May 24, 2004
There was a moment in Bush's speech to the nation on May 24 when he appeared lost, and his eyes bugged out, and he paused. He simply did not know how to pronounce the name of the Iraqi prison first made notorious by Saddam's brutality and now made further notorious by the torture some U.S. soldiers committed there.
It's remarkable that the President didn't know how to pronounce Abu Ghraib (he tried three different pronunciations in three different sentences, including "Abu Grump"). This has only been the single biggest scandal of his Administration.
He appeared like an unprepared high school actor who forgot his lines in the class play. Even after countless rehearsal he couldn't get it right.
On the substance of the scandal, all he said was that it amounted to "disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."
But these "few American troops" weren't the only ones.
Bush did not mention White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who sent out a memo after September 11 that said the war on terrorism "renders obsolete" the "strict limitation on questioning of prisoners" that the Geneva Conventions require. In that memo, Gonzales referred to some of the Geneva protections as "quaint."
Bush did not mention Donald Rumsfeld, who insisted that the Taliban in Afghanistan did not merit the protection of the Geneva Conventions. According to Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, Rumsfeld gave these interrogators a free hand in Afghanistan and then sent them to Iraq to pry out information from the detainees there.
Bush did not mention his own culpability for unleashing the CIA. "The President has given the agency the green light to do whatever is necessary," one senior official told Bob Woodward in a Washington Post article on October 21, 2001. "The gloves are off."
This scandal is not about a few sadistic soldiers.
Something much more disturbing, something much more systemic, is going on, but Bush did not even come close to describing the magnitude of the problem, much less own any responsibility for it.
Anyone looking for Bush to be contrite, or to come clean, or to fire Rumsfeld was out of luck.
What you found instead was Bush's fusing of the Iraq War yet again with the war against Al Qaeda. "We did not seek this war on terror, but this is the world as we find it," Bush said.
But Bush certainly did seek the war against Iraq, which--as Richard Clarke and Anthony Zinni and many others have noted--was unconnected to the war on terror and actually exacerbated it.
No matter. For Bush, it's all just a matter of playing fill-in-the-blanks for the names of the bad guys.
Forget about Saddam. Now the problem is "an Al Qaeda associate named Zarqawi" and "a young radical cleric [Muqtada al-Sadr] who commands an illegal militia."
Ironically, by waging this unnecessary and illegal war, Bush may have created an Al Qaeda threat in Iraq where none existed before.
It's a threat he feeds off of.
Bush invoked "the flames of September 11," and he took pains to mention that Americans have "learned new terms, like 'orange alert' and 'ricin' and 'dirty bomb.' "
He seems to like nothing more than to remind Americans of how vulnerable we are so that we'll trust him to protect us.
He even alluded to the decapitation of Nicholas Berg, though Berg's family blames Bush for his death.
One particularly alarming moment in Bush's speech came when he was boasting that the American military showed restraint in Fallujah, but then suggested that this might not last forever. "In the city of Fallujah . . . American soldiers and Marines could have used overwhelming force" but decided not to because it could "alienate the local population and increase support for the insurgency," Bush said. But he added, "We will do all that is necessary--by measured force or overwhelming force--to achieve a stable Iraq."
The itch to use overwhelming force has been with Bush for a long time. Here are his words from his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2000: "A generation shaped by Vietnam must remember the lessons of Vietnam: When America uses force in the world . . . the victory must be overwhelming."
A couple of times Bush promised to transfer "full" sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30, which is different from the "limited sovereignty" that some of the members of his Administration had been talking about.
But how "full" will that sovereignty be?
Unlike Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said that if the new Iraqi government wants the U.S. troops to leave then they'll leave, Bush said, "After June 30th, American and other forces will still have important duties. American military forces in Iraq will cooperate under American command as part of a multinational force authorized by the United Nations." And Bush said, "We'll maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary," hinting that the number may even rise.
What kind of sovereignty is it that has a massive foreign army in its midst?
And what kind of sovereignty is it that has to accept the new currency that Bush's viceroy Paul Bremer introduced?
And what kind of sovereignty is it that has to accept the privatization of the economy that Bush insisted upon? Bush lauded the Iraqi Governing Council for approving a law Washington drafted "that opens the country to foreign investment for the first time in decades." This law allows for 100 percent repatriation of profits: a dream come true for U.S. corporations.
Bush said "the U.S. occupation will end" on June 30--but it will still be a de facto U.S. occupation.
He played up the prospects of the interim government that U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is feverishly trying to cobble together.
But Bush gave no reason why the turnover of power will go smoothly. Quite the contrary: He said there will be more violence before and after the turnover. And he provided no realistic basis for expecting that the resistance to the U.S. occupation will fade.
Instead, he tried to foreshadow troubles to come. "There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic," he said.
That may be the understatement of the year.