It’s strange what the media has focused on in the extraordinary excerpts from Bob Woodward’s Bush at War published in the Washington Post. A single sentence about how Roger Ailes advised the President in the days after 9/11 has them all in a lather, but my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I read the account of the struggle within the administration over the President’s address to the UN.
According to Woodward, Bush had decided, after much intense back-and-forth between Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, to ask for a new UN resolution, and not only that but to mention this specifically in his speech. But when Bush stood before the assembled delegates, there was a slight problem:
"At the podium in the famous General Assembly hall, Bush reached the portion of the speech where he was to say he would seek resolutions. But the change hadn’t made it into the copy that was put into the TelePrompTer. So Bush read the old line, ‘My nation will work with the U.N. Security Council to meet our common challenge.’
"Powell was reading along with Draft No. 24, penciling in any ad-libs that the president made. His heart almost stopped. The sentence about resolutions was gone! He hadn’t said it! It was the punch line!"
So, what happened to the line that, last time anyone looked, had been there plain as day?
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Times of London, avers that the hawks had gone as far in their internecine war against Powell as "doctoring the President’s UN Autocue, omitting a key Powell phrase," and this is clearly what occurred. But what happened next indicates that the President, far from being a moron as a certain Canadian official, as well as Bush’s own neoconservative advisors, seem to believe knows when someone is trying to sucker him:
"But as Bush read the old sentence, he realized that the part about resolutions was missing. With only mild awkwardness he ad-libbed it, saying later, ‘We will work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions.’"
Whew! That was a close one.
Who cares about Roger Ailes’ relationship with this administration, which is obviously a close one and so what? The real scoop here is that someone tried to sabotage the President’s speech, figuring he’d be too dumb to notice the difference until it was too late. So, what’s up with that?
This morning, on CSPAN’s Washington Journal, I watched Georgie Anne Geyer, a columnist whose analysis of the causes of this war is similar to my own, take a question from a viewer. He asked her if she wasn’t floating a bit of a "conspiracy theory" in positing a clique of warmongers around the President, who, in the wake of 9/11, moved quickly to implement their longstanding dream: the conquest and subjugation of the Middle East. Her answer and I am paraphrasing her cut right to the heart of the matter. She said that a conspiracy is a secret process, but the War Party’s goals have been proclaimed openly: if not by the principals then by their amen corner in the media and the ‘K Street’ thinktanks.
This same boldness characterizes the actions of the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction, as detailed by Woodward. He describes Cheney’s relentless factionalism:
Hell-bent enough to have arranged or at least known about the Autocue dirty trick?
Simon Jenkins finds "astonishing" the spectacle of a war being fought in public, that is, when "every leadership debate, argument, nuance and power struggle is related in the daily press." He wonders if "decisive action [is] possible when at every turn ‘those behind cried Forward! and those before cried Back?’"
But that is how empires work or, rather, how they ultimately fail.
Factions of the Imperial Court fawn and do their darnedest to manipulate the Imperial Will, and bend it or trick it into fulfilling their own private agendas. This is doubly true in the case of an Imperium with the insignia of Democracy plastered over the Roman fasces. Each faction must make its public appeal, and that is certainly accomplished in Woodward’s narrative. Through Condolezza Rice we get the Official View of the President as a man of steely-nerved purpose, unyielding in his single-tracked frame-of-reference: an almost FDR-like image is generated, and what emerges is a Rooseveltian portrait of Dubya as "Dr. Win-the-War," as FDR once characterized himself. This, naturally enough, is how Woodward gained his extraordinary access to the principals involved.
Using Woodward as a sounding board, each faction makes its case, with the Cheneyites always on the offensive, and poor Powell just barely managing to rein them in, as they actively seek to undercut him at every turn. I might add that Powell’s expressed reservations about the war plans of the Cheneyites, as reported by Woodward, mirror many of the most determined and vocal opponents of this war, especially among conservatives:
"With his notes by his side, a double-spaced outline on loose-leaf paper, Powell said the president had to consider what a military operation against Iraq would do in the Arab world. He dealt with the leaders and foreign ministers in these countries as secretary of state. The entire region could be destabilized friendly regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan could be put in jeopardy or overthrown. Anger and frustration at America abounded. War could change everything in the Middle East."
But that is precisely the aim of the Cheneyites: to see to it that we "change everything in the Middle East" by force of arms. Destablization? The neoconservatives, such as Michael Ledeen and his cothinkers at the Center for Security Policy and JINSA, are all for it! The value of instability of a "revolution" in the Middle East, catalyzed by US military action on a massive scale is the theme of Ledeen’s new book, The War Against the Terror Masters.
In a private audience with the President, Powell also advanced the argument now being put forward by the Democrats: war on Iraq "would suck the oxygen out of just about everything else the United States was doing, not only in the war on terrorism, but also in all other diplomatic, defense and intelligence relationships."
The Cheneyites have long criticized the Secretary of State for forging out on his own, as Woodward reports, and surely reading that in the Washington Post didn’t reassure Karl Rove, Bush’s Machiavelli (or is that Rasputin?) on the question of Powell’s loyalty to this administration. No doubt they are spreading the rumor of Powell’s presidential ambitions and might they not have a point?
Powell refused the imperial purple once before, but you’ll remember that was reportedly due to his wife’s objections, rather than his own. The Democratic party, in disarray, and with not a single presidential hopeful with any following on the horizon, could easily be dominated and revived by Powell’s presence and please don’t tell me that hasn’t occurred to more than a few top operatives of both parties.
Powell’s appeal as a political figure is further reflected in the wide scope of his war critique, which encompasses not only the multilateralist and "balance of power" objections from the liberal Democratic camp, but also the views of such paleo-conservative opponents of the coming conflict as Paul Craig Roberts and the boys over at The American Conservative, as well as libertarians.
Roberts, and also columnist James Pinkerton, see global economic disaster as one all-too-possible outcome of the admnistration’s war policy, and Powell seems to agree. As Woodward relates the Secretary’s view:
"The economic implications could be staggering, potentially driving the supply and price of oil in directions that were as-yet unimagined. All this in a time of an international economic slump. The cost of occupying Iraq after a victory would be expensive. The economic impact on the region, the world and the United States domestically had to be considered."
"Following victory, and Powell believed they would surely prevail, the day-after implications were giant. What of the image of an American general running an Arab country for some length of time? he asked. A General MacArthur in Baghdad? This would be a big event within Iraq, the region and the world. How long would it last? No one could know. How would success be defined?"
Buchanan, too, asks: "Once in Baghdad, how do we get out?" and conjures up the image of a neo-MacArthur astride the Middle East:
"With our MacArthur Regency in Baghdad, Pax Americana will reach apogee. But then the tide recedes, for the one endeavor at which Islamic peoples excel is expelling imperial powers by terror and guerrilla war. They drove the Brits out of Palestine and Aden, the French out of Algeria, the Russians out of Afghanistan, the Americans out of Somalia and Beirut, the Israelis out of Lebanon."
We attain the summit of imperial power, only to discover that it has increased rather than abolished our vulnerability. Here is a paradox that must have impressed itself upon the Romans, the Byzantines, and the European empires each in their time, as they all met the same fate of decline and fall. Can America avoid learning the same lesson the hard way?
At this point, one can only hope.