Despite the media's conventional wisdom about Bush’s
new “realism” on Iraq, the old canards were still there – Saddam Hussein
choosing war by rejecting United Nations weapons inspectors; blurred
distinctions between Iraqi insurgents and non-Iraqi terrorists;
intimations that Bush’s critics are “partisan” while he embodies the
Plus, there was the same old stark choice between
success and failure. “There are only two options before our country –
victory or defeat,” Bush declared, brushing aside the political and
military ambiguities of the Iraq War and the War on Terror.
But Bush’s speech and his curious hand gestures as he
sat behind a desk in the Oval Office suggested a twitchiness over his
apparent realization that the nation increasingly doubts his leadership.
Indeed, it appears the American people finally have
begun to understand the costs in blood, money and freedoms that have
resulted from letting the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks become a
justification for transforming the United States into a modern-day
empire led by an autocrat who claims the untrammeled right to strike at
his perceived enemies abroad and crack down on his opponents at home.
A day earlier, an angrier-looking Bush used his
weekly radio address to denounce as “irresponsible” senators who
resorted to the filibuster to demand more civil-liberties protections in
a revised version of the Patriot Act.
Bush also lashed out at press disclosures of his
three-year-old decision to circumvent the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act by personally approving warrantless electronic
eavesdropping on international communications by people inside the
“As a result (of the disclosure), our enemies have
learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized
disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our
citizens at risk,” Bush said. “Revealing classified information is
Bush’s outrage might seem strange to some observers
since he has refused to punish his deputy chief of staff Karl Rove for
leaking the classified identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame
after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused Bush of
twisting intelligence to build his case for invading Iraq in 2003.
But Bush apparently has judged that he, as president,
and his close advisers can decide which laws they wish to obey and when,
while simultaneously condemning those outside their circle of power for
violating the same laws.
This attitude follows Bush’s view that the “commander
in chief” clause of the U.S. Constitution grants him virtually unlimited
powers as a “war president” as long as the War on Terror lasts, a
concept of executive authority that recalls the days of absolute
authority claimed by Medieval kings and queens.
Already, Bush has asserted that his “commander in
chief” powers allow him to arrest citizens and hold them indefinitely
without charges; to authorize physical abuse of prisoners; to invade
other countries without the necessity of congressional approval; and to
ignore international law, including the U.N. Charter and other treaty
As the New York Times reported on Dec. 16 and Bush
confirmed on Dec. 17, he also is claiming – as his constitutional right
– the power to wiretap Americans without court review or the
presentation of evidence to any impartial body.
When Bush is challenged on these authorities, he
asserts that he is following the law, although it is never clear which
law or whether anyone other than his appointed lawyers have advised him
on the scope of his power.
(Conservative legal scholars may have to stretch
their notion of the “original intent” of the Founders to explain how the
writers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 decided to give a future
president the authority to use spy satellites to intercept phone calls
and other electronic communications.)
It’s also not clear what evidence exists to support
Bush’s charge that disclosure of his wiretapping decision damages the
national security and endangers U.S. citizens.
Under the FISA law dating back to the 1970s,
electronic eavesdropping has been permitted inside the United States
against foreign agents, including anyone collaborating with an
international terrorist group. The law only requires a warrant from a
secret court, which rarely rejects an administration request.
Presumably, al-Qaeda terrorists inside the United
States were aware that their communications were vulnerable to
intercepts, explaining why the Sept. 11 attackers were careful to avoid
telephonic contacts abroad. But the terrorists would have no way to know
whether electronic eavesdropping might be done with or without a
warrant, under FISA or Bush’s order.
Yet, Bush’s complaint that disclosure of his personal
wiretapping authority endangers national security presupposes the
terrorists knew that their phone calls would somehow be immune from a
FISA court warrant but susceptible to Bush’s wiretap order.
Since that assumption makes no sense, one can only
conclude that Bush threw in the accusation about endangering national
security to impugn the patriotism of his critics and rev up his base,
much as he did during the run-up to invading Iraq when skeptics were
shouted down as traitors and liars. [See, for instance,
Bush’s assertion of his unilateral authority to
wiretap anyone he wishes also raises questions about whether some of his
eavesdropping is aimed at political opponents or journalists, rather
While Bush claims his wiretaps were vital to the
national security, they came at a time when the FISA court was approving
record numbers of warrants for secret surveillance. According to
FISA’s annual report for 2004, there were a record 1,758
applications for spying authorization that year and none was denied by
the special court.
The administration’s explanation for why additional
secret wiretaps were needed is that Bush’s order saves time when a quick
wiretap is required, such as when a foreign terrorist is captured and
his phone records are seized.
But the FISA court can clear warrants in a few
hours – or Bush could exercise emergency powers under the law to conduct
wiretaps for 72 hours before obtaining approval from the court. That
emergency provision was inserted in the law to give presidents leeway
when the threat was a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union with
the potential of wiping out nearly the entire U.S. population.
Even during the Cold War, the FISA provisions were
acceptable to Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W.
Bush. But now, with a much less severe threat from al-Qaeda terrorists,
George W. Bush has decided that the law must be waived at his
discretion, bypassing the court on hundreds and
possibly thousands of surveillance orders.
That suggests other motives may exist for some of
these wiretaps, such as the possibility that some intercepted
conversations would be rejected by even the rubber-stamping FISA court,
like requests to spy on activists, politicians or journalists.
The Bush administration, for instance, has accused
the Arab news network al-Jazeera of collaborating with al-Qaeda and U.S.
news executives are known to communicate with al-Jazeera over access to
its exclusive video. Would these phone calls and e-mails be covered by
Bush’s extraordinary wiretap authority?
Bush’s right-wing allies also have labeled some
American journalists, such as Seymour Hersh, traitors for writing
articles about the War on Terror that reveal secret operations that Bush
has wanted to keep hidden. Plus, there may be U.S. politicians or
activists communicating with Islamic leaders overseas.
While the full range of Bush’s intercepts is not
known, the administration’s use of National Security Agency intercepts
was an issue earlier this year, when it was disclosed that John Bolton,
Bush’s nominee to be United Nations ambassador, had requested names of
Americans that had been excised from NSA transcripts for privacy
Democrats demanded that documents be turned over on 10 cases in
which Bolton used his position as under secretary of state for arms
control to obtain the names. The White House refused to provide the
information and Bush evaded the need for Senate confirmation of Bolton’s
ambassadorship by making him a “recess appointment.”
As for Sunday’s prime-time Iraq War speech, Bush
broke with the reassuring tradition of a president sitting behind the
Oval Office desk with hands folded. Instead, Bush took to waving his
arms as he delivered the speech.
“Grim-faced, yet with a trace of anxiety in his eyes,
Bush delivered the remarks seated rigidly at a desk, making a variety of
hand gestures,” observed Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales.
[Washington Post, Dec. 19, 2005]
Some of Bush’s strange body language may be explained
by the fact that even he must realize that his assertions include a
number of falsehoods, such as his routine deception that Saddam Hussein
defied U.N. demands on destroying his weapons of mass destruction and on
letting in U.N. weapons inspectors.
“It is true that [Hussein] systematically concealed
those [WMD] programs, and blocked the work of U.N. weapons inspectors,”
Bush told the nation. “He was given an ultimatum – and he made his
choice for war.”
But it is not true that Hussein blocked the work of
U.N. weapons inspectors. In fact, he acquiesced to a U.N. ultimatum and
let them back into Iraq in November 2002. Chief inspector Hans Blix said
his team was finally given free rein to examine suspected WMD sites, but
Bush forced the inspectors to leave so the invasion could proceed.
As it turned out, Hussein was telling the truth when
he said there were no WMD caches left. After the invasion, Bush’s own
team of inspectors concluded that Iraq’s WMD stockpiles had been
destroyed by earlier U.N. inspections and by U.S. bombing during the
Yet, beginning a few months after the U.S. invasion –
as it became clear there was no WMD and as U.S. casualties mounted –
Bush began rewriting history, claiming that Hussein had not let the U.N.
inspectors in, thus forcing Bush to invade. This lie presumably made
Bush appear more reasonable.
On July 14, 2003, Bush
said about Hussein, “we gave him
a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And,
therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from
In the following months, Bush repeated this claim
in slightly varied forms.
On Jan. 27, 2004, Bush said, “We went to the United
Nations, of course, and got an overwhelming resolution – 1441 –
unanimous resolution, that said to Saddam, you must disclose and destroy
your weapons programs, which obviously meant the world felt he had such
programs. He chose defiance. It was his choice to make, and he did not
let us in.”
Eventually, this false history became part of Bush’s
regular litany about the war. Despite the fact that it was an obvious
lie – the U.S. news media had witnessed the work of the U.N. inspectors
inside Iraq – Bush was rarely challenged about his historical
revisionism. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com “President
Bush, With the Candlestick…”]
Terrorists or Insurgents
Similarly, Bush continues to blur the distinctions
between the Sunni-led Iraqi insurgency that has often used roadside
bombs to attack American troops and the relatively small number of
non-Iraqi terrorists who have exploded bombs aimed at civilian targets.
Bush has employed the rhetorical device of using
insurgent and terrorist synonymously, much as he and Vice President Dick
Cheney used juxtaposition to convince millions of Americans that the
Iraqi government was somehow responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
In his Dec. 18 speech, for instance, Bush said, “the
terrorists will continue to have the coward’s power to plant roadside
bombs and recruit suicide bombers,” making no distinction between the
tactics of the insurgents and the terrorists.
The danger from this sleight of hand is that it
blocks consideration of possible resolution of the Iraq War. Many
military analysts believe the only realistic route toward a reasonably
successful policy in Iraq is to address the political and economic
concerns of Iraq’s Sunni minority – who want a U.S. withdrawal, more
political clout and a share of the nation’s oil revenues – while
isolating the relatively small number of foreign jihadists.
Though Bush has made some concessions to
this reality in recent speeches, he chose to return to his
broad-brush rhetoric in the national address. Again, it was a case of
good versus evil, victory or surrender, his way or the highway.
“Defeatism may have its partisan uses,” Bush said of
his critics, “but it is not justified by the facts.”
Bush also resorted to a favorite tactic of ascribing
ridiculous notions to his critics. “If you think the terrorists would
become peaceful if only America would stop provoking them, then it might
make sense to leave them alone,” Bush said.
The president then returned to his long-time claim
that Islamic extremists are motivated by their hatred of America’s
“The terrorists do not merely object to American
actions in Iraq and elsewhere, they object to our deepest values and our
way of life,” Bush said. “And if we were not fighting them in Iraq, in
Afghanistan, in Southeast Asia, and in other places, the terrorists
would not be peaceful citizens, they would be on the offense, and headed
Again, Bush was reprising rhetoric that exaggerates
or misstates the enemy’s goals and capabilities as a way to box in the
U.S. political debate and shut the door on reasonable alternative
Bush continues to discuss al-Qaeda as if it is a
powerful international force on par with Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia,
when many analysts see it as a fringe organization that was driven out
of most Islamic countries, almost to the ends of the earth – or in this
case to the mountains of Afghanistan.
Without doubt, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists exploited
a letdown in U.S. security in 2001 to conduct an extraordinary attack on
New York and Washington, but a realistic assessment of its actual clout
is important in calibrating a response.
If al-Qaeda is actually a marginal organization that
can be isolated even more by the West adopting a respectful approach to
the Muslim world, then Bush’s approach of invading Arab countries – and
curtailing American liberties – makes no sense, unless Bush’s real
motives are something else: say, controlling Middle East resources and
transforming the United States into
a modern one-party state with him or his allies in permanent
The analysis that follows from Bush’s assertion of
unlimited presidential powers and his deceptive explanations to the
American people about Iraq suggests two alternative theories. Either
Bush is increasingly unstable, incapable of discerning reality from his
own propaganda, or he is concealing his real agenda with misleading
Put differently, either the United States is
experiencing a kind of modern “madness of King George” – like what
happened when King George III became unstable in the years after losing
the Colonies – or the American people are living under a cunning
Machiavelli with a calculated method to his apparent madness.
Either way, the prospects are troubling for American
democracy – and it may not be clear which of the alternative scenarios
is more worrisome.