Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Ambushed: Why America turned on Dubbya

This isn't just another Washington crisis; it is the worst calamity to befall a president since Watergate. An administration built on lies stands exposed as never before.

by Andrew Stephen

New Statesman Cover Story (November 10 2005)

We should not let recent events distract us too much. We have known for weeks that the right was deserting George W Bush and that his presidency was imploding (see New Statesman, 3 October). We have known for much longer that, having promised to bring "honour and integrity" to the White House, Bush would do anything but. Yet there are two questions we should now be asking: why did so many people, not least the US electorate and the British government, allow themselves to be misled for so long? And what happens now that the veil of falsehood has been ripped away?

For Bush, there is much more bad news to come, but in the meantime we can survey the ruins of a disastrous autumn. Not so long ago Americans viewed him as a president who would be strong in a national crisis; then came Hurricane Katrina. He still had a card to play as a decent man who was a dependable judge of character, but then he nominated his personal lawyer to the US Supreme Court and even his most devoted followers did not know whether to laugh or cry.

And no sooner had the pathetic Harriet Miers withdrawn her nomination and returned to being Bush's counsel at the White House than a federal prosecutor was telling the world that I Lewis "Scooter" Libby - a man chosen by Bush to be assistant to the US president and chief of staff as well as national security adviser to the vice-president - faced thirty years' imprisonment and fines of $1.25 million because he had been caught fabricating a web of lies that was - I am adding this bit, but the prosecutor might just as well have said it - designed to protect Bush and Dick Cheney from being exposed for having wilfully misled so many into war.

The same Harriet Miers had to issue an instruction that "all White House staffers should not have any contact with Scooter Libby", and with that the man described by Cheney as "one of the most capable and talented individuals I have ever known" was consigned to his lonely fate - and Bush and Cheney, for the time being at least, were left to blunder on into heaven-knows-what further darkness. Their choice on 31 October of a far-right alternative to Miers, Judge Samuel Alito, did little to dissipate the storm clouds.

It hardly matters now whether Karl Rove, the man at the heart of the Bush presidency, will be indicted too. I am told that the difference between Rove and Libby is that Rove's lawyers played matters more cleverly; that he sought a fourth chance to put evidence before the grand jury investigating leaks and took the opportunity to admit he had previously "misspoken" to them, the Washington euphemism for "lied". For now, he remains at Bush's side.

It is Rove, better than anybody else, who can explain the extraordinary readiness to mislead - and the readiness of others to be misled - that made the presidency of George W Bush possible in the first place, and which now, exposed, so weakens it. Its cause is power, and the way it attracts people and governments like moths to a flame. The people around Bush, some of whom I know personally to be decent and honourable, have come to believe they have a higher calling than truth and integrity. And so, like Libby, they lie. Governments, whether led by a Blair or a Berlusconi, might be in a position to know better - but when faced with a choice between righteous isolation and flattery from Washington, they go straight for the latter.

Let us go back to the genesis of the Iraq policy and the ensuing deceptions of Libby et al, which means recalling how Bush came to be in the position he is today. Fifteen or so years ago, some wealthy Texan Republicans came together, united by a cause. They wanted to find somebody who was politically malleable, who had a political blank slate, and whom they could place in the Texas governorship. And who better than George W Bush? He may have been a recovering alcoholic with no achievements to his name, but he had a name associated in the public mind with American style, power and dominance. A political consultant called Karl Rove was called in and he immediately set about savaging the reputation of Ann Richards, then the popular Democratic governor. A rumour that she was a closet lesbian started to permeate the state, her opinion poll ratings slipped and by the end of 1994 she had lost the governorship to George W Bush.

Fast-forward just five years and we find Mr Nobody aspiring, with Rove, to the most powerful office in the world, but his way threatened this time by an insurgent from the right called John McCain; again rumours spread through the Southern bible belt, this time that McCain had fathered a black child (again untrue: he and his wife had adopted a girl from Bangladesh).

We know the rest. Now Bush is 43rd president and surrounded by cleverer, darker souls such as Rove and Cheney. Cheney, America's most powerful vice-president by far, arrived in that office shaped by two defining eras in a career notable only for its amoral pragmatism: his time as defence secretary in the first Bush administration during the first Gulf war, and the five years he later spent in the oil business as boss of Halliburton.

Bush had convinced both himself and the electorate in 2000 that as president he would not be particularly interested in foreign policy. Indeed, he and Cheney came into office with little knowledge of international affairs other than that there existed, somewhere out there, an Arab thug who had thwarted both Bush's father and the oil business. They needed a simple foreign policy objective and what could be simpler than getting rid of that very thug, Saddam Hussein?

I remain convinced that this was how the tragedy of the Iraq war came about. The 11 September atrocities provided grist to the mill in enabling them to further define, albeit dishonestly, the Arab bad guy. And because the US is the supreme superpower and the presidency its epicentre, the rest of the country and the world - with some brave exceptions - went along with it.

Cheney busied himself with finding evidence that Saddam posed a threat to the US, even to the extent of taking an office for himself in CIA headquarters in Langley. Rove calculated how it could all be sold to the American public. Nothing and nobody - certainly not the truth - could get in the way.

"The British government", Bush said in his State of the Union address in 2003, "has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa". But by this time even the Bush administration itself knew this was untrue. A collective mindset that it was answerable only to itself, and not to reality, had set in. My friend Steve Hadley, then deputy national security adviser (and now promoted to the number one job) knew from State Department intelligence that what Bush claimed was, at best, highly dubious; but he overrode his own deep integrity to allow the phrase to go in. That flame of power can prove irresistible, even to the most decent of men.

This is how we arrive at the current debacle. The CIA had sent Joe Wilson, who had, in effect, been US ambassador in Baghdad before the first Iraq war, to check British claims that Saddam had tried to buy uranium yellow cake from Niger. In less than a fortnight he established that the British intelligence had come, in turn, from Italian intelligence, which had been duped by documents faked by a corrupt diplomat from Niger based in Rome.

It took courage to buck the tide. Between them, he as a diplomat and she as an undercover CIA agent, Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, have been in the service of the US government for 43 years - longer than Bush, Cheney, Libby, Rumsfeld and Rove (need I go on?) put together - and Wilson has even contributed to Bush campaigns.

In the same way that Richards and McCain found themselves in the way of the Bush bandwagon, so Wilson had to be squelched. Cheney's office - in the person of Libby - duly trashed him as a lightweight who only became involved because of the nepotism of his more powerful wife in the CIA. The fact that this outed her as a covert agent and ended her career with the fictitious Boston firm of Brewster-Jennings & Associates was neither here nor there; nor did it matter, apparently, whether the safety of any of her contacts around the world had been compromised.

But outing a covert agent is a criminal offence under the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, albeit one that is virtually impossible to prove. The indefatigable prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald - suddenly the pin-up boy of legions of Washington ladies - chose to pursue Libby and Rove (and, ultimately, Cheney) with the Capone approach: if you can't get them on the obvious crime, try others such as tax evasion, perjury or obstruction of justice. Thus did Fitzgerald hand the Bush administration the worst week faced by any US administration since Watergate - and, yes, I am including Bill Clinton's Lewinsky tribulations.

Not only was Libby arraigned on 31 October, charged with five felonies. The following day, Tom DeLay, hitherto leader of the Republicans in the House, appeared in a Texas court on conspiracy charges. Bill Frist, Republican leader in the Senate, is also mired in insider trading claims. And Rove, still invaluable to Bush, remains firmly in Fitzgerald's sights.

It will be hard, if not impossible, for Bush to recover. What was supposed to be the great initiative of his second term - "reforming" social security by privatising parts of it - lies dead in the water, abandoned by all but his most zealous supporters in Congress. His approval ratings are at an all-time low and Iraq continues to deteriorate - seven US soldiers were killed there over the last two days of October, bringing the total dead for the month to 93, and there are a record 157,000 US troops there.

The point about Bush, though, is that - contrary to his own myth-making - he has no moral compass. Even more than Clinton, he is driven by pragmatism. The disasters of Katrina and Miers unleashed the mounting dissatisfaction on the right, so he appeased them by nominating Alito - a judge who once ruled that a woman must notify her husband before she has an abortion, and who is against restricting ownership of machine guns. Alito's confirmation hearings will be "Armageddon", says Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican chairman of the judiciary committee.

Bush enjoys a largely pliant press - "Bush looks to bounce back from bad news", reported the Associated Press on 31 October - and, in the three years that lie ahead, the mainstream media will continue to be drawn to the seductive flame of power. For the same reason, cabinet members will stay loyal, in public at least. The sense in Washington, however, is that a scandal, either personal or political, could yet swamp this presidency. It is a measure of how weakened Bush is, and of the corrosive character of his own tactics, that he is now a victim of the rumour mill - the suggestion is that he is drinking again. Unlike Britain, however, this country has a constitution, so the odds are that George W Bush will limp from office on 20 January 2009, perhaps remembered as the worst president in the history of the United States.

Copyright New Statesman 1913 - 2005

Bill Totten


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