George W. Bush doesn’t make a pitiable figure or else you would have to feel sorry for a president who has had so many top advisers walk out the door and say that he was ruled by political hunches, grudges or by plain dopiness.
First there was John J. DiIulio Jr., the former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives; then Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill; and now Richard Clarke, the angry and hawkish counter-terrorism chief for Bush and three former presidents.
Clarke, the old Republican put on the job by Ronald Reagan, may have leveled the most damning assessment ever made of a president of the United States by a former adviser: Bush sacrificed the lives or health of thousands of patriots who thought they were fighting to avenge the tragedy of Sept. 11, vastly increased the terrorism dangers around the world and instability in the Middle East, jeopardized America’s international standing, crumbled alliances and wasted a vast public treasure, all on a grudge and a whim that bore no relation to reality.
History will record with more than a footnote the repartee in the White House Situation Room the next evening after 9-11. Clarke had told Bush and the national security team that al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden masterminded the attacks. “See if Saddam did this,” Bush told him. “See if he’s linked in any way.”
“But Mr. President, al-Qaida did this,” Clarke again insisted. “I know, I know,” Bush asserted, “but see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.” Clarke replied that there were traces to a number of Muslim countries, and he named them, but not Iraq.
“Look into Iraq, Saddam,” Bush snapped and left the room.
Clarke maintained that the obsession with Saddam and the insistence on invading Iraq let al-Qaida not only escape but grow.
The rest is history. We invaded Iraq with a majority of the American people believing that it was to avenge Iraq’s sponsorship of the 9-11 attacks and to prevent an imminent attack from Iraqi nuclear bombs or his vast arsenal of biological and chemical weapons.
What we will never know is whether Bush actually believed that Saddam was somehow involved with the attacks in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Saddam was a pariah in the Muslim world, a secularist who murdered and repressed the Muslim sects that succored the fanatics. He had been an ally of the West in the Reagan and Bush I era and was believed to have been responsible for the advance of diseased Western culture in Baghdad. Saddam’s only known connection to terrorists were the checks he sent with fanfare to the families of Palestinians who martyred themselves in suicide bombings in Israel.
Saddam’s only anti-western cabal was the strong suspicion that he had tried to have former President Bush killed in Kuwait in 1993. Clarke, who helped gather that intelligence, was angry at President Clinton for directing the retaliatory attacks on Iraqi intelligence facilities at night so that it would save the lives of hundreds of Iraqi workers, including intelligence officers. Bush couldn’t short Clarke for being a softie.
Befitting the magnitude of his revelations, Clarke got to see the full magnitude of the administration’s assault force, which has been demonstrated whenever anyone in the administration or associated with it dares to tell the truth about it. By the evening of his book’s appearance everyone from Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice were on the networks and talk shows condemning as a liar, a flake, a secret John Kerry adviser, a man “out of the loop” (Cheney), and a man of slight intelligence and morals but a supersized ego.
Similar but small character assassinations greeted DiIulio and O’Neill’s confessions. Some got it worse. When Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV let it be known that the president had lied in his State of the Union message about an Iraqi effort to get nuclear materials in Africa, they outed his wife as a secret CIA agent, putting her career and life in peril. Scott Ritter, the Marine who headed the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq until 1998, when he quit in a pique with President Clinton, became a traitor, a possible foreign spy and a pervert when he dared to insist in 2002 that, contrary to Bush’s assertions, Iraq had destroyed all its weapons of mass destruction and no longer had an active program.
Now the special bipartisan commission investigating 9-11 may give Bush a few bumps. The Wall Street Journal reported that some members and staff were concerned about lies told about Bush’s instant handling of the 9-11 attacks. The White House said he left a schoolroom within seconds of hearing about the second World Trade Center clash but a tape of the classroom showed that he stayed at least seven minutes, perhaps wasting valuable time in giving directions to intercept the plane headed for the Pentagon.
And it turns out that Bush’s account three months later of watching the plane crash into the first tower on TV outside the classroom and observing to himself “well, there’s one terrible pilot” was a plain lie. The TV wasn’t connected and the film of the crash didn’t turn up until that night.
An inane and inconsequential lie, perhaps, but can you imagine if Al Gore or Bill Clinton had uttered it?