I stifled any overt sign of disbelief so as not to
be rude, but I had worked in Washington for a quarter century. I had
watched the rise of the neoconservatives in the 1980s and the
consolidation of conservative media power in the 1990s. It was painfully
clear that the nation was headed for a Great Baiting, not a Great
There should have been no doubt what would happen
to anyone who questioned George W. Bush’s case for war. The dissenters
would be baited, ridiculed, marginalized, and drowned out by accusations
of disloyalty as well as epithets about “Saddam sympathizers.”
Which is, of course, what happened. War critics
were treated like fringe nut cases, while nearly every major Washington
pundit fell for the Bush administration’s deceptions about Saddam
Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Just look at the editorial pages
on Feb. 6, 2003, the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech
to the United Nations.
Now, amid the rising death toll in Iraq, a hopeful
new line from some pundits is that the nation is on the cusp of a
serious debate about the war’s future – as Bush finally levels with the
American people, regains their trust and enlists them in the sacrifices
In one of these columns, published by the
Washington Post, The New Republic’s editor Peter Beinart observed that
“a plurality of Americans now believe they were ‘deliberately misled’
before the war. When the president talks to the country about Iraq on
Tuesday night, he needs to address that.
“Otherwise, he’ll never have the credibility to
tell Americans the harsh truth: that Iraqi troops won’t be ready to
defend their government for two years or more. And until they can, brave
young U.S. soldiers will have to keep doing the job.” [Washington Post,
June 26, 2005]
Of course, Beinart, like other leading pundits,
rules out any substantive debate about withdrawing U.S. forces from
Iraq. He calls that suggestion “breathtakingly irresponsible.” So,
presumably, the only permissible outcome of this latest Great Debate
must be a consensus to “stay the course” and make Bush’s Iraq policy
But even that truncated debate, with Bush leveling
with the American people, surely will not happen.
Does anyone believe that Bush will “address” how he
“deliberately misled” the country to war? Or that if he did so, that
would somehow earn him the credibility to explain how thousands of
additional U.S. soldiers must die in Iraq because Bush and his advisers
can’t think of a way out of the mess?
Rather, Bush has already signaled how he intends to
deal with the growing doubts about both his pre-war rationalizations and
his foundering war policy. The American people can expect another round
of baiting, not debating.
That was the significance of Bush’s unleashing his
deputy chief of staff Karl Rove to mock “liberals” for supposedly
demonstrating a cowardly naivety in the face of the Sept. 11 terror
“Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the
attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11
attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and
understanding for our attackers,” Rove said in a speech to the
Conservative Party of New York State on June 22, 2005.
“I don’t know about you, but moderation and
restraint is not what I felt when I watched the Twin Towers crumble to
the ground, a side of the Pentagon destroyed, and almost 3,000 of our
fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble,” Rove said.
Rove joined, too, in the Right’s assault on
Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois for highlighting criticism
from FBI officials about the mistreatment of inmates at Guantanamo Bay.
In a Senate floor speech, after reading from an FBI agent’s report on
the abuses, Durbin said:
“If I read this to you and did not tell you
that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners
in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been
done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or
others – that had no concern for human beings.”
In his New York speech, Rove accused Durbin of
jeopardizing American troops by making these comments. “Let me just put
this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of
Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater
danger,” Rove said. “No more needs to be said about the motives of
liberals.” [NYT, June 23, 2005]
The Rove speech put down a marker for any U.S.
political figure who dares criticize aspects of Bush’s war policies.
Dissenters will be accused of endangering American troops – as sure a
way as can be imagined to throttle a public debate.
If there was any doubt about whether Rove was
speaking for Bush, White House spokesmen and Republican leaders
pointedly defended Rove’s remarks.
What was lost in the political brouhaha, however,
was that the White House was signaling its strategy for firming up
softening public support for the Iraq War: demonize those who dissent,
On the presidential level, Bush made clear in a
radio speech on June 18.that he will continue his own pattern of
offering up lies and distortions about Iraq.
“We went to war because we were attacked,” Bush
said in the radio speech, still implying a tie-in between the Sept. 11
terrorism and Iraq by juxtaposing references to the attacks and Saddam
Hussein, the same strategy Bush pursued in the run-up to war.
Bush also is still playing rhetorical games with
cause and effect. For instance, he said in the radio address, “Some may
disagree with my decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but all
of us can agree that the world’s terrorists have now made Iraq a central
front in the war on terror.”
What is left out of that phrasing is that Bush’s
decision to invade Iraq – when it was not “a central front in the war
on terror” – is what made it “a central front in the war on terror.”
Instead of admitting his own misjudgments and their dangerous
consequences, Bush leaves the impression that history has proven him
Bush also fails to acknowledge that the bulk of the
resistance to the U.S. military presence in Iraq is coming from Iraqis,
particularly the Sunni minority that lost a substantial amount of
political power because of the U.S. invasion. Instead, he portrays the
conflict as a war pitting “foreign terrorists” against Iraqis who need
terrorists violently oppose the rise of a free and democratic Iraq,
because they know that when we replace despair and hatred with liberty
and hope, they lose their recruiting grounds for terror,” Bush said.
That line, too, is a
reprisal of another favorite Bush propaganda theme, which emphasizes
“hatred” of freedom as the issue when a far more important element in
the Iraq fighting is a conviction among many Muslims that the U.S.
invasion represents an assault on a major Arab nation and on the Islamic
faith, which some feel must be defended at all cost.
Bush’s formulation fits
with his earlier misrepresentation of al-Qaeda’s reasons for the Sept.
11 attacks. Bush claimed that the motive was hatred of American freedom,
when a much bigger factor was al-Qaeda’s resentment of U.S. policies in
the Middle East and, particularly, American support for al-Qaeda’s
regional enemies in the autocratic governments of Saudi Arabia and
Egypt, not exactly beacons of liberty.
In the radio address,
Bush tossed in another of his favorite arguments that appeals to
American insecurities but makes no rational sense.
“Our troops are
fighting these terrorists in Iraq so you will not have to face them here
at home,” Bush said. But that ignores the view of U.S. intelligence
analysts that the hatreds stirred up by the U.S. invasion have
strengthened Islamic extremism, not weakened it.
Plus, it makes no sense
to believe that fighting some extremists in Iraq doesn’t mean that other
extremists won’t conduct terrorist attacks in Europe or in the United
States if they choose to do so.
Finally, in the radio
speech, Bush made clear that he will portray “staying the course” in
Iraq as a test of American will and cite the deaths of more than 1,700
American troops as a reason why the United States can’t contemplate a
“The terrorists know
they cannot defeat our troops, so they seek to weaken our nation's
resolve,” Bush said. “They know there is no room for them in a free and
democratic Middle East, so the terrorists and insurgents are trying to
get us to retreat. …
“By making their stand
in Iraq, the terrorists have made Iraq a vital test for the future
security of our country and the free world. We will settle for nothing
less than victory.”
So, the pundits hoping
that Bush will level with the American people either aren’t being
sincere themselves or they aren’t paying attention.
A Bush ‘Speech’
Indeed, it is hard to
even imagine what that “leveling with the American people” speech would
sound like. For instance, if Bush truly wanted to shelve the propaganda
and tell it like it really was, he would have to give a speech that
would say something like:
“My fellow Americans, let me explain to you what
really went wrong with the Iraq policy and why so many young Americans
have died in what looks like a futile war without end.
“First, you must know that I have long obsessed
about getting rid of Saddam Hussein, taking care of some unfinished
business from my dad’s presidency. There’s also a lot of oil there and
my neoconservative advisers saw a good chance to project American power
into the Middle East.
“So when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, I saw my
chance. Vice President Dick Cheney and I began merging references to al-Qaeda
and Iraq. That way, the casual listener would start associating Iraq
with Sept. 11 subliminally, even if there was no real evidence to
support that connection.
“We also decided to exaggerate the shaky
intelligence we had about Iraq’s WMD because we knew that would scare
the American people into supporting a war against a country that wasn’t
“Next, I got rid of officials, like Treasury
Secretary Paul O’Neill and Gen. Eric Shinseki, who had doubts about the
Iraq War plans. To keep British Prime Minister Tony Blair on board, we
agreed to go to the United Nations, but only because we hoped that
Saddam would reject a demand for U.N. inspections and give us a better
pretext for war.
“When Saddam crossed us up by letting the
inspectors in, we started a war hysteria inside the United States. When
the French wanted more time for the inspections to work, we turned
‘France’ into a dirty word, even renaming French toast and French fries
into ‘freedom toast’ and ‘freedom fries.’
“Before it sank into the American people that the
U.N. inspectors weren’t finding any WMD, I forced the inspectors to
leave. Later, after the war was over, when your memories were getting a
little fuzzy, I pretended that Hussein had never let the inspectors in
and had shown ‘defiance,’ leaving me no choice but to invade as a ‘last
resort.’ For details on how I pulled off that sleight of hand, see
Bush, With the Candlestick…’
“In the first days of the Iraq War, when we
realized ‘shock and awe’ didn’t have quite the effect we hoped, I had
the U.S. military bomb civilian targets, such as a residential
restaurant which we obliterated because of some sketchy information that
Saddam might be eating there. We did this even though we knew that
civilians would be killed. We were right about the civilians getting
killed, but Saddam turned out not to be there.
“All these acts that I’ve described to you tonight
might well be considered war crimes, but I really don’t care much about
international law. Remember when I reacted to one question about
international law by joking, ‘International law? I better call my
lawyer.’ That’s just the way I feel about treaties and other things that
try to tie me down.
“Some of my critics might say that I’ve been a
dissembler, which means someone who doesn’t tell the truth. But
that’s just politics.
“Well, so now that I’ve leveled with you about how
we got into this mess, I’m sure you feel you can trust me to continue
protecting the American people and leading our great nation to victory
“As I actually did say in my radio address on June
18, ‘I’ll continue to act to keep our people safe from harm and our
future bright. Together we will do what Americans have always done:
build a better and more peaceful world for our children and