It’s my understanding that a presidential press conference is a question-and-answer session intended to facilitate communication. Reporters should ask questions that are on people’s minds, and the executive should honestly respond. But after President Bush’s press conference March 6 even CNN’s Aaron Brown noted a couple of times that Dubya hadn’t answered many questions. Rather, he used the occasion to reiterate “with little urgency and no perceptible passion” (Tom Shales, Washington Post, March 7) the simple thesis behind the Iraq attack, plainly stated by Bush in his response to a question from Ron Fournier: “Iraq is a part of the war on terror.”
This thesis is in fact rejected by many, including top former government and military officials, who complain that the Iraq war will divert resources away from the “war on terrorism” as they conceive of it. The Bushites have been very deliberately blurring the lines between the war to eliminate al-Qaeda (itself a nebulous enterprise, given the array of groups with real or imagined, slight or substantial bin Laden connections) and projected wars against Iraq and other “terrorist” targets with no connection to bin Laden. Through subliminal manipulations, disinformation, and lies, they’ve generated an imaginary universe in which Evil=Terrorism=Anti-Americanism surround us like a war band of angry natives circling around a vulnerable party of decent Christian white folks in Conestoga wagons.
They have gotten away with it, to a great extent at least, since so many actually swallow the idea that al-Qaeda and Baghdad are both part of this vast Evil the U.S. must heroically contain or defeat, and have in fact been in cahoots. But they’ve also generated the inevitable question: “Will striking at Iraq increase or decrease terrorist threats to Americans?” The U.S. intelligence community, staffed with professionals, has stated quite clearly that the terror threat will rise due to the (understandable) indignation that the aggression will provoke, not only in the Arab and Islamic worlds, but pretty much everywhere, including such countries as Spain, Britain, Australia, Italy, etc. whose governments assist the U.S. but whose peoples firmly oppose it.
So at a real presidential news conference, you’d expect this question to be clearly posed and answered. But here’s what happened.
Veteran CNN reporter John King asked Bush: ” as you prepare the American people for the possibility of military conflict, could you share with us any of the scenarios your advisors have shared with you about worse-case scenarios, in terms of the potential cost of American lives, the potential cost to the American economy, and the potential risks of retaliatory terrorist strikes here at home?”
Bush replied that it was his job to protect America, having sworn on the Bible to do so. Saddam, he reiterated (for the fifth time), was a threat, a torturer and murderer. He said that he could “deal with the threat” and has “hope it can be done peacefully.” But he seemed to lose focus. (“There were times,” noted Pulitzer Prize-winning Shales, “when it appeared his train of thought had jumped the tracks. Occasionally he would stare blankly into space during lengthy pauses between statements — pauses that once or twice threatened to be endless… Watching him was like counting sheep…”)
“The rest of your six-point question?” asked the impishly grinning Commander-in-Chief, of reporter King, who reminded him: “The potential price in terms of lives and the economy, terrorism.”
And the President replied: “The price of doing nothing exceeds the price of taking action, if we have to. We’ll do everything we can to minimize the loss of life. The price of the attacks on America, the cost of the attacks on America on September the 11th were enormous. They were significant. And I am not willing to take that chance again, John.” (This raises the question, how did he take the chance before? By not attacking Iraq before September 11? Did this make sense to any thinking person listening?)
The President is not willing to not go to war (and to thereby inevitably generate more hatred for the U.S. than has ever existed in the nation’s history). The war planning process, and accompanying rhetoric and provocations, has already convinced Europeans that the U.S. is a greater threat to the world than Iraq. No problem (smirk smirk). The biggest antiwar demonstrations last month took place in the countries whose governments most support the U.S.: Spain, Italy, Britain. Not an issue (smug piercing of the lips). Arab street is starting to mobilize. We can handle it (myopic pause).
Question: Don’t you think lots of people who aren’t much sympathetic to al-Qaeda now will be motivated to attack U.S. interests, including in this country, to avenge what everyone from the Pope in Rome to the radical left see as an illegal, immoral, unjustifiable war on Iraq?
Bush can’t answer (maybe cannot even hear) that question. But his key advisors can. “We know there will be a backlash, more anger, hate and violence in the world, including here at home,” they’ll be apt to say. “But we think it’s worth it. We’re going to reorganize Southwest Asia and the Arab world, in this New American Century, according to our plans. We have the military strength to challenge all enemies, including terrorists, and to protect our Homeland from foreign terrorists and their local supporters (like those protesting war on Iraq) through appropriate security measures. We’re thinking big, we’re thinking out of the box, we’re thinking God’s Plan, we’re thinking Full Spectrum Dominance, we’re thinking Europe and Japan over a barrel for decades to come. What’s another 9/11 or two compared to that victory, that our children will sing about?”
White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett (who must have a very challenging job) told the Washington Post March 7 that in Bush’s news conference “the public will see the thought and care and attention [Bush has] given to a lot of the different questions that are being asked about the diplomatic side and the military side and the potential post-Iraq issue. These are all legitimate questions that he has answers for and wants to talk about.” But Bush didn’t.
Barlett also said that the Bush White House holds fewer news conferences than some administrations because “if you have a message you’re trying to deliver, a news conference can go in a different direction.” (That is, if there is some chance it won’t be a mere opportunity for propaganda but a genuine question and answer session—as is actually suggested by the term “press conference.”) “In this case, we know what the questions are going to be, and those are the ones we want to answer.”
Thank about that! The White House communications director says prior to Bush’s zombie-like podium exercise that it will show the “thought and care and attention” he’s given to all the nuances of the contemporary situation in the world, and that a fine showing is expected, because “we know what the questions will be” and Bush wants to answer them. And then Dubya answers nothing, tiredly repeats himself trotting out the old discredited shibboleths, causing even Aaron Brown to notice that he was peering down at notes to recall key phrases.
Mr. Bartlett, you did your job. The public saw the thought and care and attention your boss has given to the different questions that are being asked. By his “press conference” Bush sought to prepare the public for war within days or weeks. Afterwards, CNN’s unscientific online poll showed 64% of Americans wanting to wait months (58%) or weeks (6%) before attacking Iraq. The president failed, again, to make his case. That’s a very good thing.
GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: email@example.com