1. I understand that the book sprang out of an article that first appeared on
AlterNet.org. What made you decide to expand the article into a full book?
Christopher Scheer: The article, which was a pretty simple thing just a list of ten lies told by Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Cheney about Iraq took off on the Internet, really went viral. Within a few days of being published at the end of June, it was the biggest story of the year for AlterNet, and probably half a million people have read it since.
My dad, who'd been writing about Iraq for a solid year in his syndicated column, said, "Hey, let's do a book on Bush and Iraq." I said, no way, I have a job. The next afternoon, my boss, Don Hazen at AlterNet, said, "Hey, let's do a book on Bush and Iraq." I said, "Funny you should mention that..."
On AlterNet, we had been publishing a lot of really informative stuff about Iraq and the White House neoconservatives behind the war. Our traffic had doubled and doubled again, but the response to this little piece was wild. It made us realize how many people out there were really starved for good, factual analysis of what was happening in Iraq, and since the situation there was looking worse every day, we figured the need to tell this story would only increase.
From there things moved very fast, which is I think the way it is when you realize there is a need for what you already have. Lakshmi, my dad, and I all had been immersed on a daily basis in trying to understand just what the hell the White House was trying to do with Iraq, so the team came together organically.
We decided to keep the list-of-lies format but had to move beyond just dissecting the lies that had already been exposed, such as the Niger uranium story. The five lies of the title are in fact Big Lies, supported by a whole bunch of small lies. With chapters dealing with the Administration's lies about Hussein and Al Qaeda, Iraq's chemical and biological weapons stores, its nuclear program, we were able to show how the marketing campaign for the war had been this terrific bait and switch operation designed to use fear to cow and convince us to support this hair-brained scheme these radical neocons had cooked up.
Then we explored the lies we were told about the "cakewalk" how we would be greeted with flowers, quickly pacify the country and rebuild it, using our overwhelming military, financial and technological powers. We show how the Defense Department consistently ignored a huge body of intelligence that showed the likely dangers and problems an occupying army would face there. Finally, we dissected the idea that we could easily impose or midwife a stable, democratic Iraq that would be friendly to the West.
The next key was asking AlterNet's readers to help us. With nothing more than the idea and our collective reputation, some 600 individuals responded to an email we sent our mailing list pitching a phenomenal $30,000 to make it a reality. Anybody who has done fundraising knows what it takes to get people to support a cause, so this let us know we were really onto a project people supported. Finally, Seven Stories and Akashic, two small but terrific publishing houses, offered to publish and distribute it. AlterNet had been ready to try and do this ourselves, but were excited to let the pros do it, and they brought an enormous energy and intelligence to the project.
2. What distinguishes this book from the other current books that address Bush's habit of lying? I'm thinking specifically of the new books by Al Franken, David Corn, and Joe Conason.
Christopher Scheer: Those guys are all great, and Corn in particular is a long-time contributor to AlterNet and a friend of ours. Franken is just an original did you see the other day he offered to fight a guy who called liberals wussies? The guy declined, and I don't blame him. Like Michael Moore, Franken is a principled but bare-knuckles brawler you want on your side.
But our book is VERY different from those others. For one thing, it's a lot cheaper at $9.95! It also focuses exclusively on Iraq: how and why we got there and why it's been such a failure. Those other books are about the right-wing media, Bush's domestic policies, a whole bunch of important stuff. But they are not primarily books about the Iraq war. This is the book to give your dad or cousin or co-worker who is patriotic but not dogmatic, who was mildly for the war but now has increasing questions.
Actually, I really see this as a new version of great pamphlet my dad did back in, I think, 1966, called How the U.S. Got Involved in Vietnam, that was met with a tremendous response. That was a no-nonsense, well-researched and economical primer on a disaster-in-the-making. When I saw that Rep. Dennis Kucinich called Five Lies "mandatory reading for the coming teach-ins on the war" in his plug, I got kinda choked up, because that's exactly what my dad's pamphlet had become almost forty years ago. I went right away and bought a mint copy online you gotta love the Internet.
3. In the book, you explain how Bush employed a "bait and switch" tactic to use the tragedy of 9/11 as a justification for attacking Iraq. Have you noticed Bush "baiting and switching" in any political areas other than Iraq?
Lakshmi Chaudhry: "Bait and switch" can be used to describe the administration's basic political strategy since 9/11. They have used the so-called "war on terror" to justify a wide range of policies, be it the destruction of our environment or the erosion of our most basic rights. Terrorism has become a framing device that allows the Bush White House to tap into and feed the fears of Americans to promote their agenda.
Christopher Scheer: Right, like the case of the airport inspectors and a lot of the employees moved over to the new Homeland Security Department. That became an excuse to attack labor unions, as if trying to protect pension benefits and wages was some kind of threat to the nation. In other cases, like the PATRIOT Act, 9/11 paved the way for officials like Ashcroft who were irritated by restrictions designed to protect our civil liberties after the wide-scale abuse of these by the FBI under Hoover and during the 60s and 70s. The Freedom of Information Act, which I consider a fundamental democratic tool, has been completely neutered, for example, and few in D.C. seem to care.
4. Are there any "voices of reason" at the top level of the Bush administration? If so, do you think they wield any power?
Lakshmi Chaudhry: Well, the "voice of reason" that has received most attention is, of course, Colin Powell. In the run-up to the war, there was a lot of media ink spilt on the battle between Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld and his posse of neoconservative hawks within the Department of Defense.
Almost every aspect of the execution of the war, including its planning, contradicts Powell's previously articulated positions. While we can only guess at the reasons why he went along some say that he was being a good soldier, while others say he was afraid of the extremists who would replace him should he resign it is clear that he crossed the line between accommodation and surrender when he made the now famous presentation in front of the U.N.
Powell has not stopped pushing for multilateralism his latest effort was at the donors conference in Madrid where he raised a considerable amount from other nations. And there are some signs that the administration is trying to downplay the role of the neocons. The announcement that Condoleezza Rice and not the Pentagon will head the Iraq Stabilization Group (ISG) that will coordinate Iraq policy was seen as a blow to the hawks in the Pentagon. There has been some talk about axing Doug Feith, the man who led the effort to "find" intelligence needed to make the case for war.
But as long as Dick Cheney continues to control foreign policy, there is little leverage available to Powell, irrespective of his views. Cheney was the deciding vote in the battle between the Pentagon and the State Department. Senator Joe Biden recently compared the relationship between Bush and his vice president to that of a horse and its rider. Unless that relationship changes, there is little hope that any voice of reason will be heard in the White House.
5. Do you see this book primarily as giving Bush-skeptics more ammunition, or do you think it has the possibility of actually changing the minds of people who have been supportive of Bush's policies thus far?
Lakshmi Chaudhry: No book is going to convince the Ann Coulters of this world. Even if George Bush came out tomorrow and confessed to lying, die-hard rightwingers are not going to believe that this administration did anything wrong. But the majority of Americans who supported the war did so out of fear and, more importantly, because of a sustained campaign of misinformation.
A survey conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes showed how many Americans still believe this administration's lies. For example, 48 percent of the public believe U.S. troops have found evidence of close pre-war links between Iraq and the Al Qaeda; 22 percent believe that we've found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Not surprisingly, most of these people supported the decision to go to war. More importantly, an overwhelming majority of them get their news from television, which has provided abysmal coverage of the war and its aftermath.
Given this context, this book is valuable in two ways. One, it arms those who oppose this administration's policies with meticulous and detailed information on this historic betrayal of public faith. Two, it is a great educational tool that can help dismantle the administration's web of disinformation. This is a book that you would give your friend or family member who supports the war, saying, "Here, take a look at this and let me know what you think." Each of the assertions made in this book is based on facts culled from mainstream, well-established sources, be it the New York Times or the State Department. This is not a wild polemic a' la Coulter's Treason, but a well-researched primer that we believe is useful for all Americans, be it liberals or conservatives.
Christopher Scheer: I'd only like to add that since the war began, we have received enormous amounts of mail from people in small towns, the military, etc., who are not "political people" by habit, who are taking the time to look around now and are starting to get pissed about what's happening in this country. Just today, at this lunch counter, I talked to a former Air Force pilot who said he has become increasingly appalled by Bush's policies and behavior. This was not a wild-eyed radical, nor was his wife, who was there also.
The book can only have an effect on somebody if they read it, of course. But I think even if you finish it and still support the occupation, you'll have learned a hell of a lot along the way. I know we did in writing it.
6. Do you think there is any chance that a Democratic candidate can unseat Bush in 2004? If so, which candidate do you think has the best chance? (Not to be confused with "Which candidate do you like?")
Christopher Scheer: Sure, why not? Gore beat him in the popular vote in 2000 so why should it be impossible? I imagine it will be very close again. I have no idea which candidate has the best chance, and a whole lot of history is going to happen between now and next November, but Bush hardly seems like a lock to me.
In terms of talking about Iraq, though, Kucinich clearly has the most clear and deep understanding of what has happened in Iraq and how dangerous the occupation is.
7. Some people opine that the only thing that will really hurt Bush in the next election is a bad economy. Do you think Bush's lies will play any role in the 2004 election?
Christopher Scheer: If everything was hunky-dory in Iraq, the lies might not matter much. But things have been anything but hunky-dory. Maybe they could have gotten away with it, if American kids weren't coming home in body bags six months after seizing Baghdad. If there wasn't a guerrilla insurgency. That has put the onus back on the White House to explain why this was all such a great idea.
The latest news has the President saying we won't run from Iraq, while behind the scenes they are now scrambling for a way to hand over power to some hand- picked Iraqis and start pulling out before the election. And to me, if it takes the fear of losing the election to get us out of Iraq, that's fine. That's democracy in action.
So I guess the simple answer to your question is that the proof is in the pudding. If the lies end up causing us pain, as they have and continue to do, they matter a lot more to the American public. If Iraq is sailing along next year under Iraqi leadership, and Americans aren't dying, perhaps it won't be much of an issue in the election. But that's a big if.
8. The past few days have seen some very tragic events in Iraq, with even more loss of life of US soldiers. Would you favor a full withdrawal of troops at this point, or do you think the US has an obligation to see the conflict through now that the country is devastated?
Christopher Scheer: I think this is a false dichotomy. We should definitely pull out and we do have clear obligations. Both are true. This either-or way of looking at it has come from the White House, which all along has made it seem as if the choices are all black and white, you're either with us or against us.
We have to get out because we have no business there and our increasingly heavy-handed presence is a provocation to Iraqis and Arabs in general. Furthermore, the motives of this Administration are, time and again, counterintuitive to the ideals that people ascribe to, say, the Marshall Plan, which helped build Germany and Japan into stable democracies and economic competitors to the United States. Here we have the opposite, an occupying provisional government that is guiding the vast bulk of reconstruction funds into the hands of American-based multinational corporations, doesn't trust the locals to run their own country even in non-political areas, etc.
The first issue is how do you bring in the United Nations and other nations in a large way, and the answer is pretty clear you cede some, or even a lot, of decision-making power. I don't want to glorify the UN, which is a very problematic institution, but don't think it can be argued that they would have done any worse here. Under a UN banner, the US could keep some troops there, while others from countries like India and Pakistan would come available that aren't now because of the United States' commitment to staying in charge no matter what. The U.S. would also have to bear an enormous amount of the financial burden of rebuilding the country, although giving it to Iraqis couldn't be less efficient than giving it to Bechtel and Halliburton, which pay an army of outsiders Western wages.
Finally, we probably need to radically lower our expectations. Iraq is a much more divided and problematic country, in many ways, than culturally homogenous Japan, Germany, and Italy were after WWII. Iraq is, as William Beeman calls it, "a state in search of a nation," where only strongmen or foreign rulers have been able to keep this hodge-podge of ethnicities, religions and regions together. I believe Iraq can become a stable, prosperous, free country, but it's got to be one of their own making, and I can't imagine how it would end up looking like ours! Frankly, it's hard to imagine how Iraq is going to develop in the near future. A civil war, a fundamentalist revolution, even a break-up of the country into smaller states all seem possible. It is not pretty.
The bottom line, though, for Americans, is that we are not God. Everything we touch is not gold. And unless we want to see more soldiers die, more Iraqis killed by our confused and frightened troops, more taxpayer money poured down a black hole, we need to have a great national debate on what it is we're doing over there and why. And I think this book can be a part of that debate.