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Bush Throws Down the Gauntlet

By Robert Parry
September 29, 2006

George W. Bush – breaking with an earlier Republican campaign strategy for localizing congressional races – is nationalizing Election 2006 around his vision of fighting “World War III” against Islamic militants and in defense of his claim to broad presidential powers, such as the right to lock up people he deems “enemy combatants.”

In effect, Bush is gambling that the Right’s powerful media apparatus, Republican organizational advantages and the residual fear from the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks will trump the Democrats’ abilities to convince the American people that Bush’s vision represents a dire threat to the future of their democratic Republic.

Bush unveiled his new strategy for holding onto Republican congressional majorities this past week by making his demand for expansive powers, including the authority to deny habeas corpus rights to detainees, the preeminent issue in the final days before the congressional recess.

Bush also blasted Democrats for criticizing his handling of the Iraq War.

“Five years after 9/11, the worst attack on the American homeland in our history, the Democrats offer nothing but criticism and obstruction and endless second-guessing,” Bush told a GOP fundraising event in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 28. “The party of F.D.R. and the party of Harry Truman has become the party of cut and run.”

So, instead of what Republican strategists had described as their plan for localizing the congressional races and “disqualifying” Democratic candidates through attack ads that highlighted ethical lapses and “bad votes” on hot-button issues, the final five weeks of Campaign 2006 now appear focused on Bush’s stewardship of the “war on terror.”

One Democratic strategist said this revised Republican approach reflected more necessity than desire. He said Bush simply recognized that the election already had become “nationalized” and that he had no choice but to engage in a spirited defense of his national security policies.

Still, despite a “nationalized” campaign, a number of key races are likely to turn on local issues and questions about the ethics of candidates. Ethical questions about New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez could mean a possible Republican pick-up, while Virginia Sen. George Allen’s racially insensitive remarks could cost the GOP that seat.

Though most political observers expect Democrats to gain ground on Nov. 7, it remains doubtful that they will win a majority in either the House or the Senate. Analysts, however, generally believe that Democrats benefit if the election turns into a national referendum on Bush’s presidency.

What’s at Stake

The big question is how many voters understand the larger implications of Bush’s vow to stay on “the offensive” against Muslim militants, whom he calls “Islamic fascists.”

Beyond battling al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind 9/11, Bush has expanded what he once called his “crusade” to include victory in Iraq and the elimination of other Muslim leaders lumped in the “terrorist” camp, such as the governments of Iran and Syria and militant movements Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

Bush’s vision effectively sets the United States on course to wage what his neoconservative advisers call “World War III,” a battle against Islamic militants from the Atlantic coast of north Africa to Indonesia and the Pacific Ocean.

Yet, given the anti-Americanism sweeping the Islamic world, this war is almost certain to pit U.S. forces against substantial numbers of the world’s one billion Muslims. That was the significance of the newly disclosed National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that the Iraq War has created a new generation of jihadists ready to fight the United States. 

So, when Americans go to the polls on Nov. 7, they will be voting whether to give a green light to a widening international conflict that will surely lead to large numbers of casualties on all sides, drain the U.S. Treasury and require more political repression, most likely spelling the end of the country as a democratic Republic based on the rule of law.

Those stakes were made clear in the past week by Bush’s demands for immediate congressional approval of a law granting him extraordinary powers for detaining and punishing terror suspects, legislation that the New York Times editorial page called “rushing off a cliff.”

“Here’s what happens when this irresponsible Congress railroads a profoundly important bill to serve the mindless politics of a midterm election: The Bush administration uses Republicans’ fear of losing their majority to push through ghastly ideas about antiterrorism that will make American troops less safe and do lasting damage to our 217-year-old nation of laws – while actually doing nothing to protect the nation from terrorists,” the Times editorial said.

Among the bill’s flaws, the editorial cited:

--“a dangerously broad definition of ‘illegal enemy combatant’ [that] could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal.”

--repudiation of “a half century of international precedent by allowing Mr. Bush to decide on his own what abusive interrogation methods he considered permissible.”

--elimination of habeas corpus for detainees “who would lose the basic right to challenge their imprisonment.”

--removal of judicial review, so “the courts would have no power to review any aspect of this new system, except verdicts by military tribunals. … All Mr. Bush would have to do to lock anyone up forever is to declare him an illegal combatant and not have a trial.”

--use of coerced evidence against a defendant “if a judge considered it reliable – already a contradiction in terms – and relevant.”

--tolerance of torture through a definition that “is unacceptably narrow, a virtual reprise of the deeply cynical memos the administration produced after 9/11.” [NYT, Sept. 28, 2006]

Nevertheless, the House and Senate – voting largely along party lines – granted these extraordinary powers to Bush.

While some lawmakers expressed hope that the U.S. Supreme Court would again reject the detainee legislation as unconstitutional, the political reality is that Bush is within one vote on the nine-member court of gaining a majority that would endorse his assertion of virtually unlimited presidential powers.

If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, Bush might well have the opportunity to appoint another justice to line up with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Even so-called Republican “moderates” – such as Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John McCain of Arizona and John Warner of Virginia – made clear in their votes on the detainee bill that they will bend to Bush’s will.

Epic War

After Nov. 7 – assuming a Republican victory – there will be little to stand in the way of Bush’s vision of an epic war against Muslim militants that goes far beyond al-Qaeda and even the Iraqi insurgency.

“As we continue to fight al-Qaeda and these Sunni extremists inspired by their radical ideology, we also face the threat posed by Shia extremists, who are learning from al-Qaeda, increasing their assertiveness and stepping up their threats,” Bush said in a speech on Sept. 5.

“This Shia strain of Islamic radicalism is just as dangerous, and just as hostile to America, and just as determined to establish its brand of hegemony across the broader Middle East,” Bush continued. “And the Shia extremists have achieved something that al-Qaeda has so far failed to do: In 1979, they took control of a major power, the nation of Iran, subjugating its proud people to a regime of tyranny, and using that nation’s resources to fund the spread of terror and pursue their radical agenda.”

Bush also cited his determination to defeat Hezbollah, a Shiite movement in Lebanon that is now a prominent part of the elected Lebanese government and broadly popular because its militia battled the Israeli army when it invaded Lebanon in July.

Bush referred to Hezbollah’s leader as “the terrorist Nasrallah,” suggesting the United States has joined Israel in its determination to kill Sheikh Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah who was rated the most respected leader in the Middle East by an August 2006 opinion poll in Egypt, which is considered one of Washington’s staunchest regional allies.

Ranked second in that Egyptian poll was Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, another target of the Bush administration. By contrast, Egypt’s pro-American president Hosni Mubarak wasn’t even in the top 10, coming in 11th. Polls across the Middle East also have shown almost universal disapproval of the Bush administration and its policies.

So, Bush has set the United States on course to battle not only the stateless terrorists of al-Qaeda and the stubborn insurgents in Iraq but Islamic political leaders who have widespread support among the Muslim masses. How the United States would win such a war or even assemble the vast numbers of soldiers needed is hard to comprehend.

This so-called “long war,” which Bush’s followers hail as “World War III,” would mean fighting large portions of a religious movement that has the allegiance of about one-sixth of the planet’s population.

Muslims are concentrated in nations from northern Africa to East Asia, but also include large numbers in Europe and North America.

Nevertheless, in his Sept. 5 address, Bush talked bravely about how confident he is that the United States will win this war. “America will not bow down to tyrants,” he declared to applause.

Bush’s experience over the past five years, however, suggests that his strategy would require a full-scale transformation of the United States into a warrior nation, committed to an endless struggle against any and all Islamic extremists who harbor thoughts of power, no matter how fanciful those imaginings might be.

A key point in Bush’s argument is that al-Qaeda has expressed a dream of creating a “caliphate” reaching from Spain to Indonesia. Bush described the steps to this empire as starting with “numerous, decentralized operating bases across the world, from which they can plan new attacks, and advance their vision of a unified, totalitarian Islamic state that can confront and eventually destroy the free world.”

But the reality is that prior to Bush’s presidency, al-Qaeda was a marginal movement in the Islamic world, driven out of countries across northern Africa, hounded by secular governments in the Middle East, and expelled even from the Sudan.

In summer 2001, as Bush brushed aside CIA warnings about bin Laden’s plans to strike inside the United States, al-Qaeda leaders were holed up in caves in Afghanistan, literally chased to the ends of the earth.

Then, after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington – and the U.S. counterattack in Afghanistan – bin Laden fled to the mountains of Tora Bora where he apologized to his followers for leading them to what looked like defeat both militarily and politically, since the vast majority of Muslims had condemned the 9/11 attacks.

At that crucial moment, the Saudi terrorist leader set off on horseback along with a small band of supporters and was surprised to find that Bush hadn’t ordered in U.S. troops to cut off al-Qaeda’s escape routes. Bush already was shifting his focus to Iraq, which was governed by a secular dictator who had persecuted Islamic extremists like bin Laden. [See, for instance, Ron Suskind’s account in The One Percent Doctrine.]

Military Blunder

The failure to trap or kill bin Laden at Tora Bora might rank as one of modern history’s worst military blunders. But in his Sept. 5 speech, Bush instead cited other historical failures – what he called missed opportunities to eliminate Lenin and Hitler when they were living in obscurity and writing about their improbable dreams of power.

“In the early 1900s, an exiled lawyer in Europe published a pamphlet called ‘What Is To Be Done?’ – in which he laid out his plans to launch a communist revolution in Russia,” Bush said. “The world did not heed Lenin’s words, and paid a terrible price. …

“In the 1920s, a failed Austrian painter published a book in which he explained his intention to build an Aryan super-state in Germany and take revenge on Europe and eradicate the Jews. The world ignored Hitler’s words, and paid a terrible price.”

But the problem with Bush’s history lesson is that wiping out some future Lenin or Hitler would require killing or imprisoning anyone who wrote about political change in a way that rulers considered objectionable at that time. While “predictive assassination” might eliminate a Lenin or a Hitler, it also might kill a Mandela or a Jefferson.

What Bush appears to be advocating is the end of free speech and free thought, or at least the regulation and punishment of speech and thought that he disdains. Bush is extending his concept of “preemptive war” – launching attacks against countries that might present a future threat to the United States – to “preemptive thought control,” eliminating political opponents who might pose some future threat.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the U.S. government from criminalizing speech. But Bush is indicating that he and his political followers believe that, amid the “war on terror,” it is justifiable to do just that.

Al-Qaeda Plot

In another chilling passage in his speech, Bush laid out a scenario for labeling criticism of him in the U.S. news media as part of al-Qaeda’s terrorist strategy. Bush claimed that bin Laden wrote to Taliban leader Mullah Omar about launching “a media campaign … to create a wedge between the American people and their government.”

Bush said this media campaign would send the American people messages, including “that their government [will] bring them more losses, in finances and casualties.” Bush continued that bin Laden’s media plan “aims at creating pressure from the American people on the American government to stop their campaign against Afghanistan.”

Bush cited this supposed al-Qaeda manipulation of the U.S. media as one of the reasons that “bin Laden and his allies are absolutely convinced they can succeed in forcing America to retreat and causing our economic collapse. They believe our nation is weak and decadent, and lacking in patience and resolve. And they’re wrong.”

As Bush defines domestic criticism of his war’s costs “in finances and casualties” as part of a terrorist scheme, it’s not hard to imagine how Bush’s devoted followers will react. Any expression of concern that Bush is charting a course toward mad destruction will be attacked as somehow acting in concert with terrorists.

Though Bush has said that his goal in waging his vague and seemingly endless “war on terror” is to defend freedom, the reality behind Bush’s grim vision is the emergence of an American totalitarianism where objectionable thought will be repressed and dissent will be equated with treason.

The President has now made clear that he wants the Nov. 7 congressional elections to be a referendum on whether Americans will follow him into this dangerous future. He has thrown down the gauntlet to those who disagree with his dark vision of what kind of nation the United States is and will be.


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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