The one thing a president cannot afford to be is ridiculous. This week George Bush lurched into that fatal category and into the true twilight of his presidency, festooned with all the traditional discomfitures. Senior aides and close advisors parley with literary agents and find compelling reason to quit the White House and spend more time with their families. In public even the First Lady seems to edge away from her stricken mate.
The latest, fatal instrument of Bush’s public humiliation is the National Intelligence Estimate proclaiming in its unclassified version that Iran stopped trying to build a nuclear weapon in 2003, thus deliberately, with humiliating clarity contradicting Bush and Cheney’s unending invocation of the Iranian nuclear threat. For months the blathersphere has quivered with predictions of a coup here in the US coinciding with an attack on Iran. The bit they got wrong was that their supposed perps turned out to be on the receiving end and the coup was aimed at preventing such an attack.
Now, in theory an NIE represents the objective consensus of 16 US intelligence agencies on matters of national security. In practice it is a useful guide to how a bunch of bureaucratic knife-fighters assess the balance of forces in Washington.
In 2002 Bush and Cheney were strong enough to ram their dire assessments of Iraq’s WMDs into the infamous October, 2002 NIE that began with the assertion that “We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs … if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.” The 2002 NIE gave this prediction a “high confidence” rating, while appending a dissent from the State Department’s Intelligence Bureau.
The cover story for the recently released NIE on Iran, with its u-turn on previous assessments, is that new information suddenly became available. In practice this means that in the late summer senior intelligence officials figured the consensus in Washington and Wall Street Iran against an attack on Iran was powerful enough for them to lower the boom on the neo-cons. The latter have now retreated in disarray to their bunkers at the Weekly Standard and the National Review for a last stand, bellowing that it’s a filthy plot by peaceniks in the State Department. Actually, it is, in part, exactly that. It strikes at the neo-cons and it strikes at Israel, which has staked much on firing the US to attack Iran.
“It’s no secret,” snarled the National Review “that careerists at the CIA and State have been less interested in implementing the president’s policies on Iran, Iraq, and North Korea than in sabotaging them at every opportunity.”
The Wall Street Journal’s nutty editorial page went further, fingering ‘hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials’ including Tom Fingar, formerly of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research as drafters of the treacherous NIE.
Humiliated by the NIE which flatly contradicted all his recent claims about Iran’s rush for nuclear weapons, Bush flailed away in his Tuesday press conference, eliciting contempt as he claimed he’d only just become aware of the NIE. “If that’s true,” Senator Joe Biden declared, “ he has the most incompetent staff in modern American history and he’s one of the most incompetent presidents in modern American history.”
Only the former CIA spook, Bob Baer – model for George Clooney Jr’s CIA role in the film Syriana — tried to give Bush a better role than mere dupe and fall guy, claiming that Bush himself had pushed for the NIE to go public. Motive? To head off an attack on Iran, which would undercut any American successes in Iraq. One can imagine one of America’s more Macchiavelian presidents doing this, like FDR or LBJ, but Bush?
The only ray of comfort for the president was that Hillary Clinton chose the start of the week to make herself equally ridiculous, if not more so. As she slipped behind Barrack Obama in the polls in Iowa, her campaign issued a press release on December 3 designed to paint Obama as a man consumed by ruthless, lifelong ambition: “In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled ‘I Want to Become President.’ “Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama’s kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, ‘I Want To Become President,’ the teacher said.”
In kindergarten! As the Clinton campaign might say, echoing St Ignatius of Loyola, “Give me the child until he is seven, and we’ll do a good smear job on him.”
Du côté de chez Mme. Defarge
Paris Diary (part 2)
“This is France, not North Korea,” snarled a bland-looking Frenchman after I’d pointed out to him that we were in the rather dingy non-smoking section of La Sancerre, a modest little brasserie in the Marais. Still, he put down his lighter and Marlboros. Since I was a three-pack a day man until I went cold turkey on my fortieth birthday I could feel his rage. An hour later I was in the Conciergerie and transported back to the heyday of the Committee of Public Safety, when the status of France, in the eyes of its enemies across the Channel and the Rhine, made the land of Kim Jong Il look as tame as the Democrats do in Congress in Year 7 of Bush time.
The Conciergerie is at the west end of the Ile de la Cite, where the cathedral of Notre Dame stands. Part of the Palais de Justice, it was most famously where suspects were taken during the French Revolution. In the early years following the fall of the Bastille in 1789, you had a sporting chance of walking out of the Conciergerie with head and shoulders still connected. A notice on the stone wall next to a bust of Robespierre said that in the Revolution’s first year only a third of the accused were found guilty. The pace really picked up after the establishment in the spring of 1793 of the Revolutionary Tribunal and the installation of public prosecutor Antoine Fouquier-Tinville who bustled well over a thousand into eternal sleep (“Death is nothing but eternal sleep” was posted in all cemetaries in the revolutionary period), including Marie Antoinette, Danton, Hebert and Robespierre before the blade fell on his own neck in May 1795.
These days the disneyfication of historical sites proceeds in lockstep with the construction of those worldwide boondoggles par excellence, “visitor centers” and “heritage” facilities. Not so in the Conciergerie, a heavy place. You can imagine being hauled in, dumped in a cell along with a passel of Viscomtes and Ducs, given your minute in court and not long thereafter taken to the door — there it was right in front of my nose — behind which was a horse harnessed to the tumbril, with Madam Defarge and her knitting crew waiting for you in the front row where the guillotine stood in what is now the Place de la Concorde, near the Crillon Bar.
It was a cold day in Brumaire when I visited the Conciergerie and riding on the Métro shortly thereafter the train went through a station called Guy Môquet. At one end of the platform there were vases of flowers forming a little shrine to young Môquet, the seventeen-year member of a group of twenty-seven Communists in the French resistance who were shot by the Nazis on October 22, 1941, as reprisal for the killing of a senior German officer. Before he was shot Môquet wrote a famous letter to his parents and brother, saying he was ready to die, having “done his best to follow the way that you have laid out for me” (his father was a Communist deputy) and concluding “[I] kiss you with all this child’s heart of mine. Be brave!”
Since his death Môquet has been prominent in the martyrology of the Resistance. This October President Sarkozy said Guy’s last letter should be read out in every school every October 22, as a way of reminding youth of high ideals. Leftist teachers and old Communists reacted harshly, saying Sarkozy was an opportunist and a hypocrite and how did this fit with his schemes to curb immigration. Sarkozy cancelled plans to read out Môquet’s letter at a school. Who knows what his real motives were? He says he chokes up every time he reads the letter and maybe he does. His wife was about to leave him and maybe he was trying to change the subject in advance.
Force any young person listen to an uplifting letter once a year and you reap negation. If Sarkozy had wanted to finish off the memory of Môquet, this is the way to do it. If he’d signed a law saying any minor caught mentioning Môquet’s name would be shot, he’d have perpetuated young Guy’s glory for decades to come.
Moral: let people think for themselves. when Enlightened Public Opinion required that Nobel Prize-winning geneticist James Watson’s lecture at the Science Museum in London be cancelled, no one spoke up on behalf of the prospective capacity audience to say their collective intelligence was acute enough to withstand Watson’s views on the different results obtained by Africans in IQ tests. No one pointed out the obvious –it seems such to me — which is that these IQ tests are devised By white Protestants. The answer should be to have Africans to devise tests based on their cultural assumptions.
It’s easy enough to adopt a high moral tone about a 79-year-old espouser of nutball eugenics, but another matter to take a whack at IQ tests, which were devised by upper-class eugenics fanatics at the start of the twentieth century. Le Monde ran a high-minded piece on “The Temptation of Racism” by Stephane Foucart on October 30 claiming that it was only with the advent of “science” that we learned that “humanity is one big family”. Such nonsense.
It was with the rise of “scientific method” that we got the skull measurers and the IQ testers and the genetic mountebanks telling us that various bits of humanity were genetic trash. Sarkozy wants DNA tests at the border post.
A few days after the Science Museum nixed Watson while insisting that “the Science Museum does not shy away from debating controversial topics” I stepped onto the Aerostar Train to London to speak at the “Battle of Ideas” conference at the Royal College of Art. I thought for a moment on the Aerostar that the old lady in the next seat, looking a bit like Madame Defarge, was actually Donald Rumsfeld in disguise, fleeing possible arrest and trial as a war criminal. But it seems he fled across the Rhine.
In London the organizers told me the Gore groupies had, without success, tried to get the RCA to ban the Battlers. These days, North Korea is everywhere.
Footnote: the Paris item first ran in the print edition of The Nation.