At Tuesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing
on the nomination of Robert Gates to be secretary of defense, I felt as though
I were paying last respects to the Constitution of the United States. But there
was none of the praise customarily given to the deceased. Rather, the bouquets
were fulsomely shared round about among the nominee and the senators – all of
the "distinguished," but none more distinguished than the Very Reverend John
Warner, the gentleman from Virginia, chairman of the committee and presider
at the wake.
"Distinguished, indeed," I could not help thinking; this is the committee that
allowed itself to be co-opted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputies
Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith into abnegating its constitutional duty to
prevent the United States from launching a war of aggression on false pretenses
against a defenseless Iraq. The Nuremberg Tribunal ruled war of aggression "the
supreme international crime inasmuch as it contains the accumulated evils of
the whole" – kidnapping and torture, for example. This is the committee which,
when such abuses came to light, let the Pentagon investigate itself. And I thought
of how our Virginian forefathers, really distinguished Virginians like James
Madison and James Mason, who crafted the checks and balances into our Constitution,
and how they must be rolling over in their graves at the flaccid timidity of
their 21st century successors. Perhaps the plain-speaking senator-elect from
Virginia, James Webb, will be able to remind other senators of their duty and
curtail their mutual fawning when he takes office in January.
It was a sorry spectacle Tuesday, as pretentious, patrician manners trumped
courage and vitiated the advise-and-consent prerogative carefully honed by the
framers of our Constitution for the Senate.
In other news, "A series of particularly brutal attacks across Baghdad Tuesday
resulted in at least 54 Iraqis killed and scores wounded," according to the
New York Times. The U.S. military announced that three more American
soldiers were killed Monday, adding to the 13 killed over the weekend. Ten more
U.S. soldiers were killed on Wednesday. And five Marines are expected to be
charged today with the killing of 24 Iraqis, many of them women and children,
in the village of Haditha in November 2005.
No such bothersome details about this misbegotten war were allowed into evidence
yesterday by the stuffed shirts sitting in stuffed seats in a hearing room stuffed
with 80 stenographers from our domesticated press. Rather, the hearing room
seemed to serve as a kind of funeral parlor for the Constitution. There were
plenty of bouquets, but none smelled very genuine.
That Gates would be given a free pass without serious probing was already clear
in ranking member Carl Levin's (D-Mich.) deference to lame-duck chairman John
Warner's (R-Va.) plan for a one-day, carefully scripted hearing, at which senators
could disregard new, documentary evidence of Gates' deception of Congress and
the Iran-Contra independent counsel. Expediting the hearing served to squander
the leverage provided by the confirmation process to committee members, had
any of them wished to put that leverage in play. Rather, Gates was often able
to say, in effect, "Gosh, I just got here; didn't know about that; haven't read
that, but I'll put that on the top of my reading pile."
Fully expecting that Levin's Democratic colleagues would join him in acquiescing
in this charade, antiwar activists told me before the hearing began that they
had come prepared with a chant:
"You won the elections. Now ask real questions!"
I later learned that the activists left after only an hour, unable to stomach
the courtly fawning, as troops and Iraqi civilians get blown up in Baghdad.
They started feeling queasy after a brief ray of hope was abruptly dashed during
Warner's introductory remarks, when he alluded to what he called the "moral
obligation that our government, the executive and legislative, has to the brave
men and women of our armed forces." Moral obligation; sounded good! Oops. And
then they heard what he meant. By "moral obligation," Warner meant merely that
the president "privately consult [why privately?] with the bipartisan leadership
of the new Congress" before making his "final decisions" on Iraq. It gets worse:
witness the hypocrisy shining through the most distinguished senator's admonition
"In short, you simply have to be fearless – I repeat, fearless – in
discharging your statutory obligations."
More fearless, we hope, than Warner was in deferring to the Pentagon to conduct
a "full and thorough investigation" into Abu Ghraib, like the one Richard Nixon
ordered his attorney general, John Mitchell, to conduct into Watergate.
Fearless fawning is what followed. It doesn't matter how many times Warner
and Levin have dropped into the hermetically sealed Green Zone in Baghdad. There
is always the "In other news…." And beneath the affectation yesterday, none
of those senators are affected in any immediate way by the carnage at the Green
Zone gate. It is our soldiers and Iraqi civilians who are Lazarus at the gate.
And, as Benjamin Franklin once said, "Justice will not be served until those
who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are."
From Gates: Candor or Disingenuousness?
On weapons of mass destruction: Little attention
is being given to the disingenuous response Gates gave to this question from
Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.):
"Given what we know today about the absence of weapons of mass destruction
in Iraq, given the predicament that we're in today, with the benefit of hindsight,
would you say that invading Iraq was the right decision or the wrong decision?"
Gates left it to "historians" to decide. Defending his early support for the
invasion, he resorted to the tried-and-tested Fox News red herring: "I thought
he [Saddam] had weapons of mass destruction … just like every other intelligence
service in the world, apparently, including the French."
Now, please, Dr. Gates: You know better than most where other intelligence
services get strategic weapons-related information on denied areas like Iraq.
From us. Independent-minded intelligence analysts in the Australian and Danish
intelligence services were able to see through the deception and took courageous
steps to notify leaders of their governments. American analysts (and their British
counterparts) were bought, and Gates bears much of the blame for that, for it
was he who was primarily responsible for institutionalizing the politicization
of intelligence at the CIA 20 years before.
On links between Iraq and al-Qaeda: Sen. Levin reminded Gates that he recently
told the senator that he saw no "evidence of a link between Iraq under Saddam
Hussein and al-Qaeda." Why then, asked Levin, did Gates say publicly in February
"We know that at least one of the leaders of the September 11 hijackers
met twice in Prague with Iraqi intelligence officers in the months before the
Levin wanted to know the source of that information. "Strictly a newspaper
story, sir," said Gates. Now that's odd. Robert Gates is not given to relying
on newspaper stories to make sweeping assertions on such neuralgic issues. It
seems more likely he would have gotten that "intelligence" from his successor
as CIA director, arch-neoconservative James Woolsey, who cooked up and – together
with Vice President Dick Cheney – promoted that cockamamie story to a fare-thee-well.
Fresh Eyes but No New Ideas
In one moment of genuine – perhaps unintended
– candor, Gates indicated he thought there were no new ideas to be had in addressing
the conflict in Iraq. The suggestions made public today by the Iraq Study Group
tend to substantiate that sad conclusion.
How about old ideas? Like dispatching more training teams to work with Iraqi
security forces. Gates said, "That certainly is an option." And he vowed to
show "great deference to the judgment of generals." New emphasis on the training
mission is what Gen. John Abizaid told the committee less than three weeks ago
is a "major change." Is that the "new" strategy? It is a feckless exercise,
as we know from Vietnam. Been there; done that; should have known that.
Three months after John Kennedy's death, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
sent President Lyndon Johnson a draft of a major speech McNamara planned to
give on defense policy. What follows is a segment of an audiotape of a conversation
between the two on Feb. 25, 1964:
Johnson: "Your speech is good, but I wonder if you shouldn't
find two minutes to devote to Vietnam."
McNamara: "The problem is what to say about it."
Johnson: "I'll tell you what to say about it. I would say we have
a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. We could pull out there; the dominoes would
fall and that part of the world would go to the Communists. … Nobody really
understands what is out there. … Our purpose is to train [the South Vietnamese]
people, and our training's going good."
McNamara: "All right, sir."
It wasn't "going good" then and – as countless middle-grade American officers
have now conceded – it's not going good now, despite our having thrown our best
generals at the problem. Hewing to this misguided approach betrays the "woodenheadedness"
of which historian Barbara Tuchman speaks in
The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Almost always, it is a forlorn
hope that unwelcome occupation troops can train indigenous soldiers and police
to fight against their own brothers and sisters. That the British seem to have
forgotten that, as well, is really no excuse.
Speaking Truth to Power?
Yesterday's spectacle at the Senate Armed Forces
Committee included repeated allusions to the biblical injunction to "speak truth
to power." This has never been Robert Gates' forte. Rather, his modus operandi
has always been to ingratiate himself with the one with the power, and then
recite – or write memos about – what he believes that person would like to hear.
Thus, while CIA Director Bill Casey's "analysis" suggested that the Soviets
would use Nicaragua as a beachhead to invade Texas, Gates pandered by writing
a memo on Dec. 14, 1984, suggesting U.S. air strikes "to destroy a considerable
portion of Nicaragua's military buildup."
This makes me wonder what may be in store for Iran, if Cheney solicits help
from Gates in making the case for bombing.
Gates may have "fresh eyes," but if past is precedent he will add but marginally
to the flavor of the self-licking ice cream cone that passes for Bush's coterie
of advisers. What Bush has done is replace Rumsfeldian Tart with Sugary Gates.
Otherwise, the Cheney/Bush recipe is likely to remain the same as the U.S. draws
nearer and nearer to the abyss in Iraq.
This piece originally appeared at Truthout.org.