February 24, 2004
President Bush’s war in Iraq, oddly, has begun to remind me of the floating craps game in Guys and Dolls. In the classic musical, the “guys” have to keep moving the venue from one hiding place to another—to avoid getting caught playing an illegal gambling game. The president, with much bigger stakes, keeps moving his rationale for the war (as he rolls the dice)—to avoid getting caught playing with the truth.
His problem is that he has been caught.
All the recent revelations about the recklessness of his war policy, the delusory nature of his economic plan, the heretofore masked role of Vice President Dick Cheney as the unaccountable power directing the throne, have revealed Bush as he is—a limited man missing many qualifications for the job. This pulling back of the curtain, all at once, has made clear that while George W. Bush may be a religiously sincere man who actually believes he’s trying to do good, he is, in the same incarnation, a make-believe president who has made a mess of almost everything and put the country at risk in many ways, including the risk of economic disorder.
In some of his latest appearances, the revealed Bush, in word and demeanor, has appeared wan and defensive, even hunched—and yet he does not come clean. He cannot seem to take the final step and apologize to a nation that has already lost more than 500 sons and daughters to his Iraq war; each week, another nine or 10 fall. Apologies, ever rare in public life, are even rarer in election years.
Virtually none of the “facts” this president gave after 9-11 to win public and congressional support for an urgent preemptive invasion of Iraq have turned out to be true. No stockpiles of “weapons of mass destruction” have been found in the nine months since victory was declared. No functional production facilities for chemical or biological weapons have been unearthed. Iraq’s nuclear bomb program—which the White House told us was being ramped up again—did not exist. On the eve of war last March 17, with the decision made and our troops and planes poised for the command to go, George Bush spoke to the nation on television from the Oval Office. He spelled out one more time his core justification for starting a war without being attacked by the other side. “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments,” he said, “leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”
He said “no doubt.” But a wiser commander in chief would have had tugs of uncertainty at a moment like that. Intelligence is iffy. The CIA analysts always use caveats when they issue findings. Satellite photos, for example, can seem to show absolutes—and then turn out to be inaccurate. Bush and his White House chorus had no place in their calculus for caveats or reservations of any kind. They had “no doubt.”
Well, their certitude is now shown to have been essentially a stew of hyperbole, concoction, and in some cases the knowing use of forged documents from foreign sources (namely a dossier claiming to show that Iraq sought to buy enriched uranium from Niger—which Bush alluded to in his 2003 State of the Union address as evidence of the Iraqi threat).
The White House also had no doubt that the military occupation of Iraq was going to be a relatively smooth one, with administration officials predicting a countrywide embrace of the American troops as liberators, followed by a steady march toward a secular, constitutional democracy. Perhaps the Bush hawks thought it would be unseemly to mention that the three main blocs in Iraq—the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds—had been killing each other for generations. The ethnic and religious bloodletting has already started again. A more well-balanced president might have prepared us.
This affable Texas carouser who, with his wife’s firm intervention, turned around his tosspot life and found born-again direction through evangelical Christianity seems addled and stunned that slings and arrows are presently flying at him from all directions. Even his conservative Republican base is saying he has put the nation’s economy in jeopardy with reckless spending and record deficits.
Last week, NBC’s Tim Russert, interviewing Bush in the Oval Office for Meet the Press, took note of polls showing that an unusual number of Americans are “angry or dissatisfied with you” and asked, “Why do you think you are perceived as such a divider?”
Bush: “Gosh, I don’t know, because I’m working hard to unite the country. . . . I don’t speak ill of anybody in the process here . . . I don’t attack.”
Russert tried again, bringing up the president’s unpopularity in Europe and asking why he was disliked there.
Bush: “Heck, I don’t know. Ronald Reagan was unpopular in Europe . . . I’m keeping pretty good company. I think that people, when you do hard things, when you ask hard things of people, it can create tensions. . . . I’ll tell you, though, I’m not going to change, see? I’m not trying to accommodate. I won’t change my philosophy or my point of view.”
The campaign skills that got him elected in 2000—slogans and backslaps and bouquets of promises thrown out with winning bonhomie—may not be enough to win him a second term in November. Lots of Americans are rankled, not just the Democrats. People are not better off than they were four years ago. And they’ve been lied to by a clique who apparently believe that military action is a first resort, not a last one—and, concomitantly, that since our armed power outstrips that of any other nation-state or coalition, we must, to keep our nation secure and mighty, seize this moment to move forward boldly and tame the world, wherever we have enemies or unstable conditions that affect us. This is a doctrine of preemptive war, pure and simple. All of it defies world history and our own nation’s experience.
Bush’s extremist domestic and foreign policies have both seen their shiny outer wrappings torn to shreds, suddenly exposing their hocus-pocus innards.
Here we have, as one example, an education policy (No Child Left Behind) that lays out all the testing and learning requirements but only a trickle of the federal funds needed to pay for the training and teaching. So local taxes have had to be raised. One might call this a trickle-down tax policy. One might also call it trumpery.
Bush’s big-picture tax policy, already in full swing, has made large reductions in the federal income tax. Sound great? Yeah, but it’s less filling for the working classes. Most of the cuts go to the richest of Americans. Bush’s theory is that these are the nation’s entrepreneurs who will use the bulk of their windfall to create new jobs. But we’ve lost jobs instead—more than 2 million of them since George Bush took office. He doesn’t seem to have noticed. At first, with his tax cuts, he sent every taxpayer a check for a few hundred dollars—an advance, so to speak, on the treasure to come; he told us to go out and shop, to spend the money that will prime the economic pump. It didn’t.
The same kind of scary collapse, as we have seen, has happened with Bush’s foreign policies, which seem born of a military-industrial vision of American empire. Just what General Dwight Eisenhower warned us against after he had led the Allies to victory over the Nazis in World War II and been voted into the White House.
Here is yet another example of the ever shifting certainties of the Bush era—one that is still taking lives. Do you remember, back in 2002, when the president’s White House minions began planting stories about how the CIA and State Department and Pentagon were deliberately understating the size of Saddam Hussein’s terror arsenal and thus trying to diminish the gravity of the Iraqi threat? Now, two years later, as if they had somehow undergone a memory erasure, Bush and Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the White House gang accuse the CIA of having done just the opposite—of having exaggerated Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological capabilities.
He was misled by our intelligence community, the president now announces, in this latest revised edition of his policies. But never mind, he says, I forgive the CIA. And anyway, he says without blinking, even though our search teams have been unable to find the arsenal of mass destruction “I expected to find,” the preemptive war was the “right thing” to do. “Hussein was dangerous,” he said last week on television, “and I’m not going to leave him in power and trust a madman.” Though Iraq may not have had the weapons or production lines, Bush said he had to act regardless, because Hussein had the intent and “the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network.” The desire and the “capacity” (read: scientists)—but not the urgent threat.
This is an entirely new doctrine of war for the United States. In a Cincinnati speech five months before the start of the Iraq war, Bush described it thusly, explaining why the U.S. had to act “now” against Hussein: “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
But we knew then that the Iraqis no longer had a credible nuclear program, and we know now that they also didn’t have the weapons about which President Bush said there was “no doubt.”
It wasn’t Iraq that was peddling nuclear technology to rogue nations and terrorists. It was Pakistan, our “ally” in the war against terror. Clear evidence shows that Washington knew this several years ago. Yes, President Bush knew it when he took the oath of office in January 2001. And he never told us, not even after 9-11.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy—after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by American-trained Cuban exiles—didn’t point fingers at the CIA or anyone else. Instead, he told the National Security Council that “we’re not going to have any search for scapegoats . . . the final responsibilities of any failure is mine, and mine alone.”
George Walker Bush, who said he was going to “restore honor and dignity to the White House,” could learn something from that history. Truth is better than fiction when you’re sending your youth into battle.
Research assistance: Jennifer Suh
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 18, 2005