Don't Change the Subject

"I know there's this kind of intense speculation that seems to be going on, kind of, I don't know how you would describe it. It's kind of a churning frenzy." Thus spake Dubya on August 21 regarding media coverage of policy options on Iraq. The irony, as Norman Solomon noted the next day, writing for, is that if Bush's observation was accurate, the "frenzy" was being fueled by his own administration. "Bush's comment was akin to a pyromaniac complaining about the smell of smoke," he wrote. Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee agreed "They're throwing red meat at their base," he said. "The administration refuses to discuss or engage on any subject but the war." The White House has denied that Bush is using the threat of war and the public's associated fears for partisan purposes. "You'd have to be hard-pressed to say the president has been 'partisan'," said White House communications director Daniel J. Bartlett. "He's talking about what he's for and what he thinks the United States needs for an active agenda. He's clearly not talking about it in the context of the war, and I think it's an important distinction. The president is talking about our national goals and he's going to do that in public appearances, and I think that's what the American people want to hear, and I think they make a distinction between what is traditional campaign politics and the president speaking to the people."

The evidence suggests otherwise. In June a floppy disk discovered near the White House was found to contain a PowerPoint presentation outlining Karl Rove's strategy for Republican candidates in the midterm election. A key component in that presentation was "Focus on War," and maintaining "a positive issue environment."

In July, the news was dominated by stories of dubious business practices by Bush and members of his administration, corporate scandals involving major Republican contributors and reaching into the White House, an economy whose recovery was not getting any traction, and a stock market that was tanking. As NPR commentator Mark Miller observed, "A little Iraq-invasion talk, and presto, they're all gone, creating the 'positive issue environment' Rove wanted." Miller and others suggested that the entire Iraq discussion was designed to distract national attention from the economic debacle that had been exacerbated by the Bush tax cut. These commentators predicted that the administration's urgency concerning Iraq would wane once the desired effect on the midterm elections had been achieved, only to reappear prior to the 2004 presidential elections.

In early September, White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, explained why the administration had waited until after Labor Day to start promoting its war on Iraq to the general public. "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," he said. Besides, Karl Rove added, "The thought was in August the president is sort of on vacation." The marketing strategy was planned long before Bush's August vacation in Crawford, TX. Central to the plan was a Bush speech on September 11. "Everybody felt that was a moment that Americans wanted to hear from him," Rove told the New York Times, adding that it would be a time "to seize the moment to make clear what lies ahead." To maximize media impact, the site of Bush's speech in New York City was changed from Governor's Island to Ellis Island so that television pictures of Bush would show the Statue of Liberty in the background.

The administration's lobbying of Congress began just after Labor Day, as well, when first the congressional leadership and then a bipartisan group of senators were summoned to the White House. The White House campaign included publicizing regrets voiced by members of congress, including former Senator Sam Nunn, who voted against the "use of force" resolution prior to the Gulf War in 1991.

So, as's managing editor, Scott Rosenberg noted, despite the appearance that a policy debate concerning Iraq was under way within the administration, Bush's mind was already made up "but ... the delay in his communicating his views to the American people was the result of simple P.R. planning.... The product launch for Gulf War II had to wait a month because August is a lousy time to sell wars. And you didn't want your President Bush to cut short or otherwise mess up his vacation." Rosenberg concludes:

There's just one little nagging problem here: The Iraq hawks keep telling us that the threat from Saddam Hussein is so urgent that an invasion cannot wait for U.N. inspectors, sanctions, more evidence of Saddam's possession of "weapons of mass destruction," or a good old congressional debate (though Bush is now grudgingly accepting that need). Time's a-wasting -- we must have "regime change" now. But, hey, we can delay everything for a whole month if that makes things more convenient for White House TV consultants, and for Bush's ranch schedule.

Political strategist Dick Morris was among the commentators who identified the political utility of the Iraq issue. "Bush was smart to announce yesterday that he will seek Congressional authorization to attack Iraq," he wrote in his September 5 column. "Pressing a vote will force every incumbent and each candidate to record his or her views on Iraq and will put the issue front and center where the Republican Party needs it to be on Election Day." In Morris's view, " Polls show that only one issue works in Bush's favor: terrorism." On nearly every other major issue, from environmental concerns, patients' rights, prescription drugs, campaign finance reform, and corporate responsibility, Morris asserted, voters support positions advocated by Democrats. "Talk of whether Bush will go to war and wag the dog before Election Day misses the point. He doesn't need to wag the dog. He just needs to talk about wagging it to make the impact to keep control of Congress," Morris quipped.

Recent polls suggest that while Morris's analysis of the Bush administration's strategy may have been correct, his conclusions about the effect on the American public was not. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in early October found that a majority of the public believes the economy is in the worst shape it has been in a decade, and that "President Bush and Congressional leaders are spending too much time talking about Iraq while neglecting problems at home." Only 41 percent of those surveyed said that they approved of the way Bush has handled the economy -- the lowest that figure has been during his entire term. The poll also found widespread concern that a protracted was in Iraq would further disrupt the troubled U.S. economy, encourage continued violence in the Middle East, and lead to new terrorist attacks in the U.S.

A panel of experts interviewed by Barron's tended to share the public's concern about the effect on the economy of a war in Iraq. Even the most optimistic scenario -- "no more than a few weeks of heavy fighting, many hundreds or even a couple thousand dead Americans and 10-20 times as many dead Iraqis. There would be anger but political stability in the Arab world during the actual war, and then a lengthy occupation." -- while possibly producing a spike in stock prices, would likely produce a longer term drag on the economy. With the Congressional Budget Office already predicting deficits of more than $300 billion this year and next, the additional $100 -$200 billion outlay over a few years for a war in Iraq "doesn't look very great." If it's financed by the Federal Reserve, it will be inflationary. If it's paid for through the sale of bonds, it will almost certainly crowd out private investment. If it's funded through a hike in taxes, to varying degrees it will punish saving, consumption and investment.... In other words, it ain't good."

Under a less optimistic scenario, a "reluctantly supported war brings mounting casualties. Matters get worse if the theater of war gets thrown into turmoil, as pro-American governments in Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are challenged by Islamic radicals." Such a sequence of events would likely erode consumer and investor confidence. Reduced consumer spending combined with a redirection of spending caused by increases in oil prices could reduce gross domestic product growth by a full percentage point. An already shaky economy might well slip into a full blown recession, as a result.

Barron's worst case scenario is also one that the CIA warned about recently. Ivan Eland of the Cato Institute warns that the war on Iraq as currently envisioned could give Saddam Hussein, "the incentive structure of a terrorist. He may already have agents in the U.S. with chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction. Then, if we do back him into this corner, he'll ask us whether we're willing to trade Boston for Baghdad."

Concern that war or the threat of it might actually provoke Iraqi terrorism was supported by a letter from deputy CIA director John McLaughlin released on October 8. "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks," the letter stated.... Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist action." The letter further noted that a desperate Hussein could use terrorism as "his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."

The Times/CBS poll also found that more than half of those surveyed believed that Bush was more interested in removing Saddam Hussein than in disarming Iraq. This finding may have reflected the publicity given to Bush's reference to Hussein as "the guy who tried to kill my Dad," in a speech in Houston on September 27. Although Bush had mentioned Hussein's attempt to assassinate "a former American president," in his September 12 speech at the United Nations, the Houston remark "was seen on Capitol Hill as evidence that the administration's march toward war with Iraq is motivated at least partly by a family grudge match," according to the Washington Post.

Junior's Houston remarks may have been prompted by "Poppy's" comments ten days earlier, when he said "I hate Saddam Hussein." Yet the name calling has some of the feel of a quarrel among business associates.

During the Carter administration, Iraq was labeled as a sponsor of international terrorism, which meant it could not purchase aircraft or military equipment from the U.S. After U.S. relations with Iran were disrupted following the Iranian revolution, the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the list of terrorist nations, thereby also removing the import/export restrictions. In 1984, the same year that Iraq used poison gas in its war with Iraq, the Reagan administration re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq. At the time the U.S. had built up surpluses in a number of agricultural commodities, and from 1985 to 1990 authorized over $4 billion in guaranteed agricultural exports to Iraq. In 1987 the Export-Import Bank provided Iraq with $200 million of insurance for exported U.S. manufactured goods. Most commercial banks were reluctant to loan money to Iraqi ventures without government guarantees, and despite assistance from the U.S. Commodity Credit Corporation, and the Export-Import Bank, Saddam Hussein sought additional funds for his program of reconstruction following the war with Iran.

The Commodity Credit Corporation, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among its other activities operates a program that provides credit to countries that want to purchase food but lack cash. In the case of Iraq, loans to purchase agricultural commodities were made by Banco National del Lavoro (BNL), the largest bank in Italy, and were guaranteed by the CCC. On August 4, 1989, tipped off by two bank executives, the FBI raided the Atlanta offices of BNL. The bank was at the time Iraq's main source of credit in the U.S. The early investigation revealed that Iraq was participating in a huge fraud that transferred billions of dollars in illegal loans and credit out of BNL Atlanta -- vastly larger amounts than were being reported to the Federal Reserve Bank. Approximately half of the money was estimated to have been channeled to the Iraqi military. U.S. Customs Service documents dated September 21, 1989 and October 20, 1989 reported that BNL may have financed shipments of controlled chemicals, technology that could have military applications, as well as providing loans to "various U.S. firms for the illegal export to Iraq of missile-related technology." Rep. Henry Gonzalez, who was chairman of the House Banking Committee at the time, has suggested that it is highly unlikely that the U.S. intelligence community was not aware of communications, including 3,000 telexes, between BNL and high-level Iraqi officials concerning these transactions.

In October 1989 Agriculture Department officials learned that their CCC program with Iraq was corrupt, and included kickbacks and bribes to Iraqi officials, as well as dubious "consulting fees" for U.S. companies with Iraqi connections. Some food shipments were believed to have been diverted to Soviet bloc countries in exchange for military assistance. Nonetheless, on October 4, 1989 the Agriculture Department approved another $400 million on food credits through the CCC program. A confidential memo from the State Department downplayed objections from the Treasury department claming that the objections came from the Office of Management and Budget which it accused of taking its watchdog role too seriously. Having received $1.1 billion the previous year, Iraqi officials turned down the $400 million, saying that the small amount would be "widely viewed as a U.S. vote of no confidence in Iraq debt policy." As documented by a secret cable revealed by Rep. Gonzalez, James Baker Secretary of State at the time, (the same James Baker who generaled W's Florida election conquest) assured Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz that he would "look into the matter immediately."

Later in October, President "Poppy" Bush intervened personally in the matter, issuing National Security Directive 26 (NSD-26). Withheld from Gonzalez committee on grounds of executive privilege, Gonzalez was nonetheless able to establish that NSD-26 ordered ordered "pursuit of improved economic and political ties with Iraq." A State Department report dated October 26, 1989 referred to NSD-26 in recommending approval of a new $1 billion CCC program for Iraq. It also warned that the BNL investigation might associate "several high Iraqi officials" with the bank fraud but concluded, "Our ability to influence Iraqi policies in areas important to us, from Lebanon to the Middle East peace process, will be heavily influenced by the outcome of the CCC negotiations."

Baker then called Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter, urging approval of the CCC program; Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger did the same with the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). At an interagency meeting representatives of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and the OMB voiced concern that Iraqi involvement with BNL could embarrass the administration if it proceeded with the CCC program, but the State Department once again invoked NSD-26 and the measure was approved on November 8, 1989. Later that month Congress, concerned about human rights violations in Iraq, including the gassing of Kurdish villages, passed limited sanctions against Iraq, including restrictions on the Export-Import Bank from transacting business with Iraq without express presidential waiver. A waiver was drafted by the State Department, and signed by "Poppy" Bush on January 17, 1990. The document declared that prohibiting Export-Import Bank loan guarantees for Iraq was not "in the national interest of the United States."

Prosecutors in Atlanta had originally expected to bring quick indictments, and were ready with some by February 1990. For reasons that are not clear, however, the Justice Department intervened to prevent certain witnesses in Turkey from being interviewed, and formal indictments were not brought until the following year -- on February 28, 1991, the day after "Poppy" Bush ordered a cease-fire in the Gulf War.

Bush's remark personalizing the confrontation with Saddam Hussein followed an ad lib at a Trenton, NJ speech in late September in which he accused the Senate of being "not interested in the security of the American people." "These aren't gaffes or Bushisms -- they're glandular reactions," said University of Texas professor Bruce Buchanan "This is clearly what he felt in his heart. It's part of his tendency to see things in black and white rather than gray.... We have to question whether he has sufficiently nuanced views to make decisions like this under these sorts of pressures. For all his blooding after 9/11, he's relatively new at the game, compared to most people who wind up in the presidency." Clinton domestic policy advisor, Bruce Reed, added "For President Bush, the gap between his set speeches and off-the-cuff remarks is especially striking. He has some of the most eloquent speechwriters in recent memory. They're a tough act to follow."

Bush's remark about the Senate, which actually referred not to the war in Iraq but to administration attempts to exempt employees of the Homeland Security Department from fair labor standards, infuriated the normally reserved Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. "You tell those who fought in Vietnam and in World War II they are not interested in the security of the American people," he said. "That is outrageous. Outrageous!" adding, "The president ought to apologize." The White House tried to downplay the whole incident, as Press Secretary Fleischer emerged to say that Daschle's comments were "a misstatement of what the president said." As Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz observed, "The press corps wasn't buying," as the following exchange between Fleischer and Ron Fournier of the Associated Press illustrates.

The President said, "the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people." Did he mean to say that the Senate is not interested in the security of the American people, or did he misspeak? It's one of the two.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is stating the fact that unless and until this passes, the Senate will not have acted in the interests of the security of the American people. Homeland security is just that; it is the security of the American people.

Q That's not what he said. He said, "the Senate is not interested in the security of the American people." He didn't say "if" or "whether" or "but."

MR. FLEISCHER: He made that --

Q He said, "the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people." Did he mean to say that, or did he misspeak?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no question that in the event that this does not pass because the special interests, who are fighting to take away the flexibility that every agency currently has in terms of the President's ability to act for national security -- if that is deprived and taken away from the President, and rolled back, then the President's conclusion will have been that the special interests prevailed over the security of the American people, and that in that Senate action, that the Senate action will have shown, by failure to pass it, that the special interests prevailed over the security interests of the country.

Q Will that show that special interests have prevailed over the interests of the American people? Or will it show that, again, in the President's own words, "the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people"?

MR. FLEISCHER: We won't know until the vote takes place.

Q But does he stand by that remark or not? He didn't --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's clear --

Q -- he didn't qualify it. He said --

MR. FLEISCHER: What the President wants to --

Q -- "the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people." Does he stand by that comment, or not?

MR. FLEISCHER: What the President is trying to do is bring the Democrats and Republicans together, as he said in the rest of his remarks, when he said that this is not a partisan issue, it is an issue vital to our future. It will determine how secure we will be. And there's no getting around the fact that if the Senate does not pass it --

Q That's why I'm wondering if he misspoke --

MR. FLEISCHER: -- that the security of our country will not have been protected.

Q That's why I'm wondering if he misspoke, because it doesn't jibe with what he said a couple sentences later.

MR. FLEISCHER: I can only interpret it for you as I have.

Bush's serial justifications for a war in Iraq have been compared to his efforts to sell his tax cuts. With the tax cuts, he first insisted that there would be enough money without endangering other programs, then celebrated the "incredibly positive news" that Congress would be in a "financial straitjacket" once they passed. He claimed the "typical" family would receive $1,600 when in fact a family earning around $35,000 would receive $616. He denied that the tax cuts were targeted primarily to the very wealthy when in fact the wealthiest 1% of the population will receive 40% of the Bush tax benefits. He represented the tax cut as a short-term economic stimulus plan when in fact the bulk of the cuts go into effect after a period of years.

The administration's justifications for the was in Iraq have been equally deceptive. In a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on September 7, Bush told reporters:

I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied — finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic — the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need.

Since inspectors were finally denied access to Iraq in 1998, the remarks were widely reported as referring to a 1998 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report. IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky denied that the organization had made such a statement. "We've never put a time frame on how long it might take Iraq to construct a nuclear weapon in 1998." Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan then claimed Bush was really referring to a 1991 IAEA report. Mr. Gwozdecky told the Washington Times that IAEA did not issue such a report in 1991, either. McClellan cited two news reports from 1991 as evidence for Bush's claim -- one from the London Times and one from the New York Times, but neither refers to an IAEA report on Iraqi nuclear weapons or supports the assertion that Iraq was "six months away" from a nuclear capability.

The day after the news conference with Blair, the New York Times ran a story leaked from the administration, reporting that Iraq was attempting to purchase specially tooled aluminum tubes for use in enriching uranium. While such tubes can be used in as components of centrifuges, in an editorial titled "You Call That Evidence?" Linda Rothstein of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists wrote that the attempted purchase, if true, meant that the Iraqi nuclear program was not as far along as had previously been assumed. In fact, it indicated the Iraqis were "starting all over again." Quoting the Daily Show's Jon Stewart, Rothstein asks of the administration "Do they think we're retarded?"

In the same way that the tax cut was presented as a panacea for the nation's economic problems, the administration treats the removal of Saddam Hussein from power as a panacea for all of the problems in the Middle East. There has been little discussion, at least in public, of any specifics of a post-Hussein regime in Iraq. Similarly, starting in December 2000, Bush and his handlers warned of an impending recession as a way of promoting their tax cut; the negative comments probably contributed to the economic decline. Regarding Iraq, the administration has also tried to use fear to sway public opinion, with National Security Adviser Rice invoking the specter of a "mushroom cloud" and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld implying that Hussein would kill "tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children" in an attack on the U.S.

Despite the fierce spin campaign, which apparently began at least a long ago as June, with the Rove PowerPoint presentation, polls such as the NY Times/CBS poll cited above suggest that the public is -- so far -- not deceived. Gladys Steele, a 42-year old homemaker from Seattle, and a political independent, summed up the majority sentiment. "Bush is spending way too much time focusing on Iraq instead of the economy," she told the Times and he's doing it as a political move.... He thinks keeping us fearful about going to war will distract us from how bad the economy is."


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