NEW & IMPROVED VERSIONS OF WHAT WE KNEW
Difficult though it may be, you almost had to pity ex-DCIA George Tenet as he toured the media to plug his memoirs. It seemed that every appearance on TV talk shows turned into a cage match, with the interviewer pounding away with questions in some angry variation on, "why did you cause the Iraq war?" When Tenet appeared on The Daily Show, they played a montage of clips from some of these recent appearances. Afterwards, Jon Stewart remarked, "I've never seen anything like this...are you going to do book signings where people can come up individually and yell at you?"
Tenet's abuse is well-deserved. Like others in the Bush administration who led us into the quagmire, history will condemn Tenet loudly. His book shows he forgives himself because he
privately warned the White House of risks to the adventure, but his failure to make these concerns public only deepens his blame. Michael Scheuer, the former CIA section chief who led the hunt for Osama and worked closely with Tenet, summed it up well in an April 29 Washington Post op/ed:
He seems to blame the war on everyone but Bush (who gave Tenet the Medal of Freedom) and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell (who remains the Democrats' ideal Republican). Tenet's attacks focus instead on the walking dead, politically speaking: the glowering and unpopular Cheney; the hapless Rice; the band of irretrievably discredited bumblers who used to run the Pentagon, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith; their neoconservative acolytes such as Richard Perle; and the die-hard geopolitical fantasists at the Weekly Standard and National Review.
They're all culpable, of course. But Tenet's attempts to shift the blame won't wash. At day's end, his exercise in finger-pointing is designed to disguise the central, tragic fact of his book. Tenet in effect is saying that he knew all too well why the United States should not invade Iraq, that he told his political masters and that he was ignored. But above all, he's saying that he lacked the moral courage to resign and speak out publicly to try to stop our country from striding into what he knew would be an abyss.
Tenet isn't the only one now spinning his pre-war guilt. Another shameless revisionist is uber-hawk and neo-con Richard Perle, who insisted in a May 11 Washington Post op/ed that he never linked Iraq to 9/11. What Perle forgot to mention is that in the days immediately after September 11 he appeared on CNN linking Saddam to bin Laden and claiming Mohammed Atta met an Iraqi diplomat in Prague prior to the attack. Before the end of that month, Perle also chaired a secret, two-day meeting of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board where discussions centered on how Washington could use 9/11 as an excuse to strike at Iraq. Few hands are bloodier.
Then there are the legions of media pundits, once cheerleaders for the war and now born-again skeptics. The worst of this lot is probably MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who audaciously blames the American public for being stupid enough to follow Bush.
"It wasn`t the president took us to war, the people went along with him," he said on his March 19, 2007 show. "Why did they think we could take over an Arab country, run the place, kick the hell out of the place, tell everybody what to do and nobody would shoot back? What were we thinking?" When guest Paul Krugman pointed out that the news media at the time was telling Americans that the war was going to be "great," Matthews interrupted: "Not me, buster, not me."
Like the others, Matthews is splitting fine hairs. Transcripts of his show before and during the invasion reveals he could barely sit still with excitement over the war. The attack was "brilliantly put together...a dazzling success" (March 26. 2003). Matthews agreed with the neo-con war architects: "I think it achieves our political as well as our military ends, which is to try to begin to put a foothold in that part of the world for democracy and some kind of reasonable level of moderate government and reasonably disposed positively to us" (March 28). And if Matthews really wonders why Americans foolishly believed the war was going to be a cakewalk, maybe he should watch again his March 25 program of that year, where he compared Bush and Blair to Roosevelt and Churchill, or rewind the tape to a day earlier to listen to himself gush about the glories of all that is Rumsfeld: "This is a war of great strategy, and Rummy impresses the hell out of me all the time -- every time I see him I go this guy's got something deep inside his brain we didn't even know about." Most famously, Matthews completely melted down into a puddle of goo when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier a few weeks later for his "Mission Accomplished" speech. He compared Bush's "amazing display of leadership" to Reagan, and, replaying again and again the video of Bush strutting in his flight suit, gushed, "Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president."
So what was the common wisdom in the lead-up to the invasion? Or perhaps more importantly, what did the real experts and writers in the thinking class believe would happen?
Documenting this kind of news is the Monitor's raison d'etre, and it's easy enough to visit our archives and trace, month by month, how the misadventure began.
The award for earliest Iraq War prognosticator goes to Alexander Cockburn, for his February, 2001 column wondering about Bush's "protective retaliation" bombing of Iraq less than a month after taking office. Cockburn thought the new Bush administration was "signaling its readiness to embark on a far tougher stance towards Iraq, beefing up aid to the main opposition group in exile, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), led by Ahmad Chalabi...Chalabi's call for the United States to guarantee 'military exclusion zones' in northern Iraq and in the south near Basra and the oil fields, to be administered by the Iraqi National Congress. Such guarantees could set the stage for a new military assault on Saddam...George W. Bush could at least be toying with the thought that at last the Clinton-Gore campaign's slurs against his father for not finishing off Saddam will be avenged."
Cockburn also dished up a pithy quote a couple of months after 9/11: "Today, America is being stampeded into a new, undeclared war against Iraq. This is a time for truth ... a time for Congress to do its duty, and debate and decide on war or peace. We do not need to have our politics poisoned for yet another generation by the mutual recriminations of a War Party and a Peace Party in the aftermath of yet another undeclared war ... No more undeclared wars. No more presidential wars." The visionary peacenik author? Patrick Buchanan.
No pundit in those early days came closer to predicting the future than David Corn, who foresaw in his December, 2001 column, "Bush's Permanent War" not only a likely Iraq invasion, but the chaos that would follow:
Be prepared for an intensified conservative crush on Bush. The more-war crowd will argue that if Bush is serious about his campaign against global terrorism, he has no choice but to blast Iraq. There's plenty of baggage in this imbroglio. Bush's old man was lambasted for not finishing off 'Sad-um.' Bush the Younger -- surrounded by alumni of the 1991 war against Iraq -- may be particularly sensitive to the charge he is soft on Hussein.
What would be the mission objective of a strike against Iraq? The obvious answer is, to give Hussein the boot. But think beyond that. Washington cannot assume a non-threatening democracy would blossom in the manure left behind. Would the United States then be responsible for rebuilding Iraq and its political system?
Even early in 2002, Iraqis saw increased misery in their future. In a January essay,
"Iraqi People Expect U.S. Attack," it's clear that the Iraqis, used to a decade of punitive U.S. bombing, expected Bush to dish out (lots) more of the same: "People here don't seem too worried about the U.S. expanding the 'war' to Iraq. Everyone agrees that after Afghanistan, America will bomb here next, but, as one man put it to me, the Iraqi people are 'used to the voice of American bombs.'"
The "axis of evil" State of the Union speech was considered a watershed, but there was disagreement over what it meant. Osama wasn't mentioned even once -- it was implied that the war against the Taliban and bin Laden were finished business -- and Bush instead accused the "axis" countries of plotting and "threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction." One Monitor analyst saw the speech announcing his intent to find a new enemy and a
prelude to establishing a permanent military presence in any part of the world where "terrorists" might be found.
"Is the Bush regime blustering itself into war?" asked Cockburn, who predicted Bush would attack Iraq by the end of 2002 (almost right), but wouldn't have much of a coalition behind him, except for ever-loyal Blair (dead right). But the most significant "axis of evil" analysis came from IPS writer Jim Lobe, who saw the speech as declaring a coup had taken place, and ultra-hawks were now firmly in control.
Lobe deserves much of the credit for making the nation aware of the neo-conservative movement and its faction in the White House and Pentagon. Just a month after 9/11, he documented the struggle between Colin Powell and the neo-cons over foreign policy, and particularly, whether or not Iraq should be attacked. Another post-9/11 article,
"Go After Saddam, Bush's Right-Wing Advisory Council Says" revealed more on the well-heeled adherents in their network and their thirst for Iraq's blood. Monitor readers who knew that context understood the "axis of evil" speech was tantamount to a declaration of war on Iraq. The Washington Post's
neo-con columnist Charles Krauthammer was blunt about the implications:
"Iraq is what this speech was about. If there was a serious internal debate within the administration over what to do about Iraq, that debate is over."
In the months that followed, the neo-cons and realists sniped at each other over whether or not Saddam had a mountain of WMD and was bestest pals with bin Laden
(see sample columns from
David Corn, and
Molly Ivins), but the real focus was on what sort of powers Congress would bestow on the president. With the 2002 mid-term elections fast approaching, Sen. Joe Biden warned against rushing "pell mell" to endorse broad war powers for Bush. The moment that decided the question came on the Senate floor on October 4, 2002, when three senior Senators debated what President Bush declared to be the most pressing issue before the nation. Before that historic vote,
Sen. Robert Byrd, his palsied hands seemingly barely in control, who scored points with a chilling comparison:
Let's go back to the war in Vietnam. I was here. I was one of the
Senators who voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Yes, I voted for
the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. I am sorry for that. I am guilty of
doing that. I should have been one of the two, or at least I should
have made it three, Senators who voted against that Gulf of Tonkin
resolution. But I am not wanting to commit that sin twice, and that is
exactly what we are doing here. This is another Gulf of Tonkin
With the upcoming election and a strong majority of Americans believing the lie of Saddam links to 9/11, Congress gave Bush what he wanted, although
136 members of the House voted against the war, including most Democrats.
All Democratic presidential hopefuls -- Kerry, Gephardt, Daschle, Clinton, Lieberman, and Edwards -- backed the war. Columnist Norman Solomon
particularly slammed front-runner and anti-war hero John Kerry :
"Kerry and like-minded 'liberals' are forfeiting their souls without appreciable political benefit. Because much of its base is inclined to be antiwar, the Democratic Party cannot hope to be united while staying on a path of 'me too' militarism."
Several of those candidates have since said they voted "yes" because they didn't believe Bush would actually go to war in Iraq. Although today it sounds like an evasion, understand that a poll taken near election day 2002 indicated that most Americans didn't think Bush would actually invade. Same at the UN, as the
Security Council voted 15-0 to green light a military strike on Iraq if Saddam obstructed weapons inspectors. Even the Arab League approved of that vote because it was widely seen as the last chance for Iraq to avert a war. After all, Washington had promised them that the resolution would not be used as "a pretext for war."
There were certainly clues that Bush already intended to invade, including the hard-to-ignore fact that nearly a quarter-million U.S. soldiers were gearing up for combat -- which apologists explained away as all part of the bluff to scare Saddam. More should have also noticed that the White House was already making up fantasy-football leagues of who should run post-Saddam Iraq.
The other players in this tragedy were the American news media and public. Congressional offices were besieged with calls, e-mails, and letters before the October vote, with constituents urging a no-war vote by margins of 20 to 1 or higher. Massive protests followed nationwide, many among the largest turnouts since Vietnam War era. But as hard as it may be to believe now, the prelude to war took second billing in the headlines to the
"Washington sniper" story in the weeks before the crucial 2002 elections. On Nov. 4 -- the day before the election -- dozens of newspaper and broadcast media stories appeared about the sniper case, although the cuprits had been in custody for over a week and there were no new developments (other than "police still investigating"). Nor did the press demand White House answers to the tough questions. The exception was the venerable
who would not let presidential spinner Ari Fleischer off easy:
"[Why] would the president attack innocent Iraqi lives?" Thomas asked for the third time at a Jan. 2003 press conference.
Fleischer answered, "The president wants to make certain that he can defend our country ... "
Thomas would not back off. She demanded to know whether Bush thinks the Iraqi people "are a threat to us."
At that point, Fleischer went off message with a weird statement. "The Iraqi people are represented by their government," said the man speaking for the president of the United States.
After the 2003 State of the Union speech, even cynics now realized that Bush was intent on storming ahead in his mad adventure. The speech offered no "smoking gun" evidence of Saddam WMD, but instead dished up the old, discredited claims of a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda. Even Bush's "new" claim that Saddam's aluminum tubes were to be used in making nukes had been debunked a few weeks earlier by the head of the IAEA. So limp were the justification offered for war that some experts thought that the White House was really waiting until the last minute to show a trump card that had real pizzazz.
The Arab press, which long had dismissed fears of war, prepared for the worst after the speech. The pan-Arab Al Quds Al Arabi envisioned the "American empire and her constant storms of chaos raging across the globe, with the Middle East as the main battlefield." Anger and resentment were already building over what they saw as a Western attack on Islam. Four out of five Arabs also expected terrorism to increase because of the war.
The 2003 State of the Union address also started the American press pounding the war drums, with a special emphasis on mongering fear, which always pumps up ratings and circulation.
When U.S. boots landed on Iraqi sand, they reminded us endlessly, no one knew what might happen. With all those presumed WMDs in his pocket, the #1 prediction was that Saddam would use biological and chemical weapons to stall the invasion, just as his forces used chemical weapons against the Iran army. Saddam was also likely to blow up the oil wells, as he did after the 1991 defeat in Kuwait. Or imagine learning that the U.S. actually found an anthrax factory followed by the bad news: It was "found" by U.S. bomb.
After just having terrified the public that the Washington Sniper was likely (then later, "easily could have been") a terrorist attack, the cable news networks were particularly shameless in hammering away on the horrors awaiting in Iraq. A sample overblown teaser from the March 10 "Wolf Blitzer Reports" on CNN: "Showdown: Iraq. Baghdad prepares for war. Are the oil fields already rigged to blow? The Iraqi weapons you didn't hear about. Did UN inspectors downplay secret system to deliver chemical weapons?"
The media's scare-palooza had two side effects: making Saddam appear a dangerous madman perfectly served the White House agenda of making the attack seem necessary.
It also sucked all oxygen out of the room for discussing more substantive issues, such as what might happen in Iraq after the overthrow.
In the first two weeks of March, NEXIS shows 328 TV news programs mentioned anthrax in Iraq. Only four programs mentioned anything about the possibility of civil war. Pundits who might discuss such issues weren't even on the shows; viewers couldn't hear someone like James Lindsay, a foreign policy expert at The Brookings Institution. Lindsay was quoted in dozens of newspaper articles warning that "Bush could win the war but lose the peace, leaving Iraq more like the broken and bloodied Yugoslavia and less like the re-united Germany," and that "the war in Iraq might intensify the war on terror."
The Monitor archives show that our columnists and writers mostly proved accurate. "After Saddam, Iraq Tribal Wars Expected"
anticipated that the nation's center would quickly unravel without Hussein's iron grip.
Jim Lobe predicted Iraq 2003 would come to resemble Lebanon 1982, with a fast victory followed the devolution into a long, bloody civil war with Americans in the middle. Molly Ivins also got it right, predicting even before the Bush 2003 SOTU speech, "I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20 percent Kurd, 20 percent Sunni and 60 percent Shiite. Can you say, 'Horrible three-way civil war?' And as George W. Bush himself once said, 'Unrest in the Middle East causes unrest throughout the region.'"
Other prophetic articles in the March, 2003 edition include "
The End Of International Law" ("Washington may thus find itself with a stark choice of paying billions of dollars more in occupation and reconstruction costs or simply giving up and going home, much as it did in Afghanistan, where stability is still a mirage more than one year after the Taliban's ouster") and
"Expect Long-Haul Stay In Iraq, Say Policy Setters," which notes that the neo-con group that was at the core of war planning issued a letter stating that American troops in Iraq must "remain for as long as it takes." Not one mainstream press article mentioned this seminal declaration.
Squint back at the days leading to the invasion and you'll find fools are many and clairvoyants are few. You'd have to be pretty cynical in 2002 to believe that the President of the United States and his minions would lie and prevaricate the nation into a pre-emptive war, and a wildly reckless one at that. Blameworthy also are the network and cable news broadcasters who not only cheered the war, but helped fabricate the reasons for it. A special award for journalistic irresponsibility goes to the NY Times' breathless 2001-2003 front page reporting by Judith Miller for describing Saddam's hidden mad scientist biolabs and proto-atom bomb factories, all fake.
What more people needed to hear in 2003 were more voices like Lebanese historian Kamal Salih, who learned from the chaos in his country that "great powers should not get involved in the politics of small tribes" (quoted in a March '03
We also needed to hear more from James Lindsay, who mused to
The Dallas Morning News that March 18,
"We are good at breaking things. We are not so good at putting things back together."
( May 31, 2007)
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