By Tom Engelhardt
While the situation in Iraq was devolving and his national security advisor was preparing to testify under oath — or do I mean to stonewall, firewall, split hairs, filibuster? — before the 9/11 Commission, our War President, according to Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press, was planning to spend his April 8th
“leading a tour of his ranch for hunting, fishing and land-conservation advocates Thursday, after national security adviser Condoleezza Rice’s testimony to the Sept. 11 commission. Aides said Bush had given no indication of planning to watch the testimony Thursday live on television. Rather, Bush intended to receive updates from his top advisers, a senior administration official said. Bush was attending his usual national-security meetings in the morning.… A partial list showed groups dedicated to protecting hunting and fishing rights and the habitat of fish and game, including Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited, the Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association.”
Lindlaw left out one key organization on the tour, however, Pheasants Forever.
In the great tradition of our vice president and Supreme Court Justice Scalia, our War President is, at this moment of crisis, leading the war on birds. (And his aides now swear he watched every word Rice spoke today.)
Dana Balz and Dana Milbank of the Washington Post report that this week the President “stayed out of sight at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., but events have played havoc with his schedule. Originally, Bush planned to remain out of view until he attends Easter services on Sunday, but aides acknowledged that was untenable at such a momentous time. Now they are planning an Easter Sunday speech at nearby Fort Hood, according to aides, and a possible appearance Friday.”
If you want to send a War President out in public, I always say, send him to a military base. It’s a good way to control the crowd reaction, and a Vietnam-era presidential tic at a moment when this administration is intent on reassuring us that there’s honestly, truly, nothing — they swear — Vietnam-ish about this moment.
The alternative, evidently, is to send George out in company, as to the upcoming private… er… “meeting” (see below) with the 9/11 Commission, which he plans to attend in tandem with Dick Cheney. But I wonder, doesn’t precedent and executive privilege mean anything any more? Where’s the precedent, after all, for a president only “meeting” in the presence of his vice president? I mean, isn’t anything sacrosanct?
Actually, George was asked a question about this just the other day. Here’s the full exchange but, if you happen to be under 17, please skip this passage. It’s R-rated (“Only to be read in the presence of an adult well-grounded in reality”):
“Q Mr. President, can you just tell me — the 9/11 Commission, the Chairman yesterday, Governor Kean, said a date had been set, I think, for your testimony and the Vice President’s. Is that —
“THE PRESIDENT: I would call it a meeting.
“Q A meeting, I’m sorry.
“THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
“Q Has that date been set, and could you share it with us? And number two, can you tell us the rationale as to why you have chosen to testify or rather meet with them with the Vice President?
“THE PRESIDENT: First of all, it will be a great opportunity from them to ask both of us our opinions on the subject. And we’re meeting with the entire commission. I’m not exactly sure what the status is of putting out the date. I told them I’d meet with them at a time that’s convenient for all of us, and hopefully we’ll come to that date soon.
“I look forward to sharing information with them. Let me just be very clear about this: Had we had the information that was necessary to stop an attack, I’d have stopped the attack. And I’m convinced any other government would have, too. I mean, make no mistake about it; if we’d had known that the enemy was going to fly airplanes into our buildings, we’d have done everything in our power to stop it. And what is important for them to hear, not only is that, but that when I realized that the stakes had changed, that this country immediately went on war footing, and we went to war against al Qaeda. It took me very little time to make up my mind, once I determined al Qaeda to do it, to say, we’re going to go get them. And we have, and we’re going to keep after them until they’re brought to justice and America is secure.
“But I’m looking forward to the conversation. I’m looking forward to Condi testifying. I made a decision to allow her to do so because I was assured that it would not jeopardize executive privilege. And she’ll be great. She’s a very smart, capable person who knows exactly what took place, and will lay out the facts. And that’s what the commission’s job is meant to do, and that’s what the American people want to see. I’m looking forward to people hearing her.
“All right, got to go to work. Thanks. Good to see you all.”
Come again? No wonder Dick’s along for the ride. The War President gives his answer… whoops, duck!
Oh, and talking about disconnects from reality, topping the Iraq part of the White House website on April 7 was this:
“Fact of the Day
Iraqis Reject Violence, 4/7/04
“The Iraqi Governing Council issued a statement on April 5 condemning recent acts of violence and calling on Iraqis to continue to work together toward democracy.”
Good Morrrning… Vietnam!
A little history, or put on a happy face –and keep it on, that’s an order from your commander-in-chief…
Al Kamen, columnist for the Washington Post took a little walk down memory lane the other day (So Much for Spinning the Positive):
“The Bush administration has been fuming for many months that the media keep getting things wrong about Iraq, that reporters just refuse to cover the really great things going on over there. So back in the fall, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked his Cabinet pals to help out. There is all sorts of progress in Iraq, he wrote, thanks to many people, ‘including some of your staff members. . . Unfortunately, the American people don’t know much about the progress being made — because the media has focused on the difficulty and challenges, not the successes.’ He enclosed a six-page memo with suggestions for each Cabinet member who would be ‘taking along their respective press corps, who may be less jaded, and more open to good news, than those who regularly cover Iraq.’
“For Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, we find:
“‘MESSAGE: Crime is down in Baghdad and other cities. . . . Iraqi courts are operating again. . . . More than 30,000 Iraqi police are trained, armed and are conducting joint patrols with Coalition forces.
* Watch a police training session. . . .
* Go on a joint patrol (in a permissive neighborhood) with Iraqi police. . . .
“‘PRESS CORPS INVITED: Justice/legal correspondents of major news organizations.’
And so it went for each agency.”
From the Pentagon’s American Forces Press Service, last January, a general-cum-historian practiced wielding Vietnam-era phrases. Brushing up like this makes sense, of course, because memories grow rusty without repetition (Coalition Has ‘Turned Corner’ in Western Iraq):
“Coalition forces have ‘turned the corner’ in western Iraq, said Army Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., 82nd Airborne Division commander, during a Baghdad press conference today.
“The general also said the coalition is ‘on a glide path to success’ in the region. He said attacks against Task Force All-American forces have decreased almost 60 percent in the past month.”
And here’s a military news service account of the winning of “hearts and minds” in Fallujah not so long ago:
“Al Fallujah, Iraq — Battle King soldiers shifted their aim from military targets to humanitarian aid, delivering more than 200 rations, and buckets of candy to Iraqi children in villages outside Fallujah Thursday. ‘When you give (food and candy) to the kids, it makes them happy, which will hopefully go up the chain to their parents,’ said Pfc. Andrew Atterson, a 1st Platoon, B Battery, 1st Battalion, 9th Field Artillery soldier describing the intent of the Battle King’s ‘Hearts and Minds” campaign… [B Battery 1st Sgt. Garry] Hunt explained the Iraqis’ misconceptions about Army soldiers. ‘People ask us, “Are you going to take my house?” We tell them, ‘No, we’re here to help you.’ Most of them think we’re here for oil. They also ask how long the United States will be in Iraq. We tell them we’ll be here until they can run themselves.”
Finally, a note on that vacation David Kay always wanted to take in sunny Iraq:
“Kay [former head of the Iraq Survey Group sent to Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction] told Vanity Fair, in its 22,000-word opus, ‘The Path to War,’ that he was actually ready to come home in mid-December. Tenet said no. ‘If you resign now, it will appear that we don’t know what we’re doing and the wheels are coming off,’ he said Tenet told him. ‘So I said, “Fine, I’ll wait.”‘”
A brief stop at the doorstep of reality — Don’t worry, it’s only momentary; you don’t need to linger…
From Christine Hauser, Iraqi Uprising Spreads; Rumsfeld Sees It as ‘Test of Will,’ the New York Times front-page, April 7:
“An official in the occupation authority said Wednesday that allied and Iraqi security forces had lost control of the key southern cities of Najaf and Kufa to the Shiite militia, conceding that months of effort to win over the population with civil projects and promises of jobs have failed with segments of the population. ‘Six months of work is completely gone,’ the official said. ‘There is nothing to show for it.’
“He cited reports that government buildings, police stations, civil defense garrisons and other installations built up by the Americans had been overrun and then stripped bare, of files, furnishings and even toilet fixtures. For the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein a year ago, the Americans found themselves fighting intensely against two main segments of the population, using warplanes, attack helicopters and armored units against the groups the United States had said it came to liberate when it invaded war in March last year.”
From Pamela Constable, Troops Gaining Grip in Sections of Fallujah, the Washington Post, April 6:
“‘As soon as we pulled up, they started shooting at us,’ said Lance Cpl. Jamil Alkattan, 23, whose unit entered the city at 2 a.m. Monday. ‘There were mortars, rockets and bullets flying everywhere. They were definitely waiting for us. It seemed like everyone in the city who had a gun was out there.'”
From Robert Fisk of the Independent (Reaping the whirlwind):
“The British took three years to turn both the Sunnis and the Shias into their enemies in 1920. The Americans are achieving it in just under a year.”
Never having to say your sorry — a perk of office
These headlines sat one above the other yesterday at the Yahoo.com news site:
“U.S. defends firing on mosque compound”
“Rice plans no apology in 9/11 testimony”
Things are going swimmingly in our one-front war in Iraq
What follows is meant for all of you who don’t have the time to read through the Bush administration’s endless press conferences or “news gaggles” in Washington, Baghdad, Crawford, TX, and places betwixt and between. Just in case the TV news and headlines haven’t made it clear that things are really, truly going our way at last, here are a few statements from those who should know.
The following comments were made by the steely-eyed and obviously angry Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, our chief military spokesman in Iraq (April 7 press conference, Baghdad).
He practices Vietnam-style military reportage by counting how many of whatever we’ve done since when:
“Since the outset of violence on Sunday, the coalition has conduced over 4,600 patrols, 58 targeted raids, and captured over 200 enemy. In the west, ongoing operations along the border have significantly impacted the enemy’s ability to bring in foreign fighters and equipment.”
He agrees with Robert Fisk (see above) on our success in uniting warring factions in Iraq and assures us we’re “on schedule”:
“Q Luke Baker from Reuters. General Kimmitt, you used the phrase ‘destroy the Mahdi Army’ on several occasions. Can we interpret from that that this now is your biggest concern, bigger even than the insurgency you’re facing? And how are you going about sort of adapting to fighting a war on two fronts?
“GEN. KIMMITT: Well, first of all, we are not fighting a war on two fronts. There’s only one front, and that is the country of Iraq. We are — at this point, it would appear that — in the Al Anbar province, working towards restoring civil order in Fallujah — that program, that operation, is going quite well at this point, on schedule, on target.
“With regards to the southern and the central portion of Iraq, as we continue to go against the Mahdi Army we’re getting our foothold into this. We are now understanding more and more about the Mahdi Army — how they operate, where they operate, against whom they operate.
“So in terms of fighting two fronts, I think that is probably a misrepresentation. We’ve been fighting simultaneous operations in this country for quite a while, and we don’t seem to — have not encountered any problems continuing the operations up to this point.”
Good news indeed! No problems encountered! Oh, and Brig. Gen. Kimmitt issued this stern warning to Islamist cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — Watch Your Step. Take Over No More Towns:
“On the question about do we anticipate any further cities being attacked or attempted to be taken over by insurgent elements, such as Mahdi’s Army, I would be very careful if I was an insurgent, if I was a member of Mahdi Army or any other organization in this country, and I would watch very carefully the determined response of the coalition at places such as Fallujah, at places such as Nasiriyah, at places such as al Kut. If they attempt to take over government buildings, if they attempt to take over legitimate facilities such as Iraqi police stations, there will be a response from the coalition. That response will be deliberate, that response will be precise, and that response will be powerful. It is unacceptable, and it will not stand.”
Meanwhile, over on the “civilian” side of things, L. Paul Bremer, Our Man in Baghdad, made an important point:
“Bremer, in an interview Tuesday on CNN, pledged to arrest Sadr. ”He [Sadr] believes that in the new Iraq, like in the old Iraq, power should be with the guy who’s got the guns, and that’s an unacceptable vision for Iraq.'”
Moving up the food chain, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon parses the good news and responds that maybe we’ll keep a few extra guns around just for the heck of it. Unfortunately, the guns are attached to troops who otherwise are about to be sent home. But look on the bright side, it’s a way to avoid one of those Vietnam-era nasty words: “escalation” (April 6 News Conference with Secretary Rumsfeld and NATO Secretary General):
“Q Mr. Secretary, I know you’re in regular contact with General Abizaid about the force level. Could you tell us if there’s been any change in the last 24 hours? Are we still looking at adhering to the plan to bring forces down to 113 (thousand), 115,000 range?
“SEC. RUMSFELD: The circumstance we were in when the latest flare-ups occurred was that we had been in the process of bringing in additional forces and beginning to move forces out. And it was planned to be over about a four- or five-month period, where some 115,000 would go out and 115,000 would go in, but they’d overlap for some extended period so that you would end up transferring the knowledge and the situational awareness that’s so important and do what they call a left seat, right seat, and then right seat, left seat pass off.
“At the present time we have about not 115,000, but something like 135,000 troops in the country. We’re at an unusually high level, and the commanders are using the excess of forces that happen to be in there because of the deployment process. They will decide what they need and they will get what they need. At the present time they’ve announced no change in their plans. But they could make such a request at any time, and needless to say we would — we’ve asked them periodically if they feel they have the capabilities they need, and that’s something that they review on a fairly continuous basis.”
What we’re defending, by the way, is the sovereign nation of Iraq and who should know more about the nature of sovereignty than the guys with the guns? For those of you who are wondering about the difference between the nation of Iraq on June 29th and July 1st, before and after, that is, we hand sovereignty back to them, here are two explanations by eminent experts in the field:
Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense (Stakeout Following Operations and Intelligence Brief, April 2):
“This is going to be the last question and it’s a chance to make a very important point that is poorly understood, not only here, but sometimes in Iraq and it’s very important to understand it correctly. There’s not going to be any difference in our military posture on July 1st from what it is on June 30th, except that we will be there then at the invitation of a sovereign Iraqi government, which I am quite sure will want us to stay there until killers like the ones who perpetrated these atrocities in Fallujah are brought under control.”
Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense:
“Well, first let me make sure everyone’s on the same wavelength with respect to the deadline. The deadline applies to political governance of the country. It does not apply to the security responsibility, as you know. And I think some people have misunderstood that, and they’ve said that because of the spike in incidents and the number of locations where there’s conflict taking place, that maybe the June 30th date should be extended. But of course there is no plan to change in the security situation on June 30th. The only thing that changes is not the security situation but the political situation, as to where sovereignty resides.”
And finally, of course, there’s our War President, whose “will” is being “tested” by a bare “minority” of Iraqis these days. If I remember rightly, being tested was never considered one of his strengths — though what follows he seems to have an unerring memory for old Vietnam-era phrases (“stay the course” and “cut [or “turn”] and run”) used by a couple of his predecessors. I think I’d give George an “A” for history any day based on this (President Bush Discusses Iraq, 911 Commission with Reporters, April 5):
“Q Mr. President, are you concerned at all that events like we’ve seen over the last week in Iraq are going to make it tougher to meet that deadline, or increase pressure from the U.N. or anyone else?
“THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think there’s — my judgment is, is that the closer we come to the deadline, the more likely it is people will challenge our will. In other words, it provides a convenient excuse to attack… But, Stretch, I think throughout this period there’s going to be tests. We were tested in Fallujah. And the desire for those who do not want there to be a free and democratic Iraq is to shake our will through acts of violence and terror. It’s not only our will, it’s the will of other coalition forces and it’s the will of the Iraqi people. As you know, that many Iraqis have been targeted. As a matter of fact, the al Qaeda affiliate Zarqawi made it clear that part of the strategy was to turn Shia on Sunni by killing innocent Iraqis.
“And we’ve got to stay the course, and we will stay the course. The message to the Iraqi citizens is, they don’t have to fear that America will turn and run. And that’s an important message for them to hear. If they think that we’re not sincere about staying the course, many people will not continue to take a risk toward — take the risk toward freedom and democracy.”
The lessons of Vietnam
Senator Ted Kennedy made the following widely reported comments about Vietnam, Iraq, and George Bush in an April 5 speech at the Brookings Institution:
“We have lost the respect of other nations in the world. Where do we go to get our respect back? How do we re-establish the working relationships we need with other countries to win the war on terrorism and advance the ideals we share? How can we possibly expect President Bush to do that? He’s the problem, not the solution. Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam, and this country needs a new President.”
Senator Robert Byrd took up the same issue on the floor of the Senate and made the following striking remarks (A Call for an Exit Door from Iraq):
“For those with tunnel vision, the view from Iraq looked rosy then — Baghdad had fallen, Saddam Hussein was on the run, and U.S. military deaths had been kept to a relatively modest number, a total of 138 from the beginning of combat operations through May 1.
“But the war in Iraq was not destined to follow the script of some idealized cowboy movie of President Bush’s youth, where the good guys ride off into a rose-tinted sunset, all strife settled and all wrongdoing avenged. The war in Iraq is real, and as any soldier can tell you, reality is messy and bloody and scary. Nobody rides off into the sunset for fear that the setting sun will blind them to the presence of the enemies around them….
“Now, after a year of continued strife in Iraq, comes word that the commander of forces in the region is seeking options to increase the number of U.S. troops on the ground if necessary. Surely I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam in this development. Surely, the Administration recognizes that increasing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq will only suck us deeper into the maelstrom of violence that has become the hallmark of that unfortunate country. Starkly put, at this juncture, more U.S. forces in Iraq equates more U.S. targets in Iraq…
“Where should we look for leadership? To this Congress? To this Senate? This Senate, the foundation of the Republic, has been unwilling to take a hard look at the chaos in Iraq. Senators have once again been cowed into silence and support, not because the policy is right, but because the blood of our soldiers and thousands of innocents is on our hands. Questions that ought to be stated loudly in this chamber are instead whispered in the halls. Those few Senators with the courage to stand up and speak out are challenged as unpatriotic and charged with sowing seeds of terrorism. It has been suggested that any who dare to question the President are no better than the terrorists themselves. Such are the suggestions of those who would rather not face the truth.
“This Republic was founded in part because of the arrogance of a king who expected his subjects to do as they were told, without question, without hesitation. Our forefathers overthrew that tyrant and adopted a system of government where dissent is not only important, but it is also mandatory. Questioning flawed leadership is a requirement of this government. Failing to question, failing to speak out, is failing the legacy of the Founding Fathers.
“When speaking of Iraq, the President maintains that his resolve is firm, and indeed the stakes for him are enormous. But the stakes are also enormous for the men and women who are serving in Iraq, and who are waiting and praying for the day that they will be able to return home to their families, their ranks painfully diminished but their mission fulfilled with honor and dignity. The President sent these men and women into Iraq, and it is his responsibility to develop a strategy to extricate them from that troubled country before their losses become intolerable.
“It is staggeringly clear that the Administration did not understand the consequences of invading Iraq a year ago, and it is staggeringly clear that the Administration has no effective plan to cope with the aftermath of the war and the functional collapse of Iraq. It is time — past time — for the President to remedy that omission and to level with the American people about the magnitude of mistakes made and lessons learned. America needs a roadmap out of Iraq, one that is orderly and astute, else more of our men and women in uniform will follow the fate of Tennyson’s doomed Light Brigade.”
Byrd is one of the few mainstream officials calling publicly for an “exit strategy.” Democratic presidential candidate Kerry has been slow indeed on the Iraq uptake and not at all eager to consider a departure of any sort from Iraq or to plan for it. Here’s my little “lesson” for him from the Vietnam era.
He and other Democrats might just remember that Vietnam was “Lyndon Johnson’s war,” but only until Richard Nixon took over the presidency with a “secret plan” which had nothing to do with getting us out of the war or Southeast Asia. Iraq is becoming “George’s Vietnam.” But from that phrase, the only thing guaranteed to remain in place is the “Vietnam.” Another name could easily be substituted in the future.
My suggestion for Senator Kerry — Duck!
Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.