The Iraq Lie

How the White House Sold the War

By Joseph M. Hoeffel

Progressive Press, 254 pp., $14.95 paperback

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Reviewed by Steve Weinberg


In October 2002, little more than a year after 9/11, U.S. Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel faced the most important vote of his career - whether to authorize a U.S. military invasion of Iraq.

At the time, Hoeffel, who represented parts of Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs, was a relatively obscure Democratic congressman, little known even among his 434 colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite that obscurity, Hoeffel felt the weight of the world pressing on him. Given inconsistencies in the evidence, should he believe President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their renowned national security team members about dictator Saddam Hussein's possession of "weapons of mass destruction"?

As a Democrat, Hoeffel certainly did not want to hand partisan political victories to a Republican White House, plus the Republicans elected to the House and the Senate. Was Bush even a legitimate president, after being handed victory over Al Gore by a divided U.S. Supreme Court?

On the other hand, Hoeffel did not want partisan politics to cause him to vote in a way that would somehow encourage Hussein to attack the United States or its allies. Hoeffel wanted to win reelection to another two-year term in the House. But he could not base his vote solely on pleasing his constituents, because he realized those constituents had divided opinions about invading Iraq.

On Oct. 10, 2002, Hoeffel voted in favor of the invasion. Within a year, he wished he had voted the opposite way.

It turned out Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. It turned out Bush and Cheney, along with their high-profile civilian and military advisers, had misled Hoeffel and the rest of the U.S. citizenry. Countless Americans and Iraqis and human beings from other nations would die over the next decade because Hoeffel and his fellow politicians had authorized an invasion based on specious grounds.

In the introduction to his book, Hoeffel admits: "I was both misled and wrong." Then, in unambiguous language, he explains why he has published a book, years after leaving the House, and with a Democrat in the White House.

"I don't want George W. Bush and his people to get away with it," he writes. Citing recent public statements by Cheney about a desire to invade Iraq again, Hoeffel wants truth to prevail circa 2014. In addition, Hoeffel wants to counteract, however minimally, the book-length memoirs by Bush administration decision-makers parading "their absolute refusal to admit that they distorted and manipulated the intelligence [from Iraq] to bolster their case for war."

Besides trying to set the record straight about the Bush administration's performance during Hoeffel's congressional service, the former congressman says he wants reforms enacted to ensure the United States never again goes to war "based on inaccurate or distorted intelligence."

To that end, Hoeffel says, "Congress must act now to mandate the public disclosure of any intelligence findings that a president cites when seeking congressional authority for preemptive use of American military power."

For potential readers of Hoeffel's memoir who feel uncertain whether they want a rehash of the war-resolution controversy from more than a decade ago, the book does provide more general insights into the job of a congressional representative. Hoeffel includes passages about how he dealt with constituents supporting him and those opposing him and with fellow members of Congress who took honest service to heart and those who mostly postured based on misguided "patriotism" or unthinking party discipline. Hoeffel is more critical of Republicans than of Democrats, but not all Democrats escape unscathed.

How does the memoir work as literature? Hoeffel writes clearly, but although the page count is relatively low, it is still too long. The amount of repetition demonstrates scant skilled editing, or no editing. The editing gap might be related to Hoeffel's choice of publisher. Despite 45 years of close attention to book publishing, I had never heard of the Progressive Press in San Diego, Calif. Sure, just as potential readers should never judge a book solely by its cover, they should never judge a book solely by its publisher. What does it mean for a book's credibility when its publisher advertises itself as "conspiracy realists - independent media exposing the crime clique that robs and rules our planet"?

Fortunately for Philadelphia-area readers, Hoeffel does not seem at all like a conspiracy theorist. Rather, he comes across as a conscientious former politician justifiably enraged about being misled.

Steve Weinberg is a former Washington correspondent for newspapers and magazines. He is writing his ninth book, a biography of "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau.