Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Five years later, without the bullhorn

Five years ago, President Bush brandished a bullhorn, stood on a mound of Ground Zero rubble, and made a successful pitch for American unity. How distant that day now seems.

Last night, reading off his Oval Office teleprompter, Bush again appealed for unity – declaring that winning the global war on terror “will require the determined efforts of a unified country, and we must put aside our differences” – but this time his prospects for success appear minimal. That autumn ’01 spirit of nonpartisan comradeship proved ephemeral, thanks largely to a divisive war in Iraq that a majority of Americans now deem to be a massive drain on the resources needed to fight the global war on terror.

Five years ago, few Americans could reasonably question the president’s arguments. Last night was a different story. Anybody with even a rudimentary talent for fact-checking could have a field day. One big reason why the spirit of ’01 has waned is because Bush’s credibility has waned. He did little to repair it last night, by making statements that failed to square with the factual record and political reality:

1. Bush said last night, “I’m often asked why we’re in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat…After 9/11, Saddam’s regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take.”

Yet, during the prewar phase, Bush’s “clear threat” was the specter of Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction that were already being aimed at the American homeland. That’s how Bush defined it at the time – even though there was plenty evidence, even during the runup to war, that this WMD threat was being hyped. More importantly, however, the postwar failure to find any WMDs has severely complicated Bush’s prospects of persuasively insisting, yet again, that Hussein posed a “clear threat.”

2. He said last night that “the world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.” The administration has been saying this since 2003, word for word, but the problem is that fewer and fewer Americans believe it. In fact, the basic verdict today is that the Iraq war has made us less safe. The latest CBS-New York Times poll, for instance, shows that, by a margin of four to one, Americans now believe that the war has worsened the terrorist threat against the U.S. (Forty eight percent say worse, 12 percent say otherwiser.) And, in response to a separate question, 54 percent say that the Iraq war has created more terrorists.

3. It’s worth returning to the line I noted earlier: “I’m often asked why we’re in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks.” Note his backhanded acknowledgment that Saddam had no role in 9/11; he attributes it solely to those who have “often asked.” Rhetorical trickery aside, he really had no choice but to confess that what he has so often implied was factually wrong.

That’s because Saddam was cleared again last Friday – in a report that was released by the Republicans who run the Senate Intelligence Committee. These are White House allies, and even they don’t believe the Saddam connection. Here’s page 105, to cite just one passage: “Debriefings also indicate that Saddam issued a general order that Iraq should not deal with al Qaeda. No postwar information suggests that the Iraqi regime attempted to facilitate a relationship with bin Laden.”

4. Nevertheless, in his Oval Office address, Bush stressed that al Qaeda is in Iraq today: “Al Qaeda and other extremists from across the world have come to Iraq to stop the rise of a free society in the heart of the Middle East. They have joined the remnants of Saddam’s regime and other armed groups to foment sectarian violence and drive us out.”

Yet, according to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a nonpartisan think tank staffed with national security analysts), the vast majority of the insurgents in Iraq are home grown. Only about 4 to 10 percent of the insurgents are foreign-born fighters. Many of those foreigners are from Saudi Arabia, but the CSIS report says that “the vast majority of Saudi militants who have entered Iraq were not terrorist sympathizers before the war; and were radicalized almost exclusively by the coalition invasion.” Bush has acknowledged on occasion that the “extremists from across the world” are actually a fraction of the insurgent population, but last night he neglected to make that point.

5. As I noted earlier, Bush urged that we Americans must come together, and “must put aside our differences” in order to fight terrorism. But it’s questionable whether those citizens with doubts about the war (the majority, in fact) will be motivated to put aside their differences with the administration – at a time when Bush’s vice president and his Pentagon chief have been giving speeches that equate war opponents with the appeasers of Adolph Hitler.

6. Near the close of his address, he paused to praise the U.S. Army, which he called “the finest Army the world has ever known.” That’s a good unity line; who could object to lauding our Army? But the complicating truth, which he did not mention, is that many military experts think the war is severely straining the Army, to the point where “the finest Army the world has ever known,” might not be nearly so fine. As John Lehrman, a 9/11 Commission member and former Navy Secretary under Ronald Reagan, contended several weeks ago, “The military occupation in Iraq is consuming practically the entire defense budget and stretching the Army to its operational limits,…our ability to deter enemies around the world is disintegrating.”

With the congressional elections just eight weeks away, it’s clear Bush believes that the only way to fight the war on terror is his way. He again sought to frame that theme last night; and Vice President Cheney was blunter last weekend, saying, “if we had to do it over again (in Iraq), we’d do exactly the same thing.” But much has happened since Bush’s stint with the bullhorn. Perhaps too much for the GOP to withstand.


Rhode Island is rarely on anybody's political radar, but tonight it will be critically important. Incumbent senator Lincoln Chafee (a card-carrying member of that increasingly endangered species, the moderate Republican) may well be defeated in a GOP primary. He is being challenged by a conservative, Cranston mayor Stephen Laffey, who views Chafee as a sellout to conservative principles. It's possible tonight that Rhode Island's relatively small population of GOP conservatives will dominate the turnout, and hand the party nomination to Laffey.

But if Laffey wins the right to run on the GOP ticket in November, Republicans have a big problem. Rhode Island is one of the most Democratic states, and Laffey's odds of winning in November (theoretically, by combining conservatives and moderates) are roughly on a par with Mel Gibson's odds of becoming the police chief of Malibu. As noted here, the national GOP recognizes this fact; it's prepared to concede the state to Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse, in the wake of a Laffey primary victory.

So why should you care about this? Because if the national Democrats are to have any realistic chance of capturing the Senate in November, it needs to pick up that Rhode Island seat -- and put five other GOP seats in the blue column, as well. If Chafee survives tonight, the national Republicans will breathe easier.

Which is ironic, to say the least: The GOP is pinning its hopes on a moderate Yankee who has openly admitted that he refused to vote in 2004 for President Bush. He wrote in the name of Bush's father instead.