Saturday, November 12, 2005

How Bush Defiled Veterans Day

President Bush on Veterans Day reminded me of Brazil in the 1980s.

Brazil’s foreign debt by 1980 had become staggering: $54 billion ($140 billion in today’s dollars), fully one-third the equivalent of Brazil’s GDP. That’s as if the United States were running a $4 trillion trade deficit in a $12 trillion economy. (We’re not that far behind: Our annual trade deficit will break the $700 billion mark this year, and as of June, foreigners held $2 trillion of the nation’s $7.83 trillion debt). So what did Brazil do? Adopt the pile-it-on philosophy, familiar to any American with a credit card (the average credit card debt per household these days is $8,650): Spend more, as Brazil indeed did (the 1980s were called her "lost decade"), as Americans indeed do every day, reveling under the self-delusion that more of the same makes no difference. The gusher of self-deception has become as American as gas-guzzling, war-worship and public professions of faith, now that Republican have so successfully recast the national religion as a loyalty oath to gas, guns, God and guillibility.

Which brings me to our Lord and Savior President and his pile-it-on strategy on Veterans Day: The deficit of truth about the war in Iraq and the ever-vaguer war on terror has become so staggering that it really makes no difference anymore how many naked lies are gushed out, piled on, stacked up (say, in the manner of an Abu Ghraib human pyramid), and of course spat out for the networks’ gaping and abetting cameras: Never let it be said of our “liberal” media that they don’t function as the president’s most effective, uncritical flack machine. (On Sunday Tim Russert, Washington’s flacker-in-chief, will provide the icing on the spinners’ cake by once again disparaging dissenters, merely by omitting them from the screen, while giving the established order an hour to more explicitly disparage, propagandize, evade, insult.) For the president today, it doesn’t matter who your audience is anymore, doesn’t matter if you’re bloodying veterans who for the most part have already paid their dues sustaining lies and witnessing human sacrifices to unnecessary wars past and present (Vietnam and Iraq of course, but also the many little interventions in between from Grenada to Lebanon to Haiti to Panama). At the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania on Friday the veterans were like so many munitions crate stacked up tight so the president could step on them and level his lies and parries above the din of truths crashing in all around him. He used the veterans. The veterans let themselves be used, sadly enough, though let’s not romanticize them too much: No matter what the political truths and circumstances of their wars, “[m]ost veterans tend to recall their youth as one of perpetual high-blooming summer” (as someone or other says in Vidal’s Burr). They should be excused for wanting as few chills as possible rattling their autumn and winter bones even as the president glorified the rattling before their eyes.

“Our strategy is to clear, hold, and build,” he said, repeating the new favored catch-phrase of Operation Iraqi Screw-up (the phrase was unveiled on October 19 by Condoleezza Rice on the administration’s stand-up comedy circuit that Senate and House committee hearings have become). To clear what isn't clear; to hold has yet to succeed given that the insurgents' strategy is run, hide and reclaim as soon as the U.S. military's "hold" packs up to clear and hold another Iraqi neighborhood that it had cleared and held a half dozen times in the past (Ramadi, Fallujah, the archipelago of unholdable towns on the western edge of the Iraqi desert). And build? Difficult to do when the occupation continues to mangle the hearts and minds of the population with a strategy Bull Connor would have been proud of (and Alabamans, judging from theit 63 percent re-election endorsement of Bush in 2004, are still proud of). Instead of dogs and fire hoses of course, it's Bradleys and F18s.

But slogans are minor fibs compared with the president’s tsunami of lies and totalitarian rhetoric: That critics of the war are hurting the war effort; that Democrats saw the same intelligence as everybody else when they voted to approve the use of force; that the United Nations had established that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; that no one cooked up intelligence before the war. That’s if you believe the official story, the unfinished Senate investigation, the closed-book version of the White House’s history of the war (which still awaits its Pentagon Papers), if you ignore the Downing Street Memo or a still rising little mountain of evidence showing that the administration was planning its little Iraqi war from its earliest days: "Ten days in, and it was about Iraq," as Ron Suskind reported in The Price of Loyalty, based on Paul O'Neill's witnessing of that early cabinet meeting with that single "grainy picture, perhaps misleading, but visceral," that Dick Cheney spread out before them supposedly showing WMD factories in Iraq. Knowing this administration's dalliance with faith over fact, nothing says the pictures weren't themselves cooked up pixels from old Death Valley photo albums or (if anyone in this administration had a sense of humor) Area 51. There's also that strangely unheralded revelation in the new book by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon (The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right) that "the move to war" came "faster than has been reported," that the invasion was being planned in January 2002 and "the original idea was to go to war by Tax Day [April 15]'02." The United Nations of course was begging for more time in Iraq in 2003, but the administration had turned Taliban on Hans Blix, stoning his credibility and running his inspectors out of town to make way for Bush's gut instinct and Cheney's snarly, selective intelligence.

It keeps being said that nothing was cooked up. But plenty was cherry-picked, little was examined by the usual norms of rigor, and plenty was accepted at face value because it fit the fateful narrative of the administration's fait accompli, like the Niger yellowcake story the president ate whole and fed to the nation in the 2003 State of the Union. When his administration says Congress saw the same intelligence the president asked for, chose to see, and chose not to question, the administration is right about one thing: Congress was misled by the same package deal of misinformation, trusting that this president was up to the task (and responsibility) of being taken at his word over something as momentous as a war.

But he lied. And if he was lied to, then he failed in his responsibility to parse, rather than uncritically accept, the lies. And now he's lying about the lies. As the Washington Post reports this morning, "Bush and his aides had access to much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the administration to provide the material. And the commissions cited by officials, though concluding that the administration did not pressure intelligence analysts to change their conclusions, were not authorized to determine whether the administration exaggerated or distorted those conclusions."

None of this is really surprising, and to rattle it all off again insults one's intelligence and sense of the obvious, on Veterans Day of all days: 2,062 American soldiers and who knows how many tens of thousands of Iraqis dead for reason as grainy as those pictures Cheney laid out in that conspiratorial cabinet meeting, and a future as obscure, as uncertain, as frightening as the last three years. But when the state holds most of the weapons of deception in its hands, and when most media play along (playing up the speech, for example, and writing headlines like "Bush Blasts Critics" that make Bush look like Rambo reclaiming truth and justice against armies of evildoers), the visceral takes over--not to believe still more grainy talk from the deceiver in chief, but to say: Enough.