Isn't it Rich?

It's fine for liberals to oppose a war with Iraq. But they shouldn't lie about why and when President Bush began to advocate it.

By Andrew Sullivan

Published September 5, 2002 7:49PM (EDT)

My friends at Salon called me earlier this summer with an intriguing offer: Would I care to engage their readers with a weekly fusillade directed against some random stupidity coming from (very broadly speaking) the left? Who could say no to such an offer? I regularly rail against the left on my Web site, but it was irresistible to do so in Salon, widely read by liberals (as well as open-minded conservatives). So here goes. There's no fixed day this little feature will appear. But I'll post once a week, whenever a foolish, unsubstantiated, malevolent or just plain dumb specimen of lefty rhetoric flies down the DSL line.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Frank Rich began his career as a national security analyst by reviewing musical comedies, so I've never exactly hung on his every word when it comes to the war on terror. I figured last September he'd be quiet for a while and then oppose anything President Bush did, regardless of its merits. Pretty prescient, huh?

To be fair, Rich did manage to cough up some praise for the Afghanistan campaign -- but only after it was over. Rich's style, anyway, is not to make an argument. He provides a stream-of-consciousness description of recent events, filtered through the mind of an Upper West Side liberal, desperately trying to out-rad-chic his peers. His columns are hard to refute because there are no hard refutable arguments, merely a series of prejudices, or alleged correlations, or mere observations designed to appeal to people who already agree with him. When all else fails, he does the Op-Ed equivalent of yelling "Ashcroft!" in a crowded Northampton Starbucks.

But his latest series of allegations against the administration ups the ante somewhat. Some petty things can be insinuated without proof, but major charges need a little more, shall we say, evidence? Among the latest Rich assertions is a particularly arresting one. It is that the Bush administration has dreamed up a war on Iraq to solve its domestic political problems. Last month, Rich argued that "what the administration is mainly hoping is that a march on Baghdad will make us forget about Al-Qaeda, wherever it may be lying in wait. It's not good P.R. for our war on terrorism that Islamic terrorists have been linked to eight attacks abroad since Daniel Pearl's murder in January, including the assassination of the Afghan vice president in Kabul and the slaughter of an American diplomat, among others, at a church in Islamabad."

Think about that for a minute. A major columnist at the New York Times is accusing the president of risking thousands of young lives in a war on Saddam and risking thousands of others by being delinquent in the battle against al-Qaida -- all merely in order to buttress his domestic P.R. The evidence for Bush's treasonous cynicism? Rich has none. He even concedes that Saddam is an "authentic genocidal monster."

Notice too how you could make Rich's broader point fairly. You could argue -- as Brent Scowcroft has -- that a war against Iraq could hurt the broader war on terror, by diverting resources. But Rich is not so polite. It's self-evident to Rich that the presidential motive is not misguided zeal or false information or even bad judgment -- but pure self-interested cynicism.

The premise for this grave accusation is the following: "We are now gearing up to fight another war that has been grandfathered into the war on terrorism." But how can anyone seriously make such a claim? Even if you oppose the war against Saddam, it's been a clear administration priority for the better part of a year, and it's inextricable from its campaign against terrorism. Here's a passage from Bush's Sept. 20 address to Congress: "Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated ... Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism."

What part of that does Rich not understand? Even at the time, many on the left and right interpreted Bush's remarks as a challenge to Saddam.

Then, in the State of the Union, the president explicitly named Iraq as one of those states that sponsor terrorism, and from the beginning, Iraq was top of the list of terrorism sponsors. Last October, the New York Times reported that "on Sept. 19 and 20, the Defense Policy Board, a prestigious bipartisan board of national security experts that advises the Pentagon, met for 19 hours to discuss the ramifications of the attacks of Sept. 11. The members of the group agreed on the need to turn to Iraq as soon as the initial phase of the war against Afghanistan and Mr. bin Laden and his organization is over, people familiar with the meetings said." Nor was this policy ever premised on the notion of proving Iraq's involvement in the Sept. 11 massacre.

"'The first thing we have to do is develop some confidence that Iraq is involved in terrorist incidents against us, not meaning Sept. 11,' [former CIA chief James Woolsey] said," according to the Times (my italics). "Mr. Woolsey cited Iraq's alleged involvement in the assassination attempt against former President George Bush in the spring of 1993, together with its work to develop weapons of mass destruction as terrorist acts that made them 'a prime candidate for regime replacement.'"

Now you may agree or disagree with the idea that Iraq is a state that sponsors terrorism. You may agree or disagree that such states should be opposed or attacked. You may have all sorts of reasons to oppose a war on Saddam. But to argue that the Bush administration has never been clear about this, that it has only recently conjured up a campaign against Saddam, or that "another war" has been "grandfathered" onto an old one, is ludicrous on its face. The issue of Iraq was on the table before the campaign against the Taliban had been waged; it was on the table before Enron hit the headlines; it was on the table when Bush's ratings were in the stratosphere; it was on the table as long ago as 1990 when Colin Powell, in the last Gulf War's endgame, helped pave the way for our current predicament.

Does Rich know this? Of course he does. And it says a huge amount about the incoherent opposition to the war on terror that he cannot admit it.

Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

MORE FROM Andrew Sullivan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq Middle East