Coda: The House Rules
Even Laura couldn’t stop him. By most inside accounts, the first lady opposed the war on Iraq. She told Bob Woodward on the eve of the war that she found the prospect of the invasion horrifying. Later she whispered to others of being repulsed by the killing of Iraqi children and American soldiers. Generally, Bush cleaves to Laura like a security blanket. Since 1988, he hasn’t spent more than two consecutive nights away from her. Still, he denied her on Iraq, just as he has done on abortion, which Laura demurely supports.
His father also couldn’t deter him. Poppy Bush opposed the invasion of Iraq, reportedly fretting that Junior was wrecking the global coalition that he’d built. The old man thought that the toppling of Saddam would destabilize the Middle East and the occupation would be a bloody quagmire that would end with many Americans dead and a fundamentalist regime in control of much of Iraq. He sent his warnings through emissaries, such as his old National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Scowcroft wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing the war. The text of the piece had been floated by Bush, Sr., who gave it the thumbs up. It went to press on August 15, 2002 under the title “Don’t Attack Saddam.” Plank by plank, Scowcroft ripped apart the Bush brief for war, as if it were a dilapidated barn. He said that the sanctions and UN inspections were working. Saddam was essentially contained and didn’t pose a threat to the US, Israel or other protectorates in the Middle East.
Scowcroft also blew up the notion that Saddam had cosseted Al Qaeda. “There is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the September 11 attacks. Indeed, Saddam’s goals have little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for him to make common cause with them…There is virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time. So long as that sentiment persists, it would require the US to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq, making military operations more difficult and more expensive.” The occupation and reconstitution of Iraq, Scowcroft warned with vivid prescience, could be bloody, protracted and might ultimately result in a fundamentalist regime more hostile to US interests than Iraq was under Saddam.
The article was warmly received by Colin Powell and Richard Armitage at the State Department, who wanted some breathing room from their rivals in the Pentagon. Armitage in particular seemed to be looking for a way to stick it to Cheney and Rumsfeld. He advised Powell to use the Scowcroft column to tell Rumsfeld to “Fuck off.” Typically, Powell, always reflexively subservient, declined to press the advantage opened by his former colleague.
Meanwhile Scowcroft’s broadside enraged Cheney and Rumsfeld. Being experienced hands at this game, they didn’t attack their old associate frontally. Instead, they sent Condoleezza Rice out to lambaste Scowcroft. She accused the apex insider of betraying the home team and demanded that he muzzle his objections to the war. Shamefully, Scowcroft backed down, sulking mutely in his holding pen at the Scowcroft Group, his international lobbying firm headquartered in DC, content to be Cassandra for a day.
The prickly George W. was peeved at his father for trying to pull the rug out from under his planned conquest of Baghdad. He sniped that he wasn’t about to recapitulate the mistakes of his father in regard to Saddam or the tax code. He privately ridiculed his father’s lack of bravado in failing to take out Saddam in 1991, which the president characterized as a lack of nerve typical of those inclined toward diplomacy. Then in an interview with Bob Woodward, Bush, Jr. twisted the knife one last, fatal time. Bush confessed that he never consulted his father on the Iraq war. “You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to for strength,” Bush said. “There is a higher father that I appeal to.” Notice the implication here: his own father was weak. W.’s war on Saddam was in many ways not to redeem his father or avenge him, but a way to outdo him. Bush goes from choir boy to frat boy in a nanosecond. On the eve of the war, he gloated to Italian prime minister Sylvio Berlusconi, “Just, watch us, we’re going to kick Saddam’s ass.”
As Seymour Hersh discloses in Chain of Command, the decision to invade Iraq, high on the agenda of the neo-cons in Cheney’s office and the Pentagon since the election, had been given the greenlight almost immediately after the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At 2.40 in the afternoon on September 11, Rumsfeld convened a meeting of his top staffers. According to notes taken by an aide, Rumsfeld declared that wanted to “hit” Iraq, even though he well knew that Iraq was not behind the attack. “Go massive,” ordered Rumsfeld. “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
For Rumsfeld and his gang, 9/11 was an opportunity more than a hardship. It augured a war without end, a war without rules, a war without fiscal constraints, a war where anything was permitted and few questions asked. Almost immediately the Secretary of Defense conjured up his own personal hit squad, Joint Task Force-121, which he endearingly refers to as his “manhunters.” Though we wouldn’t hear about it for months, this operation launched the kidnappings, wholesale round-ups, assassinations, and incidents of torture that are only now coming partially to light.
Of course, it can’t all be pinned on Rumsfeld and his band of bureaucratic thugs. It goes right to the top. On February 7, 2002, Bush signed an executive order exempting captured members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the protections of the Geneva Conventions. With that stroke of the pen, Bush affixed his imprimatur to the prosecution of his wars unbound by the constraints of international law. That secret imperial decree set into motion the downward spiral of sadism-as-government-policy which led directly to the torture chambers of Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib and obliterated the last molecule of moral authority from Bush’s global war. Of course, such concerns are mere trifles to these cruise missile crusaders.
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From the beginning, the problem was concocting a rationale for the Iraq war, as the hunt for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan turned into a futile game of bomb and chase and anthrax letters and terror alerts kept the American public pinioned on tenterhooks. Rumsfeld ordered his number 3, the arch-neocon Douglas Feith, to establish the Office of Special Plans to develop the case for war against Iraq, a case built on raw information supplied mainly by Iraqi defectors under the control of Ahmed Chalabi. Another crucial source was Israeli intelligence, which was pushing hard for the ouster of Saddam. A similar war council was set up in Cheney’s office, under the control of his chief of staff Scooter Libby.
For its part, the CIA realized that its rivals in the Pentagon and the White House were attempting to wrest control of the brief for war. Cheney and Rumsfeld had long loathed Tenet for his timidity and distrusted many CIA analysts has being sympathetic to the Powell / Armitage axis of diplomacy at the State Department. Cheney in particular fumed that the CIA and the State Department were badmouthing his pal Chalabi and had conspired to freeze $92 million payments to the Iraqi National Congress. “Why are they denying Chalabi money, when he’s providing unique intelligence on Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction?” The spigot was soon turned back on.
And to stay in the game, the CIA began to play along. Over the course of the next year, the CIA briefings for Bush became more and more bellicose. But they contained all the empirical rigor of silly-putty. Agency analysts knew that Iraq’s military was in a decrepit condition; its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs were primitive at best; and its links to al-Qaeda non-existent. Yet, as James Bamford reported, CIA analysts were to instructed to bend their reports to bolster Bush’s martial ambitions. “If Bush wants to go to war, it’s your job to give him a reason to do so,” a top CIA manager told his staff. It wasn’t long before George Tenet himself was calling the case for war “a slam dunk.”
This wasn’t exactly a covert operation. In fact, Paul Wolfowitz let the cat out of the bag before the bombs started falling on Baghdad. “For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction because it was one reason everyone could agree on,” Wolfowitz gloated.
Why WMDs? For starters, they knew they could hook the Democrats into biting on that issue. After all, back in 1992 Al Gore himself had led the charge against Bush I for failing to topple Saddam in 1991, invoking the very same threat. “Saddam Hussein’s nature has been clear to us for some time,” Gore wrote in a New York Times essay. “He is seeking to acquire ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons; it is only a matter of time…Saddam is not an acceptable part of the landscape. His Baathist regime must be dismantled as well…We should have bent every policy-and we should do it now-to overthrow that regime and make sure that Saddam is removed from power.”
Wolfowitz understood the political lay of the land. The WMD threat paralyzed the Democrats into giving Bush carte blanche for war. Wolfowitz also knew he could count on the press playing along, fanning anxiety on the homefront about Saddam’s murderous intentions. Shortly after 9/11, Rumsfeld and his gang set up a special propaganda office in the Pentagon,which admitted that it intended to plant false stories in the foreign press. Evidently, they didn’t have to worry about a similar operation for the US press, which seemed eager to cultivate its own fantastical scenarios.
The brahmins at the New York Times gave reporter Jayson Blair a merciless public flogging for his harmless flights-of-fancy. The destruction of Blair was overtly racist, suggesting that the scandal illustrated the perils of a zealous pursuit of affirmative action. Contrast this with the Time’s agonizing comedown on its mound of stories on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction that daintily elided all mention of the name Judith Miller. Yet, Miller’s cynical and malign front-page fictions, cribbed from her intimate contacts with the crook Ahmed Chalabi and his frontman Richard Perle, functioned as official fatwas for Bush’s jihad against Saddam. Thousands perished due in part to Miller’s fantasies, but she writes on, immune to the carnage her lies sanitized.
The thinly sourced stories were patently bogus to the attuned eye, but that didn’t stop the flock of other war-maddened reporters, such as the equally gullible Jeffrey Goldberg at The New Yorker, from peddling their alarmist fantasies. Take Dan Rather, lately stung by airing apparently forged documents regarding Bush’s ghostly tenure in the Texas Air National Guard. These days the Rove machine targets Rather as the poster boy for liberal bias in the media . Yet not so long ago Rather, part owner along with Donald Rumsfeld of a sprawling high desert ranch in New Mexico, confessed that he was willing to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt when it came to war and measures like the Patriot Act.
“I want to fulfill my role as a decent human member of the community and a decent and patriot American,” Rather told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. “And, therefore, I am willing to give the government, the president and the military the benefit of any doubt here at the beginning. I will give them the benefit of the doubt, whenever possible, in this kind of crisis, emergency situation.”
Hold on, Mr. Rather. that’s not a slippery slope; it’s the sheer face of Half Dome.
So, with no resistance from the press or the so-called opposition party, Bush got his war.
Despite the fear mongering and threat inflation, Saddam’s slave army of conscripts didn’t fight back. Battered by a decade of sanctions and two week’s worth of saturation bombing (including illegal cluster bombs), they didn’t have the means, the will or the desire. Not until later, when the occupation, where the military essentially served as armed guards for what the neo-cons hoped would be the corporate plunder of Iraq, turned vile and bloody.
Anxious for a victory celebration, Bush, the cross-dressing in chief, put on his flight suit and was ferried onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, where, braying like Caligula on the shores of Britain, he pronounced the war over and hailed himself as victor. Up to that day, when Bush told the world that major combat operations had concluded, 141 American soldiers had been died in Iraq. Then the real killing begin.
Two or three a day. One day after another. Week after week. Month by month. Bring ’em on, he said, hiding out in his ranch. And so they did. A current blood swirled through the summer and autumn, Americans, Brits, and Italians. And Iraqis. By the thousands.
There wasn’t a good photo-op to be found. Normally, war presidents find time to console the wounded and grieve with the families of the slain. But Bush didn’t want any bloodstains on his flight suit, fearing political forensics teams would use the evidence against him in the 2004 election.
The longer the occupation went on, the worse it got. In July, Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay, the sadists of the Tigris, were killed in a villa in Mosul. Their corpses were displayed before the world press in a wind-buffeted tent like slabs of meat in a butcher shop. No one in Iraq cared about their fate. Until that barbarous moment. Then came the uprisings in Fallujah and Najaf, the rise of al-Sadr, and the exposure of the Sadean circus going on after dark at Abu Ghraib. By June of 2004, it was obvious to nearly everyone who was paying attention the US had lost Iraq.
Bush acted oblivious to the carnage. He sequestered himself from the press, refused to read the papers, got his news ladled to him in palatable bite-sized bits by Condi Rice. When he made the occasional public appearance, he delivered fidgety non-sequiturs, as divorced from reality as the vapid mutterings of Liza Minelli.
So what was it all about? It was about oil, of course. Oil and fealty to Israel. And blood vengeance. And politics. And multi-billion dollar no bid contracts for political cronies. And empire building. And even cowboy chutzpah. Most of all, it was about collusion. That’s how republics are undermined and replaced by empires. Go read Tacitus or Twain.
Bush’s path to war was cleared by the Democrats, who were passive at best and deeply complicit at worst. Take House Leader Dick Gephardt and Senator Joe Lieberman, who rushed to the White House to stand side-by-side with Bush in a Rose Garden war rally, where they pledged their support for the invasion of Iraq.
John Kerry, a man who gives gravitas a bad name, went along with the war and refused to retract his support even after it became obvious that the grounds for the invasion were bogus at best and fabricated. (Kerry has been wrongly diagnosed as a chronic flip-flopper. He’s simply a flipper. The senator and war criminal does a lot of gymnastical contortions of his position, but he keeps landing in the same place time after time.) So did his faithful sidekick John Edwards. And the rest of the Democratic leadership.
Look across the political taiga of the Democratic Party; it is a landscape denuded of any fresh sprigs of resistance. Even the august Russ Feingold’s regular objections seem like perfunctory exercises, mere footnotes for the record. Feingold is the bland moral accountant of the senate. Dry and austere. He is also ignored, by the press and the bosses of his own party, partly because he is so bland. But mostly because he is usually right.
But most don’t even express regrets. Take Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Nearly a year after the war was launched, after every pretext had dissolved away and the US military found itself mired in a bloody and hopeless occupation, Daschle pronounced himself satisfied with the progress of the war. On February 19, 2004, Daschle told the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce: “I give the effort overall real credit. It is a good thing Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. It is a good thing we are democratizing the country.” He also assured the business leaders of the Great Plains that he was not the least upset the over the bogus pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. As the summer of 2004 turned to autumn, Daschle, locked in a tight reelection race with Jim Thune, launched TV ads touting his support of the war, highlighted by a photograph of the senator being hugged by Bush. There you have it. Harmony in government. It boils down to a shared faith in the imperial project, a raw certitude in the righteousness of their collective crusade.
The cardinal rule of a grifter’s game is to control both sides of the action. Under those rules of engagement, the house (read: empire) always wins.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and, with Alexander Cockburn, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.