Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Groundhog Day in America

In what way does President Bush resemble Sonny and Cher?
Read on for the answer.
The president held a press conference today on Iraq, and delivered yet another Iraq speech yesterday, this time in Cleveland, and arguably he gets points for leaving the White House bubble and taking impetinent questions from non-loyalists.
But the problem is, he keeps saying the same things over and over; worse yet, he keeps repeating things that are contradicted by factual reality. As a result, the average skeptical American is starting to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, who awoke over and over to the same morning and the same radio rendition of "I Got You, Babe."
Consider, for instance, the lyrics in today's press conference: Troop levels will be determined by the commanders in the field...He wants to "spread liberty around the world"...Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will not be fired, because "he's done a fine job"..."This is a global war, and Iraq is part of that..."
Bush's poll numbers have slid to new lows because the majority of Americans, anxious to avoid Bill Murray's quandary, are tuning out the old song -- refusing to buy his optimism about a victory plan at a time when so many respected competing voices are openly contradicting him.
One of those voices is retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former head of Central Command (which includes the Middle East). He has a new book out. In that book, he writes that Rumsfeld ignored the pleas of military leaders who believed that the postwar occupation of Iraq would require far more troops than Rumsfeld was willing to supply. Zinni writes that "ignoring this reality, the United States and a handful of allies forcibly evicted (Hussein) with no plans for a new order to replace it. Today, U.S. military forces in Iraq are mired in an ever-worsening insurgency. Civil war is an ever-growing danger. Disorder and chaos grow ever more entrenched."
But perhaps one moment this week stands out above all. Bush was asked yesterday to explain his administration's frequent claims that Saddam Hussein and his Iraq regime had played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush said this in response: "I don't think we ever said -- at least I didn't say -- that there was a direct connection between Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein."
Oh really?
Bush defenders complain all the time that the mainstream media "bashes" the president too much. I would argue, however, that the media's role is to hold any president accountable for what he says, and when he says things that are contradicted by the record, it's our job to point it out.
So let's compare Bush's Monday claim to the factual record:
1. In Bush's March 21, 2003 letter to Congress, justifying the launching of the war against Hussein, he said it was important "to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or person who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001."
2. On May 1, 2003, standing in front of the Mission Accomplished banner, he stated: "The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We have not forgotten the victims of September the 11th...With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got."
3. On June 17, 2004, Bush disputed the findings of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which had just concluded there was no "collaborative relationship" between Hussein and al Qaeda. Bush begged to differ, saying, "The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda: because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda."
4. On Sept. 14, 2003, Vice President Cheney told NBC, "If we're successful in Iraq, we will have struck a blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."
5. On Dec. 9, 2001, Cheney told NBC that it was "pretty well confirmed" that Sept. 11 mastermind Mohamed Atta met in Prague with a senior Iraqi official 17 months before the attacks. (On June 17, 2004, after the 9/11 Commission concluded that no such meeting occurred, Cheney changed his story: "We have never been able to confirm that, not have we been able to knock it down, we just don't know.")
That's a sampling. Bush also said yesterday, "I don't want to be argumentative...I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on 9/11." True, as far is it goes; Bush never used the word "ordered." But there was a reason why 42 percent of Americans still believed, shortly before the '04 election, that Hussein had financed and planned the 9/11 attacks. It was because the administration implied and suggested it, by the artful phrasings it employed, and never dissuaded Americans from connecting those errant dots.
Bush also insisted today: "I didn't want war." That, too, is contradicted by the factual record.
Time magazine reported in March 2003 that one year before the war, Bush had poked his head into a White House room and told three senators, "(Expletive) Saddam, we're taking him out." And on July 23, 2002, long before Bush went to the United Nations, his British allies met with him and subsequently wrote, in the now-famous Downing Street memos, that Bush "had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided." Neither the Time anecdote, nor the British memos, have been disputed by the White House.
The hunger for competing voices is now endemic in Washington (a development that Bush dismisses out of hand; he said today that "Washington is a great town for advice"). How else to explain the news that Congress has now established a bipartisan group of prominent people to study the war with "fresh eyes" and propose new future policies?
Interestingly, it will be co-helmed by former Secretary of State James Baker, who worked for Bush's father; a number of senior Bush alumni (such as Brent Scowcroft) have long been critical of the Iraq war. Baker's partner will be Lee Hamilton, the intelligence expert and ex-Democratic congressman who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission.
Not everybody agrees that these voices are needed; as conservative blogger/radio host Hugh Hewitt contends here that "this is a terrible move," and that such panels "inevitably become show trials, and the new concentration of media will guarantee such a debacle unfolding quickly, with Bush's enemies in the (mainstream media) using every opportunity to bend every witness and every report into a political weapon." (In the interest of being fair and balanced, Hugh also lauded Bush's press conference performance today: "He was on fire.")
What all this means is that Bush no longer monopolizes the megaphone, as he did when the war began, and that complicates his efforts to rebuild credibility. When he was asked yesterday about whether he still has political capital, he replied: "I'm spending that capital on the war."
No argument there.