Right Hook

Robert Novak insists Bush will cut and run from Iraq. Fox News reporter lies about Kerry speech. Limbaugh declares hurricanes crueler than U.S. casualties -- and endorses himself for president.

By Mark Follman

Published September 22, 2004 11:28PM (EDT)

With the deteriorating situation in Iraq casting an ever darker shadow over the American presidential race, debate among Bush supporters has turned so dissonant that it almost feels as if the political right is collectively punching itself in the face. As John Kerry attacks Bush more aggressively for his failing policies in Iraq, several senior Republican lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar, are speaking up about "incompetence on the part of the administration." Some of the president's backers continue to sing along with the White House refrain that "freedom is on the march" in Iraq -- while others now say the Bush administration is preparing to cut and run from the rising tide of chaos as soon as it wins reelection.

Kerry's speech in New York on Monday was his most lucid and compelling indictment to date of Bush's disastrous handling of the war, accompanied by at least a rough blueprint for shifting course. Kerry does not plan for immediate withdrawal; rather, he has outlined a four-year agenda that hinges on shoring up international cooperation and gradually withdrawing U.S. troops.

New York Times columnist David Brooks was among those who sought to twist Kerry's words. He began with praise for the senator's speech:

"Yesterday John Kerry came to New York University and did something amazing. He uttered a series of clear, declarative sentences on the subject of Iraq. Many of these sentences directly contradict his past statements on Iraq, but at least you could figure out what he was trying to say."

But that was only Brooks' setup for spinning Kerry's message to make it sound as if Kerry plans to beat a fast retreat and put America's future in foreign hands.

"The message is that if Kerry is elected, the entire momentum of U.S. policy will be toward getting American troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible and shifting responsibility for Iraq onto other countries...

"Substantively, of course, Kerry's speech is completely irresponsible. In the first place, there is a 99 percent chance that other nations will not contribute enough troops to significantly decrease the U.S. burden in Iraq. In that case, John Kerry has no Iraq policy. The promise to bring some troops home by summer will be exposed as a Disneyesque fantasy."

If so, then Robert Novak's Monday Chicago Sun-Times column, "Quick Exit From Iraq Is Likely," would make Mickey Mouse proud. Novak is claiming that Team Bush is eager to bail out of Iraq following reelection, as if the administration's unwavering commitment to the war turns out to be as phony as Saddam's massive stockpiles of WMD.

"Whether Bush or Kerry is elected, the president or president-elect will have to sit down immediately with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military will tell the election winner there are insufficient U.S. forces in Iraq to wage effective war. That leaves three realistic options: Increase overall U.S. military strength to reinforce Iraq, stay with the present strength to continue the war, or get out.

"Well-placed sources in the administration are confident Bush's decision will be to get out. They believe that is the recommendation of his national security team and would be the recommendation of second-term officials. An informed guess might have Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, Paul Wolfowitz as defense secretary and Stephen Hadley as national security adviser. According to my sources, all would opt for a withdrawal."

On Tuesday, White House communications director Dan Bartlett shot the claim down: "There is no truth to that story. The President and his team are committed to getting the job done."

Bear in mind that Novak did have the high-level sources to help the Bush White House take down CIA operative Valerie Plame over the Iraq-Niger uranium scandal. But why would the Bush camp want to leak this loony tune about fast withdrawal? Some election watchers have already speculated that it's a cheap ad buy of sorts -- a way to hedge in favor of unsettled swing voters who are increasingly skeptical of Bush's war. (Even if there isn't an ounce of truth to the claim.) That theory is certainly bolstered by the utterly bizarre, if not incoherent rationale Novak alleges is behind this astonishing and heretofore untold Bush plan:

"Without U.S. troops, the civil war cited as the worst-case outcome by the recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate would be a reality. It would then take a resolute president to stand aside while Iraqis battle it out. The end product would be an imperfect Iraq, probably dominated by Shia Muslims seeking revenge over long oppression by the Sunni-controlled Baathist Party. The Kurds would remain in their current semi-autonomous state. Iraq would not be divided, reassuring neighboring countries -- especially Turkey -- that are apprehensive about ethnically divided nations.

"This messy new Iraq is viewed by Bush officials as vastly preferable to Saddam's police state, threatening its neighbors and the West. In private, some officials believe the mistake was not in toppling Saddam but in staying there for nation building after the dictator was deposed."

Novak might want to double-check his analysis with Frank Gaffney. The Washington Times columnist and president of the Center for Security Policy is ripping into Kerry for all talk of bailing out of the quagmire in Iraq.

"The Democratic candidate has evidently decided to run against the conflict in Iraq by arguing it is even more fouled up than the last war that became hugely unpopular, Vietnam. He is betting (not unreasonably) the situation on the ground there will get uglier in the next six weeks...

"The United States could -- and did -- walk away from many of its friends and allies in Southeast Asia. The result was pretty awful for them, but of no grave strategic consequence for us. It is the height of irresponsibility to think a similar prospect awaits us if the United States once again follows John Kerry and abandons Iraq to its fate. Turning the Iraqis over to the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein's loyalists, Saudi- or Iranian-backed Islamists and/or foreign fighters of other stripes will not simply ensure their country remains a festering sore in the Middle East. It is certain to subject us to a vastly intensified war by emboldened terrorist enemies with global reach."

We distort, you decide
Online watchdog Media Matters for America notes that at least one right-wing cable news reporter peddled bald-faced lies about Kerry's speech on Monday. Though Kerry used no such language in his speech, Fox News Channel chief political correspondent "Campaign" Carl Cameron claimed that Kerry called President Bush a "warmonger" who wants "a perpetual state of war." From the Sept. 20 edition of Fox's "Studio B With Shepard Smith":

"CAMERON: This is a very bold attack from Senator Kerry today. He basically said today that if President Bush is reelected, there will be more war, and he will continue to make these mistakes that Senator Kerry says he's made in the Iraq war, and he suggested there will be continued wars elsewhere on the planet. In effect, saying -- John Kerry accusing George W. Bush of being a warmonger who wants a perpetual state of war around the world. Big stuff."

Vote Rush for president!
Radio host Rush Limbaugh devoted a fair amount of air time on Monday to Kerry's Iraq speech, which he deemed too retro:

"They're going to go back and reinvent the Howard Dean campaign strategy, and they're going to try to package it in the nuance and the elitism and the refinement and the erudite behavior of John Kerry rather than the conspiratorial kookism of Howard Dean, and they're hope and they think it's going to sell."

He also scolded Kerry for a relative lack of perspective on the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq:

"You know, I think this is just ghoulish but these people just revel in counting the number of deaths in Iraq. Here's John Kerry on that from this morning.

"KERRY: This month we passed a cruel milestone. More than 1,000 Americans lost in Iraq...

"RUSH: Stop the tape. On Labor Day we probably passed a cruel milestone, too, like about 40,000 Americans dead so far on highways. We also passed a cruel milestone this weekend when something over 60 people are dead in hurricanes."

And he thought several prominent Republican lawmakers were also out of touch.

"You've got two or three areas of [Iraq] which are in trouble. I know we've had these Republican senators go out there and say some things. I don't even care, folks. I don't know why we should listen to Chuck Hagel or Lugar or McCain ... Okay, they say Iraq's going bad. Anybody can say, 'Iraq is going bad.' Anybody can say, 'Iraq sucks.' Anybody can say that we're in bad trouble over there. We may be. So? 'The tough get going when the going gets tough,' is the old phrase. This idea that we're supposed to cut and run and get out of there or whatever is anathema to me...

"A lot of people in this country may have some qualms about Iraq, senator, but pessimism is not the way to deal with it. Pessimism is not what real people want to hear about this. You know what this is? This is simply a repackaged way of quoting Howard Dean, who said whatever it was he said about Saddam."

In the end, after poring over Kerry's speech, Limbaugh decided that Kerry's entire discussion of international alliances was "absolutely fatuous."

"You know, if I, a lowly, humble citizen of this country, a measly little talk show host here, can figure this out, and you can't," he said, "why in the hell should you be president and I shouldn't? I mean, it's absolutely ridiculous."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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

2004 Elections Fox News Iraq John F. Kerry D-mass. Middle East