The president "is not a fact checker" and the butler did it

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Quote of the day:White House officials said the document [the main prewar intelligence summary on Iraq’s weapons program partly declassified Friday] was one of those drawn on by speechwriters as they put together the State of the Union address. The official who gave the briefing today said Mr. Bush was unaware of the State Department’s skepticism. The president ‘is not a fact checker,’ the official said. The decision to mention uranium came from White House speechwriters, not from senior White House officials, the official said.” (Richard W. Stevenson, White House Tells How Bush Came to Talk of Iraq Uranium)

Mystery solved, blame apportioned: The president is not a “fact checker” (in any sense of the phrase) and the speechwriters did it. It’s like blaming the murder in a British upper class mystery on the butler and closing the case.

Blood in the (political) waters: The Zogby International polling group just released its first presidential poll since June 12, when George W’s job performance stood at 58% positive, 42% negative. Here’s part of the Zogby summary):

“Bush Job Performance Slips to 53% Positive, 46% Negative; More Voters (47%) Say It’s Time for Someone New Than Say He Deserves Re-election; Two-in-Three Say it Makes No Difference if WMDs Are Never Found

“President George W. Bush’s job performance rating has slipped to 53% positive, his lowest since the terrorist attacks in 2001, according to a poll of 1,004 likely U.S. voters by Zogby International. His negative rating reached 46%, just under his pre-9/11 unfavorable of 49%… For the first time, more likely voters (47%) say it’s time for someone new in the White House, compared to 46% who said the President deserves to be re-elected.”

Take a moment to consider that final “for the first time” – that means for the first time since he took office, and on a day when at least three more American soldiers died in Iraq and a number have been wounded or injured.

A resignation: All honor to those who resign in public and in protest. Several of our diplomats resigned in protest before the war began. We know that there are now a number of our soldiers in Iraq who would like to resign in protest but obviously can’t. However, a former Iraqi exile, Isam al-Khafaji, a professor of political economy at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Democratic Principles Working Group convened by the U.S. State Department last fall to discuss the future of Iraqi governance, has just written an open letter to Paul Wolfowitz, published in the Toronto Globe and Mail, resigning from an Iraqi body meant to consult on the reconstruction of the country. (Broken Promise) He has again left Iraq. He writes in part:

“President George W. Bush’s job performance rating has slipped to 53% positive, his lowest since the terrorist attacks in 2001, according to a poll of 1,004 likely U.S. voters by Zogby International. His negative rating reached 46%, just under his pre-9/11 unfavorable of 49%… For the first time, more likely voters (47%) say it’s time for someone new in the White House, compared to 46% who said the President deserves to be re-elected.”

Take a moment to consider that final “for the first time” – that means for the first time since he took office, and on a day when at least three more American soldiers died in Iraq and a number have been wounded or injured.

A resignation: All honor to those who resign in public and in protest. Several of our diplomats resigned in protest before the war began. We know that there are now a number of our soldiers in Iraq who would like to resign in protest but obviously can’t. However, a former Iraqi exile, Isam al-Khafaji, a professor of political economy at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Democratic Principles Working Group convened by the U.S. State Department last fall to discuss the future of Iraqi governance, has just written an open letter to Paul Wolfowitz, published in the Toronto Globe and Mail, resigning from an Iraqi body meant to consult on the reconstruction of the country. (Broken Promise) He has again left Iraq. He writes in part:

“On July 9, with deep sorrow, I respectfully submitted my resignation as a member of the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council to U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

“I did this with great sadness but, in doing so, I was able to leave Iraq with a clear conscience. If I stayed any longer, I might not be able to say that. I feared my role with the reconstruction council was sliding from what I had originally envisioned — working with allies in a democratic fashion — to collaborating with occupying forces.

“Iraq is now in almost total chaos. No one knows what is going on. We’re not talking here about trying to achieve an ideal political system. People cannot understand why a superpower that can amass all that military might can’t get the electricity turned back on. Iraqis are now contrasting Saddam’s ability to bring back power after the war in 1991 to the apparent inability of the U.S. to do so now.”

Impeachment (or what didn’t he read and when didn’t he read it?):

Here’s the latest explanation for those increasingly infamous sixteen symbolic words in the State of the Union address, according to the Washington Post (Dana Milbank and Dana Priest, Warning in Iraq Report Unread):

“President Bush and his national security adviser did not entirely read the most authoritative prewar assessment of U.S. intelligence on Iraq, including a State Department claim that an allegation Bush would later use in his State of the Union address was ‘highly dubious,’ White House officials said yesterday.

“The official said Bush was ‘briefed’ on the NIE’s contents, but ‘I don’t think he sat down over a long weekend and read every word of it.’ Asked whether Bush was aware the State Department called the Africa-uranium claim ‘highly dubious,’ the official, who coordinated Bush’s State of the Union address, said: ‘He did not know that.'”

If that doesn’t sound like squirming, I don’t know what does.

In this context, perhaps the most striking news development of the week not to make it to the front pages of our major newspapers was: A mainstream candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency brought up the issue of impeachment (John Milne, Reuters, Democrat Eyes Potential Grounds for Bush Impeachment):

“U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bob Graham said on Thursday there were grounds to impeach President Bush if he was found to have led America to war under false pretenses. While Graham did not call for Bush’s impeachment, he said if the president lied about the reasons for going to war with Iraq it would be ‘more serious’ than former President Bill Clinton’s lie under oath about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

“‘If in fact we went to war under false pretenses that is a very serious charge,’ Graham, the senior U.S. senator from Florida, told reporters in New Hampshire. ‘If the standard of impeachment is the one the House Republicans used against Bill Clinton, this clearly comes within that standard.'”

Perhaps it’s still too soon to ask whether the President will go down for the count, but already, when it comes to the lies of war, the fingers are pointing at the White House (National Security Adviser Condolleezza Rice), the secret house where the Vice President seems to hide out, and the Pentagon (where Wolfowitz of Arabia’s name is on various lips). And, as the historian of imperial decline Immanuel Wallerstein points out in an essay included below on Bush’s possible fall included below, one lesson of Watergate is that you create fall guys at your peril. The pointing finger moves and, lo and behold, people begin to blab.

I’ve watched over the last three months as the issue of impeachment has slowly made its way from fringe sites like Counterpunch toward the mainstream. John Dean (the classic Watergate fall guy who blabbed) brought it up in a law journal and Robert Scheer out on the left coast began to mention it in his Los Angeles Times columns, and Dennis Kucinich was probably the first presidential candidate to raise the issue, but now we’ve hit the edge of the mainstream with Graham. After all these years, not just Watergate but the Clinton impeachment process is starting to come home to roost.

Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, writing on Republican obstructionism over investigating the lies of war ends his latest this way (GOP’s Double Standard on Presidential Lies):

“To be clear, Clinton indeed did a lot of bad things in his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. I wrote before the impeachment that he should resignBut it is a far more grave matter if we discover that a president’s claims in effect claimed the lives of 224 American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians. Five years ago Henry Hyde said [in the Clinton impeachment hearings], ‘The president is the trustee of the nation’s conscience.’ It is time to lay bare the conscience of the White House with full public hearings. The way his claims are crumbling, hearings may be the only thing that will stop Bush from plunging his dagger of deceit right through the heart of our democracy and the hearts of our soldiers.”

Admittedly, the next election may beat impeachment to the punch, but the idea, along with proposals for public hearings of a potentially Bush-lethal nature, is in the air — the same air where “Vietnam” has just been joined by “Watergate,” which, as Jim Lobe says in his latest piece in Asia Times (see below), is “about the worst combination for a sitting president that anyone could possibly imagine.”

As a reader wrote me:

“One can say a lot with only 16 words. Consider this 16 word sentence: ‘President Bush should be impeached and brought to justice for starting an illegal war of aggression.’ Imagine if a leading Democrat were to say these words. I bet that neither the Bush administration nor the media would dismiss it as just a short sentence worthy of no special attention.”

That arrived just a few days ago and already a leading Democrat has come close to saying those words.

Eric Margolis, the Toronto Sun columnist, offers a summary of the case against George W and the litany of lies he is responsible for (see below), and ends: “Of course, all politicians lie. But lying to get one’s country into an unnecessary war is an outrage, and ought to be an impeachable offence.”

The wilder shores of the future:

Let me just suggest five improbable things that have been on my mind at a moment when many of yesterday’s improbables seem increasingly probable.

*Tony Blair resigns: In the wake of the death – assumedly a suicide – of arms expert David Kelly, Blair’s government seems to be tottering. Admittedly, he has no opponent of stature challenging him in his party and no need to call an election for years, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t squeak by. And yet, conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in a not dissimilar position when her own party felled her. Blair’s departure would shake the Bush administration to its roots and would open up the possibility of something truly improbable – a British troop withdrawal from Iraq, which only days ago would have seemed literally inconceivable. Imagine the impact of that on administration plans.

*The 50% frontier is broken in the polls: Here’s something to watch for in the coming weeks and months. (I assure you Karl Rove is already in a tizzy over this.) Bush’s polling figures are dropping. Of course, it could be a momentary blip, but given ongoing events in Iraq I think not. It’s now possible to imagine them sinking in the near future close to that magic 50% mark, the Florida frontier dividing line, the national split of 2000. Of course, the first question is: will the polls fall to that 50% divider, but the second question is: can they break that barrier? Will Bush’s bedrock political support begin to erode under the weight of events? Keep your eye on this one. The next point is tied closely to it.

[By the way, I wrote this last night before I had seen the Zogby figures. Thus does the improbable become probable in the twinkling of an internet eye.]

*John McCain challenges Bush for the 2004 nomination: Here’s a laugher certainly. Bush has already raised multi-billions of dollars more for his reelection campaign than all the Democrats combined and I doubt McCain has much of anything in his coffers. The president was only weeks ago, as he has been since 9/11, considered unchallengeable, nearly unassailable by Democrats, and even inviolable within the Republican Party itself. But the other week I heard Senator McCain, who was gung-ho for the war in Iraq, lecture Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at Senate hearings about how Americans would take bad news from Iraq only if the administration told them exactly what to expect (as if they knew) and offered them some “straight talk.” That, of course, was his signature phrase from his previous presidential run against Bush, whom he undoubtedly has no fondness for. A little light blinked on in my head and I thought to myself, he can do the poll projections better than I can. So, if things continue on a downward spiral, don’t rule out a divisive challenge within the Republican Party.

*The demonstrators take to the street again: On this one — which I don’t think the administration has even begun to consider — I suspect it’s a question of when, not whether. That vast movement of the prewar moment that uniquely demonstrated against a war which had not yet begun has not actually vanished. And when it reemerges I think it could do so massively – and, to offer one more improbable thought, in its forefront could be the families of our soldiers in Iraq, which would be stirring indeed.

*The US turns over the chaos that is Iraq to the UN (and the Iraqis) and withdraws its troops: This is the most improbable thought of all. Still, the papers do report that the Bush administration is considering “going back to the UN.” Admittedly, right now they are trying to recruit help still largely on their own terms. They’re undoubtedly checking to see what’s the least they can give up to get the kind of UN cover under which they might be able to pressure countries like India to send troops. Still, they’re back! Who woulda thunk it? Remember the UN? That superannuated “debating society,” that failed “League of Nations” we didn’t need then and would never need again? I note as well that Paul Bremer, our viceroy in Baghdad, has recently started talking about rushing a constitution for a new Iraq state into existence in 6-8 months with elections to follow and after an election withdrawing our troops (except, undoubtedly, for the ones already embedded in those permanent bases). Do I hear the sound of desperate exit strategies clinking onto the dining room table?

If they go down, will they go down shooting?:

The answer, I think, is yes. Three incidents highlight the low-level, dirty political war underway to shut down the floodgates:

David Corn in his Nation magazine weblog “Capital Games” (A White House Smear) asks, “Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a US intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security–and break the law–in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?” And he suggests that they indeed did, outing the wife of Joseph Wilson (the ex-ambassador who investigated the Niger yellowcake rumors for the CIA at the behest of the vice president and recently blew the lid on what the administration knew when in the New York Times) as a CIA agent while she was in the field working on issues involving weapons of mass destruction.

Robert Collier of the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Pentagon may punish GIs who spoke out on TV) that the administration has quickly cracked down on soldiers from the Third Infantry Division who spoke out about Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz on ABC TV last week: “‘It was the end of the world,’ said one [Third Infantry] officer Thursday. ‘It went all the way up to President Bush and back down again on top of us. At least six of us here will lose our careers.'”

No less striking, reports Lloyd Grove of the Washington Post (Drudging Up Personal Details),

“Some folks in the White House were apparently hopping mad when ABC News correspondent Jeffrey Kofman did a story on Tuesday’s “World News Tonight” about the plummeting morale of U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq. So angry, in fact, that the next day, a White House operative alerted cyber-gossip Matt Drudge to the fact that Kofman is not only openly gay, he’s Canadian.”

(Thus does historical farce repeat itself as absurdity. In 1965, Morley Safer, then a reporter in Vietnam for CBS TV news did a piece that showed US Marines setting Vietnamese peasant houses on fire with Zippo lighters. President Lyndon Johnson was outraged to see such scenes on TV. He immediately called his old friend CBS President Frank Stanton at the crack of dawn the morning after. Among the milder of his comments was this: “Frank, this is your President, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag.” As I wrote long ago in my book, The End of Victory Culture, “Safer, Johnson insisted, must be a Communist. When at Johnson’s urging Safer was investigated by the FBI, the CIA, and finally the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the president was informed that he was not a Communist, only a Canadian, he insisted, ‘Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.’ Johnson remained convinced that Safer’s report was an enemy plot.”)

Maureen Dowd wrote her column in the New York Times today on the administration’s attempted smear of Kofman (Let’s Blame Canada) and adds this:

“What we are witnessing is how ugly it can get when control freaks start losing control. Beset by problems, the Bush team responds by attacking those who point out the problems. These linear, Manichaean managers are flailing in an ever-more-chaotic environment. They are spending $3.9 billion a month trying to keep the lid on a festering mess in Iraq, even as Afghanistan simmers.”

A new entry in my “Where’s ?” contest: A reader asks, Where’s Poppy? We know that before the war the elder Bush wasn’t exactly thrilled with his son’s unilateralist policies and his former aide and alter ego Brent Scowcroft was sent out into the world to write warning op-eds on Iraq policy. But then Poppy, even through his surrogates, fell silent. So where’s Poppy now?

And here’s another Where’s entry, suggested by the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius: Where’s Tariq Aziz? Where are the Iraqi scientists? Where, in fact, are all the high level Iraqi prisoners from the previous regime? You would think we might have heard something from one of their interrogations to back at least some administration claim or other, and yet not a peep, not a single shred of information that might at this moment of crisis help the administration. Ignatius writes in part (Something to Hide?):

“As political crises mount in Washington and London over evidence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, it would be especially useful to have the testimony of a leading expert on the subject, Saddam Hussein’s science adviser, Amir Saadi.

“Saadi (the seven of diamonds in the coalition’s deck of cards) surrendered voluntarily to U.S. authorities in Baghdad on April 12. He was the first senior Iraqi official to do so. Because he had never been a member of the Baath Party, U.S. officials were hopeful that he would provide honest information.

“Saadi’s silence, I suspect, is evidence that the Pentagon and the White House have concluded that any public release of his testimony would undercut their position.”

Jonathan Steele in the British Observer reports today, “The continued detention of leading Iraqi scientists and other officials by US forces is swiftly turning into a major human rights row. ” To which I say, given this administration, join the crowd. Tom

Will the U.N. Bail Out Bush?
by Jim Lobe
Asia Times
July 18, 2003

Make no mistake: U.S. President George W. Bush is in very big trouble.

Whereas a week ago, people here were talking about the dread “V” word — for Vietnam — this week the dreaded “W” word — for Watergate — was back in vogue, even as the “V” word was still in use. Watergate plus Vietnam is about the worst combination for a sitting president that anyone could possibly imagine.

And the almost daily announcement on the news that another U.S. soldier was killed in an attack in Iraq, bringing to 32, 33, 34, the number of troops killed since Pres. Bush declared an end to major hostilities in the war recalls nothing so much as the daily reminders on the evening news 23 years ago that killed the presidency of Jimmy Carter: “Day 385 of the American hostage crisis in Iran.”

To read more Lobe click here

Bush deserves to be impeached
By Eric Margolis, Contributing Foreign Editor
The Toronto Sun
July 20, 2003

“Worse than a crime, it was a blunder,” was how the cynical Talleyrand famously described Napoleon’s murder of the Duke d’Enghien.

The same may be said of President George Bush’s attempts to murder the leader of a sovereign nation, Saddam Hussein, and his foolhardy eagerness to invade Iraq.

Thanks to Bush’s blundering, nearly 50% of U.S. Army combat units are now stuck in a spreading guerrilla war in Iraq , costing $4 billion US monthly, that is becoming the biggest, most expensive, and bloodiest foreign mess since Vietnam. This when the U.S. is threatening military action against North Korea.

As the furor in Washington grows over Bush’s admission of now-discredited claims about Iraqi uranium imports from Africa in his keynote state of the union address, administration officials are viciously blaming one another.

To read more Margolis click here

“When Will Bush Fall?”
By Immanuel Wallerstein
Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University
Commentary No. 117
July 15, 2003

Bush’s days are numbered. He is in serious trouble, and the trouble will not go away. The tissue of justifications for the Iraq invasion is fraying bit by bit. Both he and Blair have had to retreat on some of the more egregious statements. The famous weapons of mass destruction are nowhere to be found. And if some turn out, deeply buried somewhere, all that will prove is that the weapons were not readily usable in a war – certainly not in the famous 45-minute interval of Tony Blair. The aluminum tubes seem to be exactly what Saddam Hussein said they were, material for rockets. The asserted ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were always improbable and no evidence has been adduced to confirm them. Bush has now laid the blame on the CIA, while the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee is accusing the CIA of leaking material to embarrass President Bush. The thieves are falling out.

The U.S. lived through this scenario once before, and not too long ago. The Watergate coverup of President Nixon worked at first, with only partisan sniping for a long while. But when Nixon tried to point the finger at fall guys (remember John Dean), they started to reveal the truth. Nixon did win his reelection. He held out that long. But in the end, he had to resign the presidency when a successful impeachment was imminent.

Of course, the two situations are quite different in their details. But there are certain striking similarities. They both took place within the context of the ambivalence of U.S. public opinion about a war. They both involved presidents who were willing to use all the instruments at their command to ram through policies and intimidate opponents. They both had persons around them who were masters at stonewalling. Vice-President Cheney must have taken lessons at the feet of Nixon’s Attorney-General John Mitchell.

In politics – world politics, national politics, local politics – you can get a lot of support if you’re winning. But the support often flies away as soon as you start to be losing. Bush promised the U.S. and the world a transformation of Iraq, indeed of the Middle East, if only Saddam Hussein could be ousted. At this point, about three months after the military collapse of the Iraqi regime, what is the situation in Iraq? Every day, American soldiers are being killed by what is clearly a guerilla action of some consequence. Iraqi policemen, newly-appointed by the U.S. occupiers, threatened to resign if U.S. soldiers did not quit their police station, feeling their lives were in danger for too close association with the U.S. army. Apparently, U.S. soldiers are not seen as protectors of those who cooperate with them but as a force association with which endangers one’s lives.

The U.S. occupiers have been unable to restore even a minimum of electricity in the urban centers of Iraq. Frankly, I am amazed by this. One would think that the U.S. government could assemble the necessary engineers, fly in the necessary equipment, and supply the necessary protection to the engineers so that electricity could be restored in a week or two. Is it too expensive? Are there other priorities? Does the U.S. not think this is important? Ordinary Iraqis think it’s the number one priority and are getting very angry. Soon, the country may be awash with nostalgia for the regime the U.S. ousted.

Meanwhile, in Great Britain, the heroic ally of the U.S., Tony Blair, is in increasing deep trouble. The Conservatives have decided there is no profit in supporting him. The Liberals never did. And the number of Labor M.P.’s who are restive are growing. At just this moment, the U.S. has announced that it is going to try six persons at Guantanamo Bay, of whom two are British citizens. There is a storm brewing in Great Britain among very respectable jurists who object to what they see as dubious, even illegal, procedures. They are calling for Blair to get the U.S. to turn these men over to British justice. But Blair can’t promise the U.S. that confessions extracted in the absence of legal counsel will stand up in British courts. There is no easy way that the U.S. could help Blair in this difficulty without jeopardizing the entire structure of the Guantanamo nightmare.

At the same time, the U.S. government is having a very hard time convincing any U.S. attorneys to be defense attorneys because they assert that the rules are rigged against them illegitimately.

The U.S. victory in Iraq was supposed to have the effect of getting recalcitrant allies – France, Germany, Russia – to reverse their positions. There is no sign of this whatsoever. Why should they? When Time Magazine conducted a poll in Europe in March, asking which of three – North Korea, Iraq, or the United States – was the biggest threat to world peace, a whopping 86.9% answered the United States. And the U.S. and Europe are on a collision course about mundane trade matters. In this, the U.S. has clearly been in the weak position. The World Trade Organization is ruling against the U.S. on these matters. Lots of little countries are quietly, and some not so quietly, refusing to bend to the U.S. insistence on being the only country above international law.

And last but not least, the U.S. economy is not doing well at all. In addition, there are conservatives yelling that the Bush regime is not really conservative, because it is increasing, not reducing, the role of the state. Howard Dean is taking off as a potential Democratic candidate. And even if he doesn’t get the nomination, which he in fact may, he has already forced the other Democratic candidates to “move to the left” to try to capture a little of the support Dean seems to be getting.

Can Bush turn all this around? In the short run, maybe. If he can capture Saddam Hussein, that would help Bush. Here again, I am amazed that the U.S. has not been able to do this. But perhaps I should not be so amazed. Osama bin Laden has not been captured, dead or alive, in the almost two years Bush has been chasing him. Mullah Omar is still at large, and it seems he has been reorganizing the Taliban.

As for the hawks who surround Bush, the day after the fall of Baghdad, they started clamoring to invade Syria. But all that’s quiet now. Neither Iran nor North Korea have slowed down their drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Quite the contrary. They are virtually flaunting it. And the U.S. is being very prudent. The U.S. does not seem to have even the troops available to do what is urgently needed, reinforcing their position in Iraq. They seem scarcely in a position to take on Iran or North Korea seriously. Nor are the diplomatic initiatives achieving much of anything – in Israel/Palestine, in Northeast Asia, or even in Latin America.

If I were George W. Bush, I’d be very worried. Perhaps he’s not. Pride goeth before the fall. But I bet some of his clever political advisors are chewing their nails. They were feeling very sure of themselves not so long ago. But the ship of state has hit rough water. It may not sink immediately. But will it reach shore safely? The odds are not high enough for them to be smiling complacently.

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact the author at [email protected]; fax: 1-607-777-4315.

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

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