The Other “Big Lie” and Our Democratic Fragility

Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, Archon Fung argues that misinformation about the existence of weapons of mass destruction damaged American democracy for decades to come.

When historians write about our current moment of democratic fragility, some may mark its beginning at the 2021 Capitol insurrection. Others may roll the start back to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, to the racial reckoning occasioned by Barack Obama’s ascendency, or to the financial crisis of 2007 and the response that disappointed many on the right and the left. But before the “big lie” of 2020 was the “big lie” of 2003: Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that therefore, somehow, the United States must invade to topple his regime. Reversing the adage that truth is the first casualty of war, the hundreds of thousands of deaths and many more wounded and displaced by America’s war in Iraq were casualties of that “big lie.”

That “big lie” also wounded American democracy itself by exposing deformities in our political system that have since metastasized: the manipulative mendacity of our political leaders; the failures of the media system to inform Americans and foster public debate on the critical issue of the day; widespread public belief in manufactured delusions; a government that fails to respond to popular will; and deep inequities in who benefits and suffers.

The first lesson that the Iraq War left us with is that American officials at the very highest levels had at best a lackadaisical, bias-confirming approach to ascertaining the truth of weapons of mass destruction and at worst, a desire to propagate a “noble lie” that would convince a pacific public to wage war. Going to war is the most significant decision a democracy can make. I believe that the role of officials in a democracy is to give citizens the best possible information and facilitate searching public deliberation about whether to make that grave and bloody choice. Instead, the way the decision unfolded confirmed what many Americans suspect: Officials are often more interested in pursuing their own agendas and are willing to manipulate the public—whether the case is war, security, public health, or the economy—than they are in serving the public by doing what we want. By March 2004, some 60% of American poll respondents said that the Bush administration was either hiding elements or mostly lying about weapons of mass destruction.

The second lesson is that journalists and the media were either incapable of or unwilling to check official mendacity and give voice to citizens who opposed official positions. Many books and articles have analyzed this failure. One study of all network news stories in the run-up to the war shows that 80% of coverage favored the Bush administration’s pro-war position. American media did cover sources who were opposed to the war, however, the study found that almost all of those sources were from foreign officials, and most of those were Iraqis, in particular, Saddam Hussein himself.

A third lesson is that big lies work, at least for a while. As a result of the “big lie” leading to the Iraq War, many Americans hold beliefs that are completely unsupported by evidence. Several months after the invasion, seventy percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks. That widespread misbelief is an eerie echo of the 2020 “big lie.” CNN’s 2022 mid-term exit polls show that between three to four out of every ten voters believed that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election.

A fourth lesson is that government can be quite unresponsive to what the majority of Americans want. Public opinion had turned noticeably against the war as early as 2005, with more Americans thinking the war was a mistake than thinking it was not a mistake. By 2007, Americans favored removing all troops from Iraq by a two-to-one margin according to some opinion polls. But the last American troops did not come home until many years later in 2011.

A fifth lesson is that the costs of poor policy decisions are not evenly distributed. Those who were subject to the risks of death and physical and mental injury—in the first instance, members of the armed forces—are by no means evenly drawn from all sectors of society. America’s volunteer force of soldiers and veterans is not geographically, ideologically, or socioeconomically representative of America as a whole. Most of the rest of us spent very little mental energy thinking about the conflict, much less the blood and treasure that those who fought that war paid on our behalf and in our name. That debt is not easily repaid.

The path to strengthening our democracy is neither simple nor short. Perhaps facing up to the ways that American democracy went awry 20 years ago by waging an unjust war based upon disinformation will help us muster the democratic vigilance we need to hold our leaders accountable, to pursue the truth, to make our government responsive, and to fairly share the burdens that meeting the great challenges of our time—from pandemic, to economic crisis, to environmental degradation—will surely require.