George W. Bush’s gift to the American Republic may be that he has discredited a host of right-wing theories and practices – “trickle-down economics”; “self-regulating markets”; “tough-guy” foreign policy; the “imperial presidency”; and the notion that “government is the problem.”
As the United States gazes out on the wreckage of the past eight years – a $1.2 trillion (and growing) budget deficit, 7.2 percent (and rising) unemployment, two open-ended wars, a sullied U.S. image abroad, environmental degradation and a world that seems to be ripping apart – the hope must be that Bush has so tarnished these policies, which trace back to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, that they will never be tried again.
If that is the lesson that the United States learns, then Barack Obama’s election truly could mark the end of an era and the start of something very different. However, if Obama and the Democrats fail to drive these lessons home – if they let bygones be bygones – they are courting a huge risk in that the same behavior could reemerge and the misjudgments could reoccur.
So far, it appears that President-elect Obama is so set on making friends with Washington’s corrupt Establishment – from dinner with neoconservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer to coffee with the Washington Post’s editorial board, which avidly supported the Iraq War – that he may be missing the opportunity for a genuine transformation.
Rather than confronting the architects of America’s debacles and decline, Obama is currying favor with them. He’s even equivocating over whether Bush and his subordinates should be held accountable for criminal behavior, like torture and aggressive war, violations of longstanding American principles.
It’s possible that Obama is engaged in a tactical maneuver, keeping these pooh-bahs at bay or at least delaying their fury until they see their Establishment interests challenged. But there is a more troubling interpretation of Obama’s positioning.
It’s possible that Obama – an African-American outsider raised in Hawaii by a single mother on food stamps – really aspires to be part of the Establishment, that he sees his presidency as not transformative or revolutionary but only mildly reformist, with an emphasis on continuity, not change.
That is how Krauthammer, one of the President-elect’s recent dinner partners, views Obama’s quiet embrace of so much that was George W. Bush.
“Vindication is being expressed not in words but in deeds – the tacit endorsement conveyed by the Obama continuity-we-can-believe-in transition,” Krauthammer wrote in his Washington Post column on Friday.
“It's not just the retention of such key figures as Defense Secretary Bob Gates or Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner, who, as president of the New York Fed, has been instrumental in guiding the Bush financial rescue over the past year. It's the continuity of policy.”
If Krauthammer is right, Obama appears poised to make many of the same mistakes that marked the start of the Clinton presidency 16 years ago, when another Bush was leaving office in the midst of an economic recession and the Establishment (led by its chief mouthpiece, the Washington Post) was nearly unanimous on the need to look forward, not backward.
Then, there was widespread (and bipartisan) agreement with President George H.W. Bush’s pardons of six Iran-Contra defendants, short-circuiting a trial of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger that was set to begin in early 1993. That trial would have altered the historical understanding of the scandal by revealing the high-level approval of crimes by President Reagan and Vice President Bush.
The Weinberger trial also would have put front and center the concept of an all-powerful President. In effect, the Iran-Contra Affair was a way station in the restoration of the imperial presidency, from its collapse in Watergate to its post-9/11 resurrection under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
At its core, Iran-Contra – like its related scandals of secret Iraqgate assistance to Saddam Hussein and the cover-up of cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan contras – was a reassertion of Richard Nixon’s famous edict: “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
Yet even after George H.W. Bush’s Christmas Eve 1992 pardons of Weinberger, Elliott Abrams and four other Iran-Contra culprits, the historical record still could have been set right if the new President, Bill Clinton, had lent his support to serious fact-finding and meaningful accountability.
Instead Clinton and other Democrats joined in sweeping the Republican scandals under the rug, hoping that they might gain some reciprocity of bipartisanship. As Clinton wrote in his 2004 memoir, My Life:
“I wanted the country to be more united, not more divided, even if that split would be to my political advantage,” Clinton wrote. “Finally, President Bush had given decades of service to our country, and I thought we should allow him to retire in peace, leaving the matter between him and his conscience.” [See Bill Clinton, My Life, p. 457]
In some cases, Clinton and the Democrats went beyond simply ignoring lumps in the rug; they joined in falsifying the history and intimidating whistleblowers.
For instance, when the opportunity arose in early 1995 to get to the bottom of the Iraqgate scandal – the Reagan-Bush-I coddling of Saddam Hussein – the Clinton administration didn’t just look the other way; it went on the offensive against people who tried to expose the truth.
The context of this Clinton-Iraqgate cover-up came during a criminal trial of Teledyne, a company that sold explosives to a Chilean arms manufacturer, Carlos Cardoen, who then supplied Hussein with cluster bombs in the 1980s. Another defendant in the case was a hapless Teledyne salesman, named Ed Johnson, who earned a modest salary of about $30,000.
By the mid-1990s, the “official” take on Iraqgate was that the scandal about secret U.S. military assistance to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a “conspiracy theory” and that Reagan-Bush-I officials, including Vice President Bush, had been unfairly accused of facilitating shipments of weapons and WMD-related materiel to Iraq.
Solidifying this notion of a “conspiracy theory,” Clinton's Justice Department issued a report on Jan. 15, 1995, stating that it had found no "evidence that U.S. agencies or officials illegally armed Iraq" in the 1980s. The report, however, contained a curious admission that the CIA had withheld relevant data from the investigators.
"In the course of our work, we learned of 'sensitive compartments' of information not normally retrievable and of specialized offices that previously were unknown to the CIA personnel who were assisting us," wrote John M. Hogan, counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno.
Then, without further skepticism, Hogan added, "I do not believe this uncertainty severely undermined our investigation."
But two weeks after Hogan's odd findings, Howard Teicher, a former National Security Council official under President Reagan, came forward with a startling affidavit in the Teledyne case.
Teicher asserted that the secret arming of Iraq had been ordered by Reagan in June 1982 as part of a National Security Decision Directive. Under the order, CIA Director William Casey and his then-deputy, Robert Gates, "authorized, approved and assisted" delivery of cluster bombs to Iraq through Cardoen.
“In the Spring of 1982, Iraq teetered on the brink of losing its war with Iran,” Teicher wrote. “The Iranians discovered a gap in the Iraqi defenses along the Iran-Iraq border between Baghdad to the north and Basra to the south.
“Iran positioned a massive invasion force directly across from the gap in the Iraqi defenses. An Iranian breakthrough at the spot would have cutoff Baghdad from Basra and would have resulted in Iraq’s defeat. ... In June 1982, President Reagan decided that the United States could not afford to allow Iraq to lose the war to Iran.”
Teicher wrote that he helped draft a secret national security decision directive that Reagan signed to authorize covert U.S. assistance to Hussein’s military. "The NSDD, including even its identifying number, is classified,” Teicher wrote.
The effort to arm the Iraqis was “spearheaded” by CIA Director William Casey and involved his deputy, Robert Gates, according to Teicher’s affidavit. “The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq,” Teicher wrote.
In 1984, Teicher said he went to Iraq with Reagan's special envoy Donald Rumsfeld to convey a secret Israeli offer to assist Iraq after Israel had concluded that Iran was becoming a greater danger, according to the affidavit.
“I traveled with Rumsfeld to Baghdad and was present at the meeting in which Rumsfeld told Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz about Israel’s offer of assistance,” Teicher wrote. “Aziz refused even to accept the Israelis’ letter to Hussein offering assistance because Aziz told us that he would be executed on the spot by Hussein if he did so.”
Another key player in Reagan’s Iraq tilt was then-Vice President Bush, according to Teicher’s affidavit.
“In 1986, President Reagan sent a secret message to Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and bombing of Iran,” Teicher wrote. “This message was delivered by Vice President Bush who communicated it to Egyptian President Mubarak, who in turn passed the message to Saddam Hussein.
“Similar strategic operational military advice was passed to Saddam Hussein through various meetings with European and Middle Eastern heads of state. I authored Bush’s talking points for the 1986 meeting with Mubarak and personally attended numerous meetings with European and Middle East heads of state where the strategic operational advice was communicated.”
Though Teicher’s affidavit represented a major breakthrough in an important historical mystery, the Clinton administration instead rallied to the defense of Reagan and Bush-41. Clinton’s Justice Department attacked the credibility of Teicher's affidavit and ordered it sealed as a national security secret.
Federal prosecutors even threatened Teicher with legal retaliation, pressed for sanctions against Teledyne's attorneys for trying to raise a justification defense, and convinced the Teledyne case judge to block Teicher's testimony on the grounds that it was irrelevant.
Barred from citing the Teicher evidence, Teledyne negotiated a plea deal. As for Ed Johnson, his jury never got to hear about Teicher or his affidavit, so it found the salesman guilty of violating the Arms Export Control Act. Johnson was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison.
The “official” history about Iraqgate solidified into a certainty that the story of secret U.S. military assistance to Iraq was bogus. That finding is enshrined in the shallow assessment of Wikipedia, whose entry states: “Although the charges received extensive attention in the early 1990s and are periodically repeated today, they were eventually discredited.”
That judgment still holds even though other senior government officials have acknowledged that the Iraqgate allegations were, in fact, true. For instance, former CIA officer Melissa Boyle Mahle, a Middle East expert, stated flatly in her 2004 book, Denial and Deception, that in the mid-1980s, “the United States was already deeply involved in providing weapons and other military support to Iraq.”
In other words, the Clinton administration didn’t just look the other way when it came to Reagan-Bush-41 crimes. Its officials joined in obstructions of justice, even to the extent of sending an American citizen off to prison rather than divulge secrets that would have damaged the legacies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Similarly, the Clinton administration played down extraordinary admissions by the CIA’s inspector general in 1998 that the Reagan administration had concealed evidence of widespread cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan contras. Despite the CIA’s confession, that scandal, too, has gone down in American history as having been “discredited.” [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Beyond distorting the public record upon which Americans make their judgments in a democratic society, the Clinton administration got none of the wished-for reciprocity. The Republicans waged one of the most partisan assaults on a sitting American President ever, ultimately impeaching (though not convicting) Clinton of lying about a sexual dalliance.
Clinton’s humiliation – and the perceived propriety of the Reagan-Bush-41 years – set the stage for George W. Bush to run for the presidency against Vice President Al Gore and to get close enough so five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court could hand the White House back to the GOP. [For details, see our book Neck Deep.]
Despite the controversial outcome of Election 2000 – which actually saw Gore getting a half million more votes than Bush – the new Republican administration behaved as if it had a popular mandate. Right-wing economic theories were pushed, including tax cuts aimed at the rich and "self-regulating markets." Reagan’s notion that “government is the problem” was back.
In foreign policy, especially after the 9/11 terror attacks, it was time for “tough-guy” swagger, American “exceptionalism” and “preemptive war.” Regarding presidential power, Nixon’s imperial theories returned with talk of the “unitary executive” exercising “plenary” – or unlimited – powers.
Along with these old Republican concepts came some of the same people who were responsible for the abuses in the 1980s, such as Elliott Abrams who parlayed his pardon from Bush-41 into a key job on the National Security Council staff of Bush-43.
Now, eight years later, with the disasters of Bush’s policies apparent all around, another new Democratic President is taking office faced with the challenges of cleaning up messes at home and abroad – and also with the opportunity to insist on a truthful record and to demand real accountability from those who committed a new set of crimes.
However, as happened 16 years ago, the Washington Establishment is circling the wagons around the departing Republicans. Pundit after pundit insists that prosecutions for torture and other crimes would amount to misguided partisan revenge. Again, the incoming Democrat is being urged to look to the future, not the past.
Yet, the combined lesson of Bill Clinton’s feckless gestures of bipartisanship in the 1990s and George W. Bush’s reckless application of right-wing nostrums this decade should give pause to anyone who thinks that ignoring – and indeed covering up – past crimes is a smart way to guarantee a better future.
What recent history has shown is that failure to address serious government misconduct only invites a repeat of those abuses or worse. It can be unpleasant to exact accountability – it is often easier to look the other way – but it has been a hard-learned lesson for America that leniency in such circumstances can have devastating consequences.
That lesson arguably is President Bush’s only gift to the Republic – and it is one that Barack Obama might well take to heart.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on January 17, 2009.