This week war hawks and Bush supporters have jumped all over former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's allegations that the Bush-Cheney White House started planning the invasion of Iraq the week it took control of office -- long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks transformed U.S. foreign policy. In some respects, O'Neill's claims aren't big news; it's widely understood that throughout the 1990s key members of President Bush's administration were eager to depose Saddam Hussein, unilaterally if need be. But O'Neill's critics can't seem to settle on whether he's a smart but out-of-touch policymaker or simply a disgruntled former employee out for revenge.
Libertarian Republican blogger Daniel Drezner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a former international economist for the U.S. Treasury Department, says O'Neill may be somewhat off the reservation with his allegations but they still have "the ring of truth."
"Paul O'Neill is a smart guy, but do bear in mind that he was a pretty lousy Treasury secretary when he was in charge. The day he left, I wrote the following:
"O'Neill's fundamental strengths were his intelligence and his willingness to say what he thought even if it roiled markets and politicians. His fatal flaw was that he knew he was intelligent, and therefore never considered the possibility that he could be wrong...
"My point is not to claim that all of O'Neill's criticisms can be dismissed in a single stroke. He's clearly a smart person, and no doubt some of his criticisms have the ring of truth. My point is to remind people that O'Neill brings some baggage that he brings to the table -- and that even smart people can let that baggage overwhelm them...
"[O'Neill's] revelations sound sexy, but they're pretty overblown... In early 2001, peacekeeping troops, war crimes tribunals, and even divvying up Iraq's oil wealth were not merely under discussion by neocons that might have wanted to invade Iraq, but by policy wonks across the board. At the time, the Washington consensus about the Iraq policy was that the status quo was an untenable situation..."
Drezner backs up his argument with firsthand experience:
"A lot of meetings were being held about ways to rejigger U.S. policy ... as a sanctions expert, I participated in one such bipartisan meeting chaired by Richard Haass [former advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell] in the early days of the transition..."
But oddly, Drezner then turns completely against O'Neill:
"The larger point is that Haass and [Colin] Powell [who were working to ease sanctions against Iraq early in the Bush administration] had the upper hand on Iraq policy -- until September 11th. Clearly, after 9/11, Bush changed his mind. But to claim that George W. Bush planned to invade Iraq from day one of his administration is utter horses&$t."
Responding to Drezner's post, one anonymous blogger laughs off O'Neill's claims, adding that the former treasury secretary's evidence of an early Iraq invasion plan inside the Bush White House doesn't hold up.
"'Ideology and electoral politics' dominating the White House policy process? Shocking! I've always found that 'ideology' is a code word for 'ideas that one doesn't agree with.' The other side in a debate is always mired in ideology, while one's own P.O.V. is always based entirely on -- what was O'Neill's felicitous phrase? -- careful reasoning based on the facts (I'm paraphrasing here)...
"O'Neill's claims ... really collapse when you examine that Iraqi oil document waved by Suskind in the '60 Minutes' interview. It's part of a series of energy-policy documents analyzing oil reserves throughout the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Are Suskind/O'Neill claiming that Bush planned to attack them as well?"
(That blogger's comment has a link to the right-wing "Power Line" blog, which in turn points to an analysis of the "energy-policy documents" in question by the American Enterprise Institute's Laurie Mylroie. For her part, Mylroie was an ardent supporter of the Iraq invasion and long promoted the theory -- yet to be proved -- that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.)
Yet, O'Neill sounded oddly naive this week when he expressed surprise that the well-oiled Bush political attack machine would come after him once he went public with his allegations. Dallas-based conservative Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department official and policy analyst during the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations, did exactly that, pummeling O'Neill's track record and demeanor.
"Mr. O'Neill would have us believe that he was the only honest man in an administration of sycophants. Another interpretation would be that he was simply ill-suited to the job he had been given, too used to being the boss and incapable of taking direction, too interested in doing things his own way instead of the way his boss wanted them done, and too easily led to believe that outspokenness is the same thing as honesty.
"Even without the details made public in this book, we know that Paul O'Neill was not a very effective Treasury secretary. Looking through my files I find headlines like these from his tenure:
'All Thumbs at Treasury,' Washington Post (5-20-01)
'Mr. O'Neill's Gaffes,' Washington Post (8-1-02)
'Treasury Secretary Gets Into Hot Water on U.S. Cuba Policy,' Wall Street Journal (3-15-02)
'O'Neill Solidifies Maverick Status With Public Jabs at Bush Policies,' Wall Street Journal (3-18-02)
"On Oct. 2, 2001, the New York Times had this to say: "Mr. O'Neill's erratic statements have sometimes rattled investors and marginalized him as a policymaker and spokesman."
Perhaps the headlines don't tell the whole story, but Bartlett hopes to let that single line from the Times sum up O'Neill's tenure:
"You get the idea. Yet O'Neill never improved. He continued to go out of his way to be out of step with the Bush Administration, both substantively and stylistically, right up until the end. The only question is why he wasn't fired sooner.
"Mr. O'Neill may think he is getting revenge on a president he believes treated him shabbily. But I think that all he has really done is remind people of why he never should have been named Treasury secretary in the first place."
It's still the economy, stupid
In addition to his allegations about Iraq, Paul O'Neill blasted the Bush administration this week for its fiscal hubris. Not only did President Bush cave in to the "corporate crowd" when it came to fighting white-collar crime, he said, Vice President Dick Cheney shot down O'Neill's warnings in November 2002 about the perils of big deficit spending. O'Neill said Cheney told him, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." O'Neill was ousted from the administration a month later.
While the flat-footed U.S. economy probably isn't in bad enough shape at this point to do real harm to Bush's reelection campaign (financial luminaries including Alan Greenspan have warned that over the long term soaring budget deficits can doom an economic expansion), it is precisely the administration's exploding deficit that's causing deep displeasure among some of Bush's ostensible supporters. Brian M. Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, says Republicans have resorted to cynical politics:
"At this point, I think that conservatives sold out their small government philosophy and replaced it with a philosophy of whatever will get them re-elected. Neither party is committed to smaller government and less spending. Those who are still standing for fiscal conservatism are frustrated. [We're] searching for ways to stop the spending spree [in Washington]."
For Edward H. Crane, president of the libertarian Cato Institute think tank, the administration's free spending goes beyond frustration -- it's an issue of betrayal, with long-term consequences.
"It's safe to say that there is tremendous dissatisfaction and a kind of dawning on people that Bush is not interested in smaller government," he said. Crane rebukes President Bush for "the philosophical collapse of the GOP," noting that Bush campaigned for office in 2000 without promoting a single spending cut. "There is going to be a real battle for the soul of the Republican party in 2008, because the free-market types, the limited government types, realize they have been sold a bill of goods with Bush. And they are not going out without a fight."
In the January/February issue of Mother Jones magazine, Stephen Moore, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, also spanks President Bush for abandoning the Republican Party's roots.
"We have succeeded in making Republicans anti-tax, but we haven't succeeded in making them anti-big-government. [Bush] is worse than any president since Johnson on spending."
And right-wing provocateur and GOP power broker Grover Norquist isn't far behind Moore. He says one of his goals is to hack away at the federal government and "get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
Bush has said he'll spend what it takes to get the job done in Iraq -- but while Norquist concedes that "wars are expensive and dangerous" and "not political winners," he warns that massive deficit spending could ultimately cost the president and the GOP their true conservative base. "At some point," he says, "it becomes a deal breaker."
Securing the nation's borders, or securing the Hispanic vote?
President Bush's new plan to grant visas to millions of illegal immigrant workers also riled conservatives this week -- but again, there was dissent among the ranks. While a number of analysts and pundits have called the policy a calculated move to shore up the Hispanic vote for Bush's reelection bid, others are applauding it as visionary, including New York Post columnist John Podhoretz:
"President Bush [has] proposed a far-reaching, innovative and compassionate revision of American immigration policy. It instantly drew predictable howls from those who fear the economic and social costs of immigration, and inadvertently comic howls from Democrats and moans of disappointment from liberal Hispanics who reacted with barely concealed rage at the prospect of Bush making profound inroads into the 2004 Latino vote...
"Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it appeared that President Bush was going to dedicate a significant amount of his foreign-policy time to building ties and economic relationships with Mexico -- so that he would have a partner in trying to deal with the costs of illegal immigration here at home and the possibilities of a trans-border economic approach to the problem.
"Those foreign-policy ambitions were put on ice by the War on Terror. But it should surprise no one that Bush has returned to the issue of immigration. He believes what he said yesterday: 'Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling. We must make our immigration laws more rational, and more humane.'
"And he believes deeply, and correctly, that a Republican Party that continues to lean toward a position of hostility toward immigrants and immigration is a party that will not prosper and prevail in the 21st century."
But Washington Times columnist Diana West is much less sanguine.
"This sounds an awful lot like 'amnesty' for those who are here illegally, and 'welcome' to those who haven't made the trip. The plan sends a 'mixed message' at best, as Michael Cutler, a former special agent for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told CNN's Lou Dobbs. 'On the one hand, we don't want you to run the border, but on the other hand, if you do, we'll let you work here and we'll do everything we can to make it convenient for you.' He worries that a 'human tidal wave' will wash over our borders 'if this becomes the way we do business.'
"All of which sounds like a good way to ensure that the government never gains control of the nation's borders..."
Rather than address the much broader implications of officially folding millions of key workers into the U.S. economy, West trades on fear of terrorism to make her case.
"While victories in the war on terrorism have been won abroad, the threat remains at home. Extending this form of amnesty to illegal aliens in this country, not to mention increasing the numbers of foreign nationals eligible for entry, would only seem to elevate the risk to the country's domestic security. As the 35 congressmen pointed out in their letter to Tom Ridge, Mahmoud Abouhalima was an illegal alien granted amnesty in 1986; he used his legal status to join the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Not that amnesty is the plan's only peril: What is to prevent Islamic terror networks, many of which are known to be operating in Latin American countries, from infiltrating the president's guest-worker program?"
And the president's plan caused Pat Buchanan, career xenophobe and columnist for the right-wing Web tabloid World Net Daily, to unleash a predictably racist, fear-mongering tirade.
"Bush is not only rewarding wholesale criminality, he proposes to legalize it. His amnesty will send this message to the world: The candy store is open, and the Americans cannot protect it. Now is the time to bust in.
"As there must be billions of people willing to come and work for a fraction of our minimum wage -- and exploit our social safety net -- the number who could come under the Bush guest-worker program is almost infinite...
"And every child born of a guest worker would, under our 14th Amendment, become an American citizen, automatically entitled to all the benefits of citizenship. Meanwhile, Bush's amnesty will do nothing to halt the illegal invasion that continues to this hour. If you would know what America's social, cultural and fiscal future will look like, take a ride through Los Angeles, capital of Mexifornia...
"Half a century ago, Dwight Eisenhower, informed there were a million illegals in the United States, most of them from Mexico, ordered them sent back. The project was called 'Operation Wetback.'
"Ike was a strong president. But in George W. Bush, we have a leader unwilling to pay the political price of doing his duty and enforcing the immigration laws of his country, because he fears the reaction from the media elite and Mexican Americans."
Following Diana West's cue, Buchanan designates the president's new immigration plan a greater threat to American security than even the war in the Middle East.
"When it comes to standing up to truly powerful ethnic lobbies -- the Hispanic Lobby, the Cuban-American Lobby, the Israeli Lobby -- Bush wilts and folds every time. Nor is it a healthy sign for the future of our republic when its president offers an amnesty to law-breakers, rather than doing his painful duty to protect his country from what has now become an unstoppable foreign invasion.
"The real threats to America's survival do not come from the Sunni Triangle. They come from within, and unfortunately we have a president who either does not understand them or will not look them in the face."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.