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Bush & the Limits of Debate

By Robert Parry
January 16, 2006

America’s “unitary executive” George W. Bush says critics of the Iraq War, who suggest that he lied or had ulterior motives, are “irresponsible,” “partisan,” hurtful to U.S. troops and thus helpful to the enemy – and should expect to be held accountable.

In a Jan. 10 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush marked out the parameters for an acceptable Iraq War debate, excluding those who “claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people.” On the other hand, Bush said it’s permissible to “question the way the war is being prosecuted.”

But that safe zone isn’t exactly safe either. People, such as Rep. John Murtha, who favor prompt withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, can expect ugly personal attacks from Bush’s surrogates.

In a smear reminiscent of Campaign 2004 when Republicans mocked Sen. John Kerry’s war wounds, a right-wing news outlet, Cybercast News Service, has publicized accusations that Murtha misrepresented wounds he suffered during combat in Vietnam for which he received two Purple Hearts.

Cybercast, formerly the Conservative News Service, says the criticism of Murtha’s war record is justified “because the congressman has really put himself in the forefront of the antiwar movement,” according to Cybercast editor David Thibault. [Washington Post, Jan. 14, 2006]

Cybercast is part of the conservative Media Research Center run by L. Brent Bozell III, the Washington Post reported. Bozell is a longtime right-wing operative in Washington who has been funded by conservative foundations to denounce journalists as “liberal” and pressure them to write stories more to the liking of conservatives.

According to Marine records, cited by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Murtha received his Purple Hearts for minor wounds in “hostile” action in 1967 near Da Nang, Vietnam, one a laceration to his right cheek and the other a laceration above his left eye. Cybercast dug up a 1994 interview with Murtha talking about injuries to his arm and knee.

Swift Boats

The new attacks on Murtha’s war record follow the same tactic used against Kerry during Campaign 2004. Kerry won a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for heroism in Vietnam as well as three Purple Hearts.

However, pro-Bush groups, such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, challenged Kerry’s heroism and questioned at least one of his Purple Hearts.

GOP operatives at the Republican National Convention highlighted these allegations by handing out band-aids with a Purple Heart printed on them. Republican delegates wore the band-aids on their chins, cheeks and hands.

The “Purple Heart band-aids” were arranged by Morton Blackwell, who runs a Virginia training school for Republicans called the Leadership Institute. Blackwell honed his propaganda skills as a special assistant for public liaison in Ronald Reagan’s White House in the 1980s. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Reality on the Ballot.”]

Now, the target is Murtha, who was in the Marine Corps for 38 years and fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. The Pennsylvania Democrat has long been considered one of the most pro-military members of Congress.

Like Campaign 2004 – when Bush balked at specifically repudiating the smears against Kerry’s war record – Bush has issued no clear guidance to his supporters about the propriety of questioning Murtha’s bravery. Indeed, conservative activists might reasonably assume they are doing Bush’s bidding.

In November 2005, when Murtha called for repositioning U.S. troops outside Iraq, While House spokesman Scott McClellan accused the congressman of advocating “surrender to the terrorists” and associated him with “Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party.”

Bush, who avoided combat in Vietnam by snagging a prized spot in the Texas Air National Guard, later softened the White House tone by calling Murtha “a fine man.” Bush also listed disagreements over how the Iraq War is prosecuted as falling within the permissible boundaries of public debate.

Nevertheless, Bush has continued slamming people who advocate a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq as “defeatists.” He said they are failing in their “responsibility to our men and women in uniform – who deserve to know that once our politicians vote to send them into harm’s way, our support will be with them in good days and in bad days – and we will settle for nothing less than complete victory.”

Price to Pay

In his Jan. 10 speech, Bush also made clear that war critics who continue raising questions outside his parameters can expect to pay a price.

“We must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate – and it’s even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas,” Bush said. “The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it. ...

“In a free society, there’s only one check on political speech – and that’s the judgment of the people. So I ask all Americans to hold their elected leaders to account, and demand a debate that brings credit to our democracy – not comfort to our adversaries.”

According to Bush, outside the bounds of responsible debate are questions about whether Iraq’s oil supplies and Israel’s security interests were factors in Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003.

Off the table, too, is whether Bush lied in citing Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and its alleged ties to al-Qaeda terrorists as justifications for war, despite growing evidence that the “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” as the chief of Great Britain’s MI-6 observed in the so-called “Downing Street Memo” in July 2002.

Bush also has made clear that he is asserting his right as the nation’s “unitary executive” – a phrase coined by right-wing lawyers who favor nearly unlimited presidential powers – to do whatever he deems necessary as Commander in Chief.

Those powers apparently have come to include his right to revise the pre-war history to put himself and his actions in the best possible light.

On Jan. 11, in another speech, Bush repeated one of his favorite lies about the Iraq War, that Saddam Hussein brought the war on himself by refusing to let United Nations weapons inspectors search the country.

In reality, Hussein opened up his country to U.N. inspections in November 2002 and allowed them to search wherever they wanted for the WMD that even Bush’s own inspectors later concluded wasn’t there.

Yet, speaking to a friendly “town hall” audience in Louisville, Kentucky, Bush told a folksy tale. “I went to the United Nations,” he said. “Some of you were probably concerned here in Kentucky that it seemed like the President was spending a little too much time in the United Nations.

“But I felt it was important to say to the world that this international body, that we want to be effective, spoke loud and clear not once, but 15 odd times to Saddam Hussein – said, ‘disarm, get rid of your weapons, don’t be the threat that you are, or face serious consequences.’

“That’s what the international body said. And my view is, is that in order for the world to be effective, when it says something, it must mean it. We gave the opportunity to Saddam Hussein to open his country up. It was his choice. He chose war, and he got war.”

Bush’s listeners applauded this fictional account of the run-up to war in Iraq – which portrays Bush as some slow-to-anger-but-a-real-mean-dude-when-he-does-get-mad hero. The story also suggests falsely that Bush’s invasion was sanctioned by the U.N., rather than in violation of the U.N. Charter.

Bush has been presenting this bogus history – virtually without challenge – since July 2003 when the absence of WMD was becoming obvious and an Iraqi insurgency was beginning to kill scores of American soldiers.

In his first version of this revisionist history two-and-a-half years ago, 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 power.”

When the mainstream U.S. news media failed to object to Bush’s deception, he continued to spin out this lie in various forms, including at the Republican National Convention and during the presidential debates. [For more on this longstanding falsehood, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President Bush, With the Candlestick…”]

Preemptive Politics

Bush’s threats of political reprisals against those who criticize his war policies also are not new. Ever since 2002, when Bush unveiled the “Bush Doctrine” of “preemptive” wars, targeting nations that represent what he considers a “gathering threat,” there has been a domestic component to his aggressive foreign policy. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Grim Vision.”]

This domestic “politics of preemption” has a covert side, including surveillance of U.S. anti-war groups, but the largest part is out in the open, using right-wing media and sympathetic columnists to denounce, ridicule and drown out critics.

A test run of this propaganda operation occurred in early fall 2002 when Bush was starting a war fever among the American people and former Vice President Al Gore delivered a tough-minded critique of the “Bush Doctrine.”

“I am deeply concerned that the course of action that we are presently embarking upon with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century,” Gore said in a speech on Sept. 23, 2002.

“To put first things first, I believe that we ought to be focusing our efforts first and foremost against those who attacked us on Sept. 11,” Gore said. “Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another. We should remain focused on the war against terrorism.”

Now – with more than 2,200 Americans soldiers dead in Iraq along with tens of thousands of Iraqis – Gore’s comments sound prescient. In early fall 2002, however, Gore’s speech received scant media attention, except for denunciations from pro-Bush commentators.

Some epithets were hurled by Bush partisans. Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke called Gore a “political hack.” [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2002]

Other slurs came from conservative opinion-makers on editorial pages, on talk radio and on television chat shows.

“Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered,” wrote Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. “It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts – bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible.” [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002]

“A pudding with no theme but much poison,” declared another Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer. “It was a disgrace – a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence.” [Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2002]

At Salon.com, Andrew Sullivan entitled his piece about Gore’s speech “The Opportunist” and characterized Gore as “bitter.”

While other writers followed Sullivan in depicting Gore’s motivation as “opportunism,” columnist William Bennett took an opposite tack, saying Gore had committed political “self-immolation” and had banished himself “from the mainstream of public opinion.”

“Now we have reason to be grateful once again that Al Gore is not the man in the White House, and never will be,” Bennett wrote. [WSJ, Sept. 26, 2002] [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics of Preemption.”]

More than three years later, Bush’s “politics of preemption” have advanced along with the complementary theory of the “unitary executive,” a notion espoused by right-wing jurists who argue that the President has virtually unlimited powers in a time of war.

Bush, for instance, cited his “unitary” powers in announcing that he can ignore Sen. John McCain’s anti-torture amendment, which was passed and signed into law in December 2005. Bush tacked on a “signing statement,” which effectively called the law null and void if Bush wishes it to be.

While Bush’s supposed power to override laws is certainly not spelled out in the Constitution, he is now filling the U.S. Supreme Court with advocates of the “unitary executive” who may interpret the Constitution to give Bush that authority.

Bush’s two high-court nominees – John Roberts and Samuel Alito – are supporters of the “unitary executive” as are Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Alito & the Ken Lay Factor.”]

Bush’s status as “unitary executive” also is bolstered by Republican control of the Congress and – perhaps most importantly – by the existence of a powerful conservative media apparatus.

Based on his recent comments about acceptable boundaries for the Iraq War debate, Bush may have concluded, too, that his unfettered authority as “unitary executive” covers setting limits on “responsible” American political discourse.


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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