Buffeted by criticism from all quarters, crippled
polls and with his
trustworthiness in doubt for an increasing number of Americans, President
George W. Bush did on Friday what he's always done whenever his policies are
questioned: he launched a stubborn frontal assault on detractors allegedly less
patriotic and less protective of the homeland than himself. In doing so, he
once again sounded like a broken record, scratching and skipping in garbled
tones over the same old baleful dirge.
In an angry and predictable Veteran's Day speech, Bush accosted
his critics as "deeply irresponsible" for questioning the rationale
that led us to war in Iraq, desperately insisting that "these baseless
attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning
Yep, it's the same old nonsense we've been hearing for four years now: the
country is at war, and now is not the time to question why the country is at
war, because when the country is at war, any dissent is unpatriotic and harmful
to the troops' morale.
Yet perhaps the troops' morale in Iraq is less affected by antiwar protesters
in America than by, say, getting shafted out of body
armor and bonuses
Humvees by the Pentagon. Citing military sources who say the Army is "on
the verge of snapping," Bob
Herbert recently discussed the effects that the "bring 'em on"
president's wars have had on the soldiers:
"[D]ivorce rates have gone way up, nearly doubling over the past four
years. Long deployments – and, especially, repeated deployments – can take a
vicious toll on personal relationships. Chaplains, psychologists, and others
have long been aware of the many dangerous factors that accompany wartime deployment:
loneliness, financial problems, drug or alcohol abuse, depression, post-traumatic
stress disorder, the problems faced by the parent left at home to care for children,
the enormous problem of adjusting to the devastation of wartime injuries, and
It thus seems that questioning the need for war does indeed send a negative
signal to the troops – if you happen to be in the commander-in-chief's position
right about now. Indeed, these stage-managed speeches in front of a muzzled
military audience cannot
hide the awkward truth that many experienced military men have, before,
during, and after the Iraq invasion, questioned the president's leadership and
concern for the troops. That Bush had the gall to speak in front of the military
and actually shake hands with World War II veterans on their annual day of remembrance,
considering that he himself slithered out of serving when he had the chance
and then went on to ruin thousands of young lives in an unnecessary and self-destructive
war 30 years later, is incredible – but, sad to say, not surprising.
Defections in the Ranks at Home
In the past few weeks, and especially since the
28 indictment [.pdf] of Lewis Libby over Plamegate,
the president has suffered a small mutiny within his own party. First there
were the strongly critical comments from respected Republican elder statesman,
and close friend of Bush Sr., Brent Scowcroft, published in the New
Yorker on Oct. 24. Then there was the mass rejection of the president's
policy in Congress, when 46
Republicans signed up to Republican Sen. John McCain's amendment against
practice of torture.
recently, Republican Sen. Rick
Santorum turned down the opportunity to stand alongside Bush at an American
Legion event in Philadelphia. The senator instead called the Iraq war "less
than optimal," and he "criticized how the war had been presented by
the media and the White House. 'Certainly, mistakes were made.'" At the
same time, Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel "also
zinged Bush, joining Democrats who want the Senate to investigate whether the
administration manipulated prewar Iraq intelligence." And even on relatively
non-related domestic issues, Bush's party is in disarray.
No Comfort Abroad, Either
Internationally, Bush has been flopping, and he
has seen his most important political allies weakened by their perceived association
with him. Italy's Silvio
Berlusconi became embroiled in the same scandal (over the forged Niger uranium
documents and the rationale for war in Iraq) that may yet be broached in Patrick
Fitzgerald's investigation. A barrage of domestic criticism has been levied
against Berlusconi for his mishandling of the war, something that prompted the
Italian leader on the very eve of his recent visit to Washington to
lamely protest that he had tried to "stop the war." For an embattled
Bush, it seemed like a stab in the back.
A second issue for Berlusconi has been the public outcry over an alleged CIA
street abduction in 2003 in Milan. On Friday, Italian
prosecutors announced they were seeking the extradition of 22 CIA operatives
allegedly involved with the kidnapping of Muslim cleric Abu Omar. The prosecutors
said that the action was "a violation of Italian sovereignty and hindered
Italian terrorism investigations."
Of course, there's little chance that they will get their wish, but as a political
issue this one is bound to hurt an already flagging Berlusconi, as he heads
into April elections
against Romano Prodi,
a Eurocrat critic of the American war on terror. Aside from the war, Berlusconi
is being skewered at home for his absurd scheme to balance the budget by
taxing mobile phone text messages. "[I]f elections were held today,"
reports Bloomberg, citing a recent opinion poll published in La Repubblica,
"the center-left opposition led by Romano Prodi would beat Berlusconi by
as many as 12 percentage points."
Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bush's right-hand poodle Tony Blair suffered his
worst setback to date on Nov. 9, when despite "passionate last-minute
pleas" his draconian anti-terror provision was soundly defeated. In all,
40 members of Blair's own Labour Party broke ranks to scupper the provision,
which would have allowed the police to hold anyone for up to 90 days with no
charge. Frustrated by the defeat, Blair vowed
to fight on with other "reforms," but critical
views far outweigh the positive in the British media right now. As
the Telegraph put it, it "is too early to write Tony Blair's
political obituary, but the events of the past week have given us the chapter
Back to the emperor himself, who suffered two unfortunate adventures in foreign
policy within a week. George W. suffered further humiliation last weekend during
trip to South
America, marred by massive protests against him backed by Venezuelan populist
president Hugo Chávez, who taunted him throughout. While the Americans'
demands for future "free trade" agreements were defeated, the worst
thing, perhaps, was that the good old Latin practice of late dining kept
George up past his bedtime of 10 p.m.
A second foreign policy initiative fizzled out on Saturday when Middle
Eastern allies refused to sign up to an administration plan to ship more
democracy their way. Although the president sent no less a character than Condoleezza
Rice (who has to be Bush's number two these days, in light of his alleged loss
of faith in both Dick Cheney and Karl Rove) for the Bahrain summit, the draft
declaration "was shelved after Egypt insisted on language that would have
given Arab governments greater control over which democracy groups receive money
from a new fund." Accompanying Condi was Deputy Assistant Secretary of
State Liz Cheney, who had originally dreamed up the project as a "$100
million venture capital fund to promote economic enterprise" – with half
of the cash to be chipped in by the American taxpayer.
Back on Offense
It is in the context of all these events that
we should consider Bush's scripted Veteran's Day speech. It was not by accident
that commentators have compared it to a campaign speech rather than a simple
defense of policy. Although we expect he will have to be kept on for another
three years, Bush is very much fighting to reclaim the kind of public legitimacy
he needs to rule productively – or at least to avoid Lincoln's
Friday's speech bore all the hallmarks of a Karl Rove "hit." Bush
directly questioned the moral right of his critics to question him, noting that
many of them had voted for his war in the first place (thus their alleged "irresponsibility"
in "revising" history at this late stage of the game). As the N.Y.
Daily News put it, the president "reverted to his bare-knuckle political
biographer finds remarkable the "power" of Rove, the president's
top accomplice, "when challenged, to draw on an animal ferocity that far
exceeds the chest-thumping bravado common to professional political operatives."
It has often been noted that Rove's real genius lies more in masterminding
winning campaigns (not incidentally, where there are more opportunities
for hitting below the belt) than in the more mundane propulsion of day-to-day
governance. Yet Rove has been pushed onto the defensive since the specter of
Patrick Fitzgerald began bearing down several weeks ago. Although he escaped
Libby's fate on the 28th of October, Rove remains in a
state of suspended animation; he may well have been allowed to live just
so he can die another day, via
a future indictment. Even if he doesn't, there is no question that the adviser's
powers of persuasion and leadership have been diminished by the scandal. The
same goes for Vice President Cheney, who also allegedly has
lost the president's trust over Plamegate.
For now, however, the predictable Roveian offensive seems to be in full swing.
Whether or not it signifies a desperate last gasp or the brave beginnings of
a triumphant comeback remains to be seen. Sunday saw neocon
and military-industrial-complex veteran Stephen
Hadley hammering away at war critics on CNN. With ominous rumblings about
Syria and Iran, there is a very real possibility that an increasingly embittered
president will, far from abandoning the ruinous policies that have brought the
world to this precarious point, circle the wagons around some of the most bellicose,
pro-nuclear neocons out there.
Indeed, with the likes of Hadley
as national security adviser, and the apocalyptic John
Bolton ensconced arbitrarily over at the UN, courtesy of a presidential
privilege, until at
least January 2007, the ground is
being prepared for exciting new adventures
in Iran. Remember, there are now only 10 days to go until the International
Atomic Energy Agency meets to debate whether Tehran should be referred to the
UN Security Council; until that jolly time arrives, the White House will try
to accentuate the positive sides (if
they find any) of this
week's presidential tour of Asia, while keeping up the offensive against
critics who, God willing, will soon be silenced by the next great WMD
crisis in the Middle East.
After all, it would be irresponsible – no, it would be downright unpatriotic
– to keep focusing on stale old controversies when the country is at war and
the situation demands a disciplined, dignified, and unified response. Anything
less would be aiding the enemy.
If the war party has its way, successive American governments will be indulging
in the same sordid privileges for
many decades to come.