WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush spent the weekend of Oct. 5-6 at his parents’ family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine working on the speech he would give Monday, Oct. 7 in Cincinnati to rally the American people to his crusade to topple Saddam Hussein. Yet, strangely, he did not surround himself with any Pentagon generals or intelligence chiefs, or even his favorite pet chicken hawks – the armchair warriors at the Department of Defense.
No, Bush crafted that speech with two men: his White House chief of staff Andrew Card and his long-time political Svengali, Karl Rove. It was they who flew back with him.
The president’s choice of domestic political advisers by his side as he crafted a crucial trumpet call to a major conflict was revealing. There was no hint of domestic considerations in the crisp, precisely 30-minute, no-nonsense speech Bush gave to tighten the screws on the dictator of Iraq. And as in his speech to the assembled houses of Congress after the 9/11 terror attacks and in his State of the Union message at the beginning of the year, Bush was at his best. He was restrained, dignified, sober, the kind of salesman you would expect to have Yale and Harvard Business School degrees and from whom you would certainly buy that creaky used car with the dubious brakes.
It was Bush’s second major address on Iraq in less than four weeks. He had said virtually the same things to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 12. And his steady, relentless drumbeat of rhetoric was having its effect. On Monday, Oct. 7 – the same day the president gave his Cincinnati speech and exactly one year after he launched U.S. military operations in Afghanistan – his most embarrassing congressional hold-out, retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, finally signed on to the president’s mission.
Bush subsequently received a Congressional fig leaf, his very own Gulf of Tonkin resolution well within the time period he demanded – just before the midterm congressional elections. But not too early to give people time to have second thoughts about the bold martial Sousa brass band marches he was conducting.
It was a far cry from the dog days of August. Curiously enough, the desperate urgency about moving rapidly against Iraq that Bush expressed to the American people in October was not evident from anything he said or did only two months before. But, then, the height of the summer holiday season is not the time to sell a policy to the American people, especially when it involves unleashing full-scale war.
As soon as September arrived and the kids went back to school, however, Bush hit high gear. Simultaneously, in both on the record statements and impeccably choreographed remarks attributed as usual to “senior administration officials,” the president and his top lieutenants launched his two-front diplomatic offensive. Its purpose was clear: to persuade, bully, and browbeat the two institutions they had treated with simultaneous contempt – the United Nations and the United States Congress – into giving them carte blanche for the war with Iraq.
To both the UN and Congress, Bush sounded a note of absolute urgency. The crucial approval had to be given by the beginning of October. National security was at stake. There was not a minute to lose. The longer those contemptible, spineless Democrats and those selfish, isolationist Republicans prevaricated and fiddled, the more likely Washington or New York City would burn when Saddam Hussein struck first. The administration had to have the Congressional green light it needed for political cover before it moved against Iraq. And it had to have it by early October. But hold a minute, why now? Why the beginning of October? And, for that matter, why Iraq?
At least 10,000 al-Qaeda terrorists who escaped the administration’s two entirely bungled military operations to net them at Tora Bora late last year and in Operation Anaconda afterwards remain snug and secure in our gallant ally Pakistan. Occasional teaspoonfuls of them – two or three obscure young thugs at a time – are hauled up before local courts to keep an easily satisfied Bush administration happy.
U.S. intelligence officials affirm – and serious mainstream news reports concur – that there are now far more al-Qaeda activists camped out in eastern Iran than there are in neighboring Iraq. And it was, after all, al-Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11. So why this over-riding obsession to get the go-ahead to invade Iraq instead? And why now?
If it were obviously a matter of national security, the answer would be clear. If Iraq were literally days or weeks away from having a nuclear weapon or plotting to annihilate millions of Americans with it, such haste would not just be justified, it would be mandatory. But absolutely none of the confidential briefings that senators and congressmen have received has alleged any such thing. On the contrary, the president and his spokesmen have recently de-linked Iraq from close ties with al-Qaeda or plotting the 9/11 atrocities. And they have not given a single senator or congressman a nugget of hard intelligence that we must launch operations against Saddam in October or before the end of the year or he will have, or will have unleashed, new hell weapons upon us. On the contrary, the surest guarantee that he will deploy smallpox or nuclear weapons would be if he were finally backed into a corner with nothing to lose.
Also, even if a war against Saddam is necessary and inevitable, why rush through the clearance in early October if war is not to start until January? For almost all reputable military authorities and analysts concur that the combination of weather conditions in the Iraqi desert and the surprisingly cold mountains of its far north would be best for large-scale U.S. military operations starting in January as was the case in the 1991 Gulf War.
There is a window of opportunity in October, when the desert has got colder and before the heavy rains come in the far north, with potential to immobilize or slow down heavy armor operations. But this window is short and closes quickly. Senior generals and staff officers know this, which is why they are reluctant to rush into attacking at such a time. And it may even be that their counsels of caution have prevailed upon the civilian hawks running the Pentagon.
It may, of course, also be that their counsels will be overruled and that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz will insist on celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis by launching a full-scale Middle East war. But why choose October? And if they are indeed prepared to wait until January at least, then why insist on getting the Congressional approval rubber-stamped by the early part of that month?
Millions of American voters will get their third quarter 401K statements in mid to late October, close enough to the November elections that they will remember the dire bottom line results. For the American public has seen an almost 25% collapse in the Dow Jones industrial average since President George W. Bush took office. Voters have watched his administration convert the $100 billion budgetary surpluses it inherited into a $150 billion deficit in less than two years. Add Enron, WorldCom, and other major financial scandals and ominous rising unemployment that now tops 400,000. Yet the president’s personal approval ratings remain securely in the 70 % range. And the New York Times and the Washington Post both concluded in Page A1 national political analyses during the first week of October that the struggle for control of both houses of Congress in the November elections was too close to call. How could that be?
As long as domestic issues were dominating news coverage and political battles over the summer, Bush and his Republicans lost ground. But lo and behold! Though there have been no new terrorist attacks or credible indications of imminent threat, since the beginning of September national security issues have been back in the driver’s seat. And it is Iraq, not al-Qaeda that is driving.
Does that mean that nothing more than short-term political ambition is propelling the focus on Iraq? Is the Iraqi threat nonexistent? Or will the administration leash its dogs of war and send them back to their kennels once the election is done and snoopy Democrats have been safely kept off the chairmanships of key House committees? For otherwise they might ask embarrassing questions about Vice President Dick Cheney’s dealings at Haliburton, or how close the president’s ties to Enron’s Kenneth Lay really were.
The megalomaniacal obsession with cleaning the face of the Middle East and its 280 million Arabs, whether they want it or not, has intoxicated the DOD’s masters beyond reason. Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have swallowed it neat and uncut too. But that does not mean Bush and Karl Rove do not have other more “practical” considerations high on their agenda.
For the taunt that Republican critics threw – correctly – at President Bill Clinton is also true of this Republican president who seems inclined to subordinate foreign policy principles to his domestic political needs.
Indeed, the accusation is now true in far more serious ways. Clinton, for all his do-gooding and internationalizing, was admirably sound on two crucial principles. He was determined to keep the United States out of any war likely to have serious casualties, and he recognized that maintaining good or at least defused relations with Russia, China, and the major nations of the Arab world was essential to fulfil that end. By contrast, Bush has given free rein to the most reckless and irresponsible policymakers at DOD while politically castrating his cautious secretary of state, Colin Powell.
In the short term, this policy has proven politically advantageous for Bush. At a stroke, he and Rove have forced the Democrats to play on a field where they have been whipped in every major game for the past 35 years. As former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times Oct. 3, “Once again the Democratic Party finds itself on the defense about defense. Congressional Democrats are responding to a Republican president’s initiative, this time.” And Hart succinctly and entirely accurately concluded, “This issue could well decide the Congressional balance of power, propelling Republicans to victory in both the House and the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections.”
When viewed from this perspective, the urgency with which the administration has pursued the Iraq issue becomes all too explicable. Bush, Rumsfeld, and Rove appear intent on proving to future generations just how wise James Madison and the other Founding Fathers were when they insisted that the war-making power reside in Congress and not in the Executive – a position for which this administration has shown repeated and open contempt. Jefferson, Madison, and many of their great contemporaries were convinced that American heads of state and the officials loyal to and dependent upon them were no more inherently virtuous or incorruptible than those of Old Europe. (Their philosophical position, incidentally, was entirely antithetical to the triumphal American particularism of our current neocons.)
The American people see before them the spectacle of an administration that has failed in all its major domestic policies and abandoned traditional Republican principles on far too many issues. (One could list maintaining effective immigration controls, a balanced budget, general fiscal prudence, a commitment to full civil liberties, and cultural assimilation of millions of new immigrants.) Instead, the administration is campaigning to sustain and increase its power on a policy of international adventurism, new radical preemptive military strategies, and a hunger for a politically convenient and perfectly timed confrontation with Iraq.
Lyndon Johnson demanded his infamous 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution before his own landslide election victory – won in large by part by demonizing Barry Goldwater for reckless policies that Johnson himself was to implement. Many Americans soon regretted that result as tens of thousands of body bags started coming home. Now LBJ’s ghost must be looking down on his fellow Texan, Bush 43 – and laughing that harsh old hillbilly laugh.
Martin Sieff is Chief International Analyst for United Press International