Shades of Iran-Contra

The White House's rush to war with Iraq featured some of the same power abuses and even the same personnel as the Iran-Contra scandal. But this time the effort to evade checks and balances came from the top.

Topics: Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld,

“History? We won’t know,” President Bush tells Bob Woodward. “We’ll all be dead.” But Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” outlining the administration’s shadowy rush to war with Iraq, moves the past from the shadows. The serious constitutional issues and governmental abuses, the methods and the continuity of some key personnel, evoke memories of the mostly forgotten Reagan administration Iran-Contra scandal.

Iran-Contra involved a network of aides outsourcing U.S. foreign policy like a separate government to circumvent the separation of powers, by selling missiles to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. The Iraq war was not conceived by aides but by the president and his war Cabinet in an apparent effort to evade constitutional checks and balances. In Iran-Contra, the NSC, CIA and Pentagon were stealthily exploited from within; in Iraq, they were abused from the top. When the Iran-Contra scandal was revealed, Reagan’s administration was placed into receivership by the old Republican establishment. Neoconservatives and adventurers, criminal or not, were purged, from Elliott Abrams to Richard Perle. Now they are at the center of power, and they have pushed the likes of Colin Powell to the margins.

In the absence of congressional investigations and hearings, as the Republican Congress acts to shield the executive branch in the spirit of one-party government, books like Woodward’s, and former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s, have become the only countervailing instruments.

Woodward reports that in July 2002 Bush ordered the use of $700 million to prepare for the invasion of Iraq, funds that had not been specifically appropriated by the Congress, which alone holds that constitutional authority. No adequate explanation has been offered for what, strictly speaking, might well be an impeachable offense.

Woodward also reports that the battle plan was unfurled for Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.: On its top it was stamped “TOP SECRET–NOFORN”–”No Foreign,” not to be seen by anyone but Americans with the highest security clearance. Instructed by the president, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld briefed Bandar, who responded by promising to lower oil prices just before the election. “Mum is the word,” said Bandar. As we can now see, prices have skyrocketed, giving oil producers windfall profits upfront, and ultimately exaggerating the political effect of any subsequent drop in prices.

While Bandar was treated as a branch of government or ex officio member of the war Cabinet, Secretary of State Colin Powell was carefully kept in the dark. “Mr. President,” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice gently suggests, “if you’re getting to a place that you really think this might happen, you need to call Colin in and talk to him.” So after Bandar had been told of the battle plan, Bush decided to inform his secretary of state, a frequent squash-playing partner of the Saudi prince. After all, he was bound to learn anyway. Powell had sought to warn Bush on Iraq: If you break it, you own it. “Powell wasn’t sure whether Bush had fully understood the meaning and consequences of total ownership,” Woodward writes.

“Time to put your war uniform on,” says Bush. Powell snaps to attention. Powell is obviously Woodward’s source, just as he was a source for Woodward’s book on the Gulf War, “The Commanders.”

“Plan of Attack” can be read as the first draft of Powell’s memoir. Powell believed that the government had been seized by what he called a “Gestapo office” of neoconservatives directed at the top by Cheney and running as an axis from the Pentagon to the vice president’s office. “It was a separate little government that was out there,” writes Woodward, reflecting Powell’s view. Powell was appalled by the mangling of intelligence as Cheney and the neocons made their case to an eager Bush and subsequently manipulated the public.

But Powell had put on his uniform for his commander in chief. In the White House, his capitulation was greeted with a combination of glee and scorn as the “Powell buy-in.” Powell would make the case before the world at the United Nations. Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, gives him a 60-page brief that Powell dismisses as filled with “murky” intelligence. Powell goes to CIA headquarters himself where he discovers that “he could no longer trace anything because it had been ‘masticated over in the White House so that the exhibits didn’t match the words.’” He hastily constructed his own case, which turned out to be replete with falsehood.

Powell played the good soldier, not taking his qualms and knowledge to the Congress or the American people. He had been promoted since the Nixon administration by those who now surround Bush. Powell felt that this loyalty overrode all else. The most popular man in the country, he never used his inherent veto power to promote his position. On the contrary, he yielded to his pride that his fame could not afford a break. Rather than fighting his battles in earnest when it counted, before his army was put in harm’s way, he chose to settle scores by speaking with Woodward. Now, scrambling to repair a reputation tattered by his previous passivity, he has stabbed his patrons in the back. (Though since the book’s release he has tried to deny some of Woodward’s reporting.)

While Powell’s authority withers, Bush looks elsewhere for reflected legitimacy. He tells Woodward that he is “frightened” and “scared” by detailed questions. He admires Cheney, “a rock,” for not needing to explain in public. “That’s why I love Cheney.” Pointedly, Bush says, unlike Tony Blair, “I haven’t suffered doubt.”

Asked if he seeks advice from his father, the former president, Bush says: “He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher Father that I appeal to.”

A largely overlooked new book, “The Bushes,” by Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, two scholars at the conservative Hoover Institution, attempts to be a glowing multigenerational saga. But its centerpiece is the tortuous Shakespearean story of the father and his wastrel son. Even after the younger Bush attains the presidency, the elder statesman frets. When the son seeks to demonstrate by force of arms that he can exceed his father and correct the error of his rejected presidency, the father once again is consumed with anxiety and disapproval. Then the father’s closest associate, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, openly writes an article expressing his opposition before the war, which is widely interpreted as expressing the senior Bush’s views. The Schweizers quote George W. Bush directly: “Scowcroft has become a pain in the ass in his old age.”

Bush gazes upward for guidance, or turns to Cheney. Judgment Day may not arrive before Election Day. Here on earth the old Republican establishment that saved Reagan has become superannuated and powerless — the “wrong father.” There is no one to intervene.

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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