Today’s column by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post is an interesting read not only for its attempt to twist the facts in order to fit a disingenuous narrative of what happened in the lead-up to the War in Iraq but also, achieves the dubious distinction of making Richard Clarke an unbiased source for relating what the President was thinking regarding Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The latter point in and of itself is typical of a curious kind of myopia that liberal commentators have developed about both Mr. Clarke and that other poster boy for proving perfidy in Administration intentions about going to war Joe Wilson. Why the left has latched on to a preening peacock and a prevaricating poseur in order to “prove” that the President lied about going to war with Saddam is one of those mysteries of the universe that we’ll probably not solve in our lifetimes.
In truth, Cohen has always been at the lower end of the Loon-O-Meter when it comes to the kind of one-dimensional thinking most liberals use to critique the Iraq War. But today, the columnist throws caution (and logic) to the four winds and jumps into into the vat of Kool-Aid without his water wings:
...So common is the statement “Bush lied” that it seems sometimes that I am the only blue-state person who does not think it is true. Then, last week, the indomitable Helen Thomas changed all that with a single question. She asked George Bush why he wanted “to go to war” from the moment he “stepped into the White House,” and the president said, “You know, I didn’t want war.” With that, the last blue-state skeptic folded.
“I would not go so far as to say that Bush wanted war from Day One in the White House, but there was plenty of evidence he had Saddam on his mind and in his sights from the very moment he got the news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We have it from Richard Clarke, formerly the White House’s chief anti-terrorism official, that within a day of the attacks Bush was inquiring if Saddam might have had a hand in them. When told no—“But, Mr. President, al-Qaeda did this,” Clarke told him—it became instantly clear that this was not the answer Bush wanted. “’Look into Iraq, Saddam,’ the president said testily,” Clarke writes in his book, “Against All Enemies.”
First of all, referring to Helen Thomas as “indomitable” is like calling a pig in a dress a prom queen. Thomas may be a lot of things – loud, obnoxious, disrespectful, kooky – but “indomitable” as a descriptive should be reserved for battleships, cancer survivors, and some race horses; not doddering old reporters who waddle around the press room talking about the glory days when Jack Kennedy prowled the White House looking for his next sexual conquest in the steno pool.
And Cohen bases his thesis that the President had Saddam “on his mind and in his sights” following 9/11 based on the storytelling of Richard Clarke who says the President reacted “testily” when our hero tried to tell him that it was al-Qaeda and not Iraq who carried out the attacks.
Less than 24 hours after the Towers fell, and the President should close his mind to the possibility that someone besides al-Qaeda was involved in the attacks? If the President did indeed react “testily” – a pejorative that a more objective observer would question – could it be because bureaucrat Clarke was constructing a narrative of the attack that would have him as the point man in advising the President rather than the Neo-con cabal at the Pentagon who were agitating for the overthrow of Saddam?
There is little doubt in reading Clarke’s book that the former Counter-Terrorism official felt slighted by the Bush inner circle. His access to the President was restricted. And he was further humiliated (in his own mind) by having to go through National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice in order to make his voice heard. Consciously or unconsciously, Clarke was taking out his frustrations on a President who simply would not listen to his brilliant analysis and dire warnings of catastrophe. The reality of the situation was that Clarke rubbed everyone the wrong way and was a pretentious lout to boot. No one likes a Cassandra. And Clarke would play that part perfectly.
Cohen doesn’t stop with Clarke to prove his point about the President’s “fixation” on Iraq. He quotes from Bob Woodward’s excellent book Plan of Attack in which the President ordered Secretary Rumsfeld to come up with an invasion plan for Iraq around Thanksgiving, 2001. This brings up an interesting point about the genesis of the pre-emptive war doctrine and the Wilsonian vision of a democratic Middle East that started to dominate the President’s thinking by at least the first half of 2002.
It will be interesting to read a book in the future that details the arc of decision making that went into formulating the Bush Doctrine. Some will point to the President’s evangelical outlook and try to marry it with a proselytizing impulse to bring freedom to peoples under the oppressive yoke of religious fundamentalism and corrupt kleptocrats. This is a shallow analysis in that it ignores the singularly American tradition regarding the natural rights of man. When Bush talks about all people wanting freedom, he is referring back to the founding of the United States, that certain rights are “self-evident.” These rights exist independent of governments and that people are born into freedom by virtue of their humanity and a just, caring God. While not entirely secular in origin, the natural rights argument could in no way be confused with any kind of evangelical Christian drive to spread the “Good News” about the savior.
In this sense, Bush is a natural inheritor of the Reagan legacy and the belief that Communism was an evil not because of what it did to prevent people of faith from exercising their belief in God but rather because of how it tried to destroy the individual’s natural right to freedom by setting the state up to be the final arbiter of what rights a person might exercise.
This is important in trying to understand why, so soon after 9/11, the Bush Administration’s thoughts were turning to Iraq. The outlines of the Bush Doctrine were already being drawn. The President was thinking about the future and how to prevent an even more devastating attack that, if successful, could destroy what had taken more than 200 years to build. Unless one is willing to posit the notion that the President of the United States went to war in Iraq to personally enrich himself and his friends with monies from war contracts and oil, then the only other explanation that makes sense is that Bush was serious about making Iraq an example by which democrats all across the Middle East could rally to and help reform their own governments.
This notion – breathtaking in its audacity and, in hindsight something of an overreach – has never been acknowledged by the left as the proximate cause for war with Iraq despite the President talking about several times before the invasion. Saddam Hussein was an enabler, financier, and as we’re finding out with the release of the Saddam papers, a booster of terrorism throughout the Middle East and probably the world as well. If some kind of coherent strategy were to be followed after the destruction of the Taliban, the end of Saddam would have to figure in to it.
Cohen trivializes this momentous decision by according the President precious little credit for any kind of forward looking thinking:
There remains, though, the little matter of what was in Bush’s gut—not his head, mind you, but that elusive place where emotion resides. It was there, in the moments after 9/11, that Bush truly decided on war, maybe because Saddam had once tried to kill George H.W. Bush, maybe because the neocons had convinced him that a brief war in Iraq would have long-term salutary consequences for the entire Middle East, maybe because he could not abide the thought that a monster like Saddam might die in his sleep—and maybe because he heard destiny calling.
Whatever Bush’s specific reason or reasons, the one thing that’s so far missing from the record is proof of him looking for a genuine way out of war instead of looking for a way to get it started. Bush wanted war. He just didn’t want the war he got
By brushing aside the Bush Doctrine with a slap at the “Neo-cons” and trivializing the decision even more by playing amateur psychologist regarding the President’s motives for revenge, Cohen shows that he just doesn’t get it. Like many liberals, the idea of a sustained effort to defeat al Qaeda and the historical forces that drive their murderous ideology is an anathema. Trying to “understand” the brutes and deal with the “underlying causes” of terrorism is their battle cry. In this respect, it points up competing notions about the significance of 9/11. How much did or should 9/11 change America? Many of us believe it was a shattering event that demanded a response that encompassed a grand strategic vision that would change the planet. Others think it a horrible tragedy that the Republicans are using for political purposes and thus, a more reactive policy is in order, responding to terrorist threats as they arise (or happen) rather than pre-emptively combating the menace.
And to say that Bush didn’t try to find a way out of the war is stating the obvious. The Woodward book makes clear the President would have much preferred that Saddam take the way out offered by several nations and abdicate (no mention of that fact by Mr. Cohen, of course. It wouldn’t do to interrupt his earth shaking change of heart). Saddam was a gone goose once 150,000 Americans were ready sitting in Kuwait waiting to invade. The question in the President’s mind was whether Saddam would take the hint and go or stay and make a fight of it. After 15 UN resolutions and violating the 1991 cease fire accords on a daily basis for 11 years, Saddam was out.
It is amazing that anyone thought otherwise, that there was a hope for….what? Cohen, along with the President and everyone else did not want to have to fight to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But that was the option Saddam took, not the President. To suddenly discover the President “lied” when he said he “didn’t want war” is being disingenuous. It was always up to Saddam whether he would exit the stage peacefully or not. But exit he would.
I don’t think it ever occurred to Mr. Cohen that the President would honestly balk at taking an action that would result in the death of thousands of people. In this, he is no different from any other liberal who, when they look at the President, sees horns and a tail.