The Waco Road to Baghdad - NY Times
Mohammad J Alam
alam.m at neu.edu
Sat Aug 17 10:28:54 MDT 2002
A pretty harsh all-sided denunciation of the administration.
The Waco Road to Baghdad
By FRANK RICH
eorge W. Bush tossed the nation's press a softball and they hit it out of
the park. There was not a single good review, not even from his minions at
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, for the White House's
feel-good-about-your-401(k) jamboree at Waco. It was a "forum," the critics
suggested, in the sense that the Politburo was a "legislature." Only Mr.
Bush, who is on record as having loved "Cats," pronounced the event a
But it's Mr. Bush who was right. What his critics miss is that by this
administration's standards of governance, Waco was a triumph. It was
expressly designed to be content-free (rather like "Cats," in fact). The
goal was never to produce policy but solely to serve up a video bite of Mr.
Bush looking engaged by the woes of what his chief of staff, Andrew Card,
referred to on CNN as "so-called real Americans." If the White House wanted
anyone to listen, it would not have staged eight separate panels
simultaneously on a Tuesday morning in the dog days of August, assuring
that complete coverage would be available only on C-Span.
For those few viewers who dipped in, the spectacle was not unamusing. On
one panel, Mr. Bush could be found in mutual fawning with his campaign
contributor "Chuck" Schwab ? Charles to us ? no doubt oblivious to the fact
that Chuck had just placed a nose behind Enron's Ken Lay and Global
Crossing's Gary Winnick on Fortune's "Greedy Bunch" list of those
executives who cashed out the most stock before their companies' shares
tanked by 75 percent or more. Yet even this touching tableau, on a day when
Schwab was laying off nearly 400 employees, did not stop CNN, MSNBC and Fox
News from switching to such alternative programming as a picturesque
natural gas explosion in a suburban California house.
What makes the morning-after outrage of the nation's commentariat seem a
bit over the top is that the preordained hollowness of the Waco show is not
news. This is how this administration always governs. Mr. Bush has two
inviolate, one-size-fits-all policies (if obsessions can be called
policies): the tax cut (for domestic affairs) and "regime change" in Iraq
(foreign affairs). Everything else is a great show designed to provide the
illusion of administration activity when it has no plan.
The show takes the form not only of the Orwellian slogans emblazoned on the
backdrops ("Small Investors/Retirement Security" loomed above the president
and Chuck in Waco) but also of bogus announcements of muscular action. At
the forum's final curtain, the president declared that he would teach
Congress a tough lesson about fiscal responsibility by holding back $5.1
billion it had appropriated for such low-priority items as equipment for
firefighters and health monitoring at ground zero. But what about the $190
billion in wasteful farm subsidies he has already thrown to the winds?
Besides, he would have to cut spending by $5 billion five days a week for
more than a year to compensate for the red ink of his $1.35 trillion tax
Though the president's harshest critics think he's stupid, I've always
maintained that the real problem is that he thinks we are stupid. He never
doubts that his show will distract us from bad news. Waco was supposed to
make us forget the latest round of economic headlines: stagnant wages,
slowed growth, new all-time records in personal bankruptcies and consumer
borrowing. All this is on top of a falloff in the Dow that The Economist
measures as identical in percentage to that of Herbert Hoover's first 18
months, which included the crash of '29.
Well, the economy is only money. It's when the same governance technique is
applied to life-and-death matters like war and domestic security that the
farce curdles. Here, too, there are new headlines the administration wants
us to forget. At the F.B.I., a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed,
the prehistoric computer system remains in disarray even as the agency's
top executives are either pushed out or flee for private employment (as the
counterterrorism chief abruptly did on Thursday). The Wall Street Journal
discovered that when the federal government issued a terrorist warning to
shopping centers four months ago, the Mall of America learned about it only
by watching CNN. Not only are our airlines collapsing but, according to
Thursday's USA Today, so is the undercover air marshal program that was
supposed to be strengthened after Sept. 11. One marshal called it "a
And what does the administration propose as a solution? Last week John
Ashcroft went on TV to announce what he calls the "first ever White House
conference on missing and exploited children." It takes an exploiter to
know one. F.B.I. figures show a decline in the kidnapping of children ?
except on cable TV. But if you can't crack the anthrax case, why not create
some distracting hysteria by glomming onto a local law enforcement issue
that is the biggest showbiz phenomenon since shark attacks? The
administration loves the bait-and-switch. It hyped the cases of "the
American Taliban," John Walker Lindh, and the "dirty bomber," Jose Padilla,
to cover for its failure to snare the actual Taliban leader, Mullah Omar,
and the actual bomber, Osama bin Laden, much as it has hyped the perp walks
of second-rung executives from WorldCom to make us forget about
Halliburton, Harken and Ken Lay.
Next stop: Iraq. Just as a tax cut is billed as the miracle antidote to
every possible economic ill ? "We've got the best tax policy in the world!"
Mr. Bush said at Waco ? so we're asked to believe that taking out Saddam
Hussein will bring democracy to Iraq and the rest of the Arab world,
miraculously repair the chaos wrought by our disengagement from the Middle
East and win the war on terrorism all at once. The silver bullet that gets
Saddam, it appears, will cure all international ills with the possible
exception of the arrogance of the French.
While Saddam is an authentic genocidal monster, there are more plausible
links between Al Qaeda and our dear friend Saudi Arabia than between Al
Qaeda and Saddam; it could be argued that toppling him would strengthen Al
Qaeda. But what the administration is mainly hoping is that a march on
Baghdad will make us forget about Al Qaeda, wherever it may be lying in
wait. It's not good P.R. for our war on terrorism that Islamic terrorists
have been linked to eight attacks abroad since Daniel Pearl's murder in
January, including the assassination of the Afghan vice president in Kabul
and the slaughter of an American diplomat, among others, at a church in
The White House keeps saying that no decision has been made about Iraq, but
of course a decision has been made. Richard Perle, an administration Iraq
hawk, gave away the game in yesterday's Times: "The failure to take on
Saddam after what the president said" would lead to "a collapse of
confidence." Translation: If Mr. Bush doesn't get rid of Saddam after all
this saber rattling, he will look like the biggest wimp since ? well, his
father. Democrats, as timid in challenging Mr. Bush on Iraq as they were in
letting his tax cut through Congress, keep calling for a "debate." What
world are they living in? Mr. Bush is no sooner going to abandon his
pursuit of Saddam than his crusade to eliminate the estate tax. These are
his only core beliefs.
The questions left to be debated now are who's going to pay for the war,
who's going to be killed in it, who's going to police what could be a
decade-long cleanup. (So far the answer to all three seems to be first and
foremost: the go-it-alone Americans.) The loudest voices asking these
questions are almost exclusively Republican: Brent Scowcroft, Chuck Hagel,
Henry Kissinger, even Dick Armey. "If you think you're going to drop the
82nd Airborne on Baghdad and finish the job," said Senator Hagel, a Vietnam
war hero, two weeks ago, "I think you've been watching too many John Wayne
What's been most remarkable about the Iraq project so far is how an
administration as effectively secretive as this one could spring so many
leaks of invasion scenarios to the press. It strains credulity to assert
that this is all an ingenious conspiracy to fake out Saddam. The leaks fake
us out instead, inuring us to the new war to come.
The only mystery is when D-Day will be. Given the administration's history,
I'd guess that it will put on the big show as soon as its political
self-preservation is at stake. Certainly the White House's priorities are
clear enough. It has guarded the records of Dick Cheney's energy task force
and the S.E.C. investigation of Harken far more zealously than war plans
that might endanger the lives of the so-called real Americans who will have
to fight Saddam.
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