Television viewers on Sunday night had a choice of two George W. Bushes. They could see him standing tall on a Showtime docudrama on 9/11 (produced by a prominent Hollywood conservative), in which a heroic Bush all but exclaims “damn the torpedoes” before all but parachuting Rambo-like into Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden single-handedly. (Remember bin Laden?) Or they could watch the real thing stiffly read a speech in which he did little than to urge Americans and allies to buck up and stay his course.
There’s nothing like dropping to a 52-percent approval rating to send a president–especially a wartime president–rushing to the Cabinet room ( sans table) to deliver a primetime speech declaring “great progress.” Bush both reiterated that Iraq was a crucial battle in the war against terrorism and asserted it now is “the central front.” On the first point, he had nothing to say–literally–to back up his prewar assertions. He did not address the where-are-the-weapons criticism he has received over the past few months. Instead, he hailed his invasion for having overturned a regime that “sponsored terror” and “possessed and used weapons of mass destruction.” Possessed and used, that is, if one looks back to the Iraq of the 1980s (when Saddam Hussein was being courted by the Reagan and Bush I administrations). In all his advocacy for war, Bush never based his case on a two-decades-old weapons charge. His argument was that Hussein had unconventional weapons now (not in the 1980s or early 1990s) and that this tyrant was sponsoring a particular set of terrorists, namely al Qaeda. None of that has proven true, and the available evidence to date supports the notion that Bush was lying to the American public. So as Bush continues to adhere to his pre-invasion fibs, what credibility does he carry when he now maintains he is willing to cooperate with other nations in the rebuilding of Iraq (as long as they pony up)?
But Bush’s argument that Iraq was key to the war on terrorism has become self-fulfilling due to his own actions. It appears that the occupation has led to the rise of a terrorist claque within Iraq, attracting jihadists from elsewhere. US troops are indeed confronting terrorists in Mesopotamia. (What else do you call the brutal killers behind the blast at the UN compound?) Bush may have succeeded in achieving what neither bin Laden nor Hussein could have done: uniting the secular Ba’athists and the fundamentalist Islamic fascists. Iraq has become the frontline because Bush sent in the Marines–and the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Yet he keeps on pushing the neoconnish line that if Iraq were to be transformed into a democracy, that would be a blow to terrorists everywhere–especially the terrorists who aim to strike the United States. There remains no indication that Hussein enabled the mass-murderers of 9/11. So Bush’s theory is just that–an assertion that may or may not be true. He told his television audience that the triumph of democracy and tolerance in Iraq would be a “grave setback to terrorists.” Certainly, this triumph would be a good thing–but there is no telling whether or not such a development would have any impact upon the terrorist threat America faces.
During the speech, Bush also maintained that American misadventures in Beirut and Somalia (the first authored by Reagan; the second initiated by Bush the Elder) were partial causes of 9/11. These episodes–in which Washington ended up cutting and running–supposedly led anti-American terrorists like bin Laden to see the United States as a soft foe and, consequently, encouraged them to take on America. Indeed, bin Laden and others had wondered about US resolve, though I’d be willing to wager that bin Laden did assume that the 9/11 attack would result in serious payback. Bush dumbs down the analysis. “Terrorist attacks,” he said, “are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness.” Bush’s self-acclaimed boldness, though, has given the terrorists in Iraq–whoever they are–more chances to kill Americans. The use of strength does not necessarily provide a disincentive to terrorists. See Israel. The goal should be the smart use of strength. But Bush is now depicting the Iraq war as justified because it sent a don’t-mess-with-us message. And he argues, in a way, that the United States is now stuck with this message, like it or not. After all, would turning tail enhance American security?
Perhaps it might. If that would mean internationalizing the redevelopment of Iraq. Bush, who was willing to go to war alone, now says he is committed to a more multilateral approach in Iraq. But it’s unclear what he is offering to allies–except the opportunity to pay for his occupation. In his address, he remarked that members of the international community must assume “a broader role” and that “past differences” cannot interfere with “present duties.” But his administration was quick to snub the French and to signal that nations that went along with Bush’s march to war would be rewarded, while those who resisted would be punished. In his speech, Bush also called for the Iraqis to get with the program, noting that “now they must rise to the responsibilities of a free people.” A point of clarification: they are not a free people. The occupation authority has canceled local elections and still exercises censorship over some media. After first promising a speedy hand-off of power to the Iraqis, the US occupation authority then slowed the transition and, of late, has been trying to quicken the pace, perhaps to rid itself of sole responsibility for governing a problem-wracked nation.
In demanding that Iraqis meet their obligations, Bush seemed rather ungracious. He still has been unable to provide the security needed for political revival in Iraq. Members of the Iraqi governing council–who were handpicked by the Americans–have bitterly complained that the occupation authority has not responded to their requests for additional security for themselves. And it is clear that the Bush administration never had a plan on how it would “rise to the responsibilities” of an occupying power and provide security and generate economic development.
In his short address, Bush announced the occupation (and reconstruction in Afghanistan) would cost an extra $87 billion in the coming year–on top of the $79 billion already approved for the war and the occupation through September 30. He offered no explanation of how he would pay for that. He did not say, Sorry, but we’re going to have to ask the major beneficiaries of the latest round of tax cuts–millionaires, investors, and the like–to do with a little less. Or, There’s going to be less Medicare coverage for our seniors, but that’s the price of defending freedom. Bush vowed he would do “whatever is necessary.” But that does include asking Americans to make any sacrifices (other than those who serve in the military). Presumably, Bush will just charge it–add the price of the occupation to an already bulging deficit and let someone else worry about it down the road. Once more, this is hardly rising to responsibility.
Bush is in a fix. He’s stuck in his Iraqmire. He did not prepare the country for a long drawn-out endeavor in Iraq, which keeps on claiming the lives of Americans. In fact, before the war, some Bush aides claimed that this would be a no-fuss occupation. Now Bush has little choice but to resort to the usual rah-rah about resolve. He points fingers at the international community and the Iraqis, failing, of course, to acknowledge his own miscalculations. And he’s looking a tad desperate. Don’t expect a Showtime sequel covering Bush’s days as an occupier.
******COMING SOON: David Corn’s new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers), will be released on September 30. For more information, click here.