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Politicizing the War
October 1, 2002
By Ramsey Harris

It's been an exciting week politically. Fireworks have been blazing on the Hill. Coming up to the midterm election, both parties have taken off the gloves. Most people are not fans of the political blame game or negative campaigning on anyone's part, but some slander and lies are worse than others.

The Bushies may very well have crossed that line by suggesting, intimating and at times stating outright that the Democrats don't care about national security and are soft on terrorism. Many congressional Democrats are veterans of World War II and the Vietnam War, (1,2) and are rightfully incensed by the accusations emanating from the general direction of the White House. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that top Bush advisors Karl Rove and Andrew Card, aided by Marc Racicot and Tom Davis, have been purposefully and willfully using the "war" in a blatantly political attempt to improve their party's chances in November. The depths they have sunk to must be evidence of their deep insecurity about the upcoming elections.

President Bush I had a dilemma in the form of Saddam Hussein in 1990. But unlike his son, Bush I proceeded with caution and did the right thing. Although faced with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Bush did not demand an immediate war resolution. Instead he sought the cooperation of the UN and the US Congress, in fact waiting until after the elections in November of 1990 so that he would be dealing with the Congress that would be seated during any conflict. GW Bush wants to invade Iraq but has no provocation, no justification and no international support for a unilateral attack on Iraq. All he has is past grievances and vague innuendo, none of which adds up to a convincing picture of a significant imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.

Yet in stark contrast to his father's circumspect approach, Bush II demands a sweeping resolution from Congress that enables him to proceed with military action against Iraq, or any other country for that matter, a blank check of funds and power, and he wants it now - before the midterm elections. He doubtless fears that if the Democrats pick up seats in the fall, that his plans to invade will engender less support. The Republicans can largely be counted on to shut up and roll over, even against their better judgment, but Bush doesn't have that clout with the Democrats. Thus, detractors and supporters alike have questioned both the timing and the rationale for immediate action against Iraq.

September 11 was widely touted as a turning point for Bush, as indeed it was for the entire country. Bush made some initial blunders (like flying off into the hinterlands on the day of the attacks instead of immediately returning to Washington, and then waiting several days to even visit New York). But he did manage to assume some gravitas and his administration did at first assemble an international coalition against terrorism. Unfortunately, Bush's megalomaniacal power grabs and arrogant unilateralist foreign policies have long since squandered much of the international and domestic support he enjoyed last fall.

While the perpetrators of the attacks on America - including Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar - remain at large, while rumors exist of the Taliban reorganizing, and with coalition forces barely controlling Afghanistan's capital city and little else, Bush has shifted his focus - and the media's attention - to a new boogeyman: Iraq and Saddam Hussein, who had no connection to September 11 as far as anyone can tell. Apparently the elusive Osama and company were simply too difficult to make into interesting press. But an invasion, now that's a good distraction!

The GOP has been counting on using the war to discredit the Democrats on the campaign trail since shortly after September 11. Even more disgusting, the timing of each phase of the war rhetoric has been carefully coordinated to maximize its impact. All along the Republicans have claimed bipartisanship as their sole domain, even while blasting the Democrats for "obstructing" their conservative agenda.

In December 2001, admitting that the windfall of Bush's position as commander in chief was a golden opportunity to press his agenda, a Bush aide was quoted as saying: "Everything a war lets you do, the president has been seizing on." (3) At the Republican National Committee's winter meeting, Karl Rove told GOP leaders that they should not hesitate to use the perceived success in the war on terror to their political advantage. "We can go to the country on this issue..." he crowed. (4)

In May 2002, Republicans were raising campaign funds by hawking photographs of Bush on Air Force One the day of the terrorist attacks. (5) Let's be clear, the photograph of Mr. Bush portraying him as an heroic leader of the entire nation on its worst day in history was available to its citizens only after making a monetary donation to the Republican Party. In a secret GOP strategy presentation that was inadvertently lost and disseminated to the media. Karl Rove listed "Focus on War" as his top agenda item for the Republicans in their fall election campaigns. (6)

Recently, MediaWhoresOnline (7) has charged that the GOP, led by Karl Rove at the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives and Rep. Tom Davis at the National Republican Congressional Committee, have spent millions to intentionally disseminate lies about Democratic positions in a coordinated nationwide campaign to smear Democrats for failing to support the war, regardless of their individual opinions or convictions. Indeed, many Democrats have been as hawkish as the administration, so this strategy on its face would seem untenable. It is only the distortion of the truth that makes it possible.

The White House itself set the political stage early on by repeatedly suggesting that anyone who disagreed with Mr. Bush on anything, whether related to his response to the terrorist threat or not, was an unpatriotic, un-American, partisan traitor. (8) The GOP leadership has backed up the White House on this strategy. Trent "Both the timing and the policy are subject to question" Lott criticized Tom Daschle in March for simply asking the White House for an idea of where and when funds for military engagement would be needed, a "clear understanding of what the direction would be," by saying: "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field?" (9)

When Tom Daschle expressed his convictions about the war on terror, echoing Mr. Bush's own early statements in saying: "We've got to find Osama bin Laden, and we've got to find other key leaders of the al-Qaida network, or we will have failed," what was Majority Whip Tom DeLay's response? "Disgusting." (10) Lott and DeLay thus created the notion that the Senate Majority Leader had no right or duty to ask the executive branch for information in an ongoing military engagement - but mainly because he was a Democrat. No such censure has been leveled at Republican skeptics.

The spring and summer of 2002 have been filled with revelations that the Bush White House had access to specific intelligence information, and large volumes of it, regarding the possibility of hijacked planes being used as missiles, and yet took no steps to avert disaster but in fact largely ignored the issue of terrorism. In one instance, we learned that a report of worrisome Al Qaeda activity was presented to Mr. Bush during his extended vacation at his ranch in August 2001, but he was apparently too busy communing with the cows to take any preventive action. (11) Oddly timed announcements of arrests or terrorist threats marred the lazy days of summer, seeming to always correspond to new revelations of intelligence lapses that might trace back to the White House. Calls for a blue ribbon commission to investigate 9-11 were vehemently opposed by the White House, despite the precedent of past events including Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination.

Bush only very recently changed his attitude when it became quite clear that a broad swath of Republicans and Democrats were in favor of it and were going to create the panel despite his objections. (12) But in the meantime, the White House engaged in full throttle ABC (Always Blame Clinton) mode, to the point that press secretary Ari Fleischer was actually forced to publicly apologize for suggesting that former president Clinton exacerbated terrorist threats and the Middle East conflict during his second term.

Recently, Republicans have decried Democrats for "daring" to even mention Bush's poor stewardship of the national economy and other domestic issues in a "time of war," or claiming that any Democrat that tries to talk about domestic issues is simply being political - as if caring about the everyday lives of everyday Americans was suddenly a traitorous occupation rather than the reason we sent our representatives to Washington in the first place.

The timeline for bolstering Bush's war credentials while lambasting the Democrats for opposing and obstructing the war was escalated this fall, just in time for election season. The case against Iraq has been brought front and center, the threat of Saddam Hussein suddenly of dire urgency, although Bush still felt perfectly at ease during his second month-long vacation at his Texas ranch in August.

So why has the Saddam problem become so urgent now? Bush's chief of staff Andrew card was kind enough to explain: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." (13) But White House officials boasted that Sept. 11 provided their boss with the perfect event to kick off his campaign to market a preemptive strike against Saddam. (14) But many still ask why now? Could it be that talking about war with Iraq all the time not only diverts attention from domestic problems and the corporate scandals that have threatened to embroil the White House, but also the opportunity to malign the Democrats for their inevitable opposition to Bush's over-reaching plans for military actions and executive branch powers?

This strategy has possibly been taken too far by a White House that carefully cultivated a bipartisan façade in the aftermath of 9-11. But as the fall elections approach, as the very balance of power in Washington rests on the outcomes, as the remaining two years of Bush's only term revolve around control of the Senate, the Republican leadership has apparently convinced Bush and Cheney to personally roll in the mud. Beginning in September, Mr. Bush began to make disparaging remarks about the Senate's reluctance to rubber stamp his every demand on the war effort and homeland security. The first tepid remark was in Louisville Kentucky in early September, when in reference to his vision for sweeping powers to totally reorganize the government and ignore employee protections, Bush said: "I've got deep concerns about where the Senate is headed. … The Senate must hear this. I expect to get a bill that is not in the best interests or vested interests in Washington, but in the best interests of protecting the American people." (15)

Shortly afterwards, at a fundraiser in New Jersey, Bush stepped up the rhetoric on lack of commitment to homeland security, saying: "And my message to the Senate is: you need to worry less about special interest in Washington and more about the security of the American people." (16) (Which is a pretty asinine thing to say at a Republican fundraiser.) Dick Cheney made an even stronger statement at a fundraiser in Kansas, announcing that Republican candidate Adam Taff would a better war supporter than his Democratic challenger: (17) "…he'll be vital in helping us meet the team priorities for the nation, from winning the war on terror to strengthening the economy and defending our homeland." (18)

The clear unsubtle implication is that the Democratic controlled Senate is soft on terrorism, and obstructing Bush's ability to keep the country safe. (19) And that is a despicable sentiment, made even worse for its callous political purpose. The clear intention is to deflect criticism from Bush for his lack of vision on the domestic front.

The Democrats have understandably become enraged at this relentless rhetoric impugning their patriotism and dedication to the security of this nation. Especially after having bent over backwards to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt on almost every security related request for months, no matter how far-fetched or far-reaching it seemed. Only recently have the Democrats began to balk at some of Bush's wish-list that relate more to executive branch power than to national security.

Two demands in particular have caused many in Congress to pause, and not only on the democratic side of the aisle. Bush's obsession with an unprovoked invasion of Iraq has many in Congress and in the military ranks of the Pentagon and beyond throwing up their hands in bewildered protest. And Bush's intractable insistence that the proposed department of homeland security allow him free reign to hire, fire and transfer federal workers at whim, in violation of long-standing civil service rules and protections, has the Democrats worried that Bush has placed his own special interests ahead of national security. (20)

Bush and a number of Republicans on Capital Hill have made a mantra of the premise that anyone who would care to work for them (that is, the federal government) is inherently a fat lazy incompetent slob. However, there is no evidence that workers' rights protections hinder anyone's ability to do their public sector job. Quite the contrary, like the corporate executives who raped their companies while their employees dutifully did their jobs, the breakdown in the federal bureaucracy appears to occur mainly at the upper administrative levels. Wasn't it the field agents of the intelligence agencies who were trying to get permission and support to investigate suspicious terrorist activates, only to be thwarted and stymied by their supervisors and upper level managers? Furthermore, suggesting that union members are bad workers insults every fireman and policemen that ran into the cauldron of the World Trade Centers on September 11. Those men and women weren't checking their union cards for their job descriptions. They were saving lives.

So last week, the Democrats fought back. On the Senate floor, during the debate over the creation of the homeland security department, Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a decorated Air Force veteran, demanded an apology from Mr. Bush, insisting: "We ought not politicize this war. We ought not politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death. The president ought to apologize to Senator Inouye and every veteran who has fought in every war who is a Democrat in the Senate. He ought to apologize to the American people. That is wrong." (21) Of course no apology ever will be forthcoming from the arrogant and intractable White House, where the "you're either with us or with the terrorists" mentality applies to any opposition to any facet of their agenda. The White House insisted that Mr. Bush's remarks were reported by the media out of context. Mr. Daschle replied that there was no context in which Mr. Bush's assertions could ever be considered appropriate.

And the Democrats are not backing down. Hawaii's Senator Daniel Inouye, who lost his arm fighting in World War II, who holds fifteen medals including the Purple Heart, graciously remarked: "And it grieves me when my president makes statements that would divide this nation. This is not a time for Democrats and Republicans to say 'I have more medals than you, we've shed more blood than you.' This is a time when we should be working together." (22) A fiery Robert Byrd of West Virginia spoke for Max Cleland, who volunteered for the Army during Vietnam and lost both legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion, shouting: "What about Max Cleland? Is he interested in the security of the American people? I'm disgusted by the tenor of the war debate that has seemingly overtaken this capital city. … This war strategy seems to have been hatched by a political strategist interested in winning the midterm election at any cost. It is despicable that any president would use the serious matter of an impending war as a tool in a campaign."

After months of abject cooperation from the Democrats, often to the chagrin of their own supporters, Bush has engulfed himself in a maelstrom of political backlash. Too late he has called for civility, even while crying for a change in the Senate Democratic leadership. Accusing the current Democratic leadership of being incapable putting national security before unspecified "special interests", Bush addressed a Republican gathering, saying: "I believe we need to have a change of leadership in the United States Senate. And together, together -- we can work together to make America a stronger place, a safer place, and a better place for everybody who is fortunate enough to live in this country. They should not respond to special interests in Washington, D.C. They ought to respond to this interest -- protecting the American people from future attack." (23)

The very next day, Bush met with members of both parties and afterwards announced that the members were engaged in a "deliberate and civil and thorough discussion." (24) With polls showing waning support for an immediate Iraq invasion, it's clear that the administration has failed to sell the urgency of the Iraqi threat to the American people. (25) Bush may have also realized too late that an outraged Senate leadership can thwart his plans to invade Iraq, and that the public won't care. Most grievously for the White House and the Republicans, no war means no chance to exploit it for their campaigns.


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