Edsel Speeches

Quote of the day:Officially, administration officials say that they had expected the drop in support for the president, and that they were not concerned about the turn of events.’We put out a memo three months ago predicting that this was going to happen,’ Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said.

“But unofficially, some administration officials say they are experiencing the unpleasant sensation of not feeling in control of events.’I think there is a sense of being under assault and not being able to reclaim the upper hand in a way that seemed so effortless in the past,’ said one Bush adviser.” (Elisabeth Bumiller, “Behind Bush’s Speech at U.N. Today, a White House on Edge,” New York Times, 9/23/03)

I’m fallingggggg….

By now you probably all know that the most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed the President’s approval rating had dropped a precipitous 9 points in the last month, all the way to 50%, that national dividing line of 2000. Asked whether Iraq was worth going to war for, only 50% of respondents agreed that it was, another freefall, this time of thirteen points since early August (the drop being particularly pronounced — 16 points — among younger men, interestingly enough, which wiped out the gender gap when it came to support for the war). And the President now loses an election by a hair not to a ghost Democrat but to a somewhat ghostly general or the distinctly pallid Kerry. He beats Dean, Gephardt and Lieberman by a statistically insignificant couple of percentage points.

This morning, I listened to Jeff Greenfield of CNN more or less dismiss these figures as of little importance by pointing out that, at a similar moment in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had far worse approval numbers than Bush and was shown losing to Walter Mondale, the Democrat he would soon tromp for a second term by twenty-odd points.

Of course, if he had brought up the polling fate of Bush’s father, the interpretation might have been quite different. Still, Greenfield isn’t wrong about the meaninglessness of a September 2003 Bush-Clark Gallup match-up, but I do believe his dismissal is way off. It’s a truism of American politics that Americans do not vote on “foreign policy” issues. But as I wrote some time ago, this neocon administration, shepherded by its vice-presidential oil consigliere, happily entered into a fundamentalist marriage in the Middle East. (Just say yes!) Now, Bush is married to Iraq (all-fault, no divorce), joined at the hip possibly to some of the very terrorists of whom he’s made such successful domestic use these last two years, and it would take a truly experimental political/military procedure to severe them. It’s a strange twist on the old Ted Koppel Nightline beginnings (“America Held Hostage, Day X”). Now it would have to be, “The President Held Hostage, Day X.”

It’s in this context that the polls are significant. They provide a measure not of the next election, but of the freefall our commander-in-chief is in right now and may have limited ways to brake. One unanswerable question is: Where’s the bottom? A second is: When does the first Republican decide to challenge him? (I still say, keep your eye on John McCain.) As the quote of the day indicates, inside the White House this has to feel like a bad dream; you know, the one where you slip or stumble through or off something and just fall and fall and fall until… you wake up with a start. The Bush administration may, however, be quite incapable of waking up, as his UN performance today indicated.

Thanks to a recent interview he gave to Fox News, we know that the President doesn’t even like to read the newspapers (“When it comes to the news, President Bush likes to get it from his aides. In an interview with Fox Television, Bush said he scans headlines, but rarely reads news stories.”). This certainly implies that he and his present worldview are distinctly the creatures of his briefers. In some way, he must feel like an actor for whom playing George Bush had come to be second nature, but who suddenly finds himself uncomfortably trapped in a role turning sour with his handlers falling away.

Only two weeks ago, on a bad night at the podium (rather than behind the presidential desk in the Oval Office, where, as a friend pointed out, most presidents would have given such a speech), he unveiled Iraq, the 2004 model — no fins, no engine, no tires, no roll bars — to the American people to the tune of $87 billion dollars. It was a classic Edsel speech, dead on arrival, and though presidential addresses almost invariably give presidential polling figures a nice bump up, his have continued their fall unbroken.

Today, the President spoke for twenty-five minutes at the UN and it was, in my view anyway, a classic Edsel speech to the world. Two in two weeks. Turkish, South Korean, Pakistani, and Indian troops should be hightailing it for the hills right about now and international donors are undoubtedly stuffing piles of high-denomination bills and t-notes under their mattresses for safekeeping. He performed the speech, filled as ever with barely veiled orders as to what others out there “must” and “should” do for us, in his usual style with that strange, little almost smile. It was an imperial lecture for the UN kids, who mostly sat on their hands, undoubtedly wondering when recess would come. The most important global speech of his imperiled career and he spent something close to the last third of it on the global “sex trade.” That, as a Bush topic, at least was a new one for me. The rest was a warmed-over pottage of the familiar, the totally familiar, and the overly familiar.

I took a few notes: Of course, September 11th led things off (after all, it always worked before) and then there was Saddam, with those (excuse the yawn) weapons of mass destruction, who “cultivated ties to [yawn] terror” and was “an ally of [yawn] terror.” (Those phrases were an early signal that no new ground was about to be broken.) The world, as described by the President, was a purely Manichaean place in which there were “no neutral grounds,” only “the clearest of divides between those who seek order and those who spread chaos.” (Let’s ignore for a minute that the neocons of his administration were convinced American-spread chaos was the very principle that would overturn the established order in the Middle East — as it may yet do, though undoubtedly in unexpected ways).

As those seeking order, we are, he told us, conducting “precision raids” in freed Iraq. (I happened to note earlier in the day that, for perhaps the first time since Saddam’s sons went down in a torrent of rockets, we called in air support in a ground operation where Americans were ambushed. Rockets were sent into a farmhouse outside Fallujah resulting, according to the Associated Press, in a couple of wounded boys and several dead Iraqis, including their father. Visions not of “order” but of Afghanistan were what immediately came to my mind at least.) Ours, he assured his audience, is “the greatest financial commitment of its kind since the Marshall Plan” (though three-quarters of the funding for the Marshall Plan, let’s remember, didn’t go into military operations in Europe). And sovereignty would be turned back to the Iraqis in a process “neither hurried nor delayed by the wishes of other parties.” (Take that, Jacques, you twit!)

Then he reached out to the UN, offering a few kind words for the efforts of UN workers in Iraq and a series of staggering non-concessions: if they want, they can train the odd civil servant (in what I wonder?), help the Iraqis write a constitution, and maybe oversee those “unhurried” elections someday. It was, in short, a standard speech (minus the cheering troops he now regularly surrounds himself with), but it was also a full-scale rehash of the known and expectable, with nothing whatsoever to entice anyone else on earth. The speechwriters were clearly tin-eared and running scared, looking hard over their shoulders at a domestic audience which, ironically enough, is eager to see the occupation of Iraq internationalized in a serious way.

In the Elisabeth Bumiller piece quoted above, one of those “senior administration officials” who, like anyone worth his salt in any of her pieces, “requested anonymity,” commented, “There’s a feeling that you have to assert that the United States is still in control, if nothing else for domestic concerns…We’re going into an election year and the president has to project an image of power and authority… We’re asking for help, but not for anyone to take over.”

The truth is the Bush team — Powell and Rice were sitting side by side in the audience – seems to have arrived in New York with nothing (other than cash), nothing at least whose name they dare speak in public. They may get their UN resolution, but will they get anybody to pony up real dough or genuine troops? I think it unlikely. They have hostaged themselves to their dream Iraq, now in ruins. It might seem simple enough — as the former Pentagon official Karen Kwiatowski suggests in a Sept. 22 piece (from the libertarian right) — just to end it all over there in reasonably quick order. But it’s not. Not for these guys. To their horror, they are truly between Iraq and a hard place and I wouldn’t wait for the alarm to ring to tell them that it’s morning.

Returning to the fire sale:

Why, you may ask me, is the administration’s free fall likely to be unending? Well, that’s not so complicated really. All you have to do is look at their acts in occupied Iraq. It’s hard to believe, actually, that any set of tin-brained human beings could do a better job of creating a situation in which they will all be hated till hell freezes over. First, they demobilized the Iraqi army. There was a brilliant move. Dump a few hundred thousand armed men out on the streets with no jobs, no hope, no future, and nothing to do. Then cut off the electricity and let them swelter at home. Well, you already know where that led. Now, they’re demobilizing what’s left of Iraq‘s Saddam-looted, sanctions-destroyed economy. Take a guess where that’s likely to lead. On top of that, they may be starting to call in the most indiscriminant form of fire power — from the air — when U.S. troops get ambushed (it was a missile-armed helicopter today in Fallujah), and you can guess where that’s likely to lead.

Unfortunately, Americans don’t really know too much about all this. Just for an example, I’ve toodled through the editorial pages of a number of major papers and – how odd – found no editorials, no real commentary on the recent decision to auction off Iraq to the world. In Britain, of course, the Guardian’s lead editorial Sept. 23 took on the subject and it was blistering. Here’s just part of the last paragraph:

“It is true that Iraq‘s vast oil reserves… will remain in government hands. But Washington is inflicting on Iraq what it would never accept itself. The US protects its airlines and media with foreign ownership restrictions, heavily subsidies its farmers and is prepared to slap import duties on steel. The US-inspired tariff-lowering and tax-cutting regime for Iraq is clearly inappropriate – especially when there is a clear need for revenue to finance the health and education needs of 25 million Iraqis. What the US is planning in Iraq is presumably what the world would look like if no one dissented. But they do – that is why the trade talks in Cancun failed. In adopting a neoliberal economic orthodoxy, the US falls into the trap of believing that the state has only to be removed from the sphere of the economy to see a vibrant free market appear… In imposing free trade and removing the right to set tariffs, America has written its own unequal treaty with Baghdad. Washington should tear it up, before it is torn up by events.”

One American reporter, Mark Fineman of the Los Angeles Times did follow up on this issue. (Unfortunately, it proved to be his last piece as he died today of a heart attack in Baghdad.) He wrote in part (“Open Investment Policy Looks Like ‘World Occupation’ to Iraq Merchants”):

“In the marble-floored corporate offices of Al Hafidh General Trading Co., Waleed and Hani Hafidh vented the rage of many Iraqi businessmen Monday over the country’s new wide-open foreign investment policy.

“Puffing furiously on imported cigarettes, the brothers asserted that the economic reform package unveiled by Iraq’s recently appointed finance minister… will destroy the country’s small yet burgeoning private sector, create a permanent ‘world occupation’ of its economy and render the Iraqi people ‘immigrants in their own land.’

“‘We were very happy when the regime changed. We thought everything would be free,’ said Waleed, 51. ‘Now we feel betrayed.’…

“Waleed and other Iraqi businessmen had told Bremer that the nation’s investment policy should mirror those of other Persian Gulf nations, which limit foreign ownership of any company based in those countries to 49%.

“When the new policy was announced… at this year’s meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank governors, Waleed and his brother were in shock.”

The only thing Iraqis have going for them is that you’d probably have to be a maniac, not a businessman, to buy an industry there right now. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true of our country where other kinds of fire sales are going on. As Molly Ivins wrote in a wonderful column the other day, speaking of Bush’s $87 billion bombshell, “As The New York Times observed, those who will be paying off the $87 billion with interest didn’t hear his speech because they had already been put to bed by their parents.” Tom

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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