers call a counterfactual, since its antecedent is contrary (counter) to fact. Some counterfactuals are true and some false. Here is a true one: If Bill Clinton had been assassinated in July 1998, then Al Gore would have become president. Here is a false one: If Bill Clinton had been assassinated in July 1998, then Hillary Clinton would have become president. Bill Clinton was not assassinated in July 1998, so the antecedent of those conditional statements is false (contrary to fact). But as the examples show, this does not determine the truth or falsity of the counterfactual. That depends on other considerations. With respect to war in Iraq, the relevant counterfactual is this: If President Bush had not made the false or misleading statement, I would have opposed the war. Only those for whom this counterfactual is true, and who ended up supporting the war, can be said to have detrimentally relied on President Bush's statement.

There are many interesting and important issues raised by President Bush's now-discredited (and momentarily repudiated) assertion that, according to British intelligence, Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. It is important that we keep issues separate, however. I have tried to show that with respect to the justification of war in Iraq, only a subset - and maybe a numerically tiny subset - of President Bush's critics have reason to complain. If I were the president, I would challenge my critics with the following question: "How many of you supported the war only because of my claim, in the State of the Union address, that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger?" Those who raise their hands are the ones who detrimentally relied on the assertion. Only they have a legitimate grievance against the president. For the rest, President Bush's gaffe was the moral equivalent of harmless error. They should let it pass.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington. He writes "The Examined Life" column for TCS.

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