Did CNN and MSNBC get hoodwinked this morning? Yesterday, the White House announced that President Bush would be delivering a “major policy address” on terrorism today. The cable news networks broadcast it live and in full. Yet the “address” turned out to be a standard campaign stump speech before a Pennsylvania crowd that seemed pumped on peyote, cheering, screaming, or whooping at every sentence.
The president announced no new policy, uttered not one new word about terrorism, foreign policy, or anything else. He did all the things he wanted to do in last Thursday’s debate—accuse his opponent of weakness, bad judgment, vacillation, and other forms of flip-floppery—though this time without a moderator to hush the audience, much less an opponent to bite back. And Bush loved it, smiling, smirking, raising his eyebrows, as if to say, “How ‘bout that zinger?”
In short, the cable networks were lured into airing an hourlong free campaign ad for George W. Bush. (CNN’s spokeswoman did not return my calls inquiring if the producers felt used. The secretary to MSNBC President Rick Kaplan—no relation—connected me to a “viewer relations” line, where I could leave a message if I wished. I called again to clarify that I had a press question, not a consumer complaint. She connected me to the same line again. When I tried a third, fourth, and fifth time, she didn’t even pick up the phone; no doubt seeing my number pop up on the Caller ID screen, she routed my call to the prerecorded announcement.)
It’s hard to blame either network for taking the White House’s bait. Most presidents would want to deliver, right about now, a major address on the war against terror and the war in Iraq. In the last few days, one blow after another has struck the very foundations of Bush’s policies. The fact that, under the circumstances, Bush didn’t deliver a major policy address after all, despite his advance word, should embarrass not only CNN and MSNBC but, still more, President Bush.
The week’s most stunning development may have been the revelation in L. Paul Bremer’s remarks, before a group of insurance agents at DePauw University, that we never had enough troops in Iraq, either to secure the country’s borders or to provide the stability needed for reconstruction. “The single most important change, the one thing that would have improved the situation,” Bremer said, “would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout.”
Bremer, of course, was the Bush-appointed head of the U.S.-led occupation authority, so his words on such matters carry weight. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (and Rummy’s neocon secretariat) have all insisted—before, during, and after the battlefield phase of the war—that they sent enough troops to accomplish the mission. It is worth recalling that when Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, told Congress that successful occupation would require a few hundred thousand troops, he was pushed into early retirement. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called his estimate “wildly off the mark.”
Now we learn that Bremer agreed with Shinseki—and that he said as much to the White House and Pentagon chiefs at the time (a claim corroborated, to the Washington Post, by administration officials).
But Bremer’s disclosure slams himself no less than Team Bush. Bremer, after all, was the man who ordered the disbanding of the old Iraqi army. This decision is commonly seen in retrospect as the administration’s first—and perhaps most—disastrous move after the fall of Baghdad. If Bremer thought there weren’t enough U.S. troops on the ground, why did he call for the demobilization of Iraqi troops (many of whom had not been loyal to Saddam—they didn’t, after all, fight for him)? This is one of the war’s great remaining mysteries. (Another is why we went to war in the first place, but that’s another story.) Bremer almost certainly didn’t make this decision himself; it had to come from higher up. But from where? My guess is that, ultimately, Ahmad Chalabi was a big influence. He was still counting on taking the reins of power in the new Iraq (he had the support of the White House and the Pentagon at the time), and he hoped to install his own militia, the Free Iraqi Forces, as the new Iraqi army. The old, Baathist-dominated army would have been in the way; it had to go. Whatever the actual story, if Bremer truly thought at the time that there weren’t enough troops, he should have resigned rather than carry out the order.
The second blow to the war’s legitimacy came Monday, when Rumsfeld—increasingly a loose cannon—appeared before the Council on Foreign Relations and, during the question-and-answer period, acknowledged that he had seen no evidence showing a connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. The Pentagon later released a statement, claiming that Rumsfeld had been “misunderstood.” He did not mean to deny the existence of “ties” between the two. However, as has been discussed in this space before, “ties” is a term that is so broad as to be (deliberately) meaningless.
Then came news reports of a CIA analysis—ordered by Cheney—showing that Rumsfeld hadn’t been misunderstood at all. The analysis concluded that there probably was no working relationship between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaida lieutenant Abu Musab Zarqawi. This is significant in two ways. First, in the lead up to the war last year, the only physical evidence of a Saddam-al-Qaida tie was the presence of Zarqawi’s training camp in northern Iraq. The camp was in Kurdish-controlled territory—an awkward caveat, but Bush officials at the time issued other, though looser, material suggesting a possible connection to Saddam himself.
Had the CIA’s recent conclusion been reached two years ago, either within the administration or by Congress, the case for going to war would have been greatly weakened. In fact, as NBC News reported last March (and as almost nobody has picked up since), the Bush administration had several opportunities to bomb Zarqawi’s camp well before the war. On at least two occasions the U.S. military drew up plans for an attack. But the White House rejected the proposals—mainly because shutting down Zarqawi’s operation would have removed a key rationale for invading Iraq. This was a jaw-dropping bit of cynicism: Bush sold, and continues to sell, the war in Iraq as a major campaign in the global war on terrorism, yet he repeatedly passed up the chance to neutralize or kill one of the most dangerous terrorists (Zarqawi has spent much of his time lately chopping off the heads of foreign contractors) for fear of weakening the case for war.
Today comes the long-awaited 900-plus-page report by Charles Duelfer, the CIA’s chief weapons inspector, which concludes pretty much what his predecessor, David Kay, figured out—that on the eve of the war Saddam Hussein had neither weapons of mass destruction nor a viable program for producing such weapons; that his capabilities were deteriorating; that his military might was diminishing, not gathering; that, in short, he posed no real threat. Duelfer did find that Saddam intended to reconstitute his programs once sanctions were dropped. Another way of stating this point: The sanctions were working; they were keeping Saddam Hussein in his box.
Finally, on the matter of the Bush administration’s efforts to revive Iraq’s economy, a report this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies—a conservative Washington-based think tank—finds that for every dollar spent on aid to Iraq, only 27 cents filters down to projects benefiting Iraqis. The rest pays for administrative and management costs. (This is what happens when 85 percent of contracts are awarded to big U.S. or British firms, while just 2 percent go to Iraqi companies.) Add to this the fact that Bush has spent only a small fraction of the $18.5 billion that Congress appropriated for reconstruction, and the verdict can only be that we’re doing just slightly more than squat. The evidence is seen in the continued electrical blackouts and the grave shortfall of basic services. The result is that Iraqis who might otherwise have been compliant citizens join the insurgency—or at least let the insurgents pass without turning them in. (For an excellent analysis on the insurgency’s composition, click here.)
So, President Bush may well need to deliver a major policy address on all this sometime soon. Today, though, he just told the cheering throngs that he’s strong and resolute while his opponent’s a flip-flopper.