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Is Bush Leveling With America?

By Robert Parry
December 16, 2005

George W. Bush is winning praise from the major U.S. news media for finally leveling with the American people about the difficulties in Iraq. But Bush is still making many of the same false or fuzzy assertions that guided the United States through the first 1,000 days of war.

By refusing to correct or discard these fallacies in four recent speeches and in other comments on Iraq, Bush seems to be holding to an unrealistic course that will lead to an ever-lengthening list of dead American soldiers and Iraqis.

For instance, one of Bush’s favorite arguments continues to be that the U.S. invasion was justified by the goal of imposing democracy on Iraq because “democracies are peaceful countries” – and, therefore, presumably an Iraq with democratic institutions should become peaceful.

The internal contradiction of this rationale – from the leader of “the world’s preeminent democracy” which invaded Iraq in 2003 under false premises – goes unnoticed by the U.S. press corps even though it watched the invasion unfold. In an Orwellian fashion, the news media accepts that Bush’s going to war was evidence of his peaceful intent.

Bush’s notion that democracies are intrinsically “peaceful” is also not supported by history. Democracies as diverse as the United States, France, Great Britain and India have fought wars against neighbors, in colonial possessions or in nations far away – Vietnam, Mexico, Algeria, South Africa, the Philippines, Cuba and Kashmir, to name a few.

The United States and other powerful democracies also have supported proxy wars in even a longer list of countries. U.S. interventions of various types have touched nearly every country in Latin America and many of the islands of the Caribbean Sea.

War Hysteria

Democracies also have shown themselves to be no more immune from war fever than autocratic states, as was demonstrated by the war hysteria that swept the United States in late 2002 and early 2003.

As Bush’s supporters poured French wine into gutters and ran trucks over Dixie Chicks CDs, the U.S. political debate was drowned out by full-throated calls for invading Iraq. Skeptics were largely silenced, often excluded from the major media. Constitutional checks and balances did nothing to slow Bush’s rush to war.

Yet Bush continues to cite the inherent peacefulness of democracies as justification for invading a nation halfway around the world. Indeed, this argument is central to his explanation of why the American people should trust that the Iraq War will eventually protect the U.S. mainland from terrorism.

“We need to remember that these (Iraqi) elections are also a vital part of a broader strategy for protecting the American people against the threat of terrorism,” Bush said in a Dec. 14 speech to the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

But that statement was more rhetorical assertion than rational discourse. Bush offered no logical explanation how the political chaos and sectarian violence that is expected to follow Iraq’s latest round of elections will contribute to greater security for the United States. By contrast, many intelligence analysts see a rising terrorist threat if the war drags on.

It’s also true that while democracy may be a noble goal in its own right, elections don’t necessarily bring the wisest leaders to power. Sometimes, populations gripped by anger, fear, patriotism or delusion elect demagogues.

Subliminal Thinking

But rather than explaining the logic behind his contention that “democracies are peaceful,” Bush instead relies on his old trick of juxtaposing the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with Iraq, thus counting on subliminal connections – rather than logic – to sell his point.

“We saw the future the terrorists intend for our nation on that fateful morning of September the 11th, 2001,” Bush said in his Wilson Center speech. “That day we learned that vast oceans and friendly neighbors are no longer enough to protect us.”

This supposed surprise that oceans no longer protect the United States is another old saw of Bush’s war rhetoric. No one who grew up during the Cold War with the threat of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles thought that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans offered protection from annihilation.

But Bush keeps citing this supposed revelation from Sept. 11, 2001, as justification for adopting aggressive “preemptive war” policies against any conceivable enemy that he, as President, defines as a “gathering danger.”

In his speech, Bush also reprised his false assertion that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein brought on the U.S. invasion by refusing to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction and by blocking the work of United Nations weapons inspectors.

“He denied them the unconditional access they needed to do their jobs,” Bush said. “When a unanimous Security Council gave him one final chance to disclose and disarm, or face serious consequences, he refused to comply with that final opportunity. At any point along the way, Saddam Hussein could have avoided war by complying with the just demands of the international community. The United States did not choose war – the choice was Saddam Hussein’s.”

Although this rewriting of history has become common in Bush’s speeches – and it is almost never challenged by the U.S. news media – this assertion that Hussein didn’t comply with U.N. demands for renewed weapons inspections is simply false.

Hussein allowed the U.N. inspectors to return in November 2002 – and chief inspector Hans Blix commended Iraq’s cooperation in the weeks before Bush forced the inspectors to leave in March 2003. As U.S. inspectors discovered after the invasion, Hussein was telling the truth when he said he had eliminated his WMD stockpiles. None was found.

Indeed, the evidence now shows that Bush had long opposed renewed WMD inspections for Iraq because that would have eliminated his strongest argument for war. Bush wanted at least a plausible claim about Iraq’s WMD as an emotional appeal for rallying the American people behind the invasion. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President Bush, With the Candlestick…”]

In an interview with Fox News anchor Brit Hume on Dec. 14, Bush acknowledged that he intended to invade Iraq regardless of the WMD evidence.

“Knowing what I know today, I would have still made that decision,” Bush said.

“If the weapons had been out of the equation, because the intelligence did not conclude that he had them, it was still the right call?” Hume asked.

“Absolutely,” Bush answered.

Behind the Insurgency

Bush also has continued to misrepresent what intelligence agencies and other analysts believe is motivating the Iraqi insurgency.

Picking up on his original theme that al-Qaeda terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, because they “hate our freedoms,” Bush said “the terrorists” now are fighting in Iraq because they fear the birth of freedom there.

“We’re helping the Iraqi people build a lasting democracy that is peaceful and prosperous and an example for the broader Middle East,” Bush said. “The terrorists understand this, and this is why they have now made Iraq the central front in the war on terror.”

But this analysis blurs the varied motivations of the armed groups fighting in Iraq. The main elements of the Iraqi insurgency are Sunnis resisting the U.S. invasion of their country and the marginalization they face in a new Iraq dominated by their Shiite rivals.

Non-Iraqi jihadists, a much smaller group estimated at about 5 percent of the armed fighters, are driven by a religious fervor against what they see as an intrusion by a non-Islamic foreign power into the Muslim world. They also blame the United States for propping up corrupt Arab dictators in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere.

Al-Qaeda’s principal demand has always been the removal of U.S. troops from Islamic lands and the reduction of Western influence, not opposition to democracy per se, especially if elections would lead to radical Islamic governments as almost happened in Algeria in the early 1990s.

Instead of recognizing these more limited goals, Bush continues to offer a hodge-podge of conflicting arguments on the supposed motivations of his adversaries. He claims the terrorists’ “grand strategy” is to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq and make it a base for a global empire.

“Their stated objective is to drive the United States and coalition forces out of the Middle East so they can gain control of Iraq and use that country as a base from which to launch attacks against America, overthrow moderate governments in the Middle East, and establish a totalitarian Islamic empire that stretches from Spain to Indonesia,” Bush said in his Dec. 14 speech.

“Hear the words of the terrorists. In a letter to the terrorist leader Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri has outlined plans that will unfold in several stages. These are his words: ‘Expel the Americans from Iraq. ... Establish an Islamic authority over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq... Extend the jihad wave to secular countries neighboring Iraq.’ End quote.”

Alarmist Vision

But what Bush leaves out of this explanation is that it was his invasion of Iraq that opened the country to the al-Qaeda operations there. He also suggests falsely that the letter, purportedly from al-Qaeda’s Ayman Zawahiri to Abu Musab Zarqawi, buttresses the alarmist vision of an Islamic empire stretching from Spain to Indonesia.

The letter actually depicts an embattled group of extremists fearful that a sudden U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would leave them isolated and battling to defend even small enclaves inside Iraq.

The so-called “Zawahiri letter” raises the notion of an Islamic “caliphate” along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Levant, as an idea needed to keep the non-Iraqi jihadists from simply returning home once the United States departs Iraq.

The letter states that the “caliphate” was mentioned “only to stress … that the mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal.” There is nothing in the “Zawahiri letter” about a terrorist empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Assuming the letter is real – al-Qaeda has denied its authenticity – it also portrays al-Qaeda as a struggling organization under financial and political duress, holding out hope for limited successes in Iraq, rather than dreaming of global domination. Al-Qaeda’s leaders were so short of funds that they asked their embattled operatives in Iraq to send $100,000 to relieve a cash squeeze, according to the letter.

But as with the earlier exaggerations about Iraq’s WMD, Bush cherry-picks the available evidence to confuse and frighten his listeners. [For details on the “Zawahiri letter,” see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda Letter Belies Bush’s Claims.”]

Still, Bush’s four recent Iraq speeches won praise from the major U.S. news media because he inserted a few admissions of error. His latest presentations were called “sober” and more in line with the critical assessments of U.S. military commanders on the ground.

However, even the few admitted mistakes were phrased in ways that shielded Bush from any serious criticism.

“It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong,” Bush said in his Dec. 14 speech. “As President, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq – and I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities. And we're doing just that.”

In his Fox News interview, Bush said he included an estimate of 30,000 Iraqi dead in a question-and-answer session that followed another speech so he could ensure more press coverage.

“I thought it would be kind of an interesting diversion, in a sense,” Bush said. “People expect one thing, and sometimes to do the unexpected in the public arena helps draw attention to a speech that might – I can’t say would’ve been ignored, but sometimes it’s hard for me to burn through the filter.

“Secondly, that was a number that's been floating around the public. You know, it was a number that was in the press. The 30,000 Iraqis, I must tell you, it's speculative. I don't think anybody knows the exact number.”

In talking to Hume, Bush also continued to raise another of his favorite false arguments – that his congressional critics “looked at the same intelligence I looked at and voted for use of force in Iraq.” The reality is that the President has access to detailed intelligence that is not – and in the case of Iraq, was not – shared with the Congress. [See the Congressional Research Service Report on "Limitations on Congressional Access to Certain National Intelligence."]

So, while the ever-hopeful Washington press corps may discern a more open and more sober President Bush, his four speeches and other recent comments on Iraq suggest that little of the substance – and not even much of the theatrics – have changed.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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