I wrote earlier about the fairly widespread erroneous belief that the Bush administration advocated the invasion/liberation of Iraq due to the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks.The retaliation theory was, to my knowledge, never an issue until after the war was well underway. It was never given as a reason to invade Iraq by proponents of the war before we invaded, but was offered instead by the war's opponents after the war began in order to be shot down. To wit: "Bush claimed that Saddam was behind 9/11 and that's a lie. There has never been any evidence that Saddam was behind 9/11."
As a sociological phenomenon, this error fascinates me. The liberation and democratization of Iraq is the major political event of our times, yet we see that a significant minority of lay people and cognoscenti alike honestly do not understand the rather clearly stated rationales for attempting it. Why do so many people make such an important decision based on an erroneous premise and what does this say about the overall quality of our general political decision making?
[Note: I am not talking about the debate over whether Saddam did or did not support, direct or coordinate with Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. Instead. I am talking about the perception that the Bush administration and other major advocates of the liberation based their case on the claim that he did. We will likely never resolve the first issue but we can easily verify the second.]
I think the error arises from a very basic fault in human perception. Put simply, the brain perceives new information based on what it already knows and expects to perceive. If we hear or see a new pattern that looks similar to a long-known pattern, we mistake the new pattern for the old. We see what we expect to see, we hear what we expect to hear.
The 9/11 retaliation meme is of a piece with the earlier meme "Bush lied, people died" that began after no WMD were found in Iraq. Of course, Bush was only repeating what intelligence sources, our own and other countries', told him. That everyone believed that Saddam had WMD and that Saddam had actively sought WMD and that Saddam had used WMD against his own people when he gassed the Kurds in the 1980s was glossed over. What mattered was that they never found WMD so WMD never existed. Bush invented WMD. This gave members of Congress who voted for the war cover; they could now claim that they had been lied to.
As for the 9/11 retaliation theory, it's possible that people cottoned on to it because of confusion over Bush's Axis of Evil speech in which he cited Iraq, Iran and North Korea as rogue states that sponsored terrorism. But I don't think so.
I think the 9/11 retaliation theory is of relatively recent vintage. At some point within the last year or so the WMD meme was discarded--when was the last time you heard that?--in favor of the 9/11 meme by antiwar activists. Perhaps because the Joseph Wilson/Valerie Plame brouhaha failed to inflame the public.