The Politics of Pushback

On Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11, President Bush told troops gathered at Pennsylvania’s Tobyhanna Army Depot that, "It is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war [in Iraq] began."

He said that, "Some Democrats and antiwar critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people," even though they knew "a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community’s judgments related to Iraq’s weapons programs."

A few days later, on the way to a week-long trip to Asia, Bush stopped off at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska to again chat up his wars on Iraq and terror before another captive military audience.

There, Bush told the crowd that "some Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force are now rewriting the past," and are "sending mixed signals to our troops and the enemy." U.S. soldiers "deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them into war continue to stand behind them," Bush said.

Back in the continental 48 states, on Wednesday, Vice President Cheney came out of his bunker long enough to address a no-press-allowed Frontiers of Freedom Institute 2005 Ronald Reagan Gala at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

In partisan form, Cheney told the crowd that "the suggestion that’s been made by some US senators that the president of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."

Cheney pointedly said that, "The saddest part is that our people in uniform have been subjected to these cynical and pernicious falsehoods day in and day out."

"American soldiers and Marines are out there every day in dangerous conditions and desert temperaturesand back home a few opportunists are suggesting they were sent into battle for a lie," Cheney said.

Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi also got in on the action. He returned to Washington and met with Cheney, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (the Pentagon allowed no television cameras during that sit-down) and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and he partied with other prominent neoconservatives.

The man who was convicted in absentia in Jordan of embezzling millions of dollars, is suspected of passing US secrets to Iran, and is one of the chief purveyors of the myth – passed on to an eager Judith Miller of the New York Times – that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, defended himself from critics in a speech Tuesday.

At a gathering of longtime friends and supporters at the Washington home of lawyer Jeffrey Weiss and his lobbyist wife Juleanna Glover Weiss, two prominent Republicans, Chalabi accused those critics of "rewriting history" and "repeating lies to justify positions that are no longer tenable."

Referring to the false intelligence his Iraqi National Congress provided the administration, Chalabi suggested that people should disregard "the rumors and innuendo" spread about him.

Newsweek‘s Michael Hirsh reported that Chalabi’s speech "was greeted with loud applause and a cry of ‘next year in Baghdad’ from former CIA director James Woolsey, one of the Iraqi’s leading supporters."

Former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, a prominent Washington-based think tank, and author Christopher Hitchens, a well-known leftist who has supported the war in Iraq, were also in attendance.

The Washington Post‘s Terry M. Neal called the administration’s response to its critics a "withering counterattack." USA Today‘s Judy Keen termed it "fighting back," and Roll Call’s Morton Kondrake dubbed it "pushback."

Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director, said that challenging Democrats was essential. "Our strategy has to include hitting back… and calling them out for what are actually lies," she told USA Today.

Regardless of what it is called, the Bush administration and its surrogates are availing themselves of every opportunity, not only to defend the war in Iraq and their war on terror, but also to attack critics of the war, accusing them of demoralizing the troops and aiding the enemy.

As it was designed to by Bush’s aides, the charge that Democrats had access to the same intelligence as the administration was picked up by a gaggle of conservative media figures. Within a short time Human Events editor Terry Jeffrey, Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, National Journal editor Rich Lowry, Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, and Fox News hosts Neil Cavuto and Chris Wallace, repeated them in one form or another.

Although the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank addressed the claim on Nov. 12 – "Bush and his aides had access to much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the administration to provide the material" – the White House’s first thrust achieved its goal.

These days, the president’s poll numbers are in a free fall. A recent America Online poll revealed that more than 70 percent of the 500,000-plus people participating believed that President Clinton was both a more trustworthy, and a better president than George W. Bush.

It is going to take a Roveian-like pushback campaign to reverse those numbers. In the meantime, it is highly unlikely that the president will appear anywhere else at home aside from military-related events or Republican-organized gatherings in the near future.

Read more by Bill Berkowitz