Bush’s world of illusion

Sidney Blumenthal
17 March 2006

On the eve of the third anniversary – 20 March 2003 – of the invasion of Iraq, President Bush began the fourth of his series of speeches in his second term attempting to articulate his strategy for the war. None of his previous explanations had succeeded in bolstering public confidence, so he tried again. His speech on 13 March at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies was a reiteration of the theme he had elaborated in his last round.

Bush is rigidly adhering to the guidelines suggested by public opinion specialist Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University recently hired to serve on the National Security Council. He has advised the president that he must insist that the difficulties in Iraq are the price we must pay for victory and that just as Bush stands for "victory" his critics by implication represent defeat.

In his peroration, Bush reached for that last point, his high note sounding the clarion-bell of certainty that is most familiar and comfortable for him. "The battle lines in Iraq are clearly drawn for the world to see", he said, "and there is no middle ground."

Yet Bush's speech provided a text contradicting his own key officials. On the crucial issues of Iranian involvement in Iraq, the worthiness of Iraqi security forces, the democratic nature of the Iraqi government, the cause of human rights, United States intentions about staying or leaving, long-term strategy and even the origins of the war, the words of the president and his men clash.

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton. He is the author of The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) and writes a column for Salon and the Guardian.

Also by Sidney Blumenthal in openDemocracy:

"Bush's Potemkin village presidency"
(September 2005)

"Republican tremors" (October 2005)

"George W Bush: home alone" (October 2005)

"Dick Cheney's day of reckoning"
(November 2005)

"Dick Cheney's shadow play" (November 2005)

"Condoleezza Rice's troubling journey" (December 2005)

"Bush's surveillance network"
(December 2005)

"Bush's shadow government exposed" (January 2006)

"The Republican system" (January 2006)

"George W Bush: running on empty" (February 2006)

"The rules of the game" (February 2006)

" The imprisoned president"(March 2006)

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The president contradicts US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, while the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Peter Pace, and the US commander in Iraq, General John Abizaid, contradict the president. At the same time, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld blithely contradicts the joint chiefs on the entire strategy.

The inconsistent story reflects the occasional weakness of Khalilzad especially for acknowledging harsh realities, letting slip the veneer of bravado and failure to armour with euphemism. Bush and Rumsfeld, of course, remain impregnable fortresses of denial.

The springtime of zeal

It is already hard to remember the heady days when the Iraq adventure began, trumpets blaring and banners unfurled. Vice-president Dick Cheney and the administration neo-conservatives arranged for the airlift of exiled Iraqi leader Ahmad Chalabi and about 500 of his fighters into the country. He had been a major source of the disinformation about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that had provided the justification for the war. Now he was expected to assume power, restore order and make Iraq into a base for the projection of US influence throughout the middle east.

Instantly, Iraq would become a beacon of democracy. Awestruck, the Palestinians would forswear terrorist groups like Hamas. From the Iraqi bastion, the US would topple the regimes of Syria and Iran, by military force if need be. The Iraq example would serve for invasions elsewhere. Saudi Arabia and Egypt would have no resort but democratising, their rulers yielding to secular figures in the inspiring mould of Chalabi. Like Saddam Hussein's regime, the entire region was supposedly a house of cards.

No one more conspicuously displayed the moral glamour and intoxication with absolute power of the moment than pundit Charles Krauthammer. The month before the war was launched, in February 2003, at a conference sponsored by the National Interest journal, and in columns in Time magazine and the Washington Post, he proclaimed that the Iraq war would transform the entire middle east in the neo-conservative image and that the task would be accomplished first in Iraq during a brief eighteen-month occupation.

At the conference of the National Interest, Krauthammer dismissed concerns about finding WMD, the rationale for the war. "There is one thing that I think everybody has overlooked – we are going to have retroactive evidence. Even though I would like us to be able to have a smoking gun, I don't know how close we are going to come to producing it when the President decides that it is time."

The war, Krauthammer continued, was necessary for "American credibility". It was time to end a "hands-off, offshore policy ... Iraq will be the first act in the play of an America coming ashore in Arabia ... It's not just about weapons of mass destruction or American credibility. It's about reforming the Arab world."

In a column in Time on 17 February 2003, boldly titled "Coming Ashore", Krauthammer proudly embraced the arrogance of power. "Reformation and reconstruction of an alien culture are a daunting task. Risky and, yes, arrogant." Yet 9/11 justified not only invading Iraq but also, he insisted, overthrowing 22 other Arab governments. "Before 9/11, no one would have seriously even proposed it. After 9/11, we dare not shrink from it." And then again came out his bugle: "America is coming ashore."

Three years after coming ashore, some neo-conservatives are experiencing the torments of disillusionment. Their most cherished dreams are encrusted with the blood and sand of Iraq. There are no second chances. Having proclaimed Iraq as the ultimate test, neo-conservatism is being judged according to its own standard. Francis Fukuyama, neocon philosopher and signer of the original statement of the neocon Project for the New American Century, has produced a succinct synopsis of his disillusionment, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. Like communists of a previous generation, he rejects a god that failed.

"I did not like the original version of Leninism and was sceptical when the Bush administration turned Leninist", he writes. Fukuyama chastises the neocons for believing that all societies and cultures share universal aspirations and can rapidly undergo the same path of modernisation. He describes the administration's "bureaucratic tribalism" as "poisonous," and blames its close-mindedness for its failures. (Fukuyama, however, has not made a completely clean break. He is listed as a member of the advisory committee of the "Scooter" Libby legal defence fund.) For a prolific writer, Fukuyama has pointedly neglected to explain his attachment to the cause of the accused former chief-of-staff to the vice-president. Is this a case of Leninist morality or Straussian duplicity? Or is it an illustration of English novelist EM Forster's statement: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

But the administration brushes aside the laments of the disillusioned – whether Fukuyama or William F Buckley Jr ("One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed"), mere scriveners. Bush no more pays attention to the criticisms of conservative Republicans than to those of liberal Democrats. He is consistent in his rejection of criticism of any kind from any quarter. But his granitic impassivity does not resolve any actual problem; nor does ignoring critics make his arguments more convincing.

A time of torment

More striking, Bush seems unaware of or unconcerned with the conflict of his recent statements with those of his ambassador and generals in Iraq. Khalilzad, who has been assigned the mission impossible of creating a strong Iraqi state out of negotiations with the hostile factions, said last week that the invasion had opened "a Pandora's box" of sectarian violence that might spread across the whole middle east. With this single remark, he attributed the source of the Iraqi crisis to the invasion. Instead of "coming ashore" being the first step in the march of democracy, he depicted it as the beginning of a nightmare.

"Sectarian and ethnic conflict is the fundamental problem in Iraq", Khalilzad said at a news conference last month. He warned the Shi'a that the key ministries of the interior and defence must be in the hands of people "who are non-sectarian, broadly acceptable and who are not tied to militias." This was a direct challenge to the Shi'a militias burrowed into these ministries and using them as cover for assassinations and death-squads. "American taxpayers expect their money to be spent properly. We are not going to invest the resources of the American people and build forces that are run by people who are sectarian", he said. The "potential is there", he concluded grimly in remarks last week, for full-scale civil war.

By contrast, Bush's latest speech argued confidently that civil war is being averted and that the Iraqis have turned away from "the abyss". The evil, as always, is the "terrorists." He returned to the old slogans as though the power of positive thinking will restore their credibility: "By helping Iraqis build a democracy, we will inspire reformers across the middle east."

In his speech, Bush tried to cast aspersions on the nefarious machinations of the Iranians in Iraq. "Some of the most powerful IEDs (improvised explosive devices) we're seeing in Iraq today includes components that came from Iran", he said. But the next day, joint chiefs' chairman General Peter Pace, asked if he had any proof of the president's claim, replied: "I do not, sir." Bush's statement raised the larger question of Iranian influence in Iraq, how it occurred and its extent, but he did not address it.

Bush explained how much progress was being made in training the Iraqi security forces, ignoring Khalilzad's warning about their infiltration by Shi'a militias. And Bush repeated his formula: "As Iraqis stand up, America and our coalition will stand down." Yet in testimony on 14 March before the House of Representatives, General Abizaid said he would not rule out permanent US military bases. In other words, the US is likely to remain in Iraq indefinitely. There will be no final hand-over, no conclusive standing-down.

What, then, is the mission in Iraq? Democracy? Defeating terrorism there so it won't come here, as Bush repeated in his speech? Having opened the Pandora's box, is it to keep the lid on as best we can? Is it to prevent a civil war?

On 9 March, Donald Rumsfeld testified before the Senate appropriations committee that the mission is to stop a civil war. "The plan", he said, "is to prevent a civil war and, to the extent one were to occur, to have the … Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they're able to."

So this is the plan: the US presence will thwart a civil war. The current communal civil war is not a civil war. If a civil war that is bigger than the ongoing one breaks out, the US will step aside and not suppress it. Instead, the Iraqi security forces will be deployed. The assumption is that they will be a neutral military force above the fray and able to impose control of a central state. Once again, Khalilzad's cautionary note about Shi'a manipulation of the security forces is a forbidden thought.

Rumsfeld's "plan," such as it is, drew the derisive condemnation of Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful radical Shiite cleric and leader of one of the Shi'a militias. In a tone of moral indignation after bomb attacks in Iraq this week, al-Sadr said of Rumsfeld: "May God damn you. You said in the past that civil war would break out if you were to withdraw, and now you say that in case of civil war you won't interfere." No one argued with al-Sadr's logic.

In his opening statement, Rumsfeld explained that the current "war on terror" is just like the cold war. "We had to steel ourselves against an expansionist enemy, the Soviet Union, that was determined to destroy our way of life", he said. "Though this era is different, and though the enemy today is different, that is our task today."Such is the "perspective of history", he claimed.

Rumsfeld seems to have missed the briefings on the Pentagon's own grand strategy, as elucidated by Rear-Admiral Bill Sullivan, vice-director for strategic plans and policy for the joint chiefs. In his recent presentation "Fighting the Long War - Military Strategy for the War on Terrorism", Sullivan devoted a whole section to why the "long war" is not the cold war. He pointed out "key differences: religious basis of violent extremism versus a political ideology. Extremists are predominantly a stateless enemy. We cannot discredit all of Islam as we did with communism, it is a divine religion. We can only discredit the violent extremist." For Rumsfeld, these niggling matters are beside the point. If he decrees the "war on terror" is the modern cold war, then it must be and will be.

Bush promises to deliver more speeches on Iraq. Rumsfeld will undoubtedly provide lessons in history. They have condemned themselves to their Sisyphean labours, endlessly pushing the rock up the hill, because they will not or cannot politically explain the actual mission in Iraq today: tamping down sectarian violence sufficiently to begin the withdrawal of US troops on a strict timetable dictated by the convening of the Iraqi assembly and the approach of the American mid-term elections. Whether that is possible and about what happens next, the administration is clueless. But none of that can be articulated. Time and again, Bush asks for demonstrations of faith and will in place of logic and strategy.

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