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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

The president's revisionist lecture

Perhaps it is because President Bush gave what was touted as a major policy speech nearby, the 40-year-old Landon Lecture series at Kansas State University, that we paid such close attention. It is rare to have a president doing more than a quick stop in this part of the country.

Having listened to his speech, and read it even more closely, however, one comes away with the disturbing impression that facts and the realities of recent history are malleable entities in this president’s imagination. Out of respect for the office and the man inhabiting it, ordinary citizens take very seriously what a president says. He makes decisions that commit us and the national treasury to war and that increasingly affect private areas of our lives. What was said in Manhattan, Kan., falls far short of the gravity of such topics as war, terrorism and justifying domestic spying.

One also comes away with the impression that the national media, for all the disparaging remarks tossed its way by this administration, is considerate to a fault. Comparing the sound bites and the quoted portions in news stories to what we heard and to the actual transcript posted on the White House Web site, it is clear that the president was the beneficiary of some very generous spirits. The press constructs a far more cogent argument on the president’s behalf out of discrete passages than anyone could manufacture from the whole speech itself.

It is difficult to imagine that a presidency so closely guarded and protective of image could come up with nothing better. The speech jerks, in a syntactical and grammatical mishmash, from topic to topic. It engages in flights of imagination to make its case without regard for fundamental corrections that have already occurred to the record or for the deep questions posed about central tenets of this administration’s policies by Republicans and Democrats alike.

After recounting his reaction to Sept. 11 and his intense focus on protecting the American people, which he views as his “most important priority,” the president explained that the nature of this new kind of war against terrorism “requires a different kind of response than the old days of nations fighting nations.” However, the two examples he gives of his fight against terrorism -- military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq -- are by any measure, nation against nation.

* * *

Several times the president said that oceans no longer protect us, the fact of which anyone who lived through the decades of the Cold War and of the space age would be aware. It’s been a long time since oceans offered anyone protection. But it was that realization, he said, a point that “is very important for the students to understand, and others” that brought Iraq into his sights. “I looked at the world,” he said, and “saw a threat in Saddam Hussein. And let me tell you why I saw the threat.

“First of all,” the president said, “there was an immediate threat because he was shooting at our airplanes. There was what’s called no-fly zones; that meant the Iraqis couldn’t fly in the zones, and we were patrolling with British pilots. And he was firing at us, which was a threat -- a threat to the life and limb of the troops to whom I’m the commander in chief. He was a state sponsor of terror. In other words, the government had declared, you are a state sponsor of terror. And, remember, we’re dealing with terrorist networks that would like to do us harm.”

Things can tumble from that premise to that conclusion in one jury-rigged paragraph only in the imagination of someone who long ago came up with a reality that he would persistently hold regardless of nagging, contrary facts.

In so doing, the president had to rewrite a considerable amount of recent history, because the justification for going to war with Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with that military’s shooting at planes but with the absolute conviction that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, including the capability to construct nuclear weapons and plans to imminently deploy them off our shores.

All of that, we know now, was bogus intelligence manipulated and cooked to the point of boiling to justify an invasion.

As for the Iraqis shooting at planes: They did, for more than 10 years. And in those years, they didn’t hit any. Americans must remember that after the first Gulf War way back in 1991, we boasted that we had destroyed Iraq’s military and bombed the country back into the Stone Age, that we had destroyed its water and electrical systems. And indeed, we had. After that, we boasted through the Clinton years that we had clamped down the most severe internationally approved sanctions regime in human history. Little got in or out during the early years of it. A United Nations report said that conservatively 300,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 died as a direct result of those sanctions. The Oil for Food program that started in 1996 did allow some important things into the country, though the program was highly flawed and manipulated by the United States and Britain. And thanks to the Oil for Food scandal and subsequent report, we now know that oil was indeed being smuggled out by Saddam, and with U.S. knowledge.

Our overflights of the north and south no-fly zones were hardly benign. It has become clear that we bombed areas to soften Iraq’s defenses and military infrastructure in advance of an invasion. In all of that bombing -- ours and the errant Iraqi missiles -- civilians died, as they always do, silent witnesses to the insanity of war.

So in 2003, we invaded a country with a severely depleted military and an infrastructure that was already largely in ruins.

Saddam Hussein, indeed, was a bloody dictator, a sponsor of terror. He was, we must recall, a sponsor of terror not only when he gassed Kurds or tortured his own people but also when he sent thousands of kids into the frontlines to be slaughtered in an eight-year war with Iran. Remember, too, that during those eight years, he was a friend of convenience. Remember the photos of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with a smiling Saddam Hussein. Remember, too, that we sold him arms and we cheered him on as an enemy of our enemy. It wasn’t the first time that we showed the world that we would define terrorism or ignore terror as our interests dictated.

That said, Saddam had nothing to do with the terrorists who attacked us in 2001, no connection to that amorphous band that the president warned could “burrow” into a society.

It was only in retrospect, when the world largely rejected what we were doing and when the vaunted weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize in the desert that the administration constructed a new reality and made Iraq a hotbed of international terrorism.

Now we’re at war because Iraqi gunners were shooting at our airplanes.

* * *

That’s just one paragraph. There’s a lot of unpacking necessary to get through the rest of the speech, which can be found on the White House Web site. Accepting a majority of it would mean ignoring the 9/11 Commission findings, the public regrets of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the decisions of federal courts and skepticism of more than a few respected military figures.

A fair chunk of the speech has to do with the administration’s rationale for unwarranted domestic spying, which the president took the opportunity in Kansas to recast as “a terrorist surveillance program.”

It is beyond comprehension that any president would expect the country to agree to unwarranted wiretaps -- snooping that remains undocumented -- on the assurance that he understands our civil liberties and will make sure they are upheld. That is not how the rule of law works, nor how a constitutional democracy functions. It would take an extreme and irrational leap of trust, given the recent record of this administration’s use of incarceration without charges, suspension of habeas corpus, rendition flights and tolerance of torture, to believe that it would protect our civil liberties apart from the force of law.

One of President Bush’s predecessors as a Landon lecturer at Kansas State was the late President Richard Nixon. He used the opportunity to spin his own version of another war, and to try to dispel criticism of his secret expansion of that war into Cambodia. The tune was much the same as it is today, though the political atmosphere over the Vietnam War was far more heated. Nixon and many in the Johnson administration, we now know, also dealt in parallel realities, shaping the world in their speeches and news conferences the way they wished it would be, far from what it actually was.

It is a sad and disgraced tradition to join. If history offers any instruction, it ends badly.

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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