On a visit to Saddam's Iraq a year ago, I wrote a column that outraged his government. It described officials burning a Muslim leader's beard and then driving nails through his head.
The next day I was summoned to a government ministry and menacingly denounced by two of Saddam's henchmen. But neither man could speak English, and they hadn't actually read the offending column. (Imagine officials who don't read papers but rely on underlings for briefings!)
At that point, my government minder took my column and translated it for them. I saw my life flash before my eyes. But my minder's job was to spy on me, and he worried that my tough column would reflect badly on his spying. Plus, he was charging me $100 a day, and he would lose a fortune if I was expelled, or worse.
So he translated my column very selectively. There was no mention of burning beards or nails in heads. He left out whole paragraphs. When he finished, the two senior officials shrugged and let me off scot-free.
That episode underscored to me how difficult it was for Saddam's government to get accurate information. Ultimately, Saddam's rule collapsed in part because he couldn't read Iraq and made decisions based on hubris and bad information.
These days, President Bush and his aides are having the same problem. Critics complain that they lied to the American public about how difficult the war would be, but I fear the critics are wrong: they didn't just fool us — they also fooled themselves.
Evidence suggests that Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney may have actually believed that our troops would be, as Mr. Cheney predicted, "greeted as liberators." The administration chose to rely not on intelligence but on wishful thinking, and it became intoxicated by the siren calls of Ahmad Chalabi, a silver-tongued charlatan.
I wish administration officials were lying, because I would prefer hypocrisy to delusion — at least hypocritical officials make decisions with accurate information.
Policy by wishful thinking is crippling our occupation. Initially, U.S. officials didn't restrain looting because they regarded it as celebratory high jinks. Then, confident that security was in hand, they disbanded the Iraqi Army. They didn't push hard to bring in international forces.
The foreign forces they suggest introducing are Turks, which adds to my fear that administration officials have been more deluded than duplicitous. It is a crazy scheme: anyone who has spent time in Iraq knows that Iraqis will never accept their former colonial power policing them.
Mr. Cheney has cited a Zogby International poll to back his claim that there is "very positive news" in Iraq. But the pollster, John Zogby, told me, "I was floored to see the spin that was put on it; some of the numbers were not my numbers at all."
Mr. Cheney claimed that Iraqis chose the U.S. as their model for democracy "hands down," and he and other officials say that a majority want American troops to stay at least another year. In fact, Mr. Zogby said, only 23 percent favor the U.S. democratic model, and 65 percent want the U.S. to leave in a year or less.
"I am not willing to say they lied," Mr. Zogby said. "But they used a very tight process of selective screening, and when they didn't get what they wanted they were willing to manufacture some results. . . . There was almost nothing in that poll to give them comfort."
Sure, we're making some progress in Iraq. A hand grenade sells for $2.50 now, compared with 10 cents a few months ago. But U.S. troops now face 25 to 30 attacks daily, compared with 15 to 20 in September. Last month 33 Americans were killed, twice as many as in September.
One of Mr. Bush's strengths as a politician is his optimistic nature, but I now fear it is also his central weakness in governing. Reckless overconfidence led him to adopt fiscal policies that will leave our children indebted, and this same cockiness led us into Iraq. Brash optimism perhaps has its roots in Mr. Bush's hometown, Midland, Tex., an oil town that regularly rewarded hard work with a gusher, a place where everybody you meet displays this same hearty can-do confidence. In Midland, Mr. Bush unfortunately absorbed the lesson that risks in the desert pay off.
So the scary thing is, Mr. Bush and his aides may not be lying when they look at Iraq and boast of a cheering population that a Western press sourly refuses to acknowledge. There's a precedent: Saddam Hussein.www.nytimes.com/2003/11/05/opinion/05KRIS.htmlE-mail this article