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It’s been about 40 years since a president’s speeches didn’t sound like infomercials. So George W. Bush’s prime time sales pitch last week on slapping a “New Ownership” sign on Iraq was not surprising for sweating the manipulative bullets of sales pitches — exaggerations, inflated sincerity, half-truths, outright lies. This isn’t a Bush family specialty. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were terrific salesmen, each more or less made for television’s blind spot for hucksters. But for sheer breadth of deception and implications to thousands of human lives, the Bush performance for a resolution authorizing Gulf War II can only be compared with Johnson’s fabrication 38 years ago that uselessly condemned 57,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese — the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
The Iraq war resolution Congress approved with a mob-like majority last week is the Tonkin of our day.Like Bush with Iraq today, Johnson back then didn’t have the facts to back up his demand for war on North Vietnam. So he invented them.
In August 1964, an American destroyer encountered North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. But nothing happened. Johnson not only invented an exchange of fire. He called it an unprovoked attack by the North Vietnamese. Then he submitted his war resolution to Congress, which the White House had drafted months before Tonkin. Within days, the House was voting 414-0 and the Senate 82-2 to give Johnson his mandate for war.
Last year historian Michael Beschloss published an edition of the secret tapes Johnson made in the White House around that time. The tapes make clear that Johnson had fabricated the incident. “When we got through with all the firing,” Johnson tells his secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, “we concluded maybe they hadn’t fired at all.” And despite his public declarations to the contrary, he did not have a “plan for victory — militarily or diplomatically.” No matter. The momentum of his early and frequent lies about Vietnam had picked up the speed of a demon, and the rest is — well, a memorial on the Washington Mall.
Same plot today, same public declarations of untenable enmity, of imminent danger and certain victory, with one difference: The private doubts and inconsistencies have not been suppressed so well as in Johnson’s day. President Bush’s fabrications have been less crafty, more transparent, but they are of the same order of magnitude that powered Tonkin. No one really believes that Iraq poses an imminent danger to the United States or to its neighbors. If Saddam so much as throws a firecracker at Saudi Arabia or Israel, Baghdad is dust.
Saddam’s menace of meanness and mysterious palaces doesn’t have the ballast of the 1960s’ ideological scares, of red tides washing up to the Golden Gate Bridge and Stalinist infiltrations of Boy Scout troops and conjugal beds (“I Married an Iraqi” just doesn’t have the same ring as “I Married a Communist.”). And Bush’s own junta of conjurers has had an impossible time strapping a smoking nuke to Saddam’s arsenal.
Bush has been using the language of liberation to galvanize support for his scheme, but Iraq in 2002 isn’t France or Germany in 1945. It has never been a democracy, and it isn’t about to become one under America’s neo-colonial rule. There is nothing to “liberate” but oil fields and pipelines, no democracy to build but an American garrison in the heart of the Arab world, and at Iran’s flank. Call it pay-back, provocation, opportunism. Don’t call it liberation.
Meanwhile al-Qaida bounces from bombing to bombing, from Yemen to Bali to guess-where-next, celebrating the Iraqi sideshow as a gift wrapped in American hubris.
Yet Bush sold Americans his bill of goods by playing his trump card: 9/11, a shameless use of the memory of 3,000 Americans to justify the coming deaths of untold others. He wants his double header — to finish his father’s war and to give the Republican Party, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, something brawny to run on — and now he has it. He has his war as certainly as his hawks had their war resolution drawn up years ago, as a strategy patiently waiting for its opportunity. Sept. 11 was it, the sort of atrocity that can cloud a thousand judgments and make a fraud sound licit: “I’m not willing to stake one American life on trusting Saddam Hussein,” Bush told the nation last week. The words sound right. They sound righteous, in light of 9/11. They are also the president’s most incriminating wrong, because he is getting ready to stake those very lives on the possibility, not the certainty, that Saddam can’t be contained. Americans and Iraqis are going to die to prevent something that may never happen, which is very different from Americans dying in defensive retaliation for an actual attack. One is a just cause. The other is a wager whose losing outcome is the sacrifice of thousands of lives. The crime, yet uncommitted, is that Congress is willing to stake those lives on trusting Bush.
PIERRE TRISTAM is a editorial writer at the Daytona Beach News-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com