The Old Switcheroo

If anything can be called “amusing” any more, the most amusing political headline of the week certainly appeared on the front page of the Wednesday New York Daily News: “Bush Serves Up Rice.” It also captured the focus of media coverage ever since former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke appeared on 60 Minutes. The main story we’ve been served up has proved a distinctly restricted diet. All rice, no beans. It’s true that the President’s national security advisor was set up as Clarke’s opposite and then sallied forth onto every major TV news show in existence to counter or rebut or attack his book, his testimony, and his character. And it’s true as well that a storm of bad publicity arose around the President’s unwillingness to let her testify publicly and under oath before the 9/11 Commission. But behind the President’s much ballyhooed reversal there’s both less and more than meets the eye.


The “reversal” has been trumpeted as a straightforward White House capitulation. David Broder, the “dean” of the Washington press corps, caught the tone of the media moment with this first paragraph from his latest Washington Post column, headlined, “Bush’s Surrender,” (4/1/04):


“When President Bush appeared momentarily on Tuesday afternoon in the White House briefing room, he came to announce a surrender. After weeks of resistance, he had capitulated to the growing political pressure for national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to give the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 tragedy her sworn public testimony… He received a fig leaf concession from the commission and leaders of Congress — the statement that Rice’s appearance would not be treated as a precedent but simply as an acknowledgment of the special circumstances and vast public interest in unraveling the Sept. 11 tragedy. But a precedent it is…”


What the 9/11 committee agreed to was, however, a good deal more than a “fig leaf.” First of all, it’s unlikely that anything too startling will come out of Rice’s public testimony under oath. Lame and uncomfortable as she visibly was in her 60 Minutes appearance (Washington Post, 3/28/04), I would be surprised if she didn’t make it through these hearings relatively unscathed. She was never the real policymaker around either 9/11 or the Iraq war. She may even generate some decent press and sympathy for the White House.


But what makes this whole affair so curious and fascinating is that the administration has managed to pull a remarkable switcheroo under the guise of “reversal” and “surrender,” one little attended to or much thought about in the press or on television. But maybe, under deadline pressures, our journalists just aren’t in the habit of focusing on the final paragraphs of documents, or maybe, as in Broder’s case, they’re too bedazzled by their Clarke vs. Rice version of the news.


Here’s what White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales wrote the 9/11 Committee in the ninth paragraph of his letter of “surrender”:


“I would also like to take this occasion to offer an accommodation on another issue on which we have not yet reached an agreement — Commission access to the President and Vice President. I am authorized to advise you that the President and Vice President have agreed to one joint private session with all 10 Commissioners, with one Commission staff member present to take notes of the session.”


So, by a sleight of hand, the White House somehow managed to switch a solitary, private presidential interview with two members of the 9/11 commission (which, after Clarke, might have turned into a full commission hearing anyway) into something quite unexpected. And like the best of magic tricks, being right there in plain sight, more or less no one noticed.


Unlike some, Broder does mention this in a paragraph, though one quite unrelated to his discussion of the Commission’s “fig leaf concession.”


“At a time when the American people — and the world — desperately need reassurance that the government was not asleep at the switch, Bush has clenched his jaw and said nothing that would ease those concerns. Instead, he has arranged that when he answers the commission’s questions in a yet-to-be-scheduled private session, he will not face it alone. He and Vice President Cheney will appear together. It will be interesting to learn who furnishes most of the answers.”


Maybe there is a sucker born every minute. Just think about it: There will now be a single, one-time only, joint, private interview with Dick and George, suddenly a tag team, and it will go unrecorded. There will never be a transcript, only scribbled notes which, of course, can be disputed. I can practically hear them singing “I’m in Heaven” in the White House. It seems like a sure way to coordinate stories — being in the same room always helps — and assumedly Dick, like a sheepdog, can ride herd on George if he wanders into dangerous territory based on any surprise questions. This gives new meaning to the observation of former Nixon-era White House counsel John Dean in his new book, Worse than Watergate, that ours is a “co-presidency.” (“In fact, this presidency cannot be understood without taking into account Cheney’s influence on Bush, for in many ways it is a co-presidency. Cheney, however, prefers the shadows.”)


Two quick but considered responses to Gonzales’s maneuver came to my attention thanks to the eagle-eyed editor of the always interesting www.cursor.org. Joshua Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com suggested three possible explanations for it: the urge to dilute the time available for questioning (with two men now inserted into a single slot); to make stories coincide; or simply not trusting the president alone.


No less sharp was Spencer Ackerman at the New Republic on-line (3/30/04) who wrote his little commentary under the clever head Trade Imbalance:


“The White House is, in effect, trading a Rice appearance for a guarantee that the administration’s two leading men won’t be dragged down with her. Which makes this a reasonably good deal for the president and his team. Gonzalez’s letter contains six paragraphs of throat-clearing about why Rice’s testimony shouldn’t constitute a precedent for White House staff testifying before congressional bodies. It’s not until the seventh paragraph that he gets down to business.”


Note that you have to be ready to hunt the Web to find this sort of thing. Ron Hutcheson of Knight-Ridder (which has done significantly better Bush administration reporting than most other news outlets in this period) was the only mainstream reporter I’ve noticed who picked up on this story in a significant way. He comments in passing (“Tag-team Testimony from Bush, Cheney, Will Limit Divergent Answers,” 3/31/04), “Although the joint appearance has some advantages for Bush, it might also give new ammunition to critics who view Cheney as the real power in the White House and the driving force behind the decision to invade Iraq.”


And give credit to Maureen Dowd. In her Times column 4/1/04 (“Charlie McCarthy Hearings”), she has a fine time making fun of Gonzales’s letter. “The President at all times, even on trips to the men’s room, will be accompanied by the Vice President. The Commission must agree in writing that it will not pose any questions directly to the President. Mr. Bush’s statements will be restricted to asides on Dick Cheney’s brushoffs, as in ‘Just like he said,’ ‘Roger that’ and ‘Ditto.’”


But there’s been a far more significant switcheroo underway ever since Clarke went on 60 Minutes. As the President was willing to surrender his national security advisor to build a firewall around himself, so the White House, breathing fire and slowly backing away, has been willing to trade 9/11 for Iraq. Put another way, two nights ago I watched Charlie Rose and Michael Eliot, Time magazine’s editor at large, discuss the Clarke crisis, 9/11, Condi Rice, etc. for half an hour without ever so much as mentioning Iraq. As Matt Bivens comments in his Daily Outrage blog at the Nation website, “In one sense, the White House has succeeded in fending off its critics. Because the discussion has quickly centered on inside-the-Beltway politics and process: Will Condoleezza Rice testify or won’t she? Will Richard Clarke’s old testimony be declassified or won’t it? Along the way, we’ve lost track of the big picture.”


Certainly, the most devastating aspect of Clarke’s critique of the administration was his claim (backed up by much independent testimony) that within a nanosecond of the 9/11 attacks, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the President were searching for the Iraqi “link” or just considering whacking Iraq no matter what and that, as Clarke commented, “when I said, ‘Invading Iraq after 9/11 is like invading Mexico after Pearl Harbor,’ that didn’t go over well and I was very quickly sidelined…”


Generally, throughout the Clarke “firestorm,” the media has managed to focus its attention on the question of whether the administration was looking the other way before 9/11, not the far more damaging possibility that they purposely used 9/11 to lead the American people down the garden path into a Middle Eastern hell. How much the administration had a hand in directing and shaping this focus is still unknown. But at the very least, thanks to Dana Milbank and Dan Eggen of the Washington Post (4/1/04), we do know that the busy Mr. Gonzales seems to have been hard at work shaping the focus of the 9/11 Commission itself. According to the Post reporters, he “placed a telephone call to at least one of the Republican members of the Sept. 11 commission when the panel was gathered in Washington on March 24 to hear the testimony of… Clarke, according to people with direct knowledge of the call.” He seems, in fact, to have called Republican commissioners Fred F. Fielding and James R. Thompson. Milbank and Eggen add dryly, “During the commission’s 2 1/2 hours of questioning Clarke, Fielding and Thompson presented evidence questioning the former official’s credibility.”


In part, the most powerful aspect of Clarke’s critique didn’t get a hand-hold in Washington or in the media because of the Democrats. On most matters, the press tends to go to the edge of where the mainstream of the opposition party is willing to set foot, something that can be seen clearly in the various Clinton-era scandals. Of the mainstream presidential players in the Democratic Party, the only one ready to take an oppositional position on Iraq was Howard Dean. As everybody now agrees, Dean taught Kerry and other mainstream Democrats how to be angry and how to fight back, but it seems he didn’t teach them what to be angry about or fight back against.


The greatest weakness of the Kerry campaign thus far is that he’s unwilling to take an oppositional position on the Iraq War and the present occupation. He’s willing only to wander the Halliburtonesque fringes of the issue. Mysteriously, Iraq has, in fact, largely disappeared from Democratic critiques of this administration; and so, when Clarke made his devastating points about exactly how unsafe White House Iraq policy has been — “The president of Egypt said, ‘If you invade Iraq, you will create a hundred bin Ladens.’ He lives in the Arab world. He knows. It’s turned out to be true. It is now much more difficult for us to win the battle of ideas as well as arresting and killing them, and we’re going to face a second generation of al-Qaeda.” — there was hardly anyone in the mainstream party or in the press to pick up the ball and run with it.


If you want to see what could be done, to devastating effect, check out Robert Kuttner’s “The Failure to Keep America Safe” in the 3/31/04 Boston Globe.




The resulting post-Clarke polls have been confusing indeed, offering hope to Republicans and Democrats alike. Depending on which part of which one you look at, Bush is mortally wounded in his security ratings; has overtaken Kerry in the horse race; continues to lose to Kerry in the horse race; has been generally unaffected by Clarke or all or none of the above. As a start, it’s probably useful to escape the momentary nature of the serial polling world by taking a glance at two charts that offer an interesting overlay of ten different polls over a long period of time. Click here and scroll down to “Occasional graphology.” There you lose some of the instant, heart-stopping blips and dives and get a sense instead of the slow overall slippage of the President’s numbers since the war (with the exception of the Saddam capture moment) that has dropped him to or just under that fatal 50% mark.


As Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times suggests 4/1/04 in an analysis of the latest LA Times poll, which shows Kerry leading (even in a Nader three-way) and many of the same confusions, “[I]n recent presidential contests, incumbents who have lost have been those whose approval ratings dipped below 50% as the November election approached. [This poll shows Bush's rating at 51%.] In another troubling measure for Bush, 55% of Americans said the country was on the wrong track, a 5-percentage point increase since last fall. Such levels of concern traditionally have spelled political trouble for the party holding the White House.” That, along with some slippage among independents, is the best news to be had. Some news, for the Democrats, seems less good. But check out the whole piece, then consider the following comments by Chris Nelson, who writes the insider Nelson Report and is a canny observer of life inside the Beltway:


“[T]he key poll for both sides to focus on, we’d suggest, isn’t the ‘horserace,’ but the issue by issue races which will help the voter’s make up their collective minds…seven long, long, long months from now. And as we have been reporting for weeks, the underlying trends remain something for the White House to worry about…and for the Dems to take heart over — specifically, the ‘do you approve/disapprove’ of Bush’s handling of the terrorism war remains down, relative to late last year. In December the President enjoyed a 65% approval rating on terrorism, while today he’s at 58% (with 40% disapproving)…and there has been no terrorist incident in the U.S. All of the ‘bad news’ has been overseas.


“While Bush loyalists can argue that the President’s approve/disapprove in the Iraq situation has gone back up, it’s only at 51% approval, with 47% disapproving…this after months of White House propaganda efforts, if you will pardon the expression.


“[Y]ou don’t have to be a numbers cruncher to see the President’s potential vulnerability here: while he enjoys a 19% net approval rating on the terrorism war, he’s only at a 4% net approval on Iraq…and the news from Iraq is far, far, far worse, in reality, than anyone in the White House wants to know, or is being reported in the press. ”


To state the obvious: After experiencing startling popularity for a long time after 9/11, the President’s ratings have slowly slid back to more or less the point at which he won/lost the last election. It seems breaking through that will take more than Washington testimony, however powerful or lurid. But as events have just reminded us, there’s a good deal more to come and much of it may not only be bad news in itself, but terrible news for this administration.


The return of the repressed


Here’s the thing about switcheroos, even on April Fool’s Day: Sooner or later reality does have a way of making them more visible. Who, for instance, counted on the return of the repressed in Fallujah yesterday; or, in a world of global audiences, that everyone involved in that gross event would not only remember the Clinton administration’s grim retreat from Somalia, but would have seen Blackhawk Down (which seems to circulate in stolen editions in Iraq with dubbed anti-American slogans)? It’s not good news for the White House that this image sprang so quickly to mind there and here or that, within the day, the administration would already have to deny that this was a “Somalia moment.” (“State Department spokesman Adam Ereli rejected the parallel with Mogadishu. ‘The Mogadishu precedent was that following attacks, we left. And that’s not going to happen here, I can tell you right now,’ he said.”) Or that the administration would feel obliged to rush to issue statements about “progress” and school openings at such a moment; just as a few weeks ago, U.S. military figures in Iraq were in such a hurry to brag about “turning a corner.”


As Mike Allen of the Washington Post wrote 4/1/04:


“Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan who is a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the events show why it is a mistake for the administration to make claims about progress while the country remains dangerous. ‘This reminds me so much of Vietnam, it’s scary,’ said Korb, who visited Iraq in November. ‘Every time in Vietnam that we kept saying there was light at the end of the tunnel, then something horrible would happen.’”


And here was the statement issued by Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt the day before yesterday’s atrocities:


“The Marines are quite pleased with how things are going in Fallujah, and they’re looking forward to continuing the progress in establishing a safe and secure environment and rebuilding that province in Iraq.”


Yesterday, the deaths of five soldiers in Iraq brought the total American deaths since the invasion began to the edge of 600 with no end in sight. (The killed and dismembered “contractors” are not counted by the Pentagon in such tallies, since they represent the “private” security economy.) What happened in Fallujah was a horrific reminder that, much as the White House would like to put Iraq back into the closet when it “turns over sovereignty” on June 30, this administration is not actually in control of Iraq.


Put another way, in the November election there is sure to be an unacknowledged Iraqi “vote.” In a sense, the administration has produced its own nightmare — a country which may prove completely incapable of fending for itself or, without a significant military of its own, holding off anyone else. The administration wanted to create such a situation to ensure that there would be no exit from (and so no exit strategy for) Iraq. Now they’re stuck along with the rest of us, and it’s bound to get uglier. As Mark Danner comments in a recent New Yorker (Campaigns), “As the war in Iraq enters its second year, Americans find themselves trapped in an epistemological black hole: the war’s end recedes into an indefinite future while its beginning grows daily more contentious and obscure.”


Perhaps the President was right in the 2000 election campaign when he claimed that he would never lead the United States into a “nation-building” effort. What he seems to have led us into instead is a vast boondoggle of an effort to construct a failed state. Neil King Jr. and Greg Jaffe have an unsettling piece about a failing Iraq on the front-page of the Wall Street Journal 4/1/04, “Killings in Iraq Cast New Cloud Over Rebuilding.” Just as the Coalition Provisional Administration readies itself to launch a new wave of “reconstruction” that will bring “dozens of large U.S. engineering companies ” into Iraq, the security situation is simply dissolving.


Although the prime-time news shows I watched tried to limit the grim events of yesterday to the Fallujah area in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, King and Jaffe point out that when two foreign security guards at an oil rig were “gunned down on Sunday in the northern city of Mosul, [that] incident also [was] greeted by cheering crowds of Iraqis” (just as yesterday several British troops were wounded in a bombing in the southern city of Basra). They add:


“Even before the latest attack, security fears in Iraq were so acute that they had fueled a surge in world-wide demand for armored SUVs and professional bodyguards. Big contractors such as Bechtel Group Inc. have cut back or eliminated travel to large parts of the country [shades of Afghanistan!], depending on the perceived threat. Contractors have hunkered down in fortified on-site encampments to reduce exposure to attacks on the road.


“Just this week… the State Department warned that it couldn’t ensure the safety of U.S. citizens attending a major trade-and-investment exposition in Baghdad next week.”


And today, 4/1/04, it was cancelled. (“Organizers of the Baghdad Expo, a major trade fair that had been due to start on Monday, said it was postponed — a blow to U.S. efforts to draw investment to Iraq and project an image of a stable country conducive to doing business. No new date was set for the trade fair.” )


Juan Cole, whose Informed Comment website is simply indispensable for anyone who wants to follow events in Iraq, offers the following observations on the atrocities in Fallujah:


“Although we are calling them security, the four American civilians killed were very likely ex-US military, most probably from special operations units like the Navy Seals. The special ops units have been losing men to the private security firms, who pay between $100,000 a year and $200,000 a year, rather more than do the US armed services. And, it seems to me likely that the people in Fallujah knew that they had hold of US military men.


“What would drive the crowd to this barbaric behavior? It is not that they are pro-Saddam any more, or that they hate ‘freedom.’ They are using a theater of the macabre to protest their occupation and humiliation by foreign armies. They were engaging in a role reversal, with the American cadavers in the position of the ‘helpless’ and the ‘humiliated,’ and with themselves playing the role of the powerful monster that inscribes its will on these bodies.


“This degree of hatred for the new order among ordinary people is very bad news. It helps explain why so few of the Sunni Arab guerrillas have been caught, since the locals hide and help them. It also seems a little unlikely that further US military action can do anything practical to put down this insurgency; most actions it could take would simply inflame the public against them all the more.”


Of course, the American military, humiliated by events, is already announcing – a preview of things to come – implacable action in Fallujah within days.


No matter what the Democrats and the Kerry campaign don’t do or this administration tries to do, you can be guaranteed that, over the coming months, this is going to get really ugly, and in November they’re going to be counting unexpected “ballots” from all over the globe.


Oh, and let’s remember, speaking of the return of the repressed, that Richard Clarke is unlikely to be the last insider to step forward and testify against this administration.


The Middle Eastern “vote”


Just a note on OPEC’s announcement 3/31/04 that it would aim for a crude oil production cut of about 4%. This effort, led by the Saudis (who will do most of the cutting), should really be taken off the business pages. After all, this is the oil vote and the Saudi vote coming into play all at once — with no hanging chads in sight. A while back there was a flap over whether foreign leaders supported Kerry over Bush for president. Well, here’s a nice bit of proof for Kerry (not that he’ll be able to use it).


My guess is that, for all the obvious reasons, the Saudis want this administration gone yesterday and they’re playing a high-stakes game to make it so. If Bush wins in November, his people are no more likely to forgive the Saudis for keeping oil prices high at the pump than Richard Clarke or Joseph Wilson for turning on them.


Then again, it’s a tight race and a high stakes matter for all of us. After all, if Bush wins, we know more or less what the cast of characters will be and what they’re capable of. Only yesterday, neocon John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control (there’s a joke of a title), once again insisted, according to the 3/31/04 Miami Herald, that ”[t]he case for the existence of a developmental Cuba BW R&D [biological weapons research and development] effort is strong.” He made this charge despite admitting that “existing intelligence reporting is problematic, and the Intelligence Community’s ability to determine the scope, nature, and effectiveness of any Cuban BW program has been hampered by reporting from sources of questionable access, reliability, and motivation.” Sound familiar? I won’t be the least bit surprised if those questionable sources on Cuba came directly through Ahmed Chalabi.


We all remember Paul Wolfowitz’s explanation of how this administration chose their main announced reason for invading Iraq — “We settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.” So hold on, come November 3, here we go again.


[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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