Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
Now I know how Republicans felt in 1998. Back then, the pursuers of Bill Clinton could simply not believe that the public was not rising up in rebellion against a president who had received Oval Office blow jobs from an employee and then lied about it. But the economy was zipping along, and the polls showed that a large majority of Americans approved of the Clinton's (official) performance in the White House. Many conservative and GOP partisans were stunned by this outrage gap, with some even wondering what this said about the morals of the citizenry. Were people willing to ignore degenerate behavior and deceit for the sake of their 401(k)s?
But for those social-con worrywarts, the world righted itself in the 2000 election. Clearly, Bush, with his it's-time-to-restore-honor-and-integrity-to-the-White-House schtick, won the backing of many voters who remained displeased--if not disgusted--by the Monica mess. Clinton did end up paying for his misbehavior. Well, actually, Al Gore did. But for conservatives, that was close enough.
Today the outrage gap is on the other foot. Bush has been misleading the public about critical elements of his presidency, and yet there has been no outcry. Sure, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has been screaming about Bush's lies, as have a few other liberal pundits ( moi, included). The Democrats have taken a stab at branding him a deceiver. For awhile, they pushed the mantra, he says one thing, and does another. But that never took off. Bush's approval ratings remain in the mid-60s, not astronomically high, but higher than he deserves.
He has gotten away with much. He sold his original tax cuts package with several whopping lies. He asserted it would effectively stimulate the economy. Yet the White House noted that in the first year it would create 400,000 jobs--and cost about $200 billion. That's $500,000 a job. (Why not just hand out money?) My favorite lie was Bush's claim that 92 million Americans on average would receive $1100 due to his tax cuts. This was a phony number. Most middle-income earners could expect to get a couple hundred dollars from Bush's tax cuts. The average was only higher because wealthy taxpayers would be pocketing large amounts of so-called "tax relief." It was as if Bush had said that if nine unemployed people and one person earning $1,000,000 a year live on the same street, the average household income for the block is $100,000. That "average" would be of little use to the nine individuals out of work.
More recently, after Congress crafted a thoroughly dishonest tax bill--which only fits the budget because of blatant gimmicks--Bush gave it his blessing. What the Republicans pieced together is the most deceptive measure Washington has produced in years. It masquerades as a $350 billion, ten-year tax cut. But many of its central provisions expire within a few years, not ten. Since no one expects a future Congress and president to let these tax cuts expire, the real cost of the bill--which, to start with, is severely tilted toward the wealthy--will top $800 billion and possibly reach $1 trillion. In an era of deficits, tax cuts of that size will place enormous pressure on the federal budget and force either massive borrowing or widespread cuts in programs that tend to help low- and middle-income Americans. (Remember, Bush, when campaigning for president, promised he would not use deficits to fund his tax cuts, and he made the same pledge in 2001 when pushing his first round of supersized, wealthy-favoring tax cuts.)
When Bush signed this fraudulent measure, he declared, "We are helping workers who need more take-home pay." Press secretary Ari Fleischer said, "This certainly does deliver tax relief to people who pay income taxes." Only afterward did the public learn that the package's expanded child credits did not cover millions of low-income taxpayers and that 8 million low- and middle-income taxpayers will receive no tax cut at all under the new law. This tax bill has been one big con.
Can the same be said about the MIA WMDs in Iraq? In his March 17 get-out-of-Dodge speech, Bush declared, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraqi regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." No doubt? The administration pushed this no-doubt line for months. Bush, Fleischer, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell, Wolfowitz--they all said it. The main reason for war was that Saddam Hussein possessed actual, ready-to-go weapons of mass destruction that at any moment could be handed over to anti-American terrorists like al Qaeda. The Bush argument was not that Saddam Hussein had to be stopped before he developed such weaponry. No, the threat was real, and it was real today. That was why the United States could not afford to wait any longer, could not give further inspections a chance.
It has taken two months, but finally the obvious question is being asked: if Saddam Hussein was loaded to the gills with WMDs, why can't the United States and Britain find any? Bush says the US military has uncovered two mobile bioweapons labs. But not a trace of any biological agent has been found on these trailers, and non-government experts question whether these trailers were built to produce pathogens. Maybe an arsenal will turn up. But the Bushies have begun backtracking. Rumsfeld suggested that the Iraqis possibly destroyed their WMDs right before the invasion. If so, why did US and British intelligence not detect that? Presumably the United States is offering would-be snitches millions of dollars in reward money for evidence proving the prewar existence of WMDs. Why hasn't that money produced any slam-bam disclosures yet? Don't market forces work any more?
There is a rising debate over WMDs (and even more so in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has been pilloried by critics within his own party for exaggerating the WMD threat in Iraq). The poohbahs of the American right--Rush Limbaugh, Will Safire, The National Review and others--have rushed to Bush's defense, scoffing at the desperate lefties who are so upset about Bush's success in Iraq that they are trying to tear him down by falsely accusing him of lying. But the fact remains: Bush oversold the threat. (Peruse my previous columns by clicking on the link below, if you need to be convinced.)
Yet, as of this writing, Bush has paid no price for his Iraq deceptions. Two-thirds of the public, according to polls, approve of how he handled the war. The same amount believes he did not mislead the American public regarding WMD in Iraq; 31 percent says he did. But here's an interesting twist. In a USA Today/CNN poll, only 31 percent said they believe Bush's WMD information was accurate, and 31 percent said that Bush believed the information he presented was accurate though it was not. That means close to two-thirds believed Bush was peddling (sincerely or not) bad info about a most serious issue: to go to war or not. But that has not affected his overall standing in the polls.
Some Democrats have started sniping at Bush on this front, and a few Republicans have muttered the obligatory remarks about the need to resolve "troubling questions." The intelligence and armed services committees of the Senate and the House have announced they will examine the prewar intelligence on WMD and how the Bush administration used it. These inquiries could fizzle; they could become combustive. (Don't bet on the latter, especially with Republicans in control.) What happens will partly depend on how the legislators in charge suss out the public mood. They will be less likely to probe this matter deeply if they believe, rightly or not, that Bush is beloved. Of course, it will be easier for Bush to maintain his beloved status if he is not challenged on his WMD assertions.
In war, is winning all that counts? (What would Vince Lombardi say?) The postwar situation is a mess. It will cost tens of billions of dollars and may require a US military presence in Iraq for years. WMDs have not been found. Nuclear material was plundered and is available for use by dirty-bombmakers. Still, the war is now retroactively supported by 64 percent of the public; only 29 percent don't go along. Perhaps a majority of Americans don't want to see any military victory mussed up with ugly questions.
It is hard to resist reprising the GOP call of yesteryear, Where is the outrage? Just imagine how much shock and complaining there would be if we learned that American Idol had been rigged. But Bush and his comrades can use deceptive means to launch a war and to pass trillion-dollar tax cuts that bust the bank--and then skate away. The ice they are on is a little less smooth and thick than it was a week ago. But much of the public, it seems, is still rooting for Bush. My hunch is that after September 11, many Americans want to see their president--who is now truly their protector--succeed. To conclude that the guy at the helm in these insecure times is not to be trusted can be frightening. Bush is proving--so far--that it is even easier for a president to escape popular outrage when he lies about war and taxes than when he lies about sex.
We don't know, says the Bush administration.
And we don't care, says the public.
That seems to sum up the matter of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Bush crew still hasn't uncovered evidence that its prewar pronouncements about WMD were on (or close to) the mark. Nor has it been able to explain why the Pentagon did not move expeditiously during and after the war to secure suspected WMD sites, particularly nuclear facilities that were known to hold large quantities of radioactive material that could be of value to anyone seeking to build a nuclear or dirty bomb.
The Pentagon did announce it had found several tractor trailers that it concluded were mobile biological weapons labs. But not a spot of biological agent had been found on them. Two former UN weapons inspectors--David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, and a scientist who asked not to be identified--told me that even if these trailers had been thoroughly scrubbed, there should be trace residues that would indicate what was done in them. Moreover, these trailers--as threatening as they might have been--were hardly the bulk of Bush's case against Iraq.
Still, Bush has not had to answer the tough questions regarding WMD. Such as, where are they? No wonder: last week, The Washington Post published a front-page story--"No Political Fallout for Bush on Weapons"--that reported polls showed Americans "unconcerned about weapons discoveries." If the public doesn't care, it's not likely Republicans will be rushing to hold congressional hearings to grill Bush aides on this subject. The war, the Post noted, was supported by over 70 percent of the public.
But the postwar may be a different matter. Last week, Democratic and Republican senators began criticizing the Bush administration's handling of postwar Iraq. At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democratic, whacked Paul Wolfowitz, asking the deputy defense secretary, "When is the president going to tell the American people that we're likely to be in the country of Iraq for three, four, five, six, eight, ten years, with thousands of forces and spending billions of dollars? Because its' not been told to them yet." (Biden supported the war.) Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, noted, "We may have underestimated or mischaracterized the challenges of establishing security and rebuilding Iraq." Senator Richard Lugar, who chairs the committee, remarked, "I am concerned that the administration's initial stabilization and reconstruction efforts have been inadequate." In a Washington Post op-ed, Lugar gently jabbed at Bush: "Clearly, the administration's planning for the post-conflict phase in Iraq was inadequate." He estimated the US occupation will last at least five years and observed that the final tab may hit $100 billion.
No one in the Senate yet is throwing bricks at a White House occupied by a popular president. But the screw-ups in postwar Iraq are becoming an unavoidable topic for legislators. The senior Democrats and Republicans on both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International relations Committee have requested that the General Accounting Office examine the entire US occupation in Iraq: the security efforts, the relief programs, the awarding of contracts, the economic plan, and the political rebuilding. This request was a sign that senators and representatives in both parties have become frustrated with the slow flow of information from the Bush administration on its postwar endeavors. (The Bushies not sharing? What a surprise.)
The turmoil in Iraq has also prompted Democratic presidential candidates--including those who supported the war--to swing harder at Bush. Writing for The Boston Globe, Senator Joseph Lieberman, who twice in the op-ed identified himself as an advocate of the war, griped, "In Iraq, shock and awe is giving way to stumble and fumble. Weeks after a brilliant military victory, the Bush administration is failing to secure the peace." He also complained that "many of the most sensitive facilities in Iraq--sites we believed to house weapons of mass destruction--were left unprotected and were looted after the fighting ended." He might have been stretching things. It is clear that nuclear materials were grabbed by parties unknown, but there is no public indication that actual WMDs were in Iraq and snatched.
Senator John Edwards has blasted Bush's postwar policy as "confused and chaotic," urging the White House to further involve the United Nations and NATO in reconstituting Iraq. "Most disturbing," he commented, "nuclear, chemical and biological facilities have been left unprotected and have been ransacked--not only destroying possible evidence about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, but presenting a real threat such materials will end up in the hands of terrorists." Senator John Kerry, who raised questions about the war but ultimately backed it, took a different tack. He wrote to Bush requesting that he "instruct the Secretary of Treasury to identify Saudi Arabia as a primary money laundering concern [for terrorists] under the authority provided" in the USA PATRIOT act. In doing so, Kerry was implicitly criticizing the commander-in-chief of not doing all he could to neutralize the evildoers. (Is the Saudi connection an Achilles' heel for Bush? The Bush clan--including former President Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker--have long had business dealings in Saudi Arabia, and one cannot do business there without cozying up to the autocrats. So how tough can Bush get with the Saudis?)
Interviewed on CNN, Representative Dick Gephardt, another Democratic fan of the war, defended Bush's prewar assertions about WMD. "We're going to get to the bottom of this," he said. "It's going to take time." Gephardt did remark that he wished "the president would talk more about the various reasons that terrorism is upon us and what we need to do....He keep saying we're going to get 'em. We all want to get 'em, but there are a lot of other things we need to do to prevent them from doing acts of terrorism." This was a milder rebuke those hurled by his 2004 competitors.
The two main war-critics in the race for the Democratic nomination have issued postwar reproaches in keeping with their different styles. Representative Dennis Kucinich hit the House floor and asked, in a raised voice, "Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Indeed, what was the basis for the war? We spend $400 billion for defense. Will we spend a minute to defend the truth? The truth is this administration led America into a war with such great urgency. Yet, it is still refusing to account to the American people for its false and misleading statements." And former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has argued that the jury's still out on the war because a possible outcome might be an Islamic fundamentalist state in Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, Dean said of Saddam Hussein, "We got rid of him. I suppose that's a good thing." He took plenty of flak for that suppose. But he has stuck to his stance that war was a "diversion," noting "we're not safer today than we were before Saddam Hussein left." He has not, though, made a big issue of the postwar trauma. A hunch: after kick-starting his campaign as a foe of the war, he may well be attempting to move on by pushing other aspects of his candidacy, such as his pitch for expanded healthcare coverage.
The complaints about Bush's handling of postwar Iraq have hardly reached a crescendo within the Democratic Party or beyond. But there are stirrings. The Shi'ites aren't the only ones restive. Democratic presidential candidates are eager to find national security-related ground upon which they can challenge Bush the Conqueror and Protector. And independent-minded Republicans have started fretting about what's to come in Iraq.
The primary reason the United States invaded and occupied Iraq--WMD--may already be old news. But the costly mess in Iraq isn't going away anytime soon. Perhaps there will be more of a debate on the postwar than the war itself.
Introducing a new feature of this web column: Campaign Contortions '04.
Politicians often find themselves in tight spots. They have to take stands on issues they'd rather duck. They find themselves caught trying to satisfy (or pander to) different constituencies. They want to escape from political and policy indiscretions of their youths (read: previous positions that might not help them now). Remember George W. Bush signing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill that he had essentially called unconstitutional and pledged to veto while running for president? In the midst of the Enron scandal, he obviously felt he couldn't shoot down a measure billed as a clean-up-politics initiative, despite the pleading from conservative activists to smother it and despite his own beliefs. It will "improve the system," he said at the signing ceremony--as if he were drinking castor oil.
In the months ahead, I hope to honor the more impressive feats of political acrobatics. Had the idea of doing so occurred to me earlier, Senator John Kerry's stance on the war in Iraq might have been worth a nomination. First, he was critical of Bush. He then voted for the legislation authorizing Bush to launch a war. After that, Kerry was critical of Bush again, urging more diplomacy. Once the invasion was launched, he said he supported Bush's decision. Kerry is an intelligent man, and, no doubt, he can offer an explanation that would turn apparent zigs and zags into a straight line of principle. But effective contortions do require deftness.
Alas, the rules committee says, no ancient history qualifies. Consequently, the first CC goes to presidential contender Senator John Edwards, the North Carolinian who is trying to be a populist, to appeal to traditional Democratic liberals, and to exploit his standing as the sole Southerner-with-an-accent in the 2004 pack.
On May 12, he delivered a keynote address at a black tie dinner in Atlanta for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights organization. Edwards declared he supports the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt children. "I was raised," he said, "to believe...in an America that embraces everybody." He added, "families are at the core of who we are as human beings. And committed families based on love and responsibility deserve to be respected. For me, those families include the families that are in this room tonight." All Democratic presidential contenders have to take this line. But for Edwards, adopting this position does have a risk, since he may still decide to run for reelection in his home state.
So where is the contortion? Edwards' campaign says that though he endorses gay adoption he has reservations about civil unions for gays and lesbians and would leave decisions on this matter to the states. His press secretary noted, "It's an issue he thinks the country--and North Carolina--is not ready for."
The not-ready-for dodge is classic. Is the question the national state of readiness, or what is right and wrong? (It's hard to resist pointing out that Edwards' Southern predecessors hid behind the not-ready-yet argument during the era of the civil rights movement.) But Edwards deserves a CC not for trotting out the it's-not-time excuse. He wins it for saying states should recognize gays and lesbians as parents but not as partners. Which means he believes it is fine for children to be placed within families in which the parents are not granted the same rights and legitimacy as heterosexual parents. If "families are the core of who we are as human beings," as Edwards told the HRCers, then why not strengthen families led by gays or lesbians? At least for the sake of the children.
Edwards' position is a bit out of sync with the laws regarding gay family matters. Only one state--Florida--specifically bans a single gay or lesbian from adopting a child. But many states have laws and policies that discourage adoption by unmarried couples, and these are used to prevent gay couples from adopting. The law is complicated and unclear in many states, but the ACLU notes, "it's generally easier for a gay individual to adopt a child than it is for a [gay] couple to adopt a child together." This sends an odd message: one gay parent is okay; two are not. Gay and lesbian couples need more assistance in obtaining the right to adopt than do gay and lesbian singles. Edwards, though, is "not ready" to assist them via civil unions, which would presumably confer a right to adopt.
Is Edwards hoping to provide himself a slim piece of political cover by asserting gay adoption is important for children ("in a world where far too many children are neglected or unwanted, we need to encourage responsible, loving adults to raise children") but gay partnerships do not deserve official recognition? "Edwards' position on civil unions puts him in a more conservative position than most of the nine-person democratic presidential field," The Charlotte Observer writes. "That could hurt him in the primaries but might limit conservatives' anger during the general election." Perhaps he sincerely believes gay adoption is fine but civil unions are problematic. If that is case, he ought to offer more of an explanation than the we're-not-ready line.
For telling gays and lesbians, you have the right to be a parent but not to be a legal partner, Edwards picks up the first CC of the 2004 election.
I'll hand out other CCs--as long as politicians continue to contort. If you have any nominations, send them along to email@example.com. And, please, do use the word "contortion" in the subject head.
Why has it taken so long for the Pentagon and the Bush Administration to seriously search for weapons of mass destruction?
At a Pentagon press conference yesterday, Stephen Cambone, under secretary of defense for intelligence, noted that prior to the war the Pentagon had compiled a list of about 600 suspected WMD sites. "As it stands now, we have been to about 70 sites that we were looking to cover," he said, adding that US military teams had also visited another 40 that were not on the original list.
This hardly seems like an anti-WMD blitzkrieg. It's been nearly a month since Baghdad fell, and most potential WMD sites have not been visited. Moreover, Cambone reported that the Pentagon was still at work assembling what it is calling the Iraq Survey Group, which will be sent to Iraq to search for individuals, records and materials related to WMD. This unit will be composed of 1300 experts and 800 support staff. But the hunt for WMD will only be one of its tasks. Its mission will also include uncovering information related to Saddam Hussein's regime, his intelligence services, terrorist outfits that might have had a presence in Iraq, any connections between the regime and terrorist organizations, war crimes and POWs. Cambone emphasized that the Iraq Survey Group's WMD responsibilities will be "only a part" of this "very large undertaking." And this unit will not begin to arrive in Iraq until the end of May.
Before the war, President Bush and his lieutenants repeatedly said that the United States had absolutely no choice but to move quickly against Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from passing WMD to anti-American terrorist groups like al Qaeda. But the Pentagon has not been acting as if it took the threat of WMD transfers seriously. If there were WMD present in Iraq and there were terrorists in Iraq shopping for WMD and Saddam Hussein was an al Qaeda "ally" (as Bush said during his speech on the USS Lincoln), then it would seem that the White House and the Pentagon should have been damn scared that, as a result of the war, these terrorists would have the chance to grab WMD-related material and skedaddle. Certainly, it would have been reasonable to assume that if Saddam Hussein believed his final hour was approaching he would be more likely to greenlight a hand-off of WMD to al Qaeda. Yet the Bush White House and the Pentagon seem not to have planned for such contingencies. They have been geared more toward finding evidence of WMD (which would help Bush justify the war) rather than thwarting the threat supposedly posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Why was the Iraq Survey Team not assembled by the start of the war and ready to rush in as soon as possible in an attempt to locate and secure these items that menaced the United States? The war, after all, came as no surprise. And the news from Iraq has not been encouraging. Looters cleaned out Iraq's nuclear facilities long before US investigators reached them. Were they only scavengers who unknowingly grabbed radioactive material posing health and environmental dangers? Or were some terrorists looking for dirty-bomb material? In either event a fair question, for Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other administration and Pentagon officials is, why didn't you try to secure these sites immediately? On May 4, Barton Gellman in The Washington Post reported that a specially-trained Defense Department team was not dispatched to the Baghdad Nuclear Research facility until May 3, after a month of "official indecision." The unit found the site--which was the home to the remains of the nuclear reactor bombed by Israel in 1981 and which stored radioactive waste that would be quite attractive to a dirty-bombmaker--ransacked. The survey conducted by the team, Gellman reported, "appeared to offer fresh evidence that the war has dispersed the country's most dangerous technologies beyond anyone's knowledge or control." Sometime in mid-April, US Central Command had sent a detachment to guard the gate to the facility. But for two weeks--until the special team arrived--this security detail allowed Iraqis who claimed to be employees of the research center to come and go. The detachment had no Arabic speaker and could not question those entering and leaving. Nor was it able to handle the looters, who some days numbered in the hundreds. A mile away, the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, where UN inspectors in years past had found partially-enriched uranium, was also looted.
There have been other signs that the Pentagon's anti-WMD effort has been less than intense. In April, two of the four mobile exploitation teams (known as METs), equipped and trained to assess suspected WMD sites, were reassigned to investigate war crimes. And on May 6, one of the METs that had been searching for WMD spent the day in the bombed-out and flooded secret police headquarters in Baghdad looking for one of the oldest copies of the Talmud in existence. Finding and preserving antiquities is all well and good, but what about those chemical and biological weapons that Bush claimed could be turned over to terrorists at any given moment? Should any of the METs have been diverted from that mission, while at least 500 of the suspected sites were still unexamined?
As this MET searched for the seventh-century Jewish text (which it never found), it was also looking for records related to weapons of mass destruction. And it did, according to The New York Times, uncover one such document: a 2001 memo from an Iraqi intelligence officer reporting an offer to sell Iraq uranium and other nuclear material. But the memo said the bid was declined because of the "sanctions situation." Was this evidence that Iraq actually had been to some extent minding the UN sanctions? Who knows for sure?
The discovery of what the Pentagon says might be a bioweapons lab has drawn far more attention. The administration, after weeks, may have finally found one piece of evidence that backs up the UN presentation made by Secretary of State Colin Powell, in which he declared that Iraq--no doubt--had WMD. But even if more vestiges of WMD are unearthed, that will not excuse or justify the irresponsible delays in the WMD search-and-secure operations.
Bush has not been forced to explain the slow pace of the WMD search or the lack of prewar planning on this crucial front. Fortunately for him, the Democrats have spent more time howling about his tailhook-enabled photo-op speech on an aircraft carrier (which has caused the news channels to show the Top Gun-ish footage over and over). But at the May 7 White House briefing, press secretary Ari Fleischer was pressed on whether the United States failed to act to prevent weapons of mass destruction (if they existed) from being dispersed. The exchange was illuminating.
Question: Ari, everybody's getting into this trap a little bit about whether WMD will be found, which may not be the issue, because, A, you may not find them, they may have been destroyed, whereas the president said they may have been dispersed, which raises the question that they could have somehow been spirited out of the country by terrorist groups and the like. What information do you have about that eventuality happening? I mean, isn't it presumptuous to presume that the American people are safer when you can't account for whether weapons have been taken out of the country or weapons materials have been taken out of the country?
Fleischer: Well, I think the real threat here came from a nation-state headed by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen who showed they were willing to use weapons of mass destruction before....That's the basis for saying that people are safer. If you're asking the question, on what basis does the president conclude people are safer, that's the answer.
Question: I thought the concern was [weapons of mass destruction would] fall into the hands of Al Qaeda. Wasn't that the rationale?
Fleischer: Well, I'm continuing. The president said that the removal of the regime has diminished the threat and increased our security, and I think that's unquestionable. It was, after all, the regime that used weapons of mass destruction in attacks previously. Of course we always have concerns about any place that has weapons of mass destruction passing them along. But given the routing of the Iraqi regime, it certainly makes that much harder to do....
Question: I know that, but you're making these pronouncements without answering the direct question, which is, what does this administration know about not only what has been found -- you're still checking -- but what weapons materials or actual weapons may have been taken out of the country?
Fleischer: Well, we don't have anything concrete to report on that.
Precisely. And the White House has not had much to report on its efforts to prevent WMD-related material from being given to or snatched by terrorists. The risk identified by the White House before the war was not, as Fleischer suggested, that Saddam Hussein would use WMD against the United States, but that he would slip them to terrorists who would do so. Now Fleischer is saying the danger to the United States is less because the fellows who would arrange a WMD hand-off are out of commission. But can he claim that such transfers have not occurred during or after the war? He definitely could not honestly state that the US military has acted assiduously to prevent this sort of nightmare scenario. In fact, the destruction of the command-and-control structure for whatever WMD material might have been in Iraq only increased the likelihood that this dangerous stuff could end up in the mitts of evildoers.
On April 10, Fleischer remarked, "As I said earlier, we have high confidence that they have weapons of mass destruction. This is what this war was about and is about." Yet the Bush administration woefully under-planned. If only the White House had paid as much attention to the WMD search as it does to photo-ops. Then perhaps the American people would actually have reason to feel safer.
When the nine declared Democratic candidates for president gathered together for the first debate of the pre-preseason on Saturday night in South Carolina, all the jostling and positioning produced little in the way of new information. And it yielded no moments of truth. Not that the wannabes were hawking only spin. But there was not a single breakthrough maneuver, in which a candidate says something or takes a position that commands extra attention. The nine stayed chained to their respective scripts. Which meant there was less engagement among them and more of what parents of toddlers call side-by-side play. The large size of the field (which may yet expand) and the discipline of the participants (each of whom, after all, was there to convey the message he or she has deemed will bring them closer to the nomination) limited the debate elements of the event. Anyone hoping that the clash of the candidates will--in a creation-through-conflict process--lead to a killer Democratic message could not have been too encouraged by this outing.
The South Carolina get-together showed that each of the nine have plotted out their dance steps carefully and want to keep their feet on the preordained marks. A run-down of the characters:
* Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The stately, most presidential-in-manner one. He invokes why-not idealism while trying to convey tough-mindedness. It's the old Robert Kennedy play--and this JFK (Forbes is his middle name) made sure to cite RFK in the debate.
* Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The hawk who voted for both Gulf Wars and wrote the homeland security bill. He claims to be Mr. Electable, the only one who can match Bush as the protector-in-chief and then whup him on economic matters.
* Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. The fresh-faced populist who only seeks the presidency so he can fight for "regular people." With just four years in the Senate, he might be light in experience, but he possesses the inspiring qualities of leadership.
* Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri. The old warhorse with new ideas, most notably a comprehensive healthcare plan. You want to talk "working family" policy? He can talk "working family" policy.
* Former Governor Howard Dean of Vermont. The passionate realist, the doctor-and-governor who knows how to make systems work, but who realizes the limits of what is possible. Still, he claims to be the Democrats' Democrat and wants his party to kick Bush in the teeth on taxes, healthcare, homeland security, education, and foreign policy.
*Senator Bob Graham of Florida. The centrist with experience who wants a real war on terrorism. So much so he voted against the Iraq war authorization because he believed Bush was not serious about blasting (anti-Israel) terrorist groups in other countries.
* Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. The progressive rebel-and-visionary peacenik who decries a corporate-dominated America where NAFTA and the Patriot Act rule. He's a sharp-toned crusader fighting for the nation's soul and calling for followers to join him in "taking back America."
* Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun. The barrier-breaker. That's about it. Progressive across the board and a lifetime pioneer.
* The Reverend Al Sharpton. The Jesse Jackson stand-in/organizer provocateur who calls on the party to be true to its ideals and to boldly expand constitutional rights to include the right to vote, the right to healthcare, the right to quality education. He doesn't devote much time to pitching himself on the basis of character or personal history.
In the months ahead, the candidates will follow (and tinker with) strategies to convey these nine personas to Democratic voters. In South Carolina, there were more exchanges that revealed the limits of the candidates than provided Democrats cause to cheer. Kerry and Dean continued their tiff. With the two Yankees running close in New Hampshire polls, Kerry recently swiped at Dean for saying, "We have to take a different approach [to diplomacy]. We won't always have the strongest military." Dean clearly meant, hey, we're not going to be top dog forever, and we ought to keep that in mind as we use our unmatched military power these days. But Kerry's campaign attacked the comment as a full-fledged Dean plan to weaken the US military.
In South Carolina, Kerry wouldn't let go of this bone. "I believe," he said of Dean, "that anybody who thinks that they have to prepare for the day that we're not the strongest is preparing for a day when we have serious problems." He was bayoneting a straw man to position himself as a strong-on-security candidate. Coming from the stately frontrunner--who boasts years of foreign policy experience and a solid combat record--this assault seemed even more of a cheap (and trivial) shot. As for the war itself, Kerry characterized his nuanced position on the war: "I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity, but I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him." Was Kerry trying "to have it both ways?" moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Dean. The ex-governor, who so far in the race has been the most confrontational candidate, declined to take a poke. Instead he noted that the Iraq war was "the wrong war at the wrong time." But he assailed Bush's "new policy of preventive war." Actually, the commonly-accepted term is preemptive. Dean, though, kept calling it "preventive" throughout the debate. To some, preventive war probably sounds positive (as if a nation is indeed thwarting an action that is definitely coming).This was probably no more than a minor slip-up, but it reinforced a problem Dean has demonstrated previously. When he discusses foreign policy--and when he has taken clear-cut stances--he does not always speak reassuringly. My theory: foreign policy is hard (especially when you are opposing a popular war), and it takes a while to learn how to talk the talk.
Lieberman pushed his support for the war as his number-one credential. The day before the debate, as he was campaigning in South Carolina, Lieberman boasted he was the most "conservative" candidate in the race. At the debate, he did not use the C-word. But he argued he was the field's fiercest--in terms of going after both Saddam Hussein and Hollywood. His mantra: "No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defense, and this war was a test of that." (Lieberman also noted he was no fan of licensing or registering firearms, even though his 2000 ticket mate, Al Gore, had proposed licensing new handguns. "The American citizens have a right to own firearms," he said. "It is no more unlimited than any other right that we have.")
On Iraq, Edwards, who like Lieberman and Gephardt fully endorsed Bush's war, took a different tack than Lieberman. The important issue now, he said, was "what will [Bush] do in the post-Saddam Iraq? Will he in fact engage the international community in the reconstruction effort?" Edwards was the only candidate who raised these sorts of questions at length, almost as if preparing to be the I-supported-the-war-but-worried-Bush-would-screw-up-in-Iraq candidate. That may turn out to be a politically smart position.
Edwards also repeatedly vowed he would stand up to "corporate America." He mentioned his distaste for corporate America more often than he reminded the audience he had grown up in a South Carolina mill town. Yet he never explained precisely how he would oppose big business. He was offering a details-less opposition. The most specific he got was when he took a shot at Gephardt's healthcare plan, which would compel companies to provide insurance to workers and provide businesses tax credits to cover the costs. Edwards criticized the plan for "taking almost a trillion dollars out of the pockets of working families...[and] giving it to the biggest corporations in America....It feels like saying, you're in good hands with Enron." Doctor Dean took issue with Edwards' characterization of Gephardt's plan, but pushed his own, smaller plan.
When Gephardt unveiled his healthcare proposal, he laid down a marker as the top-tier candidate with the boldest policy initiative. He signaled he was going to try to shape the race with his policy ideas and pressure other candidates to address them. (During the South Carolina debate, he also referred to his proposals to establish a national teachers' corps and a 10-year Apollo-like program to achieve energy independence.) Yet his defense of his healthcare program needed some work. He did not effectively counter Edwards' parry. Anyone watching could have been excused for wondering who was right. This illustrated the perils of basing a campaign on one or more comprehensive policy initiatives concerning important but complicated topics. A candidate who choses such a course has to be able to discuss this stuff with gusto and with absolute clarity--especially since any elaborate plan is easy to pick apart. Remember Hillarycare? Gephardt's decision to release an extensive healthcare plan was encouraging for anyone who wants to see Big Ideas play a role in the 2004 campaign. His less-than-adequate defense of it in South Carolina was less heartening.
On healthcare, Kucinich spoke in the clearest tones. "Get the profit out of health care," he said more than once. And he adhered to a down-the-line progressive message: jobs for all, restrain out-of-control military spending, national health insurance (paid for by a new payroll tax), repeal the Patriot Act, repeal NAFTA, "cancel" the World Trade Organization. (Can the WTO be canceled?) His message was firm and forceful, but came across as a bit abrasive, unlikely to appeal to those not already fully in his camp. Kucinich has not yet shown the ability to campaign as a happy warrior. American voters seem to like their doom-and-gloom candidates upbeat. The last two presidential candidates able to exploit hard times successfully were Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
Graham left not much of an imprint. In what must have been a troubling sign for his campaign, during the period in which every candidate could ask another contender a question, four of the nine directed their queries at Graham--indicating they believed he posed little threat. None of the candidates asked a question of Kerry or Dean.
Moseley Braun was not all that provocative. Her best moment came when she asked Edwards, who had previously noted his concern for civil liberties, whether he would vote to repeal the Patriot Act, which he had voted for. Edwards squirmed and, like a good trial attorney, squeezed a lemon into lemonade: ""I think the problem with the Patriot Act is not the law itself. It's the way it's being administered...by the attorney general of the United States." (Credit Edwards with a point for being the only leading candidate to whack Ashcroft, a favorite villain of Democratic voters.)
Sharpton was no bombthrower and interacted well with others. His maintained his best-lines monopoly but there were fewer Sharptonisms than in previous appearances. "I call George Bush's tax breaks, even the small amounts that he gives working-class people--it's like Jim Jones giving Kool-Aid," he said. "It tastes good, but it will kill you."
No one won. No one lost. No one soared. No one flopped. It was akin to a test run--a beta release of a presidential debate. At this point, more Americans can probably name Laci Peterson's husband than any Democratic candidate. But the event did show how the aspirants have all locked into their campaign characters, and how difficult it will be for any of them to stand out any time soon.
Winning a war or two goes a long way toward redefining a man.
As the cable news networks enthusiastically covered George W. Bush's trip to the USS Abraham Lincoln--cool military hardware, guys in uniforms, the Big Man, and a touch of can-anything-go-wrong drama--there were plenty of references to Bush's days in the Texas Air National Guard, when he flew F-102 fighter jets. (Well, sort of--but we'll get to that.) On MSNBC, correspondent George Lewis noted that Bush, with his tailhook landing on the aircraft carrier, was "becoming one of" the troops on board. He didn't add, only 25 years late. That is, neither Lewis nor any of the other television journalists covering this gee-whiz event (whom I saw) mentioned Bush's rather spotty (to be kind about it) record in the National Guard.
Those of you who closely followed the 2000 campaign might already be familiar with the tale of Bush's service--or non-service--in the Guard. It received some, but not much, coverage. Not as much as Al Gore's not-quite-true remark about the cost of meds for Tipper's mother's dog. Bush dodged a bullet on this, for he offered dubious explanations in response to serious questions about his military record--and never was called on it. Here's an all-too brief summary:
Getting into the Guard. Enlisting in the Guard was one way to beat the draft and avoid being sent to Vietnam. Is this why Bush signed up? During the campaign, Bush said no. Yet in 1994, he had remarked, "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Not was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes." That sure sounds like someone who was looking to avoid the draft and pick up a skill. Obtaining a slot in the Guard at that time was not usually easy--for the obvious reason: lots of young men were responding to the call of self-preservation. (Think Dan Quayle.) Bush, whose father was then a congressman from the Houston area, has said no strings were pulled on his behalf. Yet in 1999, the former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives told The New York Times that a Houston oilman who was a friend of Bush's father had asked him to grease the skids for W. and he obliged.
What Bush did in the Guard. In Bush's campaign autobiography, A Charge To Keep, he wrote that he completed pilot training in 1970 and "continued flying with my unit for the next several years." But in 2000, The Boston Globe obtained copies of Bush's military records and discovered that he had stopped flying during his final 18 months of service in 1972 and 1973. More curious, the records showed Bush had not reported for Guard duty during a long stretch of that period. Had the future commander-in-chief been AWOL?
In May 1972, with two years to go on his six-year commitment to the Guard, Bush moved to Alabama to work on a Senate campaign. He asked if he could do his Guard duty there. This son-of-a-congressman and fighter pilot won permission to do "equivalent training" at a unit that had no aircraft and no pilots. The national Air Reserve office then disallowed this transfer. For months, Bush did nothing for the Guard. In September 1972, he won permission to train with a unit in Montgomery. But the commander of the unit and his administrative officer told the Boston Globe that they had no recollection of Bush ever reporting for duty. And when Bush returned to Texas after the November election, he did not return to his unit for months, according to his military records. His annual performance report, dated May 2, 1973, noted he had "not been observed at this unit" for the past year. In May, June and July of that year, he did pull 36 days of duty. And then, as he was on his way to Harvard Business School, he received permission to end his Guard service early.
The records suggest Bush skipped out on the Guard for about a year. (And during that time he had failed to submit to an annual physical and lost his flight status.) A campaign spokesperson said Bush recalled doing duty in Alabama and "coming back to Houston and doing duty." But Bush never provided any real proof he had. Asked by a reporter if he remembered what work he had done in Alabama, he said, "No, I really don't." A fair assumption was that he had gamed the system and avoided a year of service, before wiggling out of the Guard nearly a year before his time was up. It looked as if he had served four, not six years.
When he enlisted in the Texas Air Guard, Bush had signed a pledge stating he would complete his pilot training and then "return to my unit and fulfill my obligation to the utmost of my ability." Instead, he received flight training--at the government's expense--and then cut out on his unit. He had not been faithful to the Guard. He had not kept this particular charge
But that was then. After 9/11, after Afghanistan, after Iraq--and before who-knows-what--Bush has become a man with no past. He is a different fellow, that's for sure, and now wears the commander-in-chief uniform more comfortably than before those airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But could Bill Clinton--even in a similar situation--have gotten away with joy-riding a S-3B Viking aircraft onto a carrier for a mega-photo-op without commentators reminding viewers of his sly draft-dodging ways?
Bush looked quite heroic--so Tom Cruise-ish--hopping out of that plane dressed in a flight suit and striding across the flight deck. What imagery. This entire trip was only about imagery. He flew out to the Lincoln to announce that the major combat operations are done. What a news flash. Who didn't know that? And he could not have made such an announcement from Washington? Bush did not even plan to say that the war was officially over, because then Geneva Accords provisions pertaining to occupation would kick in and impose obligations upon the United States, such as releasing POWs. So what really was the point? Could it have been to score free television time during an hour that tends to draw one of the biggest viewing audiences of the week? Bush's communications people just so happened to have scheduled his Lincoln speech for the time slot usually inhabited by CSI on CBS and Will & Grace on NBC. Last week, these two shows attracted 43 million viewers. Bush's primetime one-on-one with Tom Brokaw earlier this week only drew an audience of 9 million and lost out to an America's Funniest Home Videos rerun featuring dog tricks. (A nod of thanks to Lisa de Moraes, The Washington Post's television columnist for pointing this out.)
Was this, then, just a campaign stunt? Nah, Bush and Karl Rove wouldn't waste taxpayer money and exploit a war that claimed the lives of 128 Americans--and thousands of Iraqis--for crass political advantage. And Bush really did serve honorably in the Guard.
The obvious question is, where are the weapons of mass destruction that supposedly prompted the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz quartet to invade Iraq?
The less obvious one is, where's the massive search-and-secure operation that should be scouring Iraq to locate and control those stocks of chemical and biological weapons and WMD-related materials, technology and records?
The US military certainly has been looking for chemical and biological weapons as well as evidence of a nuclear bomb program (Iraq was never said to be in possession of nuclear weapons). But what is surprising--if not scandalous--is that two weeks after US troops moved into Baghdad the Bush Pentagon has not yet mounted a full sweep of Iraq for WMD, or even dispatched a sufficient amount of trained troops and specialists to conduct such a mission. It's as if the Bush administration and the Pentagon had not bothered to listen to their own rhetoric about Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction while planning the invasion and occupation. Shouldn't a mess of these units have been scrambling across Iraq--using all that prewar intelligence that allowed administration officials to declare without pause that Saddam Hussein controlled enough of these dangerous weapons to be a direct threat to the United States--within days, if not hours, of the collapse of Hussein's murderous regime? Perhaps they should even have been among the forward-deployed troops. Yet while some US WMD-hunters are hard at work, the Pentagon acknowledges that nothing close to a full detachment has been sent to Iraq. As The Los Angeles Times reported on April 20, the Defense Department is still preparing to send "hundreds of additional investigators to speed up the search" for WMD and remains in the process of "assembling a 'survey group' with more than 1,000 experts to interrogate Iraqi scientists and sift through recovered documents to broaden the search for weapons of mass destruction."
Is it dumb to ask, why wasn't all this ready to go when the war started?
It's not as if the invasion came as a shock. The Pentagon had months--actually, over a year--to ready WMD teams for Iraq. As early as November 2001, Bush warned Hussein that trouble would be coming unless he opened up Iraq to international weapons inspectors. That was two months before he designated Iraq an original member of his axis of evil. With so much lead time, why did the Pentagon not arrange for a force of specialists who could immediately be dropped into Iraq to find and control the weapons that were the reason for the war?
On March 20, the day after the bombing began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted, "We have a serious task before us, and it is to remove that regime and find the weapons of mass destruction." The following day, he identified several "specific objectives." Number one was smashing the regime and its military. The second item on his to-do list was, "to identify, isolate and eventually eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, production, capabilities, and distribution networks." (After that came driving out terrorists, delivering humanitarian relief, securing oil fields, creating conditions that would allow a transition to a new, representative government.) He noted that "we will...ensure their weapons of mass destruction will not fall into the hands of terrorists." Days later, he remarked, "we're there to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction in that country."
But the available public evidence suggests Rumsfeld had no plan for quickly and fully addressing this priority. Or for preventing that much-discussed nightmare scenario: in the chaos caused by war, chemical and biological weapons and WMD-related materials (if any did exist in Iraq) are grabbed by terrorists, crooks, former officials, or whomever, and spirited out of Iraq. At a press conference on April 9--the day US forces took Baghdad--Rumsfeld said, "We are in the process of trying to liberate that country. And at the moment where the war ends and the coalition forces occupy the areas where those capabilities--chemical and biological weapons--are likely to be, to the extent they haven't been moved out of the country, it obviously is important to find them." To the extent they haven't been moved out of the country? Was the Pentagon not taking deliberate action to try to stop that from occurring? Two days later, Rumsfeld again made it seem as if dealing with possible WMD was a secondary mission: "When there happens to be a weapon of mass destruction suspect site in an area that we occupy and if people have time, they'll look at it." If people have time? Indeed, the task of military units is to win the battle of the moment. But the Marines could have been accompanied by the WMD-seekers assigned to examine suspected sites.
The point of this war was to make sure Hussein could not hand off nuclear, chemical or biological weapons to terrorists who would use them against the United States. (It was uncertain whether Hussein had such weaponry, whether--if he did--he had the inclination to share them with terrorist groups, and whether he maintained any operational links to such outfits.) And before the war, an obvious possibility loomed: a US invasion would cause the collapse of the central government, which presumably would lead to a breakdown of the command and control system in charge of Iraq's purported WMD arsenal. All that dangerous stuff would then be up for grabs. As Rumsfeld said on April 9, "the thought that as part of this process, some of that--those materials could leave the country and in the hands of terrorists networks would be a very unhappy prospect. So it is important to us to see that that doesn't happen." Yet this "unhappy prospect" was most likely to occur during the turmoil of war or in the first chaotic days and weeks following its conclusion. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon offered no indication they had prepared thoroughly for that contingency.
On April 17, Rumsfeld noted that the Pentagon's WMD teams "for the first time in the last few days" had been able to start looking at suspected sites. But, he added, "I don't think we'll discover anything, myself. I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it. It is not like a treasure hunt where you just run around looking everywhere hoping you find something. I just don't think that's going to happen. The inspectors didn't find anything, and I doubt that we will. What we will do is find the people who will tell us."
Imagine if Rumsfeld had said that before the war: We're invading another country to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction, but I doubt we'll find them unless people there tell us where they are.
As of this writing, there have been no confirmed sightings of WMD in Iraq. On Monday, The New York Times, in a story reviewed by military censors, reported that an American military squad hunting for WMD--the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha--had found an Iraqi scientist who claimed to have worked in a chemical weapons program. He reportedly told his American handlers that Hussein's government destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment days prior to the US invasion. This scientist, according to MET Alpha, led the Americans to a spot where illegal weapons-related material had been buried. (Judith Miller, the Times reporter embedded with this MET, was not allowed to interview the scientist.) The day the story ran, Rumsfeld refused to comment on it.
Perhaps the MET Alpha discovery will be the WMD prize the Bush administration has been seeking. But until now the WMD indicators have not been encouraging for the White House. A front-page story in today's Washington Post begins, "With little to show after 30 days, the Bush administration is losing confidence in its prewar belief that it had strong clues pointing to the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction concealed in Iraq, according to planners and participants in the hunt. After testing some--though by no means all--of their best leads, analysts here and in Washington are increasingly doubtful that they will find what they are looking for in the places described on a five-tiered target list drawn up before the fighting began. Their strategy is shifting from the rapid 'exploitation' of known suspect sites to a vast survey that will rely on unexpected discoveries and leads."
In other words, whoops. Or would that be, never mind? More the former--if the Bushies were right and there were WMD in Iraq before the war. As the Post noted, "If such weapons or the means of making them have been removed from the centralized control of former Iraqi officials, high-ranking US officials acknowledged, then the war may prove to aggravate the proliferation threat that President Bush said he fought to forestall." And as of April 21, the Pentagon had yet to examine tens of the 100 or so top-priority targets.
It could be that tomorrow incriminating weaponry is discovered or the MET Alpha find turns out to be the WMD equivalent of King Tut's tomb. But in the Post piece, one can discern the rapid construction of a fallback position. Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, raised the possibility that some of the postwar looting was conducted by Iraqi insiders who swiped files, electronic data, and equipment from WMD programs to conceal their involvement or make off with technology and information they can sell. Consequently, the US WMD-hunters have had a tougher time.
It's worth remembering that the Bush administration, in its go-to-war push, did not say that Hussein--who was not cooperating fully with inspections-- might possess biological and chemical weapons and a program to develop nuclear weapons. They maintained there was no question he had awful weapons and a nuclear program. "If there are no weapons of mass destruction, I'll be mad as hell," David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector told The Los Angeles Times. "I certainly accepted the administration claims on chemical and biological weapons. I figured they were telling the truth. If there is no [WMD program], I will feel taken, because they asserted these things with such assurance."
Whether biological and chemical weapons and the remnants of an active nuclear program are found or not, Bush and his national security team have already violated their prewar commitment to the United States and the world. They claimed that finding and eliminating WMD in Iraq was the prime reason for the war. Yet they--of all people--do not seem to have taken the threat seriously, for they failed to draw up adequate plans to deal with it. Even if the MET teams and the come-lately reinforcements uncover WMD caches, they will likely never know what they missed--and where and with whom it might be today.
A friend asked me that as the Iraq war was drawing to a close and jubilant Iraqis were showing their feet to torn-down images of Saddam Hussein. It was a friendly jab, referencing my prewar skepticism and my early-war criticism of the pro-war gang's hubris. (Click here.) Confused, moi?
I opposed the war on the basis that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein--more a potential threat than an actual one--did not warrant full-scale invasion and occupation, and that his defiance of the United Nations should first have been met with aggressive and intrusive inspections, perhaps inspections with a military component. But Bush took the cowboy approach. The war--as devastating as it was to the thousands of Iraqis (civilian and military) who lost lives, limbs, loved ones, homes and business--went well (for a war, that is), despite early concerns about the war plan. And only a war critic brimming with resentment and rooting for George W. Bush and the United States to receive their comeuppance (at the expense of the Iraqi people) could not have been heartened to see happy Iraqis celebrating the end of Hussein's brutal dictatorship. Their "liberation" did not, ex post facto, justify the earlier claims that this war was being waged for liberation. The war was mostly sold--too often with lies and distortions--as necessary to protect the United States from a madman supposedly wielding weapons of mass destruction and who was (as Bush claimed without evidence) "dealing" with al Qaeda. The toppling of Hussein's dictatorship is a positive result of what was a cynical and truth-defying campaign for war.
With the United States more or less in control of looting-ridden Iraq, there was nothing confusing about what should come next: a swift transition to an Iraqi interim government, international participation in the physical and political reconstruction of Iraq, the fulfillment of the US commitment--in terms of money and attention (but, one could hope, not too many troops)--to a democratic Iraq that serves the interest of its people, and an embrace of humility by the conquering Bush crowd as it basks in the glow of victory.
And it is certainly not confusing that there will be fights over much of this, especially the humility part. Even before the looting was over, the Bush administration official was issuing very public threats against Syria. If indeed Syria had been permitting anti-American fighters to cross its border into Iraq and allowing Iraqi officials and weapons scientists to head the other way, US warnings could have been conveyed through phone calls, diplomatic channels, and intelligence-service-to-intelligence-service communications. The Bush gang quite deliberately chose to throw their elbows around for all to see--just at a moment when other nations and populations might have felt a bit reassured about US intentions if a measure of restraint had been demonstrated.
Restraint does not seem to be part of the plan, at least not that part of the plan being pushed by outside-the-government advocates of more confrontation. Earlier today, I attended a conference at the American Enterprise Institute where leading neoconservative policy-peddlers--Richard Perle, Joshua Muravchik and Michael Novak--shared their view of the days ahead. It sort of boiled down to this: the United States should do what it wants to do in Iraq, continue to dismiss allies that opposed the war and freeze them out of postwar Iraq, and develop a better global message strategy without pausing to reconsider any of its actions or policies.
Muravchik focused on that last point. He called for the administration to wage a "war of ideas and a campaign of explanation" to win support for this war and other uses of force that may come. The goal, he said, would be to "alleviate some of the fearfulness that is there and that to an extent is understandable." When there is "no balance of power in the world," he remarked, "that makes people uneasy and we need to do some work" to calm their fears. He was not too specific about how to achieve this. He did decry the demolition of the US Information Agency, for which he largely blamed Senator Jesse Helms, and he derided the Bush administration's PR effort that developed pro-US ads to air overseas. But the only concrete proposal Muravchik offered was a throwback to the Cold War days. He noted that a "critical asset" in that era's war of ideas were ex-communists and ex-Marxists--Whittaker chambers, Sidney Hook, Jay Lovestone--who "understood how to argue against the other side." But, he added, "there are no comparable cadres of ex-Islamacists or ex-terrorists....So we need to do some creative thinking to create some cadre of that sort."
Muravchik's presentation raised the question, is the problem the message or the actions of the US government? One member of the audience mentioned the (inadvertent) attacks on Abu Dhabi television, al-Jazeera, and the Palestine hotel (home to journalists) and the looting of Iraq's national museum and library, and she asked him, "What affect does this have on the war of ideas?" His reply: "Hey, nobody's perfect. That's my serious answer. The idea that Iraqi liberation could be an immaculate conception is unrealistic." He conceded that the United States could have done more to prevent the museum looting. But Muravchik demonstrated little regret over events that--for legitimate reasons or not--provoked outrage within parts of the Arab world. In the war of ideas, this was hardly a step forward.
I asked if Washington's postwar decisions and statements caused trouble for US message-makers, and listed a few: threatening Syria, considering ex-CIA director Jim Woolsey to guide the new information ministry in Iraq (a Pentagon move nixed by the White House), stating that the United States desires a democratic and Israel-friendly government in Iraq, and taking primary control of Iraq's rehab rather than collaborating with the UN and other nations. Muravchik replied that he was not suggesting that "we should solve our PR problems by changing our policies....It may be our policies will arouse opposition." He added, "our policies are not self-aggrandizing or [ones of] self-interest." These policies, he explained, were based on the principle "that we defend our own defense interests as well as security interests of the whole region." I would give Muravchik points for sticking to his guns. But might overseas ears discern a hint of self-righteousness in his remarks? Let's hope that will get lost in the translation.
When Muravchik finished his answer, his friend, Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, showed why overseas message-development is not this crowd's forté. He defended Woolsey's participation in Iraq's postwar government, declaring that the ex-CIA chief, a cheerleader for the war, worked hard for the liberation of the Iraqi people: "That's how the Iraqi people will regard him....If Egyptians or Syrians ignore that...so be it." Perle was arguing that there was no reason to bother considering how appointing a former CIA director to the group in charge of the new Iraqi government might play among Arabs outside Iraq (and he was assuming Iraqis would think it a rather swell idea). His message: the United States does not have to worry about appearances or about providing war-of-ideas ammo to skeptics overseas. As they might say where Perle maintains a vacation home, Quelle arrogance!
Novak, too, seemed to have a tough time seeing the view from the other side. He noted that civilian casualties had been light in the war, but he did not acknowledge that the Arab media was full of images showing dead and maimed children. Light for whom? And he dismissed European concerns about the war as being motivated by "an unexpressed fear about the failure of Europe." Europeans, he explained, are in a funk. The creation of the European Union and the introduction of the euro did not lead to a grand European revival. Unemployment remains a problem, as does what Novak referred to as "the demographic decline of Europe." He described this "decline" as the "German part of Germany" and the "French part of France "shrinking." (Is it a "decline" because the citizenry of these nations are increasingly immigrants?) This in-crisis Europe, he argued, craves peace and quiet and simply "can't stand" to see the United States inconvenience the world by declaring and actually prosecuting a war on terrorism.
Was this more material for Muravchik's war of ideas? How will the you-hate-us-because-you-loathe-yourself message resonate in Europe? There is little doubt that the decisions of France, Germany and other states are influenced by their own national and political interests (duh!) and that (irrational and rational) anti-Americanism can pollute the debate. But by refusing to recognize that UN Security Council members and US allies had legitimate reasons for opposing the invasion and for suggesting a beefed-up inspections process as an alternative, Novak displayed screw-you smugness unlikely to win friends and influence people abroad.
Perle, no surprise, did disdain best. He scoffed at bringing the UN into the postwar picture. He expressed no desire for reconciliation with the French and the Germans. (He didn't even mention the Russians, the Chinese, the Mexicans, or the Canadians.) And he assumed the Iraqi people felt the same. "I think we can forgive the next Iraqi government for not welcoming President Chirac," he remarked. He added, "magnanimity in victory" does not mean inviting people who opposed the "liberation of Iraq" into the "reconstruction of Iraq." The argument, he asserted, that Washington needed these other nations--either to fund the postwar efforts or grant them legitimacy--"is quite fundamentally wrong." His line: America knows best and it alone ought to decide. "What we have won on the battlefield," he commented, "is the right to establish consistent policies that are for the benefit of the people of Iraq....It is not as if we are looking for anything for ourselves." (A historical note: In 1998, Perle, Woolsey, William Bennett, William Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others sent a letter to President Clinton calling for the United States "to take the necessary steps, including military steps [in Iraq], to protect our vital interests in the Gulf." Their letter contained not one word regarding liberation or democracy in Iraq.)
Perle is not the sort to reach out. "We mustn't apologize for further wanting to manage the liberation of Iraq," he said. He talked about bringing about a "free and self-governing Iraq," but did not explain why it was up to the United States--not the Iraqis--to select which nations and international bodies should play key roles in postwar development. And he argued that in no way should US actions in Iraq be linked to the Middle East process. It would be, he said, "a great mistake" if a revived peace process "was understood to be kind of a compensation to Arab opinion for what was done in Iraq. It would only diminish the nobility of what was done in Iraq." Once more, the neocons are signaling to the Arab world: don't expect Washington to consider your concerns as it projects power in your region. It also was a sign that Bush and Powell, who have taken tentative steps regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can expect to be ambushed rather soon by their neocon allies. (Perle did express an idea that may be well-received by some populations overseas. He called for cancellation of the foreign debt owed by Iraq--whose principle creditors happen to include France, Germany and Russia. Perle said that as a general rule he favors forgiving "foreign debt accumulated by dictatorial rulers," noting that would provide a disincentive to states and international banks to lend to thugs. Not a bad notion--and perhaps it can be applied for the benefit of the people of the Congo, Zaire, Angola, Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan.)
There is no confusion about how the Bush administration and its necon pals see the Iraq war: this is just the beginning. Most Iraqis at this point do seem to have cause to be thankful the neoconservatives won the policy battle within the Bush administration. But few critics of the war expected the war portion of the invade-and-occupy-and-then-project-power-further-into-the-Middle-East plan to be the difficult stage. It was round one of what promises to be a long bout--and Bush and his comrades are not taking off the gloves. Not even to rest and reflect. Not even to consider the anxieties, tensions and conflict caused by the war. Not even to gloat in a relaxed moment. It's on to Damascus or wherever the crusade leads. At the end of this war, hubris has not been beaten into humility. It reigns and grows fat on the sweet nourishment of victory.
CNN showed his face. A twelve-year-old boy lying on a hospital bed. A white bandage on his head. Wide eyes. A grimace. One of the civilian casualties of the United States' successful (so far) war in Iraq. But this close-up told only part of the story. Arabnews.com posted a Reuters photograph of this boy, whose name is Ali Ismail Abbas. It was not a close-up. A viewer could see that both his arms are gone, two bandaged stumps protruding from his shoulders. And most of his burnt torso was covered with white ointment. He is liberated from Saddam Hussein's brutal regime--as are millions of others. But he will never feel with his fingers again, never hold a ball, a pen, a book with his own hands. He is one price of victory.
Does the United States owe him anything? Should it directly help him and the other civilians maimed during the war, as well as Iraqis who lost civilian family members, homes or businesses? The Bush administration, which appears to have succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein (more according to plan than not), says it is committed to Iraq's reconstruction, which will require the expenditure of billions of dollars. But that is different from ensuring that Ali Abbas will receive the medical care and artificial limbs he will need. The triumphant United States--which repeatedly claimed it was doing all it could to minimize noncombatant casualties--ought to provide compensation to Iraqi civilians seriously harmed as a result of its effective invasion.
Thousands of Iraqis have been wounded. Probably over a thousand civilians--and possibly more--have been killed, many if not most by US bullets and bombs not specifically meant for them. The Iraq Body Count project, which tracks civilian deaths reported in the media, estimates the total, as of this writing, at between 1140 and 1376 lives. (Click here to see its latest count. And note that this is a tally only of reported civilian deaths.) In recent days, the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that Baghdad hospitals--which are fighting water, power shortages, and looters--have been overwhelmed with war wounded. Some obviously are soldiers; US Central Command estimates that 2000 to 3000 Iraqi fighters were killed when American forces pushed into Baghdad. But there were civilians, as well. What might be a reasonable estimate for civilian deaths? One can hope no more than several thousand.
As the war approached and then began, George W. Bush and other US officials described it increasingly as a war of liberation, one waged for the good of the Iraqi people. Washington stated repeatedly that the enemy was not the Iraqi people, but the regime. Of course, the main official motivation for the war was what the Bush administration considered US security interests: stopping a dictator who, the mantra went, possessed weapons of mass destruction and would be willing to share them with terrorists who would use them against the United States. Liberation, a noble goal, was a secondary concern--perhaps a sincere one for some war-makers, but not the driving force. The United States was not responding to a call from the Iraqi people to enter their country and blow things up in order to destroy the reign of a murderous tyrant who indeed deserved to be changed. The dead and wounded bear the the cost of a US action mainly mounted for the sake of the United States, not Iraq.
By Bush's account,then, the Bush administration has killed and wounded thousands of Iraqi civilians--unintentionally--as part of an endeavor to enhance America's security. So the United States should pony up, pay for its mistakes.
It remains to be seen if the Bush administration will make good on its obligation to Iraq as a whole. The Afghan experience is not a reassuring precedent. After his first war, Bush hailed "America's enduring commitment to Afghanistan's future." Then he refused to address interim President Hamid Karzai's pleas for a larger peacekeeping force that could provide security beyond Kabul. He also shortchanged Afghanistan on aid for assistance and reconstruction. Earlier this year, Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, criticized the Bush administration for not including enough funding for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan in its 2003 budget. "It's not even close to being adequate," he complained. Larry Goodson, a professor at the US Army and War College, wrote that the United States and the rest of the world appeared to be "losing interest" in aiding Afghanistan's transition.
And the Bush administration resisted calls for compensating Afghanistan civilians who had been struck by errant bombs. The Pentagon even consistently refused to acknowledge bombing errors. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did concede--in the abstract--that civilian casualties were occurring, and he expressed his (abstract) regrets. But when there were credible reports of bombing raids that killed civilians, the Pentagon would not admit any fault. Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, maintained, "I can assure you that we try our darned best to avoid hitting innocent targets--that's not what we're about. But mistakes do happen. When charges are made, we investigate. And then we do the right thing to respond to the needs of those who have suffered." But he was wrong. The United States did not offer compensation to civilian victims of US attacks. Just yesterday, an American warplane mistakenly dropped a 1000-pound laser-guided bomb on a house in eastern Afghanistan and killed 11 civilians. This time, the Pentagon did at least say its forces had screwed up.)
Will the administration and Pentagon behave differently in Iraq? Accepting responsibility by offering civilian compensation is not only the decent thing to do. It would be tactically wise. To most of the Arab world, the dominant images of the Second Persian Gulf War have been shots of dead, bloody and dismembered Iraqis. Certainly, compensation payments to victims and survivors will not erase these indelible images. But they might demonstrate to some Iraqis--if not some Arabs in other nations--that the United States does indeed care about individual Iraqis. It would be a small (in terms of dollars) but highly symbolic gesture that could show the administration is serious about its overall commitment to rebuilding and developing Iraq. If it is.
The logistics of a compensation system would not be overwhelming. Claims would be submitted and investigated. Standards and a compensation schedule would have to be established. So much for a loss of a breadwinner, so much for the loss of a child, so much for the loss of a limb. Such calculations are crass, but they are routinely made during jury trials and legislation-writing. In some cases, it might be hard for US investigators to confirm a claim. But many--such as that of Ali Abbas--should not be difficult to authenticate. And this would not break the bank. Ten thousand claims averaging $10,000 would total $100 million. That happens to be about half the amount of money Bush spent during his presidential campaign. Ten thousand dollars, in some instances, will be too little. But, to be blunt, it will be better than what the victims and survivors would otherwise receive. Increasing the average payment tenfold would end up costing $1 billion--about 1.3 percent of the war's official (but likely understated) price tag for the war of $75 billion. (Managing the program will obviously have its costs.) Is 10,000 claims a good guess? It's too early to tell. But the amount of the payments could be tied to the number of claimants.
The administration and Pentagon are unlikely to embrace such a program. When I and others argued for payments for Afghanistan civilians, I was told by officials at relief organizations that the Defense Department and the White House feared establishing a precedent. (The CIA did make payments, though, to the families of up to two dozen Afghan troops loyal to Karzai's government killed by US forces in a botched raid...which Rumsfeld refused to characterize as a mistake.) But what would be wrong with such a precedent? Collateral damage, as the Pentagon calls it, is a cost of war. Why shouldn't the United States assume that expense when it engages in preemptive, elective war? Instead, Washington passes the cost to the people it maintains it is rescuing.
Setting a precedent of civilian compensation could end up being particularly troubling for the Bush administration, if it is indeed considering confronting and preempting other Arab nations (or North Korea), as several of this war's cheerleaders have urged. But as the first American occupation of an Arab nation begins, the future crusades of the United States are probably not on the minds of Ali Abbas, his family, and other Iraqis (even if Arabs elsewhere are indeed wondering about what lies ahead, beyond Iraq). They are probably waiting to see how the United States will handle its current responsibility--running and rebuilding a country. Washington can send a positive signal by declaring it will directly assist those Iraqis who, like the dead and wounded US and British troops, have paid the highest price for a war that was supposed to help them.
Toward the start of the second Persian Gulf War, I found myself in a room with R. James Woolsey, CIA chief during the first two years of the Clinton administration. A television was turned on, and we both watched a news report on the latest development in the North Korea nuclear drama. How much longer, I asked him, could this administration wait before dealing with North Korea and its efforts to develop nuclear-weapons material? A little while, but not too long, he said. Until after the Iraq war? Yes, Woolsey said, we can take care of things then. (That was when the prevailing assumption was the war in Iraq would take about as long as a Donald Rumsfeld press conference.) And, I wondered, is this a challenge that can be taken care of with, say, a well-planned and contained bombing raid, one that strikes the nuclear facilities in question? "Oh, no, " he said. "This is going to be war." War, full-out war, with a nation that might already have a few nuclear weapons and that does have 600,000 North Korean soldiers stationed 25 miles from Seoul, with 37,000 US troops in between? "Yes, war." He didn't flinch, didn't bat an eye.
Woolsey is something of a prophet of war. And the Pentagon wants him to be part of its team running postwar Iraq.
On April 2, Woolsey made headlines by telling students at UCLA that the Iraq war was part of "World War IV." Speaking at a teach-in sponsored by campus Republicans and Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, a pro-war-in-Iraq group founded by William Bennett, Woolsey remarked, "This fourth world war, I think, will last considerably longer than either World Wars I or II did for us. Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the Cold War." He cited three enemies: the religious leaders of Iran, the "fascists" of Syria and Iraq, and Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. He called for the United States to back democratic movements throughout the Middle East, which "will make a lot of people very nervous," particularly Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi Arabia oligarchs. "We want you nervous," he said. "We want you to realize now, for the fourth time in a hundred years, this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you--the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family--most fear: We're on the side of your own people." In other words: crusade, anyone?
Woolsey's comments won him several minutes on the cable news networks. But a quick check of clips showed that he has been saying the same for months, using the exact same words. For instance, last November, during a speech before an audience assembled by conservative provocateur David Horowitz, Woolsey told the crowd "that we are in World War IV" and "I don't believe this terror war is every really going to go away until we change the face of the Middle East." Given his much-promoted diagnosis and prescription--correct or not--the other Woolsey news-of-the-week seemed even more bizarre than it had originally appeared.
A few days before CNN blared, "Ex-CIA director: US faces 'World War IV," The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon, in concocting its postwar plans, had proposed installing Woolsey as head of Iraq's information ministry. The State Department had derived its own list of former ambassadors and experts to oversee Iraqi governmental agencies once the war ends (presumably with a US victory). The Pentagon didn't fancy State's list--too many midlevel types and bureaucrats. It wanted more prominent Americans in charge and its own guys. The Pentagon nominated Woolsey for the information slot. The White House sensibly said, no way.
Woolsey's bring-it-on desire to confront much of the Arab world aside, whoever in the Pentagon suggested tapping any former CIA head to run any part of a post-Hussein government should be shit-canned. How might this look to Iraqis and the Arab public? Were the Pentagon schemers unaware of the reputation the CIA has in the Arab world and throughout most of the globe? The folks next door in Iran probably still remember well how the CIA supported the brutal secret police of the Shah they booted. And how many Iraqis (and other Arabs) would not believe that Woolsey's appointment was not part of some conspiracy? Moreover, how much credibility would a CIA vet--who headed an agency that occasionally produces covert propaganda--bring to this sensitive position that demands the trust of the public? Answer: none. And placing Americans at the helm of individual ministries might in and of itself stir objections within Iraq and among allies. As Adnan Pachachi, who was foreign minister in the government deposed by Saddam Hussein, told the Financial Times, "It makes no sense for the US to involve itself in the details," "It's not what the Iraqis want and what the international community wants. It's not even what the US's allies want."
That Pentagon officials would even consider placing a CIA man in charge of the Ministry of Truth is evidence their judgment is severely impaired. This was not merely a wacky idea that got floated by some outsider; this was a serious Pentagon proposal that required White House intervention to kill it. A safe bet would be that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz vetted the list that included Woolsey. According to the New York Times, Wolfowitz is controlling the selection process, handpicking his proteges and former officials for the various ministries and earning the sobriquet "Wolfowitz of Arabia." ( The New York Times also noted that "Wolfie's people" are "thought to be particularly fervent about trying to remake Iraq as a beacon of democracy and a country with a tilt toward Israel." The latter mission is a surefire way to win over the Iraqi public and convince Arabs that the United States is in Iraq only to "liberate" its people, not to advance its own strategic interests.) Retired General Jay Garner, the Pentagon-named civilian viceroy who will oversee the de facto cabinet ministries while reporting to General Tommy Franks, must have glanced at the list as well.
What were they thinking? Can these guys be trusted to run postwar Iraq? The problems with Woolsey include not just his CIA past and his present-day advocacy of an all-out showdown in the Middle East. He is also a well-known champion of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group run by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi businessman who has been out of the country since 1956 and who was convicted in 1992 of defrauding his own Jordanian bank. (Chalabi claims he was set up.) And Woolsey's law firm, Shea & Gardner, is a registered agent for the INC, though Woolsey says he does not participate in his firm's work on behalf of the group. The INC, a Pentagon favorite, has not been a model of democracy and transparency, angering other exiles in the past for not revealing what it did with the financial assistance it received from the US government. And the State Department and the CIA have not been fans of the INC and Chalabi. Whatever Chalabi's and the INC's flaws, it was misguided (read: dumb) for the Pentagon to ask an American firmly identified with what will be just one faction vying for power in postwar Iraq to run, in essence, the Iraqi media.
Still, Woolsey may end up with a role in the occupation government. The White House vetoed embedding him at the top of the information ministry, but news reports say the Pentagon might assign him another senior position. And what's next? Ken Lay to head up the new Iraqi energy ministry? Trent Lott, the cultural ministry? Richard Perle, the new Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations?
A postwar job for Woolsey the Would-be Conqueror would be unnecessarily provocative. During the occupation, the United States should conduct itself with humility and sensitivity (especially since it seems, once again, to be shoving the United Nations aside). These are not qualities for which the Pentagon is renowned. To many within Iraq and elsewhere, the message conveyed by any Woolsey appointment will be, Washington has sent the CIA to take over Iraq. So why do it? Does Woolsey alone possess the needed skill set? (Which American will be in charge of the new Iraqi intelligence agency?) But credit the Pentagon with loyalty, for it appears to be sticking with one of the most prominent cheerleaders for war in Iraq (and perhaps beyond) and standing by a grand tradition of war. To the victor go the spoils. In this case, no matter how ridiculous or counterproductive that may be.