Beltway Traffic Jam

Things don't look good for the Bush administration as it shifts into campaign mode.

| Mon Mar. 8, 2004 4:00 AM EST

Here's a little rundown of various developments of the last week, not a single one of which adds up to good news for the Bush administration as it launches itself into eight months of mortal combat with not-quite Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry.

As a start, the two great props for the Iraqi war, the two explanations that convinced so many terrorized Americans to back a "preventive" war -- those mushroom clouds sprouting over American cities and the al Qaeda-Saddam link that would somehow get them there -- simply are no more, though the administration remains trapped in its own explanations and incapable of letting go.

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Weapons of mass destruction: David Kay, former administration hawk and head of the Iraq Survey Team, the man who was to bring home the irradiated bacon, continues to confound the Bush people by insisting not just that he and they were wrong, but that they, like him, should admit the error of their ways. Julian Borger of the British Guardian recently interviewed him (The inspector's final report):

"'Let me begin by saying, we were almost all wrong, and I certainly include myself here,' he told the open-mouthed senators. It was a mea culpa -- he had been convinced since his days as a UN inspector that Saddam Hussein was concealing a potentially devastating arsenal -- but it was much more than that. In simply stating that there were no stockpiles, Kay declared that the would-be emperors on both sides of the Atlantic had no clothes…

"Coming from a hawk and advocate of the Iraq invasion, that is a depressing conclusion for an administration at the start of an unpredictable election year. Worse still, Kay is now calling on the White House to come clean about its mistakes and defend the war instead as a liberation of an oppressed people… [H]e thinks the president has to go further to regain public trust. 'It's about confronting and coming clean with the American people, not just slipping a phrase into the state of the union speech. He should say: 'We were mistaken and I am determined to find out why'."

Worse yet, the guy just won't shut up.

Meanwhile, as Bill Nichols of USA Today reported, the UN inspection teams, whose efforts were once denounced by Donald Rumsfeld as a "sham," were set to report that Iraq probably had had no WMD stocks since 1994. Even though the UN was cut out of the postwar weapons hunt, as Nichols comments, "U.N. reports submitted to the Security Council before the war by Hans Blix, former chief U.N. arms inspector, and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, have been largely validated by U.S. weapons teams."

And then -- more bad news for Tony Blair (and not so wonderful for our President either) -- former head of the UN inspection teams, Hans Blix (remember him?), just gave an interview to the British Independent in which he declared that, in his opinion, the Iraq war was "illegal." His new book on his prewar experiences, Disarming Iraq, will be released here only days from now and the week after next he's going to be at the University of California, Berkeley, undoubtedly repeating the same charges in an on-stage "conversation" with Christian Amanpour of CNN (who has made some strong statements of her own about our "embedded" media, self-censorship, and the war):

"The former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has declared that the war in Iraq was illegal, dealing another devastating blow to Tony Blair… He said it would have required a second United Nations resolution explicitly authorising the use of force for the invasion of Iraq last March to have been legal… He repeated accusations the US and British governments were 'hyped' intelligence and lacking critical thinking. 'They used exclamation marks instead of question marks.'"

Excerpts from the book have already been published by the Guardian in which, according to Reuters, Blix suggests:

"George Bush and Tony Blair, perhaps fired by a religious conviction they were battling evil, have been seduced by unproven intelligence reports of Iraq's illegal weapons, former chief U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix says… Blix wrote that Western [i.e. American and British] intelligence claims shared with his inspectors about, for example, mobile laboratories to make biological agents had proved embarrassing and added: 'I am not aware of any other intelligence "shared" with us that has been substantiated by credible evidence.'

"'Perhaps Blair and Bush, both religious men, felt strengthened in their political determination by the feeling they were fighting evil, not only (arms) proliferation,' he wrote."

Ah, for the return of the repressed, despised, bugged, ignored, rejected, spied upon, vilified, and scorned. In their moment of glory, our cocky leaders believed they had buried Blix and his ilk deeper than any weapons of mass destruction and that they would never rise again. How wrong they've proved to be.

Al-Qaeda links: Another of the administration's major justifications for war -- the supposed operational linkage between Osama and Saddam, between, that is, 9/11 and an invasion of Iraq -- was hit at the water line by a torpedo and sunk last week, thanks to a report from the Knight Ridder team of Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott. (Strobel and Landay in particular have quietly done among the best and most reliable reporting -- real digging -- on the Bush administration throughout this dismal period.) In a piece far too modestly headlined (Doubts cast on efforts to link Saddam, al-Qaida) given its stinging first line, they write:

"The Bush administration's claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaida -- one of the administration's central arguments for a pre-emptive war -- appears to have been based on even less solid intelligence than the administration's claims that Iraq had hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons."

Ka-boom!

And they go on to point out that this had been well documented and had circulated within the intelligence community and assumedly passed on to key officials in the administration long before the war was ever launched:

"Senior U.S. officials now say there never was any evidence that Saddam's secular police state and Osama bin Laden's Islamic terrorism network were in league. At most, there were occasional meetings. Moreover, the U.S. intelligence community never concluded that those meetings produced an operational relationship, American officials said. That verdict was in a secret report by the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence that was updated in January 2003, on the eve of the war.

"'We could find no provable connection between Saddam and al-Qaida,' a senior U.S. official acknowledged. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the information involved is classified and could prove embarrassing to the White House."

A perfect storm of scandals

Oh, and let's not forget that old Niger uranium claim -- Iraq's supposed yellowbrick road to war -- based on the most ineptly doctored documents to surface in memory. It's a case being quietly investigated in the Senate and by the FBI. As Josh Marshall comments in a piece in The Hill:

"Next up is the much-less-discussed investigation into those forged documents that purported to prove that Iraq was purchasing large quantities of uranium from the African nation of Niger. The Senate investigation is focusing on what happened to those documents after they got into U.S. government hands. But there's also an ongoing FBI investigation into just who forged them and how this fraudulent evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program was peddled into American hands."

I've included his whole piece below. He offers a partial listing -- who can remember all of them -- of the various investigations of the administration that may, in the coming months, add up to what he terms "a perfect storm of scandals." He also offers a close accounting of exactly how conveniently the fraudulent Niger documents turned up just as the CIA and the White House were duking it out over whether this claim should be made at all.

He doesn't bother, though, to mention the ongoing tussle between the 9/11 commission and the White House about Presidential testimony and other matters, though the commission's report, now due in July, may prove embarrassing to the administration. This week, White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded in this way to criticism of the use of 9/11 footage in the first wave of Bush presidential ads. "It is vital to our future," he said in justification of the images, "that we learn what September 11th taught us." To which Paul Woodward of the War in Context website comments:

"If Scott McClellan thinks that it's vital we learn what 9-11 taught us, can he explain why President Bush has offered only one hour of his time to be questioned by the 9-11 commission?"

Marshall mentions, of course, the ongoing Plame-outing investigation, but only late this week did we learn that, according to Tom Brune of Newsday (Air Force One phone records subpoenaed):

"The federal grand jury probing the leak of a covert CIA officer's identity has subpoenaed records of Air Force One telephone calls in the week before the officer's name was published in a column in July, according to documents obtained by Newsday.

"Also sought in the wide-ranging document requests contained in three grand jury subpoenas to the Executive Office of President George W. Bush are records created in July by the White House Iraq Group, a little-known internal task force established in August 2002 to create a strategy to publicize the threat posed by Saddam Hussein… The White House declined Thursday to release a list of those on the trip."

And here's an odd little note to ponder, buried deep in Brune's piece:

"That subpoena also sought a complete transcript of a July 12 press 'gaggle,' or informal briefing, by then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer while at the National Hospital in Abuja, Nigeria. That transcript is missing from the White House Web site containing transcripts of other press briefings. In a transcript the White House released at the time to Federal News Service, Fleischer discusses Wilson and his CIA report."

I say, send in what's left of the Iraq Survey Team. They might find it.

Encino Man

Dick Cheney came out of his cave last week and submitted to the equivalent -- for him -- of having his hair checked for lice: He let himself be interviewed by various cable channels. Lester Holt of MSNBC was among the generally soft-ball interviewers. But Cheney didn't seem to notice how easy the going should have been. Undoubtedly blinking hard in the blinding light of day, and, perhaps confused about what year it was or what was actually happening up here on what passes for planet Earth, he promptly offered the following gem:

"If the Democratic policies had been pursued over the last two or three years, the kind of tax increases that both Kerry and Edwards have talked about, we would not have had the kind of job growth we've had."

Uh, Dick… sorry to drop a load of bad news on you but…

…and how the Kerry people loved it. The Senator is already stumping up a storm on that quote alone, though the whole interview was little short of priceless. Given that on the day it took place more than 170 shiites were blown to bits in Karbala and Baghdad, and asked by Holt, who had evidently wandered into the Vietnam era, a period when the vice president was distinctly missing-in-action, to locate "the light at the end of this tunnel" for him, Cheney located it in the "desperation" of the bombers as we "get closer and closer to standing up a new government in Iraq" (which, by the way, promptly tottered on Friday).

Holt then followed up with:

"[T]he U.N. weapons inspectors are issuing a report that essentially backs what David Kay said, there were no significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction prior to the war. You, of course, were a big advocate to call Saddam Hussein to task, to end the games. So are you disappointed that nothing has been found, frustrated, even embarrassed?"

And the vice president, with a certain note of desperation offered the following strange response:

"No. I think you have to look precisely at what we are finding and will find. The search is going to go on. There's still a lot of work to be done before we'll have looked every place we need to look, we've checked out all the ammunition dumps and looked at all the documents and interviewed all the people. That work will probably continue for another year or two, and it's not complete yet… But I think on balance, overall, there's no question we did the right thing in Iraq; that Saddam Hussein had hosted terrorists before, that he had produced and used weapons of mass destruction before. And what the President and I said, as well as many others, prior to the war, and tracked very closely with what we were being given by the intelligence community, and that was their best estimate of what he had."

Don't even try to parse that last sentence.

The luck of the draw

9/11, a horror of horrors, was also the single stroke of luck the Bush administration needed to mobilize a nation behind its plans for war and the domination of this planet. The attacks on the Pentagon, but especially the World Trade Center towers, left behind a terrified country, with visions of apocalyptic horror dancing like dust motes in its collective brain. Otherwise, why would the spot of the attacks in New York almost immediately and by consensus come to be referred to as "ground zero," a term that until then had defined the spot immediately under an atomic explosion?

When the President, his vice president, and his national security adviser began to talk about those future mushroom clouds going off over American cities, their reference point was certainly to memories of that "ground zero" experience, even if it had been carried using unbelievably low-tech weapons and two captured but everyday fuel-carrying machines.

Clark Dougan, my editor at the University of Massachusetts Press, a Vietnam expert, and a man of the heartland -- Cleveland, to be exact -- has the following to say about the election to come:

After pointing out the economic pain his home state of Ohio is feeling -- more than a quarter of a million jobs lost under the Bush administration -- he suggests that, since 9/11, the Democrats have needed all the luck going their way to have a shot at anything. Now, he feels, the Bush administration and the Republicans suddenly find themselves in a similar position: Specifically, they need the luck of the draw in three areas, only one of which shows any promise at all. The first area is the economy, where the latest job figures indicate that only a paltry 21,000 new jobs were created last month. Since January, an estimated 392,000 people have dropped out of the job market -- simply stopped looking -- and so weren't counted in the official figures at all, so what we really experienced was an unofficial but sizeable rise in unemployment. This is called in our press a "stall" in job creation, but you do the math.

The second area where there need some lucky breaks is Iraq. There, this administration desperately needs the violence to abate, and the situation to come under some sort of control; in essence, to fade from sight in the coming months; and, third, they need significant successes in the "war on terrorism," which basically means the capture of Osama bin Laden. Not only that but, Dougan believes, they need to luck out in two out of these three of these to win what will be a close and desperately fought election.

It's clear that two years late, the Bush administration has suddenly decided that Osama truly is their man. They need him badly enough to mount the sort of massive drive, missing these many months, to capture or kill him and they've been willing to pressure the Pakistani government into a no less massive occupation of its own tribal lands along the Afghan border (where Osama is now believed to be lodged) with unknown consequences. As Scott Baldauf of the Christian Science Monitor writes (New thrust in hunt for Bin Laden):

"Out in the wilds of Waziristan, the Pakistani Army has moved in force, bringing in thousands of troops to seal off roads in an area that may be Osama bin Laden's last stand. By all accounts, the massive operation has the makings of a protracted siege carried out among fiercely independent mountain villages along the Afghan border. Saturday, Pakistani troops fired on a minibus full of civilians at a checkpoint near Wana, killing 14. Pakistan's government offered compensation to victims' families Monday.

"But as difficult as this operation is on a military level, observers here say the political implications of the spring offensive against Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas may be even greater and more far-reaching. By putting Pakistani troops into the once-autonomous region of ethnic Pashtun tribes - an area never conquered by the British, the Persians, or even Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes - Pakistan risks a wider Pashtun rebellion that the Pakistani Army could find difficult to control."

Pepe Escobar of Asia Times Online reports on rumors in the region (Get Osama -- but where and when?):

"The Peshawar sources confirm numerous local reports that bin Laden and his close entourage have come practically face-to-face with US patrols on several occasions in the past few weeks in Paktika -- so they had to find a safer refuge [across the Afghan border in Pakistan].

"But it could be a case of out of the frying pan into the fire. US Commando 121, headed by General William Boykin, with input from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is preparing to pounce…

"The ISI-concocted endgame would be to capture bin Laden inside Pakistani territory, and then move him to Afghanistan - where the big news would be announced by Commando 121, or by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, or by both… Independent sources in Peshawar tell Asia Times Online that the whole arrangement may be part of a secret deal discussed face-to-face last week between US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President General Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistanis do the hard work to capture bin Laden in the volatile, tribal Pakistani side -- helping Commando 121 and other Special Forces. But the big news will come from Afghanistan."

"Big news" in hand, of course, the real end-game wouldn't take place in Pakistan or Afghanistan but in the U.S. in the midst of an election season. Given the economy and the situation in Iraq (on which more in another dispatch though you might consider checking out the Washington Post's Dana Milbank and Robin Wright, For Bush, an Election-Year Powder Keg), Osama is the most likely candidate for an election year boost, though all you conspiracy theorists who think that the Evil One is already in custody, and being held somewhere for a summer surprise or a fall shock should take a deep breath.

In the interim, the question is: Will the culture wars redux and money beyond measure do the trick for the Busheviks, Osama or no?

The money advantage Bush has at this point is clear enough, given a campaign treasury stuffed to the brim, and he began bringing it to bear this week, launching two ads featuring the ruins of the World Trade Center and a third featuring Laura telling us that her hubby has ''the strength, the focus, the characteristics'' for tough times. Millions of dollars worth of these ads hit various cable and sports channels heading like a JDAM missile for, as Judy Keen, Jim Drinkard and Mark Memmott of USA Today point out, TV sites where "affluent male Republicans are more likely to get their political news." And no sooner were the first ads out there among the faithful then unexpected flack from the less than faithful began.

"Monica Gabrielle, a member of the Family Steering Committee working with the federal commission that is investigating the attacks, called the Bush ads' use of the Trade Center ruins ''a total affront to the murder of my husband and 3,000 other victims.''' It was a typical statement. Other 9/11 family members, firemen from the recovery site, and various Democrats immediately pitched in. Think about it. Even six months ago, a series of Bush ads like this would certainly have passed by without a peep of opposition or criticism.

I'm struck as well that our self-proclaimed "war president" started his campaign by using his wife and the 9/11 catastrophe as shields in his first on-air venture. Not exactly a profile in courage, I would say. Some anti-Bush group should simply produce a map of the war president's plane route in the 12 hours after the attacks when he headed westward, not northward, from Florida. That would say it all.

Oh, and by the way, here's a little quiz for you: what wasn't mentioned by the war president in any of his three ads? Answer: the war in Iraq.

I have two other suggestions to throw out to the world -- one for Senator Kerry (not that he's listening to me) and another for any set of demonstrators around. I don't know why the senator, as a veteran, hasn't for the last months been attending funerals of the war dead. As Nancy Lessin, co-founder of the organization Military Families Speak Out, and Gordon Clark write at the Alternet.org website (Stop Hiding the Toll of War):

"The military planes carrying human remains fly into Dover Air Force Base in Delaware under cover of darkness. Unlike Vietnam, when Americans could see the consequences of war, the media are now banned from Dover Air Force Base by military order, reinforced for the Iraq war by an edict from Mr. Bush. One does not need to be a historian to know that the image of dead Americans, returning day after day in body bags, helped turn America against the war in Vietnam. This administration has gone to great lengths to prevent a repeat by keeping images of lifeless and broken bodies away from the cameras and the consciousness of the American people. Mr. Bush has not yet attended a single funeral for anyone killed in Iraq -- not a single one. Spain and Italy held state funerals for their countrymen who died in Iraq, but the Bush Administration's policy for our own war dead is to hide them."

Kerry should change this. His own Vietnam-era experience would allow him to genuinely empathize with the families of the dead. They should be valued and supported -- and the point should be made. Our President has been making politics of his war and its costs ever since it began. In the Oval Office, in semi-uniform in speeches surrounded by troops, strutting in flight suit on that aircraft-carrier flight deck, and in the rites for the dead that he will not attend. Somebody should attend. Why not the senator from Massachusetts?

In addition, I think someone should start building a makeshift Iraq Wall as close to the White House as it's legally possible to get. American casualties are down at the moment -- perhaps because our troops have largely been withdrawn to the outskirts of Baghdad and some other towns and are hunkering down for the duration. But Iraqi casualties have risen in the same period. An Iraq wall should have both, I think.

At his website, Josh Marshall characterizes the Bush ads this way:

"If you look at the TV ads the president just unveiled today, you quickly see a main --probably the main -- theme of his reelection campaign: it's not my fault.

"Yes, there are all sort of bad things going on. The economy's been rough. The deficit is deepening. Job growth is barely registering. There's all sorts of chaos on the international stage. But it's not my fault. When I got here there was a recession already, which I didn't have anything to do with. That was Clinton's fault. And the same with all the corporate scandals. And then Osama bin Laden got involved and that wasn't my fault either. And that Iraq thing didn't completely work out. But that's the CIA's fault. So if there's anything that's bad now it's not because of anything I did. It's because of 9/11. And if it's not because of 9/11 then it was already broken when I got here. So don't blame me.

"Now, I think that does pretty much sum up what the president and the White House are telling the public. But it's important to draw back and recognize that up until this point that argument has largely worked. Now, however, I think people are beginning to question the argument… Thus the new ads, the message of which might fairly be summed up as 'It's midnight in America. But if the Democrats were in, the sun might never come up!'"

Because Bush's dark promise may not prove a winning approach for the next four years, the President also clearly hopes to distract by conjuring up his own cultural midnight of horror, launching, as Sidney Blumenthal vividly describes it in a recent column in the British Guardian (Bush goes to war with modernity):

"The launch of his Kulturkampf has been a blitzkrieg. Bush proposed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. He dismissed two scientists who dissented on his bioethics board, which he has used to ban forms of stem cell research, replacing them with adherents of the religious right. Bush made a recess appointment of William Pryor of Alabama as a federal judge, blocked in the Senate for his extremism. Pryor had said that 'abortion is murder' and supported the building of an altar of the 10 commandments in a courthouse. Then the attorney general, John Ashcroft, subpoenaed the medical records of women who have had abortions at planned parenthood clinics.

"Bush followed by supporting the unborn victims of violence bill, creating a new federal crime of foetal homicide that passed the Republican-dominated House of Representatives on February 26. At Bush's order, the Senate is being transformed into a battlefield of the culture war."

This approach has certainly worked for the Republicans at various moments in the past. But in this case I don't think it's likely to trump the economy and Iraq -- and its essential red-meat conservatism may alienate small but crucial numbers of swing voters in key states. The basics are the basics, after all, and this is the President who "won" the last election by a backwards hair largely by promising to be a uniter, not a divider. I suspect that, as in touch as it is with the world of down-and-dirty campaigning, as willing as it is to do anything to win it all, this administration is increasingly out of touch with the daily realities of the country as, most Americans felt, was George's father in the wake of the first Gulf War.

Chris Nelson's insider newsletter the Nelson Report notes that polling figures continue their snail-like trend downward for the President and worry continues to build among Republican stalwarts:

"Let us stipulate that between now and Labor Day, polls are simply indicators of trends, and signify nothing certain for Nov. 2. Having said that, the latest polls continue to show a downward trend in public confidence in President Bush's handling of the economy, with 66% of a Pew Research Center poll saying Bush 'could be doing more to improve economic conditions…'

"These and other polls put into context the growing tendency of pro-Administration opinion leaders to excoriate the White House generally, and Bush personally, for what Bob Novak's nationally syndicated column today [March 4] called a 'Republican Malaise.' Novak even goes so far as to warn that Capitol Hill Republicans worry that White House ineptitude could threaten continued GOP domination of the House and Senate...at least by the 2006 elections."

Senator Robert Byrd, never less than eloquent these last two years, recently offered this little summary of the President's relationship to the world the rest of us inhabit:

"Only a President who never had to apply for unemployment benefits would oppose extending them when so many workers are without a job. Only a President who never needed overtime pay would advocate taking it away from those workers who rely on it to make ends meet. Only a President who never needed federal aid to attend college would advocate cutting it back for those students who cannot attend college without it.

"When this Administration leaves office, its legacy will be an enormous debt burden that will weigh heavily on the middle-class. In the process, it will have severely weakened their safety net, and have left little means for fixing it.

"But it won't matter to this president at that point. He'll move back to Texas knowing that his pension and health care benefits are secure, and that corporate CEOs and Texas oil men are wealthier and more comfortable than ever before. He'll never have to rely on the safety net that his Administration has worked so hard to dismantle."

So you have a jobless economic "recovery" now beyond the power of this administration to do much but pray over; an Iraqi situation that continues to spin out of control; an Osama hunt which may or may not succeed; the weight of those scandals slowly piling up like a series of rear-enders on a crowded rush-hour highway, and then you have the unknown. What, for instance, of the unexpected occupation that is developing in forlorn Haiti?

Despite the administration's long-term plans to topple Aristide, this moment clearly caught them off-guard and was none too welcome, though they followed their normal undemocratic and imperial instincts once it began to unfold. On our role in Aristide's fall, as on our role in the attempted toppling of Venezuela's Chavez, given our history in the region, it seems only logical to consider us guilty until proven innocent, though our media takes exactly the opposite approach. Perhaps the sanest observation I've seen on the subject came from Gary Younge of the Guardian who wrote:

"While it is unlikely that Mr Aristide was led to the airport in handcuffs, it is equally disingenuous to suggest that his departure was in any way voluntary. In either case it is significant that he resigned to the US rather than to the chief supreme court justice, his constitutional successor."

You offer your "resignation" to those taking power -- and it's obvious who was attempting to take power in Haiti. The two most interesting documents on Haitian events I've seen I include below -- a Los Angeles Times piece on the "Keystone Kops coup" by economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has been extremely clear-eyed on events on the island and in Washington (read The Fire This Time in Haiti Was U.S.-Fueled, written before Aristide's overthrow, in tandem with this one); and some testimony by Congressman Charles Rangel, no radical, offered before a House subcommittee and reprinted in the Nelson Report. But with more recent history in mind, don't expect the Bush administration to be prepared for an effective occupation of that tortured, impoverished, violent land. In fact, expect the worst, which is again not exactly the best thing for the Bush administration at this very moment.

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web lob of The Nation Institute.

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