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MAKING THE GREAT WURLITZER PERFORM:
George W. Bush: Dupe or Deceiver?
Published on ConsortiumNews.com on Saturday, 20 November 2010
George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, is without doubt a self-serving defense of his presidency – and Bush’s own words condemn him as a liar – but there is another nagging question that surrounds this curious book: Has the U.S. media/political system become so polluted with falsehoods that even people at the top now believe the propaganda?
It is not clear which is the more troubling answer: that Bush and his advisers were bald-faced liars confident that their elite status lets then deceive at will, or that they have wallowed so long in a Washington’s hot tub of spin that their brains can no longer separate fact from fiction.
In general, I assume that political leaders know the truth and just believe that the rest of us are easily manipulated by clever propaganda or can be readily bullied into line. As long as the leaders stick to their story (no matter how false it is), they can rely on their Establishment credentials to tough it out against the few skeptics who dare call out the lies.
But there were moments in reading Bush’s memoir when I began wondering whether – at least for him – the other explanation was more plausible, that he was clinically delusional in the sense that he could no longer distinguish between what was real and what had been created by others to appeal to his preconceptions, biases and vanity.
Under this scenario, Bush was the amiable front man who was handled by those around him, by the neoconservatives who wanted to prove their mettle to the Israeli Right with a demonstration of American shock-and-awe against hostile Arabs in Iraq, or by the oil men who saw U.S. military domination of the Middle East as the ticket to trillions of dollars in energy reserves.
These groups grew skilled at baiting Bush with misinformation and exaggeration, knowing what would rile him up and push his buttons. The intellectually lazy but egotistical Bush would then come to think that the plans that they planted in his mind were his and that he was true Decider.
However, there are other indications in the book that Bush was part of this lying clique and that the American people were the targets of the falsehoods. In this scenario, Bush grew so confident before an obsequious Washington press corps that he felt he could lie with impunity and that the capital’s pundit class would simply nod in acceptance.
An example that supports the Bush-is-a-deceiver scenario emerged several months after the invasion of Iraq, when it became clear that there were no WMD stockpiles. So, Bush began insisting that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein “chose war” by refusing to allow UN weapons inspectors back into his country -- even though the public had seen the inspectors rushing around Iraq in their white vans for months in late 2002 and early 2003.
Nevertheless, at a White House press briefing on July 14, 2003, Bush told reporters: “We gave him [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”
Facing no contradiction from the obsequious White House press corps, Bush repeated this lie in varied forms until the last days of his presidency.
The only possible defense of Bush’s clear-cut lie was that he might have forgotten that Saddam Hussein had allowed the inspectors to return in fall 2002, giving them unfettered access to suspected WMD sites, and that it was Bush who forced them to leave in March 2003.
However, in his memoir, Bush jarringly acknowledges that he was aware that the UN inspectors were roaming around Iraq during the lead-up to the war.
Bush also recounts the central role that the reintroduction of the UN inspectors had played in April 2002 when he was convincing British Prime Minister Tony Blair to support “coercive diplomacy” against Iraq. Bush wrote:
Ultimately, the UN Security Council did approve Resolution 1441 demanding that Iraq reveal what it had done with its prior weapons programs and allow UN inspectors back in. In fall 2002, Iraq complied with both demands, letting inspectors return and turning over a 12,000-page declaration explaining how Iraq's WMD stockpiles had been eliminated.
Despite Iraq’s submission of these records, leading neocons who were itching for war, the likes of Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, mocked Iraq’s efforts, a disdain that Bush cited favorably in his memoir, recalling:
Though Bush stayed on course for war, he portrays himself in his memoir as a reluctant warrior, forced to launch an aggressive war because of the Saddam Hussein’s belligerence. Bush wrote:
There is, of course, some madness in Bush’s argument as well as contempt for the factual record. The truth was that Iraq had disarmed and had tried to comply with Resolution 1441; Saddam Hussein had responded to his “final opportunity” by letting the UN inspectors back in; and he couldn’t “fully disclose his WMD” because he didn’t have any to disclose.
Bush devotes a large segment of his memoir to fabricating a false history so the American people will see him as a peace lover who was left with only one option: war.
Yet, even amid these lies and rationalizations, there remains the possibility that Bush was more the duped dauphin than the wily prince. He surely had plenty of conniving counselors whispering in his ear from behind his throne.
Just days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush described a meeting of his national security team at which Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, an arch-neoconservative, “suggested that we consider confronting Iraq as well as the Taliban” in Afghanistan. So, the idea of invasion was planted early.
Bush, however, insisted that he was reluctant to go in that direction, writing:
Bungling Tora Bora
Despite Bush’s protestations about not rushing to war with Iraq and needing to succeed first in Afghanistan, Bush notes in passing the key moment when he pivoted prematurely from finishing off Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s leadership at Tora Bora in fall 2001 and instead focusing the U.S. military on Iraq war plans. Bush wrote:
What Bush left out of that narrative was what was later revealed by a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation, that Franks was overseeing the military operation aimed at capturing or killing bin Laden when Rumsfeld relayed Bush’s order to freshen up the invasion plan for Iraq.
According to the committee’s analysis of the Tora Bora battle, the small team of American pursuers believed they had bin Laden trapped at his mountain stronghold at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan and called for reinforcements to seal off possible escape routes to Pakistan.
But Bush was already turning his attention to Iraq, as his neocon advisers wanted. The Senate report said:
In his memoir, American General, Gen. Franks said he got a phone call from Rumsfeld on Nov. 21, after the Defense Secretary had met with the President, and was told about Bush’s interest in an updated Iraq war plan.
At the time, Franks said he was in his office at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida working with one of his aides on arranging air support for the Afghan militia who were under the guidance of the U.S. Special Forces in charge of the assault on bin Laden’s Tora Bora stronghold.
Franks told Rumsfeld that the Iraq war plan was out of date, prompting the Defense Secretary to instruct Franks to “dust it off and get back to me in a week.”
The CIA and Special Forces teams, calling for reinforcements to finish off bin Laden and al-Qaeda, “did not know what was happening back at CentCom, the drain in resources and shift in attention would affect them and the future course of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan,” the report said.
Henry Crumpton, who was in charge of the CIA’s Afghan strategy, made direct appeals to Franks to move more than 1,000 Marines to Tora Bora to block escape routes to Pakistan. But the CentCom commander rebuffed the request, citing logistical and time problems, the report said.
Crumpton also told Bush that the Afghan militia were not up to the job of assaulting al-Qaeda’s bases at Tora Bora and warned the President, “we’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful,” the report said, citing journalist Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine.
But the Iraq-obsessed Bush still didn’t act. Finally, in mid-December 2001, the small U.S. Special Forces team convinced the Afghan militia fighters to undertake a sweep of the mountainous terrain, but they found it largely deserted.
Though excluding those details from his memoir, Bush tries to rebut the criticism that he bungled the battle of Tora Bora. He wrote:
The reality, however, was that the neocons, who saw Iraq as a more serious threat to Israel, and the oil men, who lusted after Iraq’s petroleum reserves, persuaded Bush to concentrate more on getting rid of Saddam Hussein than Osama bin Laden.
To do that, some advisers played on Bush’s macho self-image. In his memoir, Bush recalled one of his weekly lunches with Vice President Cheney (the former head of the Halliburton oil-drilling company), who was urging him to get on with the business of eliminating Saddam Hussein.
However, even as he was being prodded by Cheney and the neocons to act, Bush was using similar macho rhetoric – about having "the balls" to go to war – to ensure that Prime Minister Blair would commit British forces when the time came. In one melodramatic passage in Decision Points, Bush recounts a discussion with Blair:
But Bush’s memoir also has indications that he was not just swept up by the manly excitement of blasting apart some nearly defenseless nation, but he was carried along by intelligence reports which were themselves being manipulated by a combination of Cheney/neocon pressure and CIA analysts who cared more for their jobs than the truth. Bush wrote:
The Zarqawi Myth
The memoir also contains references in which it’s ambiguous whether Bush is the manipulator or the one being manipulated.
For instance, Bush cites the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a brutal terrorist who was operating in an area of Iraq that was protected by the U.S. and British “no-fly zone,” which prevented Saddam Hussein’s ruthless counter-terror operations from targeting anti-government Islamic militants like Zarqawi.
Though U.S. intelligence knew that the secular Sunni Saddam Hussein was a bitter enemy of these Islamic fundamentalists, the Bush administration exploited for propaganda purposes the fact that Zarqawi was located inside Iraq and had slipped into Baghdad for some medical treatment.
In his memoir, Bush cites the Zarqawi case to defend his decision to invade, but it’s unclear whether the existence of the known terrorist in Iraq was also used to bait Bush.
At another point in the memoir, Bush portrays himself as something of an innocent victim, deceived by erroneous intelligence in late 2002. He wrote:
No More Delays
By March 2003, Bush claims he had exhausted all peaceful efforts to resolve the issues regarding Iraq’s WMD and was left with only one choice, to invade Iraq:
Of course, the other logical conclusion would be that Iraq had no WMD stockpiles, that it had done its best to convince the outside world of that fact, and that it trusted that the international community would uphold the principles enshrined at the post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunals and in the UN Charter, making aggressive war the supreme international crime.
Instead, recognizing that the Security Council was overwhelmingly opposed to an invasion, Bush withdrew a second resolution seeking explicit authorization to use force, got the UN inspectors to flee Iraq, and turned to his “coalition of the willing.”.
In his memoir, Bush describes what happens next in the most heroic and melodramatic terms.
Within three weeks, the invasion had ousted Saddam Hussein’s government. A few weeks later, Bush flew onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and gave his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech. Eventually, Bush even had the satisfaction of having U.S. troops deliver Hussein to the scaffold where he was hanged in late 2006. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Silences a Dangerous Witness.”]
But the war also drove Iraq into seven years (and counting) of a living hell, with the death toll now estimated in the hundreds of thousands, with many more maimed, and with millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes and living in degradation and squalor.
The consequences for Afghanistan – from Bush’s premature pivot away from that war to the one ardently desired by the neocons – were also devastating. Rather than stabilizing Afghanistan and ensuring that al-Qaeda and its allies could not reestablish bases there, Bush watched as the Taliban mounted a comeback and the U.S. military remained bogged down in Iraq. He wrote:
The situation also was deteriorating in Iraq, with various Iraqi nationalist forces taking up arms against the U.S. military occupation and a sectarian civil war breaking out between the Sunnis, who represented the previous ruling elite, and the Shiites, who had risen to power since the invasion.
Though Bush had suggested before the war that the presence of Zarqawi and a few al-Qaeda operatives was a key justification for invading Iraq, he acknowledges in his memoir that it was only after the invasion that al-Qaeda began focusing on Iraq. He wrote:
Bush also confirms some key facts about his decision to beef up U.S. forces in 2007, the “surge.” His account demonstrates how wrong the U.S. press corps and the congressional Democrats were in their interpretation of events in late 2006, when – after the Democratic victory in congressional elections – Bush fired Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and replaced him with former CIA Director Robert Gates.
The immediate conventional wisdom was that the shakeup represented a victory for the realist doves over the ideological hawks, that the pragmatic Gates would oversee a rapid drawdown of U.S. forces and that Rumsfeld had remained an unrepentant hardliner on the war.
Consortiumnews.com was one of the few outlets that reported that the conventional wisdom was upside down, that the reality was that Rumsfeld was backing U.S. commanders who wanted to dramatically reduce the U.S. “footprint” in Iraq and that Gates was so eager to resume a prominent position in Washington that he had acquiesced to an escalation.
Neocons Push the Surge
That is essentially the account that Bush offers in his memoir, in the context of presenting the “surge” as one of his finest hours as the Decider, albeit with the guidance of leading neocons.
In June 2006, Bush wrote, he received a special briefing from outside experts:
In other words, the seeds of the “surge” came from neocons, including “journalist” Robert Kaplan, who took it upon themselves to advise the commander-in-chief on escalating the killing in Iraq.
This neocon advice clashed with the judgment of the commanders in the field, whose recommendations Bush famously pronounced he would follow.
By mid-2006, the commanders were seeing a turning point in the violence that was ripping Iraq apart. Sunni militants had begun rejecting al-Qaeda extremists; Zarqawi was killed in an air raid; the sectarian violence had caused a de facto ethnic cleansing with Sunni and Shiites retreating to safer enclaves; a classified program was targeting and killing insurgents in greater numbers.
The field commanders, including the senior general in Iraq, George Casey, favored an accelerated drawdown of U.S. forces and an exit plan for combat troops, rather than an expanded and open-ended stay. The commanders had Rumsfeld’s support.
Bush wrote: “General [George] Casey told me we could succeed by transferring responsibility to the Iraqis faster. We needed to ‘help them help themselves,’ Don Rumsfeld said. That was another way of saying that we needed to take our hand off the bicycle seat.
To impose this new strategy, Bush sought new leadership both in Iraq and at the Pentagon, sounding out Gates as a replacement for Rumsfeld.
Sealing the Deal
Once Rumsfeld was dumped and Gates was appointed (to the misguided acclaim of Official Washington), Bush and the neocons pressed ahead with the escalation. Bush wrote:
Though Bush credits his decision to order the “surge” as the turning point in Iraq, he also includes facts that support the opposite conclusion, that the tide was already turning against al-Qaeda extremists before the 30,000 extra U.S. troops arrived in 2007. He wrote:
Nevertheless, the neocons – who remain extraordinarily influential in Washington to this day – spun the “surge” as the singular explanation for the gradual decline in violence in Iraq. This new conventional wisdom was enthusiastically pushed by the Bush administration and accepted by the Washington press corps. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Gen. Petraeus and the Surge Myth.”]
Not surprisingly, Bush’s memoir also embraces the “surge-did-it” conventional wisdom. After all, it finally made him out to be the great war-time Decider that he always envisioned, a self-image that the neocons and his other advisers carefully nurtured and exploited as the key to their own influence.
Yet, after finishing Decision Points, I still wasn’t sure where the line was between Bush being the one getting manipulated and the one manipulating the rest of us. Had he drunk his own Kool-Aid or had he cynically instructed his ghost writer to fashion some old talking points into a memoir designed to rehabilitate himself and his powerful family?
The only certainty is that within the many miscalculations of his presidency, many people died unnecessary deaths, many more faced severe personal hardships that didn’t need to happen, and the United States was left in a fiscal, economic and strategic mess.
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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Mr. Parry's stories are republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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