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Last winter, as the Bush administration rushed the country toward an invasion of Iraq, the editorial departments of some leading U.S. publications sounded a lot like Vice President Dick Cheney.

Here’s the Washington Post: “Unless unexpected change takes place in Baghdad, the United States should lead a force to remove Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and locate and destroy its chemical and biological weapons and its nuclear program.”

The New Republic: “Saddam’s megalomaniacal aspirations and repeated pattern of aggression make him an even less attractive candidate to join the nuclear club than Kim Jong Il.”

The Wall Street Journal: “As a madman pursuing nuclear weapons, Saddam doesn’t need al Qaeda ties to be dangerous.”

The Washington Times: “[T]here can be no reasonable doubt that Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed—by force, if necessary. Those who remain opposed to the use of force…simply have chosen to ignore the evidence.”

Yes, indeed, there were some people who chose to ignore the evidence in the runup to the war: President Bush, Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And those were the folks many editorial pages were relying on when they expressed certainty about the imminent threat from Hussein—and thus the need for a preemptive war.

In a seven-month PR blitz, Bush administration officials used every flea-flicker in the spin-the-public playbook to hype the threat from Iraq: deception, as in the phony claim about Iraq procuring uranium from Niger; distortion, as in the implausible argument that Iraq was using aluminum tubes for nuclear-weapons production; and results-oriented research, as in a prolonged campaign to get intelligence agencies to produce the “right” reports on Hussein’s threat level.

On occasion, the tales would converge in a single, breathtaking outburst from the White House. “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” said Bush last Oct. 7. Since the administration announced the end of formal hostilities in May, investigative reporters at various outlets—especially the Post—have done spectacular work in exposing how the claims persisted as the evidence grew weaker.

That same period has been much rougher for the editorial writers, who have watched as news accounts knock the premises out from under their pro-war opining. The uranium was bogus; the tubes were for rockets; no weapons of mass destruction have been discovered. Indeed, the very “arsenal” that the bellicose drumbeaters used as a given looks like a Bushie construct.

With their arguments falling apart in the rearview mirror, warmongering editorialists in recent weeks have undertaken a harrowing task: Make recent revelations somehow jibe with their previous work crusading for the invasion of Baghdad. There’s not much precedent for publications running retractions of their opinions, so the task becomes one of eating crow without making a face.

Here’s a ranking of key publications in this department, starting with the most shameful displays of intellectual dishonesty.

First Prize: the Washington Times

Editorial writers at the Washington Times clearly start from the premise that they have no credibility to begin with, so why admit past transgressions? Here’s how bad it gets at the Moonies’ ivory tower: In the aftermath of allegations that the Bush administration deceived America about the Iraqi threat, the Washington Times ran an editorial dismissing the entire affair. With the help of polling numbers, that is: “According to a Gallup Poll released yesterday, 86 percent of Americans continue to be certain, or at least believe it is likely, that before the war Iraq not only had the facilities to develop weapons of mass destruction, but that it also possessed biological or chemical weapons,” reads a June 17 editorial. Translation: If John Q. Public doesn’t feel hoodwinked, where’s the crisis?

And to divert attention from the Niger uranium fantasy, the Washington Times advocated moving on—to another regime change. “[Iran] has chemical and biological weapons, and could produce nuclear weapons in the next few years. With more than 150,000 U.S. troops stationed in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, few developments would be more beneficial to American foreign policy interests than the replacement of the current government with a democratic one that is pro-Western in orientation,” said the paper in a July 21 piece.

Washington Times spokesperson Melissa Hopkins says that the paper’s editorial writers would not comment on their work.

Second Prize: the Washington Post

When faced with the prewar deceptions of the Bush administration, the Post editorial board reacted just like a disenchanted ’00s liberal: It blamed Al Gore.

A bit of background: In early August, Gore gave a speech at New York University criticizing the Bush administration for amassing phony evidence to support various foreign, environmental, and economic policies. “The very idea of self-government depends upon honest and open debate….The Bush Administration routinely shows disrespect for that whole basic process, and I think it’s partly because they feel as if they already know the truth and aren’t very curious to learn about any facts that might contradict it,” said Gore, who spoke with particular passion about the administration’s case for war.

In an Aug. 10 editorial, the Post attacked not the people responsible for fraud, but the guy who was calling public attention to it. Saying that Gore “validated just about every conspiratorial theory of the antiwar left,” the piece hammered the former veep for his contention that “we were all somehow bamboozled into war.”

Funny thing: The Post’s editorialists were mocking Gore’s bamboozle argument on the same day that its reporters were documenting the bamboozlement. In the Aug. 10 news pages, reporters Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus laid out the utter mendacity of the Bush administration’s nuclear case. Amid new revelations about how the Bushies misled the public about Hussein’s nuclear capability, the reporters noted, “The possibility of a nuclear-armed Iraq loomed large in the Bush administration’s efforts to convince the American public of the need for a preemptive strike.”

Yet over on the editorial page, a different worldview—an ass-covering worldview—prevailed: The Bush administration didn’t frame the debate for war. In fact, argued the Post, the case for war came from the Clinton administration. “In the end, most members of Congress accepted the logic that President Clinton put forward in 1998: that, if Saddam Hussein was not stopped, he would ‘rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you he’ll use the arsenal,’” reads one editorial.

That’s some fancy revisionism by the Post—or at least a very sophisticated dance to distance itself from the administration. Put simply, Post editorialists are saying that even though Bush’s messages about imminent Iraqi threats dominated the airwaves for nearly an entire school year, the decision to forgo United Nations support and immediately invade was based on four-year-old assessments.

“There was a very intense debate during the fall about the wisdom of going to war and that was partly because most people believed that Saddam Hussein was not an immediate threat to us,” says Post editorial page Editor Fred Hiatt.

Third Prize: the Wall Street Journal

The Journal’s opinionmongers have learned something that the Bush administration has been using to its benefit for nearly two years: Invoking the terror of Sept. 11 distracts people from other things, including dreadful editorial judgment.

And so the paper’s editorialists went heavy on Sept. 11 in shouting down the administration’s critics, who have claimed that the threat from Saddam was not nearly as imminent as the White House argued.

The Journal writes: “Was the [Sept. 11] threat imminent when the plot was hatched in Kuala Lumpur? When the hijackers entered the U.S.? When Mohammed Atta took pilot training courses? For that matter, when did the attack on Pearl Harbor or the Nazi invasion of Poland become ‘imminent.’”

Good try, Journal. Its attempt at avoiding a mea culpa on its pro-war stance is well-written and visceral. And if only someone, somewhere could produce an ounce of evidence that Hussein’s Iraq had joined al Qaeda in fomenting terrorism against the United States, it would be convincing, too.

Through a spokesperson, Journal editorial page Editor Paul Gigot declined to comment.

Fourth Prize: the New Republic

Credit the thinkers at the New Republic for doing what their fellow war partisans couldn’t bring themselves to do—namely, admit that their rationale for invasion was based on data that’s been discredited. A June 30 editorial concedes that threadbare evidence of a reconstituted nuclear program “undermines one of the magazine’s central rationales for war.”

Of course, all resourceful editorialists have a fallback position that keeps them away from Retractionville, and in the New Republic’s case, that’s moral expediency. “In Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, and (unsuccessfully) Rwanda, TNR supported military action in cases of moral emergency,” says the magazine in the piece.

Says Editor Peter Beinart, “While that might not be a position that others would hold, from our point of view as a magazine that favors using American power in defending human rights, it wasn’t strange at all.”

One problem: The New Republic, in its editorials leading up to the war, never drew the human-rights parallel between Iraq and the crises in Somalia, Bosnia, etc. The closest it came was intoning that “[t]he physical defense of the United States includes also the moral defense of the United States” at the bottom of one September offering.

That mention of morality, Beinart argues, clearly refers to the New Republic’s previous support of humanitarian interventions in trouble spots around the globe. “To understand why we would have [supported a humanitarian Iraq invasion], you have to understand the history of TNR, especially over the past 15 years.” And what self-respecting citizen hasn’t studied the New Republic’s editorial heritage? —Erik Wemple