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November 14, 2005

Spinning Like a Broken Record

Or, George W. back on the offensive

by Christopher Deliso

Buffeted by criticism from all quarters, crippled by plummeting polls and with his trustworthiness in doubt for an increasing number of Americans, President George W. Bush did on Friday what he's always done whenever his policies are questioned: he launched a stubborn frontal assault on detractors allegedly less patriotic and less protective of the homeland than himself. In doing so, he once again sounded like a broken record, scratching and skipping in garbled tones over the same old baleful dirge.

In an angry and predictable Veteran's Day speech, Bush accosted his critics as "deeply irresponsible" for questioning the rationale that led us to war in Iraq, desperately insisting that "these baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will."

Yep, it's the same old nonsense we've been hearing for four years now: the country is at war, and now is not the time to question why the country is at war, because when the country is at war, any dissent is unpatriotic and harmful to the troops' morale.

Yet perhaps the troops' morale in Iraq is less affected by antiwar protesters in America than by, say, getting shafted out of body armor and bonuses and armored Humvees by the Pentagon. Citing military sources who say the Army is "on the verge of snapping," Bob Herbert recently discussed the effects that the "bring 'em on" president's wars have had on the soldiers:

"[D]ivorce rates have gone way up, nearly doubling over the past four years. Long deployments – and, especially, repeated deployments – can take a vicious toll on personal relationships. Chaplains, psychologists, and others have long been aware of the many dangerous factors that accompany wartime deployment: loneliness, financial problems, drug or alcohol abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, the problems faced by the parent left at home to care for children, the enormous problem of adjusting to the devastation of wartime injuries, and so on."

It thus seems that questioning the need for war does indeed send a negative signal to the troops – if you happen to be in the commander-in-chief's position right about now. Indeed, these stage-managed speeches in front of a muzzled military audience cannot hide the awkward truth that many experienced military men have, before, during, and after the Iraq invasion, questioned the president's leadership and concern for the troops. That Bush had the gall to speak in front of the military and actually shake hands with World War II veterans on their annual day of remembrance, considering that he himself slithered out of serving when he had the chance and then went on to ruin thousands of young lives in an unnecessary and self-destructive war 30 years later, is incredible – but, sad to say, not surprising.

Defections in the Ranks at Home

In the past few weeks, and especially since the Oct. 28 indictment [.pdf] of Lewis Libby over Plamegate, the president has suffered a small mutiny within his own party. First there were the strongly critical comments from respected Republican elder statesman, and close friend of Bush Sr., Brent Scowcroft, published in the New Yorker on Oct. 24. Then there was the mass rejection of the president's policy in Congress, when 46 Republicans signed up to Republican Sen. John McCain's amendment against the Bush/Cheney practice of torture.

More recently, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum turned down the opportunity to stand alongside Bush at an American Legion event in Philadelphia. The senator instead called the Iraq war "less than optimal," and he "criticized how the war had been presented by the media and the White House. 'Certainly, mistakes were made.'" At the same time, Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel "also zinged Bush, joining Democrats who want the Senate to investigate whether the administration manipulated prewar Iraq intelligence." And even on relatively non-related domestic issues, Bush's party is in disarray.

No Comfort Abroad, Either

Internationally, Bush has been flopping, and he has seen his most important political allies weakened by their perceived association with him. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi became embroiled in the same scandal (over the forged Niger uranium documents and the rationale for war in Iraq) that may yet be broached in Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation. A barrage of domestic criticism has been levied against Berlusconi for his mishandling of the war, something that prompted the Italian leader on the very eve of his recent visit to Washington to lamely protest that he had tried to "stop the war." For an embattled Bush, it seemed like a stab in the back.

A second issue for Berlusconi has been the public outcry over an alleged CIA street abduction in 2003 in Milan. On Friday, Italian prosecutors announced they were seeking the extradition of 22 CIA operatives allegedly involved with the kidnapping of Muslim cleric Abu Omar. The prosecutors said that the action was "a violation of Italian sovereignty and hindered Italian terrorism investigations."

Of course, there's little chance that they will get their wish, but as a political issue this one is bound to hurt an already flagging Berlusconi, as he heads into April elections against Romano Prodi, a Eurocrat critic of the American war on terror. Aside from the war, Berlusconi is being skewered at home for his absurd scheme to balance the budget by taxing mobile phone text messages. "[I]f elections were held today," reports Bloomberg, citing a recent opinion poll published in La Repubblica, "the center-left opposition led by Romano Prodi would beat Berlusconi by as many as 12 percentage points."

Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bush's right-hand poodle Tony Blair suffered his worst setback to date on Nov. 9, when despite "passionate last-minute pleas" his draconian anti-terror provision was soundly defeated. In all, 40 members of Blair's own Labour Party broke ranks to scupper the provision, which would have allowed the police to hold anyone for up to 90 days with no charge. Frustrated by the defeat, Blair vowed to fight on with other "reforms," but critical views far outweigh the positive in the British media right now. As the Telegraph put it, it "is too early to write Tony Blair's political obituary, but the events of the past week have given us the chapter headings."

Back to the emperor himself, who suffered two unfortunate adventures in foreign policy within a week. George W. suffered further humiliation last weekend during an anemic trip to South America, marred by massive protests against him backed by Venezuelan populist president Hugo Chαvez, who taunted him throughout. While the Americans' demands for future "free trade" agreements were defeated, the worst thing, perhaps, was that the good old Latin practice of late dining kept George up past his bedtime of 10 p.m.

A second foreign policy initiative fizzled out on Saturday when Middle Eastern allies refused to sign up to an administration plan to ship more democracy their way. Although the president sent no less a character than Condoleezza Rice (who has to be Bush's number two these days, in light of his alleged loss of faith in both Dick Cheney and Karl Rove) for the Bahrain summit, the draft declaration "was shelved after Egypt insisted on language that would have given Arab governments greater control over which democracy groups receive money from a new fund." Accompanying Condi was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Liz Cheney, who had originally dreamed up the project as a "$100 million venture capital fund to promote economic enterprise" – with half of the cash to be chipped in by the American taxpayer.

Back on Offense

It is in the context of all these events that we should consider Bush's scripted Veteran's Day speech. It was not by accident that commentators have compared it to a campaign speech rather than a simple defense of policy. Although we expect he will have to be kept on for another three years, Bush is very much fighting to reclaim the kind of public legitimacy he needs to rule productively – or at least to avoid Lincoln's admonition.

Friday's speech bore all the hallmarks of a Karl Rove "hit." Bush directly questioned the moral right of his critics to question him, noting that many of them had voted for his war in the first place (thus their alleged "irresponsibility" in "revising" history at this late stage of the game). As the N.Y. Daily News put it, the president "reverted to his bare-knuckle political playbook." One biographer finds remarkable the "power" of Rove, the president's top accomplice, "when challenged, to draw on an animal ferocity that far exceeds the chest-thumping bravado common to professional political operatives."

It has often been noted that Rove's real genius lies more in masterminding winning campaigns (not incidentally, where there are more opportunities for hitting below the belt) than in the more mundane propulsion of day-to-day governance. Yet Rove has been pushed onto the defensive since the specter of Patrick Fitzgerald began bearing down several weeks ago. Although he escaped Libby's fate on the 28th of October, Rove remains in a state of suspended animation; he may well have been allowed to live just so he can die another day, via a future indictment. Even if he doesn't, there is no question that the adviser's powers of persuasion and leadership have been diminished by the scandal. The same goes for Vice President Cheney, who also allegedly has lost the president's trust over Plamegate.

For now, however, the predictable Roveian offensive seems to be in full swing. Whether or not it signifies a desperate last gasp or the brave beginnings of a triumphant comeback remains to be seen. Sunday saw neocon and military-industrial-complex veteran Stephen Hadley hammering away at war critics on CNN. With ominous rumblings about Syria and Iran, there is a very real possibility that an increasingly embittered president will, far from abandoning the ruinous policies that have brought the world to this precarious point, circle the wagons around some of the most bellicose, pro-nuclear neocons out there.

Indeed, with the likes of Hadley as national security adviser, and the apocalyptic John Bolton ensconced arbitrarily over at the UN, courtesy of a presidential privilege, until at least January 2007, the ground is being prepared for exciting new adventures in Iran. Remember, there are now only 10 days to go until the International Atomic Energy Agency meets to debate whether Tehran should be referred to the UN Security Council; until that jolly time arrives, the White House will try to accentuate the positive sides (if they find any) of this week's presidential tour of Asia, while keeping up the offensive against critics who, God willing, will soon be silenced by the next great WMD crisis in the Middle East.

After all, it would be irresponsible – no, it would be downright unpatriotic – to keep focusing on stale old controversies when the country is at war and the situation demands a disciplined, dignified, and unified response. Anything less would be aiding the enemy.

If the war party has its way, successive American governments will be indulging in the same sordid privileges for many decades to come.


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  • Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and in the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.

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