Empty words

Trying to revive his political credibility, Bush succeeded only in reminding us how clueless and reckless he has been as commander in chief.

By Sidney Blumenthal
Published June 30, 2005 10:03PM (EDT)

"They're just wrong about our strategy. We've had a strategy from the beginning," said President Bush on May 13, 2003. It was only 13 days since he had made his triumphant tailhook landing of an S-B3 Viking on the USS Lincoln ("I flew it"), stepped before the sailors in a flight suit and declared the conflict concluded as a large banner behind him proclaimed "Mission Accomplished."

Then he flicked off pesky congressional critics of the immediate postwar transition policy. "Jerry Bremer is running the strategy, and we are making very good progress about the establishment of a free Iraq." Appointed by Bush as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Bremer had disbanded the Iraqi army and was purging the Baath Party, acts that convinced the Sunnis that the United States intended to exclude them from any new arrangement. "And the person who is in charge is me," Bush continued. "Look, I just don't make decisions on polls and I can't worry about polls."

A year later, on June 28, 2004, Iraq's new prime minister, Ayad Allawi, projected optimism as the CPA handed over authority to his government. "In a few days, Iraq will radiate with stability and security," he promised.

A year after that, on June 20, Vice President Dick Cheney assured us that the insurgency is in "the last throes." But on June 26, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained that the Iraqi insurgency could last "five, six, eight, 10, 12 years." The next day, the new Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, sought to create a more upbeat assessment. "I think two years will be enough, and more than enough to establish security."

By then, the White House had announced that President Bush would deliver an address to the nation on Iraq. There was no particularly momentous event in the field to compel it -- no overwhelming offensive by insurgents, no political breakthrough by the Iraqi government. But the steady accretion of U.S. military fatalities (80 in May, 77 so far in June), the daily pictures of carnage on TV and the seepage of reports on the Downing Street memo had eroded Bush's domestic support. It was his crisis on the home front that prompted him to explain the crisis abroad. The president who earlier claimed he wasn't worried about polls needed to lift his sagging ratings.

His appearance was preceded on June 22 by a bombing run to soften up the targets by his chief political advisor, Karl Rove. "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," he said. Rove's remarks signaled that Bush's strategy remains organized around control of the image of 9/11. Maintaining support for Bush's foreign policy demands relentless domestic polarization -- including defining critics as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. What worked in the campaign would continue to work.

On Tuesday night Bush marched before hundreds of troops attired in red berets at Fort Bragg, N.C. The live audience standing at attention stood in for the public before their commander in chief. Their correct silence suggested obedience to orders but also echoed hollow resonance. The only interruption for applause came at the end, when the presidential advance team began clapping to the line: "We will stay in the fight until the fight is won."

Five times Bush mentioned 9/11. Terrorism was mentioned 29 times. We are in Iraq, in short, because of 9/11. "And we fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand." Bush was not articulating a policy so much as conflating 9/11 with Iraq to restore his popularity.

The novelty in Bush's speech did not come from his militarized stagecraft. His innovation came with his approving quotation of Osama bin Laden. "Some wonder whether Iraq is a central front in the war on terror. Among the terrorists, there is no debate. Here are the words of Osama bin Laden: 'This third world war is raging in Iraq. The whole world is watching this war.' He says it will end in victory and glory or misery and humiliation."

By citing bin Laden, Bush raised him to the stature of a foreign leader. But he went further, embracing bin Laden's understanding of the war's dynamics as a crusade. By endorsing bin Laden's notion of a "third world war," the American president lent the prestige of his office to the terrorists' vision. Using bin Laden's statement to justify his own course, Bush legitimated their war.

By mixing 9/11 and Iraq, Bush jumbled the actual logic of cause and effect. In the rush to war, Bush, Cheney & Co. had suggested that Saddam Hussein was allied with terrorists, connecting the dot to 9/11. Now the CIA reports that Iraq has become a terrorist training center only since the failed postwar reconstruction.

Rather than making his case by admitting his blunders that led to the current crisis, explaining his proposed correction of course, realistically discussing Iraq's current political or military situation, or any empirical factor on the ground, Bush sought to recapture his past standing by repeating his past rhetoric.

Bush's strategy rests on more than sheer avoidance of facts, however; it depends on willful ignorance of the history of Mesopotamia.

From the creation of the Iraqi state in 1921 to the army's coup of 1958, Iraq had 58 governments. In 1968, the Baathist Party led by Saddam staged another coup. Some periods of this prolonged instability were less unstable than others, but the instability was chronic and profound. The overthrow of Saddam appears to have returned Iraq to its "natural" unstable state. But in fact the instability runs even deeper.

The Baathists, of course, were Sunnis. Saddam was a Sunni. Before him, the monarchs, beginning with Faisal I, were Sunnis. Before Faisal, the Ottomans, who ruled beginning in the 15th century, were Sunnis. Shiites have never ruled the country until now. Why should the Sunnis, after 600 years of control, accede to the dominance of Shiites? In Vietnam, the root motivation against the United States was nationalism, as it was against the French. It even trumped communism in the national liberation struggle. In Iraq, religion and ethnicity are often ascribed as the root motivations of conflict. But to the extent that nationalism may exist as a factor, its ownership does not and cannot reside in the current Iraqi state.

The present Iraqi government is a ramshackle affair of Shiites and Kurds. The Kurds have no interest in a central authority, and play the game only to solidify their autonomy. The Shiites are maintained as dominant only by the presence of the U.S. occupation army and their sectarian militias. They will never disband those militias in favor of a national army unless they can run the army like an expanded version of the Shiite militias. Prime Minister al-Jaafari and the other Shiite leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, have all been Iranian agents or allies, recipients of Iranian largess in one form or another. Shiite Iraqis are natural friends and allies of Shiite Iran. Iraq under the Shiites does not have to be remade in Iran's image to serve Iranian interests. Whether or not sharia (Islamic) law is imposed, Iraqi Sunnis will never see Shiites as Iraqi patriots or nationalists but, instead, as being in league with Iraq's traditional and worst enemy.

These suspicions are hardly abstract. The militia of the largest Shiite faction, the Badr Brigade of SCIRI (Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq), was trained and armed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and is heavily infiltrated and directed by Iranian agents today. Yet Bush has invested American blood and treasure in the proposition that a Shiite-dominated government, which now inevitably means an Iranian-influenced regime, can serve a second master in the United States and present itself to the Sunnis as national saviors.

Bush did not acknowledge this underlying assumption of his policy. Perhaps he does not know it is his assumption.

Bush was insistent in disdaining any "timetable" for withdrawal from Iraq. He made no reference to Rumsfeld's 12-year calculation. But Rumsfeld, who has demanded precise indexes for progress, is the only, and the highest, official in the administration who has offered any metric. How did he arrive at the 12-year number? What analyses have been done by the Department of Defense to inform his statement? And what is the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Has Rumsfeld presented his analysis before the principals of the National Security Council? Has he, or the national security advisor, or the director of national intelligence, briefed the president on it? If not, why not? Has he briefed the Armed Services committees of the House and Senate?

Given Rumsfeld's 12-year timetable, what plan has he formulated for troop rotation in Iraq? How many tours of duty will units serve? How will the Army be replenished over 12 years? What impact will 12 years have on the recruitment rate, down 40 percent this year despite $40,000 bonuses?

When will Rumsfeld propose his 12-year budget? At the current rate of $1 billion a week spent on Iraq (a low estimate; some experts believe the true figure is double that rate), the cost over 12 years would be $4 trillion, $380 billion. But that does not factor in hidden costs such as replacement materiel, special benefits, reenlistment bonuses, etc. And will the budget be reviewed by the DOD, the White House Office of Management and Budget or the Treasury? Furthermore, such financing of the war is done through supplemental budget requests. Once enacted by Congress, the spending is borrowed by selling Treasury bills mostly to Chinese and other Asian banks. The Chinese use the interest to finance their military modernization, which we have scolded them is not permitted. Where are the DOD analyses justifying this strategic tradeoff?

On the question of a timetable, either the president or the secretary of defense lacks credibility. If it's the secretary, and there are no analyses, no metrics behind his comment, then the president must immediately repudiate his statement. In his speech Bush, unfortunately, failed to clarify his administration's internal confusion. Until he does, the administration cannot claim to speak with a single voice.

In his call for "sacrifice," Bush strove to sound somber, but his tone was more gladiatorial than anguished. His speech superficially recalled the Vietnam speeches of Lyndon Johnson, another president who tried to muster public support for a war that increasingly resembled a quagmire. But Johnson's speeches were filled with a sense of the sobriety of the venture and moment. Even as he urged patience, as Bush did, and said the nation was being tested in Vietnam, as Bush did about Iraq, he spoke of moral ambiguities. In his State of the Union address of 1967, for example, Johnson said of the Vietnam War: "No better words could describe our present course than those once spoken by the great Thomas Jefferson: 'It is the melancholy law of human societies to be compelled sometimes to choose a great evil in order to ward off a greater.'" And Johnson warned the country against "arousing the hatreds and the passions that are ordinarily loosed in time of war."

Johnson was an anguished president, a reluctant warrior, personally devastated by the loss of life and fully aware of the tragedy of the war to himself, his presidency and the nation. Vietnam was a war he inherited; he had made no single decision to go to war. From the beginning, he knew he presided over a disintegrating policy. He believed that if he withdrew from Vietnam, he would provoke a right-wing backlash as virulent as McCarthyism and sacrifice the Great Society. Johnson grappled with bad and worsening prospects. He was always skeptical about the war and tended toward pessimism. He gathered as much information as he could and reached out to the most informed people he could. He especially sought out senators he respected who had serious reservations, like Richard Russell and Mike Mansfield.

"You can't listen to those tapes of Johnson without hearing a man in utter agony, knowing he's trapped," Leslie Gelb, director of the Pentagon Papers project inside the Defense Department during the Johnson administration, and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. "Bush doesn't think he's trapped. Bush has reduced everything to will. I've never seen any self-doubt or agonizing, or anyone who works with him suggest that."

From the thoroughly favorable political position of national unanimity after 9/11, Bush pursued a war of choice in Iraq, relying on shaky, distorted and false intelligence. Skeptics were driven into a corner and punished. The administration became an echo chamber.

Immediately after the invasion, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their neoconservative deputies systematically excluded knowledgeable experts from participation in reconstruction. The State Department's extensive "Future of Iraq" project was sidelined, and Rumsfeld refused to permit 32 State Department experts from being hired by the new U.S. Office of Reconstruction, as David L. Phillips, a member of the State Department's project, recounts in "Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco." Phillips' firsthand account is a chronicle of epic disaster. He reveals that it was not only the U.S. State Department and the intelligence services that were ignored. On the question of disbanding the Iraqi army, it was the U.S. military's senior experts who were shunted aside. "The Bush administration had committed one of the greatest errors in the history of U.S. warfare," he writes.

In his speech, Bush said that once the Iraqi army is re-created, we will leave. Iraqification has become the linchpin of U.S. policy. "To me the reason we didn't win in Vietnam isn't that we failed to arm the South Vietnamese armed forces or give them air cover at the end," said Gelb. "The reason they lost is that they didn't have a government they felt was worth defending and dying for. Without that, no army is going to fight. It won't take 12 years, it will take forever."

The crisis in Iraq has been produced by deliberate decisions taken by the Bush administration against the advice of the State Department, the military and others. "Their lack of planning was criminally irresponsible, grounds for impeachment," said Gelb. "Of the things that have happened to the U.S. in warfare, this was the single greatest dereliction of duty. It wasn't as if the military wasn't telling them they needed more troops. They still don't know what they are doing."

Bush's speech did not mark a new foreign policy. It did not resolve the political conundrums of Iraq. It cannot advance the combat-readiness of the feeble Iraqi army. Rather, his speech was an exercise in public relations to revive his own political situation.

Unlike Lyndon Johnson, he does not grasp the tragic dimensions. Like Johnson, he is giving hostages to fortune. Everything he says can and will be used against him in the court of public opinion. His fortitude appears as recklessness, his determination as cluelessness.

This story has been changed since it was first published.

Sidney Blumenthal

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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9/11 Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfeld Iraq War