At some point, something had to give. Yes, much of the mainstream media treated George W. Bush with Lewinsky-like devotion, but could it really go on forever? The Bush people seemed to think it could, and in their hubris lies their demise.
It was an amazing run. They won the presidency by losing an election. They bankrupted the treasury, trashed the environment, turned the nation's system of justice over to religious fanatics and, finally, deceived the nation into an unprovoked war. They probably would have gotten away with that too, except they forgot to make any sensible plans about how to run the place afterward. ("Dude, where's my 'coalition'?") In the ensuing chaos and guerrilla warfare against the vulnerable and undermanned US forces, well, somebody was bound to start asking questions.
Why did we invade Iraq again? Was it because they were "reconstituting" nuclear weapons? Nope, they made that one up. Was it because they were in possession of weapons of mass destruction? Apparently not. Was it because they were in league with the Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11? Sorry, ix-nay on the evidence-nay. Did we do it to further the cause of democracy and human rights? Stop, you're hurting my tummy.
Yet every one of these bogus justifications was trumpeted in the mainstream media during the run-up to the war. The Administration exploited its sympathetic interlocutors so effectively that it actually increased people's ignorance. For instance, a January poll found that 44 percent of respondents said they thought "most" or "some" of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens. Only 17 percent of those polled were aware that none of them were. The answer shocked pollsters, as almost nobody had given the answer "Iraqi" in the aftermath of the attack. Moreover, a full 41 percent of those questioned believed that Iraq had already obtained the nuclear weapons the Administration claimed it was pursuing. As Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center, told Editor and Publisher's Ari Berman, "There's almost nothing the public doesn't believe about Saddam Hussein."
When the Niger nuclear scandal finally began to break, the Administration tried its usual program of stonewalling by a combination of tough talk and incoherent assertion. The phony story, which was not merely included in Bush's State of the Union speech but also, despite carefully worded denials, in Tenet's classified briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helped convince many fence-sitters to commit to war. But the story was easily identifiable as nonsense by any professional who cared to examine the evidence. Even without Joseph Wilson's now famous mission, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, told the UN Security Council that he knew almost immediately that the documents were phony. Dick Cheney, who was reportedly briefed on Wilson's findings, tried to smear ElBaradei. Sans evidence, he announced on Meet the Press in March, "I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong." Cheney continued, "I think, if you look at the track record of the International Atomic Energy Agency and this kind of issue, especially where Iraq's concerned, they have consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past."
In fact, a senior IAEA official told Seymour Hersh, "These documents are so bad that I cannot imagine that they came from a serious intelligence agency." Indeed, one of the letters was signed with the name of a Niger minister of foreign affairs who had been out of office for more than a decade. Another letter, allegedly from Niger's president, was so rife with obvious inaccuracies that the same IAEA official observed that its counterfeit character "could be spotted by someone using Google on the Internet."
A White House spokesman admitted in June that "some documents detailing a transaction between Iraq and Niger were forged and we no longer give them credence," but the White House continued to argue that the Niger documents constituted "only one piece of evidence in a larger body of evidence suggesting Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Africa." Yet no one in the Administration has ever come forward to present this "larger body of evidence" to Congress or the American people.
Until George Tenet, the only high-level holdover from the Clinton Administration still working for Bush, was chosen as the fall guy, Donald Rumsfeld actually claimed to be unaware of the entire controversy. (Someone should find some room in the Pentagon's $390 billion budget for a subscription to The New Yorker, so the Defense Secretary can read Sy Hersh.) Even after the scandal broke, Rice and Rumsfeld appeared on the Sunday talk shows to defend Bush's deception as "technically accurate"--given the British misinformation. In fact, it wasn't even that, but so what? This is the standard by which America is taken to war?
The Bush team still has its media apologists, of course. Bob Woodward, who serves as the Administration's unofficial autobiographer, took to the Larry King program to pooh-pooh the whole thing as just "one little piece of thousands of pieces that get sifted when they put something like this together." (Now do you wonder why they turn the secret NSC notes over to this guy?) Meanwhile, Ari Fleischer's personal flack, the Washington Post's Howie Kurtz, tried to blame the entire outcry on "the left," as in: "The left is now up in arms about one sentence in George Bush's last State of the Union speech." (Just "one sentence." Just one war. Just how silly can we leftists be?)
But the elements of a rapid fall are all in place. Like Lyndon Johnson during the Gulf of Tonkin, Bush may not have known he was lying at the time. Yet his entire Administration's policy was created to give him the answers he wanted, true or not. Now Tenet is under the gun. Next will be Powell. After that, maybe Rummy against Rice. Meanwhile, public approval of the President fell nine points in eighteen days, exactly mirroring the fall in support for his handling of Iraq.
The truth will set us free.