In flight with the media

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Monday, while the President readied himself to deliver the war speech the two speechwriters he took along to the Azores were composing for him while he went that last diplomatic few inches, I was on various planes making my way from San Diego back home to New York City. The only media resources available to me were the papers I could purchase in local airports. I picked up the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in San Diego and then supplemented them in St. Louis with the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the British Financial Times.

So here’s a little reading of yesterday’s news, via those five papers: If, as a start, a picture’s worth a thousand words, then the imperial presidency photo of the day goes to the New York Times — their own photographer’s shot of a sharply defined, craggy, and determined Bush. He stares out at you piercingly amid the otherwise blurred profiles of Blair, Aznar, and Barroso. This is certainly the man you would want to lead you into war. The LA Times, St. Louis Post Dispatch, and the Financial Times had to make due with far less impressive wire service photos, while The Wall St. Journal had a small image of Vice President Cheney to go with a striking piece on Cheney’s role in a war against Iraq subtitled, “As Bush Pursued Diplomacy, Vice President Made Sure Invasion Remained on Table,” which tells you just about all you need to know. .

Except for the WSJ, the papers all quoted some version of Bush’s “Tomorrow is a moment of truth for the world” line somewhere in the lead paragraphs of their lead story on the “summit meeting” in the Azores. Only the Times described the three leaders’ joint statements (the Portuguese Prime Minister being clearly a no-account tag-along) quite appropriately as an “ultimatum to the United Nations,” preceding tonight’s final, final ultimatum to Saddam. (Bush, in the joint news conference, resorted to his normal “musts,” which is invariably the way he, in his imperial guise, addresses the world — “and now they [the nations of the Security Council] must demonstrate that commitment to peace and security in the only effective way “) The Financial Times offered the strongest description of how he gave the “Tomorrow the world” quote — “said a belligerent Mr. Bush” — though the NY Times in a variant line, described “his voice rising and his jaw clenched as he punched the air with his fist.”

In its lead editorial, “Moment of truth,” the St. Louis Post Dispatch called the less than two hour meeting, “one of the more bizarre summits in history” and had this pungent description of its nature: “Mr. Bush left a capital where tens of thousands of demonstrators marched against the war on Saturday. Mr. Blair traveled from London where thousands more protested an unpopular war. And Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar left a nation where an estimated 800,000 people demonstrated in Madrid and Barcelona. No wonder the leaders decided to get together on an island.”

Bob Herbert put the matter even more concisely in his NY Times column, With Ears and Eyes Closed, when he wrote of “President Bush with his coalition of the hard-of-hearing, the small but stubborn group of men committed to attacking Iraq no matter how wrong or undesirable that might be, or how much outrage it provokes around the world.”

The single sharpest piece, when it came to putting the event into focus, was a snidely reported article on the front page of the relatively conservative — but European — Financial Times on the meeting place for the “summit,” entitled “Unlikely setting for rendezvous with destiny.” The paper was quick to remind us that it wasn’t so much the Azores as a U.S. military base on a tiny island in the Azores — quite symbolic actually, given the hundreds and hundreds of American bases that now girdle the globe: “Yesterday, Mr. Bush addressed the world from a wind-swept community centre on the island of Terceiva, an 18-mile long eruption of lava separated from New York by 2,200 miles of sea [T]he leaders gathered at the ‘Top the Rock Club,’ the air force social club. It had to cancel its St. Patrick’s Day party to make room for the meeting on Iraq’s future A swathe of tarmac that serves as a parking lot for half a dozen C-5 aircraft and a collection of corrugated steel hangars was chosen as the place where the diplomatic road to disarming Iraq was likely to come to an end.”

In this speeded up world of war and growing protest, I find it interesting that the President had to resort to the protection of an isolated U.S. military base. President Johnson started doing the same thing when he could no longer stand “that horrible song” (the chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today”), but getting to that point took years, not months.

With in-flight time on my hands, I actually read the full page of excerpts in the New York Times from the four-man news conference at the Top of the Rock. Several of the papers, like the St. Louis Post Dispatch quoted Bush’s statement on the UN, ” all of us need to step back and try to figure out how to make the U.N. work better, as we head into the 21st century” from that news conference (along with his ridiculous admonition that the UN “didn’t do its job” in Rwanda — ridiculous because I guarantee you that you can look through the collected pre-2001 works of Bush, Rice, Rumsfeld et. al. without finding a single reference to the need for the UN to do its job by going into Rwanda to stop the genocide there, as indeed it should have).

But a look at the full passage from which that line was quoted is far more startling. It’s well worth reading the whole thing:

“Let me say something about the U.N. It’s a very important organization. That’s why I went there on Sept. 12, 2002, to give the speech, the speech that called the U.N. into account — that said if you are going to pass resolutions, let’s make sure your words mean something, as I understand the wars of the 21st century are going to require incredible international cooperation. We are going to cooperate to cut off the money of the terrorists and the ability for nations’ dictators who have weapons of mass destruction to provide training and perhaps weapons to terrorist organizations. We need to cooperate — and we are. Our countries up here are cooperating incredibly well, and the U.N. must mean something.

“Remember Rwanda or Kosovo — the U.N. didn’t do its job. And we hope tomorrow the U.N. will do its job. If not, all of us need to step back and try to figure out how to make the U.N. work better as we head into the 21st century. Perhaps one way will be if we use military force in the post-Saddam Iraq the U.N. will definitely need to have a role. And that way it can get — begin to get its legs — legs of responsibility back. But it’s important for the U.N. to be able to function well if we are going to keep the peace. And I will work hard to see to it that at least from our perspective that the U.N. is able to be a responsible body, and when it says something it means it for the sake of peace and for the sake of the security — for the capacity to win the war, the first war of the 21st century, which is the war against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of dictators.”

None of the papers quoted the most striking phrase: “as I understand the wars of the 21st century are going to require incredible international cooperation.” It’s that plural, the “s” on “warS” that should be headlines everywhere. This isn’t a slip. This man and his companions truly sees the war he is about to launch as only the first in a succession of 21st century wars.

In the same passage, the President also indicated that the UN, once it gets its “legs of responsibility back,” should have a role in the postwar clean up of Iraq. On this the Wall Street Journal proves fascinating. In a front page piece, “Bush Has an Audacious Plan to Rebuild Iraq within a Year,” it tells us that the President has absolutely no intention of inviting the UN in. His vision is indeed remarkable. It’s the-occupation-of-Japan-lite. He plans to privatize the new era of reconstruction, leaving, to quote the Journal, “much of the work to private U.S. companies. The Bush plan, as detailed in more than 100 pages of confidential contract documents, would sideline United Nations development agencies and other multilateral organizations [and] also leave big nongovernmental organizations largely in the lurch.” Not only are the Europeans horrified at this (Chris Patten, head of the European Union’s external relations, has “slammed the Bush plan as ‘maladroit'”) but so, the Journal tells us, are Iraqi exile groups. The administration also wants “credit for the reconstruction.” And of course, the companies into whose loving hands Iraq’s reconstruction is going to drop are a round-up-the-usual-suspects group: Brown & Root (which VP Cheney got Haliburton to purchase), Bechtel and so on. “These companies,” comments the WSJ reporter Neil King Jr., “made political contributions of a combined $2.8 million between 1999 and 2002.”

And then there’s that statement by the 3 1/2 world leaders, their “Declaration on ‘a Vision for Iraq and the Iraqi People'” which as always refers not to Iraq’s oil, god forbid, but to “the natural resources of Iraq,” which they “pledge to protect as a national asset of and for the Iraqi people.” (Maybe they’re including things like the migratory birds of Iraq, whose passage through the country at this season will be disastrously affected by a war.)

The New York Times, in its inside continuation of the front-page lead story already mentioned, has this to say about the occupation to come: “For the first time, [Bush] spoke publicly of creating an ‘Iraq Interim Authority,’ which his aides have described in recent days as a first effort to put the control of daily life but not the ‘power ministries’ into the hands of Iraqis.” Why do I get the feeling that that’s a little like the bullying older kid who sends the younger one to play with the tattered set of Lincoln Logs in the corner while he turns on the Sony Play Station? And why does the Iraq Interim Authority sound to me like the Metropolitan Transit Authority (but undoubtedly without the busses or subways).

So, it seems, in the President’s mind and those of his advisors — if I read today’s paper right — that we get it all, every bit of the fun, all the good war-making, the pleasure of deciding what happens in the world, the right to reconstruct Iraq however we please, the right to give contracts for the remaking of the world to our best buddies, not to speak of the right to all the credit (since everyone else bailed out) — and then of course there are all those other warS of the 21st century (and the poor thing’s still such a baby) to look forward to. Hmmmm, what’s wrong with this picture?

Well, as Peter G. Gosselin, a staff writer for the LA Times, points out in his “What Did You Learn in the War, Daddy?” which was tucked into the bottom corner of the front page of the business section, there does happen to be a price tag here, one that is probably being disastrously underestimated at every conceivable level, no matter how successful the war may at first seem. Consider what he has to say below (and the interesting analogy he makes to economic projections of the effects of 9/11 on the US economy).

By the way, the tiniest bit of provocative news in these five papers was a few paragraph blip reprinted from Reuters in the Financial Times‘ “News Digest” headlined, “Belgian threat to bar US troops.” It read in full:

“Nato member Belgium threatened yesterday to cut off its airspace and the port of Antwerp to the US military if the US invades Iraq in violation of international law. The US has been using Antwerp and the Dutch port of Rotterdam to ship equipment from Germany to the Middle East.

“Belgium says military action without a second resolution would be unlawful. ‘We would halt the transit if the US were to engage in a move which is outside the rules of international law,’ Andre Flahaut, defence minister said on Belgium’s RTL television.”

So, somewhere under these lawless events, the age of international law and of human rights still exists — and it makes the British, if not the Americans nervous.

Now, I think I’ll end my in-flight commentary with a mention of an op-ed in the Post Dispatch by former U.S. Senator Thomas Eagleton, Iraq, a crusade: Iraq is merely first step in our leaders’ larger effort to recast the Middle East in our own image,” which faces off in dueling op-eds with Senator John McCain’s “Iraq, a Mission: Pursuing peace, liberty where none exists justifies the risks inherent in our military action.” What Eagleton wants to talk about is this administration’s mad plan for “the Christianization/Democratization of the Middle East.” He, too, it seems, has picked up on those warS.

“This is the mind-boggler. Iraq is just the beginning of a sweeping, enduring campaign to use our might to bring Christian democracy to the Middle East. The Perle-Wolfowitz-Kristol doctrine is to use Iraq as the springboard to regime changes throughout the region. It is based on a perception that, once we use our power to impose Christian democracy in Iraq, the American wind of freedom will ‘transform’ the globe from Indonesia to Palestine It is superpower arrogance run amok. Iraq is only step one on the path to the Christian democratization of the Middle East. Iran is next to be dealt with in the Bush second term, if there is one Onward Christian soldiers!”


What Did You Learn in the War, Daddy?
By Peter G. Gosselin
Los Angeles Times
March 17, 2003

WASHINGTON — One way to judge recent upbeat predictions about the economic consequences of war with Iraq is to look back at the flawed estimates that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Then, economists’ favorite analogies were to Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake. Like the storm that flattened south Florida and the temblor that shook Southern California, the jetliner assaults on New York and the Pentagon were terrible tragedies but ones that many analysts said ultimately would prove economically containable, even growth-spurring.

“A medium-sized city has disappeared from the face of the U.S.,” a senior White House official said in trying to explain the relatively modest effect the attacks were expected to have on the $10-trillion U.S. economy.

But in fact, the economic fallout from 9/11 has proved substantially greater — and far more enduring — than those early assessments suggested.

To read more Gosselin click here