Things Fall Apart
April 21, 2004
By The Plaid Adder
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity." - W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming."
This Tuesday, George W. Bush went to Buffalo, NY to push for the renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act. He's doing it there, of course, because Buffalo was the site of what may be the one successful attempt his administration ever made to break up Al Qaeda's organization within the United States.
Of course, that all happened long after September 11, 2001, because as we now know from the 9/11 commission hearings, before September 11, 2001 none of Bush's high-ranking advisors thought it was important to go after Al Qaeda cells operating within the United States. That was not, after all, going to get them any closer to an invasion of Iraq, which as yet another bombshell book (this time by former Bush bootlicker Bob Woodward) claims was a much higher priority with this administration much earlier than they ever let on.
If you ask any of Bush's advisors why they weren't more active about combating terrorist organizations on American soil during the first 233 days of his presidency - and the commission finally has - they all come up with the same answer: we didn't have enough information to act on. Why didn't they have enough information to act on? Because those nasty legal safeguards that we have erected in this country to protect our civil liberties from government interference prevented them from gathering that information.
That's the line they're all taking, from Condoleezza Rice to John Ashcroft: if we'd had the PATRIOT Act, if we'd torn down "the wall," if we'd only realized sooner that in a country so beset by enemies we can't afford things like liberty and privacy and human rights, the September 11 attacks would never have happened.
This argument is not only disingenuous, it is extremely dangerous, and it bothers me greatly that the members of the 9/11 commission have not been more aggressive about challenging it. The last thing this country needs is for the 9/11 commission to become an excuse to further erode the barriers that are protecting us from the machinations of our government - especially a government as clearly corrupt, incompetent, and desperate as this one.
Watching the commission hearings and especially listening to George W. Bush's utterly disastrous press conference last Tuesday, I personally have gotten a completely different picture about what left us vulnerable to a massive terrorist attack on American soil. The fact that 9/11 happened had nothing to do with "the wall," or with pesky legal restrictions put on the FBI and the CIA, or with the fact that we were not "on a war footing," whatever that really means. What we need is not a new and improved PATRIOT Act. What we need is a president.
Unfortunately I will never make it into the White House press pool. But had I been there on Tuesday night, I know what my question would have been:
"Mr. President, could you tell us all who's actually running this country? Because it can't possibly be you."
Because it can't be. Based on his performance last Tuesday I wouldn't hire him to manage a McDonald's, let alone the entire nation. Some of the journalists who were there apparently shared this opinion to some extent; at any rate, they pointed out that Bush's 'answers' were almost always nonresponsive and by and large consisted of reformulations of the "stay the course" rhetoric he had trotted out earlier in his 17-minute opening statement.
They have generally not tried to convey something that was obvious to anyone who tuned in, which is that as nonsensical as Bush's words were - just reading the transcript would make your head bleed - his delivery was even worse. Bush went from halting and wooden to aggressive and angry, with a lot of silences, pauses, and meaningless babble in between. Perhaps the lowest point came when he was asked what he would say was his biggest mistake since 9/11/01. There was silence for several seconds as Bush racked what he calls his brain for an answer, and what he finally said was, "I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it."
For once, no doubt, he was telling the truth.
In between pleading nervousness ("I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn't [sic] yet") and apologizing for his lack of mental agility ("you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one"), a desperate Bush strung together a disjointed, incoherent, and self-subverting apology for his own presidency that is worth quoting in full. Since Bush speaks a language that is somewhat akin to English but largely unintelligible to those who have not been trained to interpret it, I will provide my own translation:
"I would've gone into Afghanistan the way we went into Afghanistan. Even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would've called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein."
So, he admits that he wanted to go to war in Iraq whether or not Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction. Oh wait, no, he doesn't admit that:
"See, I'm of the belief that we'll find out the truth on the weapons. That's why we sent up the independent commission. I look forward to hearing the truth as to exactly where they are. They could still be there. They could be hidden, like the 50 tons of mustard gas in a turkey farm."
All right... so he is apparently the only human being left in America who still believes that these phantom weapons of mass destruction still exist. And he takes comfort in being able to dredge up a factoid he had already used in answer to an earlier question: the fact that when Qadafi disclosed Libya's weapons programs inspectors found 50 tons of mustard gas on a turkey farm in Libya. Actually, it was 23 tons of mustard gas found in several different locations, none of which was a turkey farm, but no doubt this confusion is the result of Bush desperately trying to retain some of this information by using those mnemonic images they tell you about. "OK, George, why don't you try picturing yourself sitting on the beach with a bad case of indigestion after eating a big turkey sandwich with mustard on it, and that will remind you that we found a whole lot of mustard gas in the desert!"
And anyway, the fact that the weapons are not there doesn't prove that they're not there, because if they really weren't there, people in Iraq wouldn't be scared:
"One of the things that Charlie Duelfer talked about was that he was surprised of the level of intimidation he found amongst people who should know about weapons and their fear of talking about them because they don't want to be killed.
You know, there's this kind of - there's a terror still in the soul of some of the people in Iraq. They're worried about getting killed, and therefore they're not going to talk. But it'll all settle out, John. We'll find out the truth about the weapons at some point in time."
So the weapons really are there, and we'll eventually find them. But even if they're not there - and that's not true, cause they so totally are! - let's just for the sake of argument posit that we eventually have to finally face the fact that they never existed. It wouldn't matter, because Saddam Hussein wished he had them, and that was enough:
"However, the fact that he had the capacity to make them bothers me today just like it would have bothered me then. He's a dangerous man. He's a man who actually not only had weapons of mass destruction - the reason I can say that with certainty is because he used them. And I have no doubt in my mind that he would like to have inflicted harm, or paid people to inflict harm, or trained people to inflict harm, on America, because he hated us."
And finally, after all this, his answer is that although he's sure he's made mistakes at some point, he can't think of a single one. At least not one that he would like to acknowledge. Because of course his entire answer tells you exactly what he thinks his biggest mistake was, or at least what he knows everyone else thinks his biggest mistake was: starting a war in Iraq on a trumped-up pretext that has now been definitively exploded. His second biggest mistake, as you could hear him thinking, was agreeing to appear at this press conference.
So what do we learn from this? Well, let's see. We learn that Bush cannot handle the 'pressure' of being in front of a group of people who are asking him questions. He also cannot think on his feet, and is incapable of coming up with a response to a problem that he has not had time to study 'ahead of time.' In addition, he appears to be incapable of ever admitting that he was wrong, and quite willing to leave reality, plausibility, and logic behind in order to make it look as if he was right all along.
And while he waits for the discovery of that magic turkey farm, all we can do is ask ourselves: as President of the United States, shouldn't he be used to responding to situations for which he could not have been prepared 'ahead of time'? Isn't it kind of important for a President of the United States to be able to perform well under 'pressure'? If he has really been leading the most powerful nation in the world through three and a half terrible years, shouldn't he have enough experience with thinking on his feet to be able to answer a simple question? How has he gotten this far into his first term without being able to do any better than this?
Well, in our search for an answer to that question let us turn to Bush's non-response to another simple question he was asked last week:
QUESTION: Mr. President, why are you and the vice president insisting on appearing together before the 9-11 commission? And, Mr. President, who will we be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th?
BUSH: We'll find that out soon. That's what Mr. Brahimi is doing. He's figuring out the nature of the entity we'll be handing sovereignty over. And, secondly, because the 9-11 commission wants to ask us questions, that's why we're meeting. And I look forward to meeting with them and answering their questions.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) I was asking why you're appearing together, rather than separately, which was their request.
BUSH: Because it's a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9-11 commission is looking forward to asking us. And I'm looking forward to answering them.
And he's on to the next question, having point-blank refused to give a meaningful answer. Why? Because he can't. Not, this time, because he doesn't know the answer; but because he can't afford to reveal it. Because there's only one possible reason that explains the fact that Bush is not testifying alone, and that's because nobody in his administration trusts him to do it.
Now that in itself probably doesn't surprise a lot of people. We've all gotten used to the embarrassment and humiliation that is our daily portion as subjects of Mad King George. But let us pause a moment to fully take in the significance of that joint appearance. The man who currently holds the office of President of the United States refuses to spend even a few hours on his own behind closed doors answering questions about his own administration. And that's either because 1) Bush can't tell the truth and he's not smart enough to lie, or 2) Bush doesn't actually know enough about how his own government works to answer questions about it. Or both.
All right, so we've always sort of suspected that Bush wasn't really running the show. That, after all, is what most of the books critical of his administration - and there sure are a lot of them - seem to indicate, and as his press conferences indicate, even if Bush wanted to be a 'hands-on' president instead of the Great Delegator, he wouldn't be competent to do it. And the Republicans have gotten us all used to the idea of the president as movie prop; that was how things worked during the Reagan era too, especially during his second term when the Alzheimer's had started to set in.
But, as everyone keeps saying, everything changed after 9/11. And what the 9/11 commission is proving is that we cannot afford to fill the highest office in the executive branch with someone who is in essence a glorified spokesmodel. It may be terribly convenient for all of Bush's advisors not to have their boss overseeing them too closely; but for the rest of us, it is becoming clear that under the 'pressure' of the past three and a half years, the vaccuum at the center of this administration has started to exert rather too strong a pull.
Without a central figure capable of forcing them to work together, and driven as each of them is purely by his or her own self-interest, Bush's advisors could never have "connected the dots" no matter how many they were given. The picture that emerges from the commission is that during the months prior to 9/11, each of the major figures was off in his or her own little world pursuing his or her pet projects.
Ashcroft was sniffing around everyone's bedroom doors; Cheney was meeting behind closed doors with oil executives; Rumsfeld was busy working on his new 'light and lean' approach to military conquest; and Condoleezza Rice, apparently, was sitting around watching daytime soaps and making paper clip chains. Bush, meanwhile, was where everyone wanted him to be: in Crawford, where the press could take pictures of him being manly and he wouldn't be in anyone's way.
After 9/11, when we went on that all-important 'war footing,' things got no better: each of Bush's advisors simply kept doing what he was doing, only more so. Rumsfeld got his two wars; Cheney got Halliburton their no-bid contracts; Ashcroft got access to all the bedrooms he could ever have dreamed of.
And once we got to Iraq, it was more of the same. Rumsfeld was hot for a military victory, so he never bothered himself about planning for the aftermath. The powers Ashcroft seized with the USA PATRIOT Act have been used to harass immigrants, keep members of the Green Party off airplanes, intimidate political opposition, and fill up Guantanamo with detainees that we don't seem to have any idea what to do with.
Meanwhile the tax cuts that Cheney was pushing for are making it increasingly impossible to adequately fund the agencies that might actually be able to do something for us in the event of a crisis. As for Paul Bremer, well, judging by the tenor of his public pronouncements he appears to believe that he is now the king of Iraq, and to be operating by his own set of rules. Meanwhile, neither we nor "the Iraqi people" are any closer to being either safer or more free than we were on September 11, 2001.
What kept these people from coming together to protect us from Al Qaeda was not our country's respect for the rights of the individual, or that "openness" that Bush rambled about in his press conference, or the fact that for good fucking reasons we have restrictions on what the CIA and the FBI can and can't do to American citizens. The reason things have fallen apart in Washington is simply that there is nothing and no one holding them together. What we need is not more "enemy combatants" rotting in Guanatamo, or a bigger no-fly zone, or a new agency devoted to spying on American citizens. We need someone at the top of this structure who is both willing and able to make all of these different agencies work together to serve the American people, instead of sitting around in Crawford or Kennebunkport or Camp David while each of his 'advisors' sends his particular chunk of the U.S. government off in a different wrong direction in fruitless pursuit of the shadowy object of his own private madness.
We can no longer afford a president who is all surface and no substance. We can no longer afford to let ourselves be reassured by Bush's performance of a "resolve" and "conviction" which are purely for the benefit of the viewers at home, and which he is incapable of translating into any kind of useful action. Because if we don't find something or someone to fill the emptiness at the center of this administration, it is eventually going to consume us all..
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.
View the Adder's Archive
© Democratic Underground, LLC