George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their neoconservative aides enjoy few things more than throwing back words in the faces of their political enemies, what is known as “hoisting them on their own petard.”

That’s why President Bush jabbed back at the “realists” on the Iraq Study Group by dismissing their idea of a phased military withdrawal with the riposte, “this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever.” See, the “realists” had “no realism.”

Similarly, Vice President Cheney – the purveyor of every Iraq War myth ever devised by the administration, from Saddam Hussein’s supposed role in 9/11 to his “reconstituted” nuclear program to the insurgency’s “last throes” – has accused his opponents of spreading “myths” about Iraq.

Before a friendly crowd at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on March 12, Cheney relished the chance to attach the word “myth” to Democrats who are working on an Iraq War funding plan that would implement many of the Iraq Study Group’s ideas.

“Five-and-a-half years into the struggle, we find ourselves having to confront a series of myths about the war on terror, myths that are often repeated and deserve to be refuted,” Cheney said. “The most common myth is that Iraq has nothing to do with the global war on terror.

“Opponents of our military action there have called Iraq a diversion from the real conflict, a distraction from the business of fighting and defeating bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. We hear this over and over again, not as an argument but as an assertion meant to close off argument.”

In that passage, Cheney was hoisting his opponents on two separate petards, a saying that dates back to the 16th Century and refers to a small bomb used to blow breaches into defensive walls but that sometimes backfired on those deploying it.

Besides the Iraq-as-diversion “myth,” Cheney lodged the mind-twisting complaint that his opponents have tried to silence a full and vigorous debate on Iraq by using assertion and repetition. That is, of course, what many Cheney critics accuse him of doing, making unfounded assertions and then counting on his media and political allies to repeat the claims endlessly, rhetorically bludgeoning anyone who doesn’t go along.

In his AIPAC speech, Cheney flipped that criticism back on his critics, while presenting himself as the man of fact and logic who would never think of discouraging dissent.

A True Diversion

As for the “myth” that the Iraq War was a diversion from the “war on terror,” Cheney’s formulation amounts to yet another assertion that doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, but will surely be repeated often. The simple fact is that the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq four years ago was a diversion from fighting al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

Bush and Cheney were so eager to turn their attention to their longtime enemy in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, that they didn’t commit enough U.S. troops to the battle of Tora Bora  in December 2001, allowing bin Laden and many top lieutenants to escape. Many Taliban leaders also evaded capture.

Since then, the Bush/Cheney obsession with Iraq has given the Taliban and al-Qaeda four years to regroup along the Pakistani border. The Taliban is now threatening NATO troops in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda reportedly has restored its command-and-control structure.

Despite these facts, it’s a “myth,” according to Cheney, to say that the Iraq War diverted attention from the original “war on terror.”

To buttress his argument, Cheney rolled out another one of his own myths, that al-Qaeda is eager for the United States to depart Iraq. Cheney’s “proof” of this claim is what bin Laden has said in public, baiting the United States to leave. Cheney quoted bin Laden as saying “The war is for you or for us to win. If we win it, it means your defeat and disgrace forever.”

Yet, as U.S. intelligence analysts know, bin Laden calibrates his public statements to achieve strategic aims. In doing so, he sometimes uses misdirection to trick his listeners to do the opposite of what he claims to want, much as Brer Rabbit pleaded not to be thrown into the briar patch when that was exactly where he wanted to go.

Similarly, bin Laden’s public ranting about how humiliating it would be for the United States to leave Iraq could be read as an inducement for the United States to do the opposite and stay in Iraq indefinitely, which could be what bin Laden really wants.

CIA analysts concluded that bin Laden pulled off a similar trick on the Friday before Election 2004 when he broke nearly a year of silence to release a videotape denouncing President Bush. Bin Laden’s diatribe was spun by Bush’s supporters as an endorsement of John Kerry, causing Bush to jump several points in last-minute polls.

“Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret “strategic analysis” after the videotape had dominated the day’s news, according to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders.

Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, [Ayman al] Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. … Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.”

Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush’s heavy-handed policies were serving al-Qaeda’s strategic goals.

“Certainly,” Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”

As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.

Even Bush recognized that his struggling campaign had been helped by bin Laden. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush said in a post-election interview about the videotape. “I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be the President, something must be right with Bush.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Bush-Bin Laden Symbiosis.”]

Intercepted Messages

In pinning the “myth” label on his critics, Cheney also ignored private communications between senior al-Qaeda leaders, documents that were later intercepted by U.S. intelligence.

These messages revealed a concern that a rapid American withdrawal could touch off a collapse of al-Qaeda forces that had been infiltrated into central Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion.

According to a captured July 9, 2005, letter, attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leaders feared that a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would cause a disintegration of their operations there.

“The mujahaddin 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,” said the “Zawahiri letter,” according to a text released by the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. The letter proposed talking up the idea of a “caliphate” to keep the young jihadists around if the Americans left.

In another captured letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, a senior aide to bin Laden, known as “Atiyah,” wrote that “prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]

Al-Qaeda’s “Bush-second-term” strategy now appears to be paying big dividends. Al-Qaeda’s Taliban allies are back on the offensive in Afghanistan. New al-Qaeda units also are undergoing training in Pakistan.

In Iraq, al-Qaeda still makes up only a small percentage of the armed insurgency – probably less than five percent – but it benefits from the arrival of new recruits and the opportunity to test out military tactics against the Americans.

Plus, al-Qaeda has been rebuilding its command-and-control structure.
“American officials said there was mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan,” the New York Times reported on Feb. 19.

“As recently as 2005, American intelligence assessments described senior leaders of al-Qaeda as cut off from their foot soldiers and able only to provide inspiration for future attacks. But more recent intelligence describes the organization’s hierarchy as intact and strengthening,” the Times wrote.

The Times quoted one American government official as saying “the chain of command has been reestablished” and that al-Qaeda’s “leadership command and control is robust.” [NYT, Feb. 19, 2007]

In other words, the Iraq War indeed has proved to be a disastrous detour for the “war on terror.” To say so is not to spread a “myth” but to speak the truth.

Nevertheless, at his AIPAC speech, Cheney made another sly dig at his adversaries, noting that “twisted logic is not exactly a new phenomenon in Washington.” The man who was accused by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson of using “twisted” intelligence to justify going to war with Iraq was once more hoisting his critics on their own petard.

Cheney and his neoconservative speechwriters have proved again they are adept at fashioning clever arguments, even if they do have a lousy record for protecting U.S. national security.

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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