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How McClellan Prettifies Bush

Former Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan’s accomplishing several things with his “blockbuster” book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. He’s making a lot of easy money, as befits an opportunist of flexible morality who admittedly stuck with the Bush administration even as its amorality and penchant for lying to the American people became clearly apparent to him. He’s earning praise, not just from “leftist bloggers” as some of his quasi-fascist former friends allege, but from objective journalists and scholars in general. He thus partially redeems his own historical legacy as a minor figure in what will be remembered as a notorious administration. But he’s prettifying that administration rather than appropriately damning it.

According to the former press secretary, in going to war on Iraq Bush misled the nation, hyping dubious intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. But he did so, McClellan declares, out of a naive commitment to the ideal of democracy in the Middle East. And he didn’t deliberately lie. He was merely the victim of bad advice, his own intellectual limitations, his disinclination to ask questions and his belief that being a wartime president was his ticket to greatness. McClellan states repeatedly that he continues to feel “affection” for the man responsible for perhaps a million Iraqi deaths and over 4300 American and other “Coalition” ones.

McClellan attributes Bush’s relentless push for war on “an ambitious and idealistic post-9/11 vision of transforming the Middle East through the spread of freedom.” So his worst sin was a naïve effort at do-good-ism! McClellan doesn’t note the Bush administration’s rejection of the results of free democratic elections in Palestine, consternation at relatively “free” electoral results in Egypt and Lebanon, or continued intimacy with Saudi Arabia’s theocratic absolute monarchy. He doesn’t mention the more plausible reasons for Bush’s assault on a sovereign country described by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as “illegal.” He doesn’t mention oil, the administration’s push for the privatization of Iraq’s oil industry (which will result in U.S. control), or the geopolitical importance of controlling the flow of oil from Iraq in future crisis situations including war. He doesn’t mention the advantages to U.S. imperialism of permanent military bases in the heart of the Middle East.

McClellan in one recent interview cited Paul Wolfowitz’s remark in July 2003 that “for bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason that people could agree upon.” In that interview Wolfowitz added that an “almost unnoticed but huge” additional reason was the prospect of being able to withdraw U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, where their presence was highly unpopular.  (In 1990 U.S. officials lied to the Saudis, claiming Saddam was amassing forces to attack them, and persuaded them to accept a U.S. military presence in the country. By 2003 the Saudis were urging a withdrawal of the 5000 U.S. troops.)  For the neocons there is no question but that the U.S. should have bases in the Middle East, and Cheney is known to favor their establishment preparatory to a future confrontation with China. McClellan doesn’t discuss these matters.

It’s all well and good for the world for McClellan to turn on his former boss and join such insiders as Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neill, and Lawrence Wilkerson in documenting Bush’s mendacious pre-war use of fear-mongering. But isn’t he engaging in perverse apologetics of his own? Alluding to the passage cited above, a blogger on Community writes, “I guess this knocks the wind out of the sales [sic] of the Bush haters, and blows the ‘conquer Iraq for oil’ theory, doesn’t it?”

Actually, the “conquer Iraq for oil” theory has always been simplistic, since it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, which isn’t oil company profits or even U.S. consumers’ access to cheap oil. It’s the enhancement of the geopolitical position of U.S. imperialism vis-à-vis any potential rivals during what the neocons call the “New American Century” and (as a corollary to that project) the enhancement of the “security” (regional hegemony) of Israel. In any case, the idea that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was to encourage “freedom” in Iraq only surfaced after the fact, in August 2003, as all the earlier stated reasons for invasion had become discredited. That’s when Condoleezza Rice gave a speech in Dallas cynically associating the “liberation” of Iraq with the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.

The suggestion that this was Bush’s priority all along just isn’t plausible. Had he been committed to democracy, he would have conceded the election to Al Gore in 2000; had he been committed to freedom, he would not have shoved the “PATRIOT” act down the throats of Congressmen in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 nor gleefully endorsed “rendition” and the indefinite detention and torture of “noncombatants” captured (or bought from bounty hunters) in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Bush supporters like the blogger quoted above will take comfort in McClellan’s book. They’ll think it lets their man off the hook.

Finally, McClellan damns the news media for being “complicit enablers” of the march to war. Having performed a central role in the dissemination of disinformation, he chastises the Fifth Estate for “covering the [administration’s] campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it…” He notes accurately enough that the media neglected “their watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign was succeeding.”

He notes that “the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should have never come as such a surprise. The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of the uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam Hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people, the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere–on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war. In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”

As my kids would say: “Well, duh….!” Of course the corporate media was complicit in the prewar propaganda campaign, just as it is now complicit in the Cheney/neocon drive towards war on Iran and Syria. But McClellan, who played a central role in the disinformation campaign (the psychological warfare against his own people) is now engaging in shameless scapegoating. It reminds me a little bit of the administration’s scapegoating of the CIA beginning in the fall of 2003. It had become clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The mainstream intelligence community had in fact questioned the evidence for them all along, but been brow-beaten by Dick Cheney and his sidekick “Scooter” Libby into signing onto the bogus content of Colin Powell’s infamous UNSC presentation on February 5, 2003. That drew on false reports from Ahmad Chalabi and neocon asset “Curveball” vetted through Douglas Feith’s “Office of Special Plans.” When it became obvious that there were no Iraqi WMD, Cheney & Co. blamed the CIA for getting the story wrong and used the occasion to reorganize an organization they mistrusted precisely because of its commitment to objective intelligence gathering.

When it’s become obvious that Bush lied about Iraq, and that McClellan was a key conduit of lies himself, what does he do but blame the media for believing him! So in sum: Bush deserves affection, as a well-meaning if misled guy. (McClellan writes that Dick Cheney “always seemed to get his way” and was thus the chief misleader.) Freedom” was a good objective but maybe not obtainable (too “idealistic”) in the Middle East. McClellan thinks we should all feel sorry for he himself due to all he’s been through, realizing that his critical reasoning deficits were the result of trust and affection and that he, just like other Americans (who weren’t in positions to mold public opinion), changed his view about the war and the administration over time. Most of all we should buy his book, in order to access what he calls “my truth” (p. xi). It’s Number One on the New York Times’ best seller list at $ 27.95.

Ain’t it grand how telling your personal “truth” can make you look good, make you a fortune, and obfuscate the real issues all at the same time? The Bush people pronounce themselves “puzzled” and “sad” about their former colleague’s confessions. But I think they should be relieved, considering the alternatives. Instead of depicting Bush as a well-meaning democratic idealist he could have expressed the real truth: Bush is a child of privilege, indifferent to human suffering, energized by a deep cruel streak, dangerously affected by religious delusions, contemptuous of ideas and intellectuals, disdainful of international law, still at large and dangerous as he plans an unjustifiable assault on Iran. Instead of depicting the Iraq War as an act of criminal aggression McClellan does the administration a big favor by merely terming it a “strategic blunder.”

Yeah. Like the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 was a strategic blunder. Like the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 was a strategic blunder. Like the German invasion of Poland in 1939 was a strategic blunder. Idealistic visionaries in power, just making mistakes.

Should there ever be war crimes trials, McClellan will be called to testify on behalf of the defense, if only as a character witness.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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