Friday, February 09, 2007

Pentagon versus White House: a trilogy

The Bush war team has been embarrassed three times this week by a coterie of Washington naysayers who seem unperturbed about trashing the White House talking points.

But I am not talking about the Democrats on Capitol Hill. I am talking about some of the big shots at the Pentagon.

No wonder the president’s favorability rating now sits at 32 percent. When even top people at the Pentagon are questioning the White House version of reality, that’s further evidence that Bush has lost the center of the electorate.

Exhibit A: Despite the fact that Bush and his surrogates have been insisting for weeks that any congressional debate over Iraq would “embolden the enemy,” and that any expression of public dissent would dishearten the U.S. troops, it turns out that new Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace don’t buy the White House line. They made this clear the other day, during congressional testimony.

Pace told the House Armed Services Committee: ““There is no doubt in my mind that the dialogue here in Washington strengthens our democracy, period.” Gates told the same panel that our enemies always try to see this dialogue as a sign of weakness, but he isn’t worried about it: “Since the first Neanderthal picked up a club, people have tried to see whether their enemies are divided. All I would say is, history is littered with examples of people who equated robust debate in Washington, D.C., for weakness on the part of America.” (How does Gates square this testimony with his statement two weeks ago, that the debate might indeed embolden the enemy? Beats me.)

Anyway, as for the reaction of the troops, Gates isn’t worried about that, either – because he testified that soldiers “do understand that everybody involved in this debate is looking to do the right thing for our country and for our troops and that everybody is looking for the best way to avoid an outcome that leaves Iraq in chaos. I think they understand that that debate's being carried on by patriotic people who care about them and who care about their mission.”

That statement contradicts what Vice President Cheney said last month, about how a congressional debate “would be detrimental from the standpoint of the troops." All those Gates and Pace quotes, by the way, come from a report filed by the Armed Forces Press Service, and posted on the Defense Department website.

Bush’s congressional surrogates marched into the breach yesterday and disputed Pace and Gates for straying off message; for instance, Senator Lindsey Graham assailed the Pentagon officials for displaying what he called “a lack of sophistication about how this (dissent) would play in newspaper headlines throughout the world.” (And what a great message for Americans, to hear that Bush and his surrogates view the Pentagon as insufficiently sophisticated about the enemy. I’m sure that will make everybody feel safer.)

Exhibit B: The Pentagon’s acting inspector general, Thomas Gimble, has just sent Congress a report which trashes a key rationale for war floated by the Bush administration back in 2002. Gimble says that this rationale was based on flawed intelligence – in his words, “dubious quality or reliability.”

At the time, some neoconservatives embedded in the Pentagon contended (in an argument echoed by Cheney on the Sunday talk shows) that Saddam Hussein was in close cahoots with al Qaeda. But Gimble’s report concludes that the so-called link was basically ginned up for preconceived political reasons. The report states that the newly created Policy Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group, headed by Douglas Feith, utilitized "both reliable and unreliable" intelligence reports in order to fashion a link "that was much stronger than that assessed by the (intelligence community) and more in accord with the policy views of senior officials in the Administration."

This is hardly the first time that the “link” has been dismissed; the bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded several years ago that there was “no evidence” that contacts between Hussein and al Qaeda “ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship.” But the Bush administration cannot be pleased that the Pentagon inspector’s report essentially vindicates the Senate Democrats, who wrote a report on Feith several years ago and reached the same conclusions.

On the other hand, maybe Gimble is only stating the obvious. After all, it was Gen. Tommy Franks, in his own memoir, who said that, during the run up to war, Doug Feith had already earned a reputation in some military circles as “the dumbest (expletive) guy on the planet.”

Exhibit C: Stuart Bowen, the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Iraq testified the other day that the Bush administration’s beleaguered reconstruction effort “screams for more oversight.” Which, by itself, is exactly what Capitol Hill Democrats have been saying for years.

Bowen has a problem with the fact that the Bush reconstruction team handed out as much as $12 billion in cash -the money was shipped to Baghdad on pallets weighing a total of 363 tons – yet the team has no idea where the money went or how it was spent. Accounting, it turns out, was a tad lax. To this day, nobody knows whether any of the money wound up in the hands of the people who are targeting U.S. troops.

Bowen was joined at the House hearing by the guy who was supposed to be in charge: L. Paul Bremer III, who headed up the reconstruction effort at the time that the shrink-wrapped $100 bills arrived on military transport planes. Bremer had no choice but to testify thusly: “I made mistakes. And with the benefit of hindsight, I would have made some decisions differently."

Bremer did catch one break, however. The congressmen didn’t ask him whether he still believes he deserves the Congressional Medal of Freedom that Bush hung from his neck in 2004, as an award for his service in Iraq.

In a sense, the flap over this cash is small potatoes. What’s $12 billion, after all, at a time when American taxpayers (or, more accurately, American taxpayers not yet born) are spending $2 billion on Iraq every week? On the other hand, I think this is one story that has hit home. A security guard talked it up to me the other day, unbidden; he was struck by the image of stacks of cash arriving on pallets. For him, that image was shorthand for a war gone wrong.

And top people at the Pentagon, by contradicting and thus embarrassing the White House, are clearly fueling that perception.