High Plains Grifter: the Life and Crimes of George W. Bush
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Given the freshets of love now showering George W. Bush, I thought it might be useful to run here whole for the first time my short life of Bush that was serialized in 2004 and later appeared in a different form in Grand Theft Pentagon, my book on the crimes of the defense industry during the Afghan and Iraq wars. Let it stand as my brief against the rehabilitation of George W. Bush.
The Ties That Blind
The mad cowboys are on the loose. Pack only what you can carry. Liberate the animals. Leave the rest behind. The looters are hot on the trail. Only ruin stands in their wake. Not even women and children are safe. Especially not them. Run for the hills and don’t look back. Don’t ever look back.
So the story goes, anyway.
We find ourselves living out a scene in a bad Western. A movie filmed long after all the old plot lines have been exhausted, the grizzled character actors put out to pasture, the Indians slaughtered and confined to desert prisons, the cattle slotted into stinking feed lots, the scenic montane backdrops pulverized by strip mines. All that remains are the guns, bulked up beyond all comprehension, and the hangman and his gibbet. We’ve seen it all before. But there’s no escape now. Someone’s locked the exits. The film rolls on to the bitter end. Cue music: Toby Keith.
Perhaps only the Pasolini of Salo: 120 Days of Sodom could have done this celluloid scenario justice. Or the impish Mel Brooks, who gave us Blazing Saddles (one of the greatest films on the true nature of American politics), if you understand the narrative as comedy, which is probably the most emetic way to embrace it. Both Pasolini and Brooks are masters of scatological cinema. And there’s mounds of bullshit to dig through to get at the core of George W. Bush.
Because it’s all an act, of course, a put on, a dress game. And not a very convincing one at that. Start from the beginning. George W. Bush wasn’t born a cowboy. He entered the world in New Haven, Connecticut, hallowed hamlet of Yale. His bloodlines include two presidents and a US senator. The cowboy act came later, when he was famously re-birthed, with spurs on his boots, tea in his cup and the philosophical tracts of Jesus of Nazareth on his night table. Bush is a pure-blooded WASP, sired by a man who would later become the nation’s chief spook, a man frequently called upon to clean up the messes left by apex crooks in his own political party, including his own entanglements (and those of his sons) with the more noirish aspects of life. His grandfather was a US senator and Wall Street lawyer, who shamelessly represented American corporations as they did business with the Nazi death machine. Old Prescott narrowly escaped charges of treason. But those were different times, when trading with the enemy was viewed as, at the very least, unseemly.
His mother, Barbara, is a bitter and grouchy gorgon, who must have frightened her own offspring as they first focused their filmy eyes onto her stern visage. She is a Pierce, a descendent of Franklin, the famously incompetent president, patron of Nathaniel Hawthorne and avowed racist, who joined in a bizarre cabal to overthrow Abraham Lincoln. (For more on this long neglected episode in American history check out Charles Higham’s excellent new book Murdering Mr. Lincoln.)
Understandably, George Sr. spent much of his time far away from Barbara Bush’s icy boudoir, indulging in a discreet fling or two while earning his stripes as a master of the empire, leaving juvenile George to cower under the unstinting commands of his cruel mother, who his younger brother Jeb dubbed “the Enforcer.” This woman’s veins pulse with glacial melt. According to Neil Bush, his mother was devoted to corporal punishment and would “slap around” the Bush children. She was known in the family as “the one who instills fear.” She still does…with a global reach.
How wicked is Barbara Bush? Well, she refused to attend her own mother’s funeral. And the day after her five-year old daughter Robin died of leukemia Barbara Bush was in a jolly enough mood to spend the afternoon on the golf course. Revealingly, Mrs. Bush kept Robin’s terminal illness a secret from young George, a stupid and cruel move which provided one of the early warps to his psyche.
Her loathsome demeanor hasn’t lightened much over the years. Refresh you memory with this quote on Good Morning America, dismissing the escalating body count of American soldiers in Iraq. “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many,” the Presidential Mother snapped. “It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”
Even Freud might have struggled with this case study. Imagine young George the Hysteric on Siggy’s couch in the curtained room on Berggasse 19. The analysand doesn’t enunciate; he mumbles and sputters in non-sequential sentence fragments. His quavering voice a whiny singsong. The fantasy has to be teased out. It’s grueling work. But finally Freud puts it all together. This lad doesn’t want to fuck his mother. Not this harridan. Not this boy. He wants to kill her and chuckle in triumph over the corpse. Oh, dear. This doesn’t fit the Oedipal Complex, per se. But it explains so much of George the Younger’s subsequent behavior. (See his cold-blooded chuckling over the state murder of Karla Faye Tucker.)
Perhaps, Freud isn’t the right shrink for Bush, after all. Maybe the president’s pathology is better understood through the lens of Freud’s most gifted and troubled protégé, Wilhelm Reich. (I commend to your attention Dr. Reich’s neglected masterpiece Listen, Little Man.) Sadly, we cannot avail ourselves of psychological exegises of either Freud or Reich. So Justin Frank, the disciple of Melanie Klein, will have to substitute. In the spirit of his mentor, Frank, author of Bush on the Couch, zeroes in on the crucial first five years of W’s existence, where three factors loom over all others: an early trauma, an absent father and an abusive mother. It is a recipe for the making of a dissociated megalomaniac. Add in a learning disability (dyslexia) and a brain bruised by booze and coke and you have a pretty vivid portrait of the Bush psyche.
With this stern upbringing, is it really surprising that Bush evidenced early signs of sadism? As a teenager he jammed firecrackers in the orifices of frogs and snickered as he blew them to bits. A few years later, as president of the DKE frathouse at Yale, Bush instituted a branding on the ass-crack as an initiation ritual. Young pledges were seared with a red-hot wire clothes hanger. One victim complained to the New Haven police, who raided the frathouse. The story was covered-up for several decades until it surfaced in Bush’s first run for governor of Texas. He laughed at the allegations, writing the torture off as little more than “a cigarette burn.” From Andover to Abu Ghraib.
In his teens, this man child was shoved into a distant boarding school. It must have been a relief for him. The squirrely adolescent with the pointy ears did just enough to get by. At Andover they called him “Bushtail.” Ambition wasn’t his thing. And he didn’t have the athletic talent or thespian skills to do much more than play the role of class goof. So he went on to an undistinguished academic career, highlighted only by his ebullient performances as a cheerleader and a reputation for selling fake IDs. Even in his youth he was adept at forgery.
George the Younger snuck into Yale on a legacy admission, a courtesy to his father and grandfather. He was a remedial student at best, awarded a bevy of Cs, the lowest score possible for the legacy cohort. Repositories like Andover and Yale know what to do with the dim children of the elite. George nestled in his niche. No demands were made of him. He spent much his time acquainting himself with a menu of designer inebrients. He was arrested twice. Once for petty theft. Once for public drunkenness. No one cared.
When Vietnam loomed, Lil’ George fled to New Haven for Houston and the safe harbor of the Texas Air National Guard, then jokingly known as Air Canada–a domestic safe-haven for the combat-averse children of the political elite. It was a deftly executed dodge. His father pulled some strings. Escape hatches opened. The scions of the ruling class, even the half-wits, weren’t meant to be eviscerated in the rice paddies of the Mekong–that’s why they freed the slaves.
But soon George grew bored of the weekend warrior routine. And who among us wouldn’t? He slunk off to Alabama, and promptly went AWOL for a year and a half. Nobody seemed to miss him. He wasn’t a crucial cog in anyone’s machine. George? George Bush??
How did the president-in-training fritter away those idle days? Supposedly he was lending his expertise to the congressional campaign of Winton “Red” Blount. But he apparently soon went AWOL from this assignment as well. Other campaign staffers recall young George ambling into the campaign office in the late afternoon, propping his cowboy booted heals on a desk and recounting his nocturnal revels in the bars, strip joints and waterbeds of Montgomery. The other staffers took to calling him the “Texas Soufflé.”. As one recalled, “Bush was all puffed up and full of hot air.”
Precisely, how did he wile away those humid nights on the Gulf Coast? According to the intrepid Larry Flynt, he spent part of his time impregnating his girlfriend and, like a true southern gentleman, then escorting her to an abortion clinic. Checkbook birth control, the tried and true method of the ruling classes. A year later, according to Bush biographer J.H. Hatfield, George W. got popped in Texas on cocaine possession charges. The old man intervened once again; George diverted for six months of community service a Project PULL in a black area of Houston and the incident was scrubbed from the police blotter and court records. Today, Bush denies all knowledge of those squalid indiscretions. Just two more lost weekends in George’s blurry book of days.
Speaking of cocaine, Bush, by many accounts, had more than a passing familiarity with the powder. Several acquaintances from his days at Yale tell us that Bush not only snorted cocaine, but sold it. Not by the spoonful, but by the ounce bag, a quantity that would land any black or Latino dealer in the pen for at least a decade. Young Bushtail had become the Snow Bird of New Haven.
Even the Bush family, so smugly self-conscious of its public image, didn’t seem to care much. Jr wasn’t the star child. They just wanted him alive and out of jail. (The habitual drunk driving was already a nagging problem. On a December night in 1973, George came up from Houston to visit his family in DC. He took his younger brother Marvin out drinking in the bars of Georgetown. Returning home after midnight, Bush, drunk at the wheel, careened down the road, toppling garbage cans. When he pulled into the driveway, he was confronted by his father. Young Bush threatened to pummel his old man, mano-a-mano. Jeb intervened before young George could be humilated by his father. A couple of years later, the drunk driving would later land him in the drunk tank of a Maine jail-his fourth arrest.) No need to plump up his resumé with medals or valedictory speeches. Anyway back then, the inside money was riding on Neil, who they said had a head for figures, or perhaps young Jeb, whose gregarious looks hid a real mean streak. (Neil, of course, came to ruin in the looting of the Silvarado Savings and Loan (though he deftly avoided jail time), while Jeb proved his utility in Florida and amplified his presidential ambitions.)
By all accounts, the family elders saw George as a pathetic case, as goofy as a black lab. They got him out of the National Guard eight months early (or 20 months, if you insist on counting the Lost Year) and sent him off to Harvard Business School. He didn’t have the grades to merit admission, but bloodlines are so much more important than GPA when it comes to prowling the halls at the Ivy League. The original affirmative action, immune from any judicial meddling. In Cambridge, he strutted around in his flight jacket and chewed tobacco in class. The sound of Bushtail spitting the sour juice into a cup punctuated many a lecture on the surplus value theory. At Harvard, one colleague quipped that Bush majored in advanced party planning and the arcana of money laundering. George met every expectation.
Then came the dark years. Booze, drugs, cavorting and bankruptcy in dreary west Texas. There he also met Laura Welch, the steamy librarian who had slain her own ex-boyfriend, by speeding through a stop sign and plowing broadside into his car with a lethal fury. (Rep. Bill Janklow got 100 days in the pen for a similar crime; Laura wasn’t even charged.) They mated, married, raised fun-loving twins. In 1978, George decided to run for congress. His opponent cast him as carpetbagger with an Ivy League education. It worked. And it didn’t help his chances much that Bush apparently was drunk much of time. After one drunken stump speech, Laura gave him a tongue lashing on the ride home. Bush got so irate that he drove the car through the garage door. He lost big.
Eventually, Laura got George to quit the booze–though the librarian never got him to read. It wasn’t a moral thing for her. Laura still imbibes herself, even around her husband. She smokes, too. Refreshingly, so do the Bush Twins, who have both been popped for underage drinking.
George was Laura’s ticket out of the dusty doldrums of west Texas. She sobered him up and rode him hard all the way to Dallas, Austin and beyond. “Oh, that Welch girl,” recalled a retired librarian in Midland. “She got around.” Wink, wink.
If the son of a millionaire political powerbroker can’t make it in Midland, Texas, he can’t make it anywhere. George was set up in his own oil company in the heart of the Permian Basin. His two starter companies, Bush Exploration and Arbusto, promptly went bust, hemorraghing millions of dollars. His father’s cronies in a group called Spectrum 7 picked up the pieces. It flatlined too. A new group of savoirs in the form of Harken Oil swooped in. Ditto. Yet in the end, George walked away from the wreckage of Harkin Oil with a few million in his pocket. One of the investors in Harken was George Soros, who explained the bail out of Bush in frank terms. “We were buying political influence. That was it. Bush wasn’t much of a businessman.”
Among the retinue of rescuers in his hours of crisis was a Saudi construction conglomerate, headed by Mohammad bin Laden, sire of Osama. The ties that blind.
Flush with unearned cash, George and Laura hightailed it to Arlington, the Dallas suburb, soon to be the new home of the Texas Rangers, perennial also rans in the American League. Bush served as front man for a flotilla of investors, backed by the Bass brothers and other oil and real estate luminaries, who bought the Rangers and then bullied the city of Arlington into building a posh new stadium for the team with $200 million in public money, raised through a tax hike, for which Bush, the apostle of tax-cuts for the rich, sedulously lobbied. Here’s a lesson in the art of political larceny. The super-rich always get their way. When taxes are raised, public money is sluiced upward to the politically connected. When taxes are cut, the money ends up in the same accounts. As William Burrough’s hero Jack Black (the hobo writer, not the rotund actor) prophesied, you can’t win.
The Rangers deal was never about building a competitive baseball team for the people of Dallas/Ft. Worth. No. The Bush group seduced the city into building a stadium with nearly all the proceeds going straight into their pockets. It was a high level grifter’s game, right out of a novel by Jim Thompson, the grand master of Texas noir. Bush played his bit part as affable con man ably enough. Even though he only plunked down $600,000 of his own cash, he walked away from the deal with $14.7 million-a staggering swindle that made Hillary Clintons’s windfalls in the cattle future’s market look like chump change.
As team president, Bush printed up baseball cards with his photo on them in Ranger attire, endulging his life-long fetish for dress-up fantasies. He would hand out the Bush cards during home game. Invariably, the cards would be found littering the floors of the latrines, soaked in beer and piss.
Mark His Words
Sex and politics often seem to conflate in George W. Bush’s mind. In 1975, young George, fresh out of Harvard Business School, followed his father to China, where he was keen testing the receptiveness of the Chinese to infusions of Texas capital. Soon bored by detailed discussions of international finance, Bush began hitting on his translators and other Chinese women. One Yale coed who came into Bush’s orbit recalled: “He was always one of the fastest guys on campus in trying to get his hands in your pants.” This friskiness didn’t set well with the decorous crowd then running China and he was discreetly directed to evacuate the country in order to save his father, the new ambassador to Peking, further embarrassment.
During the 1988 Republican convention, David Fink, a reporter with the Hartford Courant, asked Bush what he talked about with his father when they weren’t jawing about politics. “Pussy,” George W. quipped. Take that mom.
In 1992, W. famously offered his services to his father’s moribund re-election campaign. The younger Bush counseled the president to hire private investigators to rummage through the bedtrails of Clinton’s sex life, hoping to ignite “bimbo eruptions.” This advice coming from a man who, according to one of his friends, spent the 1970s “sleeping with every bimbo in West Texas, married or not.” George Sr. (who was himself desperately trying to suppress talk of an affair with a State Department employee) demurred, patted Jr. on the head and followed the more tactful advice of Robert Teeter, with fatal results.
George W. vowed not to make the same political miscalculations as his father in his own 1994 run for governor of Texas. With the sepulchural Karl Rove as his political Svengali, Bush set his sights on Ann Richards, the gruff Democrat who ridiculed Bush’s sense of privilege, “Little George was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” It was a campaign marked by unbridled viciousness, backroom slanders and outright lies. Bush didn’t attack frontally; he sent surrogates to hurl the mud for him. Naturally, he won in a romp.
Bush’s six-year tenure as governor of Texas was unremarkable by almost any standard. He was kept on a short leash by his handlers, Rove and Karen Hughes, and generally turned over policy-making to the yahoos in the Texas legislature. His resume of those days is familiar by now: he slashed taxes for the rich, injected religion into public schools and social welfare programs, signed a law permitting the carrying of concealed weapons in public buildings and churches, privatized public parks, turned Texas into the nation’s most toxic state, sent children to adult prisons and supervised the execution of 152 death row inmates. During an interview with Larry King, Bush chortled about sending Karla Faye Tucker to her fatal encounter with death’s needle, saying he had no regrets. Later he joked about the execution with his CNN doppleganger Tucker Carlson. Bush mimiced Karla Faye’s pleas for mercy, whining in a shrill falsetto: “Oh please don’t kill me.” Somebody give Bushtail a shot of Jack Daniels before he kills again.
The big change in Bush was his dramatic conversion to a messianic form of Christian fundamentalism. The happy-go-lucky cad of the 60s and 70s had withered away, replaced by a doltish and vindictive votary. His rebirth as a Christian zealot was famously midwifed by Billy Graham, who considered young George “almost like a son.” According to Bush during a walk on the beach at Kinnebunkport, “Billy planted a mustard seed in my soul.” The man has a felicity with metaphor.
The seed sprouted a few months later. In the notorious scene in the bathroom of a Colorado resort, Bush, head pounding from a night of drinking in celebration of his 40th birthday, plunged to his knees before the mirror and pleaded with the Almighty for a heavenly intervention. Lightning struck that morning. Bush, so the family legend goes, kicked the bottle and emerged as a fanatical believer in what he called “the intercessory power of prayer.”
A few years later Bush, by then governor of Texas, offered readers of the Houston Chronicle a peek into the stern nature of his faith. “Only those who have accepted Jesus as their personal savoir will be permitted entry into heaven,” Bush prophesied. Ten years down the road, Bush would do his best to send thousands of heathens to eternal damnation. Of course, Bush, having been granted the moral amnesty of being born-again, rarely attends formal church services.
* * *
Bush wasn’t the early favorite of the Texas king makers to retake the presidency for the Republicans. That role fell to the newt-faced senator Phil Gramm, who had amassed a majestic campaign warchest. But no amount of money could soften Gramm’s grotesque image and foul tongue. He was the hissing personification of the Republican ultras, an unrepentant whore for industry who seemed to take delight in savaging the poor, blacks and gays. Here’s a taste of the Gramm technique: “Has anyone ever noticed that we live in a country where all of the poor people are fat?”
Gramm’s dismal showing in 1996 told the Republican powerbrokers that they needed an image makeover, a candidate with Christian sex appeal coating a hard core philosophy. John McCain was too grouchy, carried the whiff of scandal and might prove uncontrollable. Jack Kemp was perceived as soft on blacks and perhaps even was a real libertarian at heart. So they settled on Bush, the smirking governor with the lofty Q-rating among white middle-aged women who’d been devoted watchers of Dallas and Knots Landing.
As for Bush, he didn’t recall being coaxed to run by the RNC power elite. Instead, the green light fell upon him from a celestial source. “I feel like God wants me to run for president,” Bush confided to James Robison, the Texas evangelist. “I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. I know it won’t be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.”
In a flashy feat of political transvestitism, Bush marketed himself as a “compassionate conservative,” a feathery reprise of his father’s kinder and gentler Reaganism. It was a ploy to distance himself from the foamy rhetoric of the Republican pit bulls who had nearly self-destructed in their manic pursuit of Clinton. Bush was tight with Tom DeLay, Trent Lott and Phil Gramm, but he didn’t want to be tarred with their radioactive baggage while he courted soccer moms. During the 2000 campaign, this grand hoax was rivaled only by Al Gore’s outlandish masquerade as an economic populist.
Still Bush, under the lash of Karl Rove, didn’t shirk from playing mean, particularly in the bruising inter-squad battle for the Republican nomination. During the crucial South Carolina primary, Bush’s campaign goons intimated that his chief rival, John McCain, had fathered an illegitimate child with a black woman. Of course, a more dexterous politician than McCain could have turned this slur to his advantage. After all, Strom Thurmond ruled the Palmetto State for decades and he was widely known to have sired at least one child with his black mistress. The Bush attack dogs also made ungentlemanly whispers about McCain’s wife, Cindy, suggesting that she might be a neurotic and a drug addict. Of course, it was McCain himself who was slightly unhinged and he wilted under the fire of the Bush sniper teams, which also included an attack on McCain’s war record by the same by claque of mad dog vets who would later fling mud at Max Cleland and John Kerry.
The 2000 campaign itself was unremittingly dull until the final debate, when Gore sealed his fate as he stalked Bush across the stage like he had overdosed on testosterone. As Gore glowered over the governor badgering him with the names of obscure pieces of legislation, Bush merely turned his head to the camera and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “What’s this guy’s problem?” It was the first real moment of the campaign and probably kept Bush close enough so that the Supremes could hand him the presidency.
Bush’s 534-vote triumph in Florida is an old and tiresome story by now, but it’s worth recalling some of the low points. The stolen election was an inside job, although greatly abetted by Gore’s incompetence. The state may very well have been secured before a single vote was cast. That’s because Jeb, the Bush who always wanted to be president, ordered Katherine Harris to purge the voter rolls of more than 90,000 registered voters, mostly in Democratic precincts.
Then, with the recount underway, the Bush junta sprang into action. Using $13.8 million in campaign funds, they recuited an A-list of Republican fixers, tough guys and lawyers. Roger Stone, the former Republican fixer and body builder of Reagan time who fled to Florida following a DC sex scandal, was summoned to orchestrate gangs of rightwing Cubans to harass election officials in Dade and Palm Beach counties. Marc Racicot, later to be elevated by Bush to chair of the RNC, staged similar white-collar riots, all designed to impede the counting of ballots. Jeb and the haughty Harris did their parts as institutional monkeywrenchers.
Meanwhile, the legal strategy designed by Theodore Olson to fast track the case to the Supreme Court. When Scalia and Thomas refused to recuse themselves from the case despite glaring conflicts of interest (family members worked for the Bush campaign), the electoral theft was legitimized.
The ringmaster of this affair was Bush Sr.’s old hand, James Baker. Baker later boasted to a group of Russian tycoons mustered in London, “I fixed the election in Florida for George Bush.” And Gore laid down and took it like a dazed Sonny Liston. He didn’t raise a peep about the disenfranchisement of thousands of black voters, as if to say, “If have to be elected by blacks, I don’t want the job.”
Bush, the Selected One, was anxious to consolidate his power. “If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier– just so long as I’m the dictator,” Bush snickered on December 18, 2000, as the Supreme Court prepared to deliver the presidency to his sweaty hands.
Mark those words.
* * *
The contours of the Bush agenda were established by his transition team. This shadowy group picked the cabinet, outlined the budget, sketched the foreign policy, dreamed up the size of the tax cuts and scouted across the sprawl of the bureaucracy for opportunities for self-dealing contracts.
None had a sharper nose for scenting opportunities to cash in on federal contracts than Dick Cheney, the man who recruited himself as Bush’s running mate. Although Cheney flunked out of Yale (he was a working class kid without the academic passes afforded the legacy admittees), he shares several other traits with Bush. Twice Cheney has been arrested for drunk driving. And, although he fervantly supported the war, he had no desire to actually go to Vietnam and do battle. Saying he “had other priorities,” Cheney sought and received five draft deferments. See Dick run. And so it came to pass: others died so that he might prosper. Don’t tell Cheney he doesn’t understand the meaning of sacrifice.
As a congressman from Wyoming, Cheney established himself as a hardcore rightwinger, gnashing away at everything from abortion to Head Start. Bush Sr. picked this top-flight chickenhawk as Defense Secretary in 1989. He managed the first Gulf War, amassing through bribery and bullying international support like a CEO on a consolidation binge, and later rationalized the decision not to depose Saddam or support uprisings by Iraqi and Kurdish rebels, predicting that the fall of the Ba’athists would destabilize the entire region. How right you were, Dick.
After Clinton steamrolled Bush, Cheney cashed in, landing a top executive position at Halliburton, the Houston-based oil services and military construction giant. Cheney knew all about Halliburton and they knew Dick. In fact, as Defense Secretary, Cheney had devised the privatization scheme which turned over much of the Pentagon’s logistical programs (base construction, food and fuel services, infrastructure, mortuaries) to corporations. He also steered some of the biggest early contracts to Halliburton, including lucrative deals for reconstructing Kuwait’s oil fields and logistical support for the doomed venture into Somalia.
At Halliburton, Cheney exploited his government and international contacts to boost Halliburton’s government-guaranteed loans from $100 million to $1.5 billion in less than five years. He also created 35 off-shore tax free subsidiaries, a feat of accounting prestitigidation that would soon be aped by Kenny Boy Lay and the corporate highwaymen at Enron. The grateful board of Halliburton soon rewarded Cheney by making him CEO and compensating him to the tune of $25 million a year in salary and lavish stock options. By the time he left Halliburton for the White House, he owned $45 million in the company’s stock.
Of course, the question presents itself as to whether Cheney ever really left Halliburton. The company had been bruised a bit in Clinton. In 1997, it lost a multi-billion dollar logistics contract with the Army. Yet, soon after Cheney ascended to the Veep’s office Halliburton seized the contract back and stood poised to become the prime provisioner for the Pentagon as it embarked on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Korea, and the Philippines. Within two short years under Cheney, Halliburton cashed in on $1.7 billion in Pentagon contracts. Then, naturally, Halliburton decided to gouge the government, overcharging for everything from gas deliveries to food services.
Then came the big reward: a two-year contract worth $7 billion for rebulding Iraq’s oil infrastructure, bombed to smithereens by the Pentagon. The no bid contract was awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers, who apparently never even considered another company. No surprise here. Halliburton had drafted the Corps’ reconstruction plan for Iraq. “They were the company best positioned to execute the oil field work because of their involvement in the planning,” explained Lt. Col. Gene Pawlick, a PR flack for the Army.
All the while, Cheney continues to personally benefit from Halliburton’s government contracts. He still holds options for 400,000 shares of Halliburton stock and continues to receive $150,000 a year in deferred compensation from his former company.
* * *
Cheney was not a lone emissary from crude cartel. Of the 41 members of that Bush transition team, 34 came from the oil industry. The mask had slipped off the beast. Not since the days of Warren Harding has big oil enjoyed a firmer stranglehold on the controls of the federal government. Bush’s inner circle is dominated by oil men, starting with Bush and Cheney and including 6 cabinet members and 28 top political appointees. Recall that Condoleezza Rice has an oil tanker named after her and that Stephen Griles, the number two man at the Interior Department, was the oil industry’s top lobbyist and continued to be paid $285,000 a year by his former firm as he handed out oil leases to his former clients. Griles is the Albert Fall of our time. Fall, the architect of the Teapot Dome scandal, where his crony’s oil company was quitely handed the rights to drill in on federal lands in Wyoming, pronounced: “All natural resources should be made as easy of access as possible to the present generation . Man cannot exhaust the resources of nature and never will.” More than 80 years later, this wreckless nonsense could serve as a motto for the Bush administration. But see how times have change. Fall went to jail for his self-dealing; Griles got a bonus.
Then came the neo-cons: Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Scooter Libby, Douglas Feith, Donald Wurmser, Stephen Cambone and John Bolton. This coterie of hawks, many of them veterans of Reagan/Bush I, were deeply marinated in the writings of the darkly iconic Leo Strauss and schooled in the art of political terror by Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the Democratic senator from Boeing. After eight years on the outside, they came in febrile for war from the get-go and charged with an implacable loyalty to Israel, nation of the apartheid wall and the 82 nukes. The neo-cons’s devotion to Israel was so profound that several of them hired themselves out as consultants to the Israeli government. At the close of Bush’s first term, this same nest of neo-cons finds itself under investigation for leaking top secret documents to Israel.
To complete the starting lineup, Bush and Cheney also dredged up from the obscurity of far right think tanks some of the most malodorous scoundrels of the Iran/contra era: Eliot Abrams, John Poindexter, Otto Reich and John Negroponte. Soon enough this merry band of brigands were up to their old tricks. Poindexter, from his den at DARPA, devised a big brother program under the name Total Information Awareness, branded with an Illuminati logo, which sought to keep track of the movements and credit card purchases of all Americans. Later Poindexter, convicted of lying to congress in the 1980s, opened up a futures market for terrorist attacks, where traders would be financially rewarded by the Pentagon for accurately predicting suicide bombings. Meanwhile, Abrams, another Iran/contra felon, was put in charge of human rights in the Middle East-a curious brief for the man who backed the butchers of Guatemala and El Salvador. Even Hunter S. Thompson blazing away on blotter acid couldn’t dream this stuff up.
More Pricks Than Kicks
Relations inside the Bush cabinet have not always collegial and harmonious. Take Richard Armitage, the longtime diplomatic fixer. Armitage had originally been slated by the Bush transition team for installation as the number two man at the Pentagon. But Armitage despised Donald Rumsfeld’s megalomaniacal style and reportedly denounced openly him as “a prick.” Armitage ended up back at State and Paul Wolfowitz, the crafty neo-con, became Rumsfeld’s slavishly devoted deputy.
Rumsfeld had good reason to fear Armitage and some of the other old hands at State. Not because Armitage and Powell weren’t itching for war with Iraq. Oh, no. It was a tussle over who would call the shots and how it would be launched: Powell’s office wanted a reprise of the 1990 coalition; Rummy wanted war on his own terms. The men and women at Foggy Bottom knew some unsavory tidbits about Rumsfeld’s past relations with two pillars in Bush’s Axis of Evil: Iraq and North Korea.
In the early 1980s, Rummy was grazing in the corporate pastures as a top executive fixer at G.D. Searle, the drug giant involved in the aspartame scandal. Then Reagan called. The Gipper summoned Rumsfeld to serve as his special emissary for the Middle East, assigned with the delicate mission of delivering back channel communications from the White House to Baghdad. This was the beginning of the so-called Iraq Tilt, the subtle backing of Saddam during the gruesome Iran/Iraq war.
December 20, 1983 found Rumsfeld in Baghdad supping with Saddam and Iraq’s foreign minister Tariq Aziz. By all accounts the day long session was amiable and cordial. Rumsfeld chose not to issue a remonstrance about Iraq’s lethal use of chemical weapons against Iran. Rumsfeld, known as the Prince of Darkness by some of his staffers, was well acquainted with the slaughter. He was in possession of a State Department memo dated November 1, 1983 by Middle East specialist Jonathan Howe who warned the administration of “almost daily use of CW by Iraq against Iranian forces.”
Rumsfeld blew off the reports of atrocities and instead encouraged Saddam to press his war on Iran. By February 1984, a UN investigation publicly confirmed the gassings, but that didn’t deter Rumsfeld from meeting with Tariq Aziz again on March 26, 1984, where he again failed to reprimand the Iraqis (now essentially pursuing a proxy war for the US) for the war crimes. Two decades later, Rumsfeld, without cracking a grin, repeatedly invoked Saddam’s use of poison gas in the 1980s as a justification for Bush’s pre-emptive war.
Cut to 1994. Now Rumsfeld plying his craft back in the corporate milieu, this time for the Swiss engineering giant ABB, which specializes in the construction of nuclear power plants. In the fall of that year, ABB received a $200 million contract to construct two light-water reactors for the Pyongyang government, under a deal sanctioned by the State Department during the Clinton years. Oddly, Rumsfeld was later to cite the reactors as evidence of North Korea’s malign intention to pursue the development of nuclear weapons and used the reactors as justification for sinking billions in Bush’s Star Wars scheme. When confronted by the fact that the reactors under scrutiny had been sold to North Korea by his very own company, Rumsfeld feigned ignorance, just has he had done when presented with a videotape of him greeting Saddam. But the boys at the State Department knew the score on both counts and Rummy didn’t like it.
Indeed, Rumsfeld, the Polonius of the Bush team, so distrusted the ecumenicalists in the State Department that he set up an off-the-shelf operation sequestered firmly under his control called the Office for Special Plans, headed by Douglas Feith. Sound familiar? It should. The OSP is not all that different from the William Casey/Oliver North operation that had its stealthy hands in illegal meddlings from Iran and Afghanistan to Honduras and Nicaragua. But see how far we’ve matured as a nation in 20 years. Rumsfeld’s group was an open secret, shedding even the pretense of covertness.
The OSP operates as kind of cut-and-paste intelligence shop that served up as fact any gothic tale peddled by Ahmed Chalabi or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Feith made a pest of himself, meddling in the affairs of the war planners. He was reviled by Gen. Tommy Franks, who called him “the dumbest motherfucker on the face of the Earth.”
This didn’t deter Feith in the least. He recruited a roster of pliant neo-cons into his office, who generated the phantasmagorical briefs for the war to topple Saddam, which he had hungered for since at least 1994. Feith’s OSP office was known by State Department hands as the Fantasy Factory. Among Feith’s pack of underlings, two have received special attention, Harold Rhode and Larry Franklin, for their intimate relationship with the state of Israel. Franklin, perhaps the scapegoat for a larger scandal, finds himself the target an FBI investigation into Israeli espionage ring in the Pentagon and National Security Council.
Feith himself is no stranger to such inquiries into leaking classified information to the Israeli. In 1982, Feith was fired from his position as an analyst on Middle East issues in the Reagan administration’s National Security Council on suspicion of leaking material to the an official with the Israeli embassy in Washington. Don’t cry for Feith. He simply moved out of the White House and over to the Pentagon as a “special assistant” to Richard Perle, then assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Policy.
When the Republicans were driven from office in 1992, Feith settled into a comfortable niche as a DC lawyer/lobbyist with the firm Feith and Zell, where he represented the interests of many Israeli firms hot to see the demise of Saddam. After Feith joined the Bush 2 administration, his former law partner, Marc Zell, moved the firm to Tel Aviv.
During the war on Iraq, Feith was given the responsibility’s planning for the occupation of Iraq and its reconstruction. Obviously, Feith spent little of his attention on the troublesome details of the occupation, swallowing the line that Iraqis would welcome their conquistadors. Instead, Feith devoted himself to the lucrative task of awarding many of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s reconstruction contracts. He steered many of the most lucrative deals, often on a no-bid basis, to clients associated with his former law firm, including Diligence, New Bridge Strategies and the Iraqi International Law Group, headed by Salem Chalabi-the nephew of Ahmed Chalabi. No sooner had Salem Chalabi, whose Law Group billed itself as “your professional gateway to the new Iraq,” been appointed chief prosecutor in war crime trial of Saddam Hussein than he found himself indicted by an Iraqi prosecutor for involvement in a strange political murder plot. Now Salem Chalabi is on the lam in London.
Feith is one of those Washington creatures who seems to live his political life on the ropes, always saved by the paranoid solidarity of the neo-con claque, which suspects, rightly, that if one of their number topples he may take the rest down with him. Of course, even if Feith is forced to walk the plank at the Pentagon, he will almost certainly make a soft landing in the private sector, embraced by the firms he abetted while in office.
Sometimes even the stupidest motherfucker on the face of the earth can make out like a bandit.
* * *
Even Bush Sr. stood in line to profit handsomely from his son’s war-making. The former president on retainer with the Carlyle Group, the largest privately held defense contractor in the nation. Carlyle is run by Frank Carlucci, who served as the National Security advisor and Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan. Carlucci was also Donald Rumsfeld’s college roommate at Princeton.
Bush Sr. serves as a kind of global emissary for Carlyle. The ex-president doesn’t negotiate arms deals; he simply opens the door for them, a kind of high level meet-and-greet. His special area of influence is the Middle East, primarily Saudi Arabia, where the Bush family has extensive business and political ties. According to an account in the Washington Post, Bush Sr. earns at least $100,000 for each speech he makes on Carlyle’s behalf.
One of the Saudi investors lured to Carlyle by Bush was the BinLaden Group, the construction conglomerate owned by the family of Osama bin Laden. According to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal, Bush convinced Shafiq Bin Laden, Osama’s half brother, to sink $2 million of BinLaden Group money into Carlyle’s accounts. In a pr move, the Carlyle group cut its ties to the BinLaden Group in October 2001.
One of Bush Sr.’s top sidekicks, James Baker, is also a key player at Carlyle. Baker joined the weapons firm in 1993, fresh from his stint as Bush’s secretary of state and chief of staff. Packing a briefcase of global contacts, Baker parlayed his connections with heads of state, generals and international tycoons into a bonanza for Carlyle. After Baker joined the company, Carlyle’s revenues more than tripled.
Like Bush Sr., Baker’s main function was to manage Carlyle’s lucrative relationship with Saudi potentates, who had invested tens of millions of dollars in the company. Baker helped secure one of Carlyle’s most lucrative deals: the contract to run the Saudi offset program, a multi-billion dollar scheme wherein international companies winning Saudi contracts are required under terms of the contracts to invest a percentage of the profits in Saudi companies.
Baker not only greases the way for investment deals and arms sales, but he also plays the role of seasoned troubleshooter, protecting the interests of key clients and regimes. A case in point: when the Justice Department launched an investigation into the financial dealings of Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi prince sought out Baker’s help. Baker is currently defending the prince in a law suit brought by the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks that he used Islamic charities as a pass-through for sending millions of dollars to al-Qaeda linked operations.
Baker and Carlyle enjoy another ace in the hole when it comes to looking out for their Saudi friends. Baker prevailed on Bush Jr. to appoint his former law partner, Bob Jordan, as the administration’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Carlyle and its network of investors is well-positioned to cash in on Bush Jr.’s expansion of the defense and Homeland Security department budgets. Two Carlyle companies, Federal Data Systems and US Investigations Services, hold multi-billion dollar contracts to provide background checks for commercial airlines, the Pentagon, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security. USIS was once a federal agency called the Office Federal Investigations, but it was privatized in 1996 at the urging of Baker and others and was soon gobbled up by Carlyle. The company is now housed in “high-security, state-of-the-art, underground complex” in Annandale, Pennsylvania. USIS now does 2.4 million background checks a year, largely for the federal government.
* * *
Thanks to Paul O’Neill, Bush’s former treasury secretary, we now know what we’d suspected all along: that the Iraq war was plotted long before al-Qaeda struck New York and Washington. Bush himself is depicted as entering office seething with vindictive rage like a character in a Jacobean revenge play. After all, he believed that Saddam had tried to kill his daddy in a bungled bomb plot during Bush Sr.’s triumphal entry into Kuwait City in 1993. Here we have one of the colorful features of the new dynastic politics of America: familial retribution as foreign policy.
O’Neill’s version is backed up by Richard Clarke, the former NSC terrorism staffer. Clarke charges that Iraq was an idée fixe with the Bush team since their entry into Washington. In his book, Clarke describes a meeting with the president a few days after the 9/11 attacks when it was clear to nearly everyone that they had been orchestrated by Bin Laden. Bush needled Clarke about finding a link to Saddam. Clarke said there was none. But his answer seemed to bounce off Bush’s brain like a handball off the back wall.
A few months later the invasion on Iraq seemed set in stone. “Fuck Saddam,” Bush fumed at a meeting of the National Security Council in March of 2002. “We’re taking him out.” Call it a case of pre-meditated pre-emption.
The game plan for deposing Saddam, seizing his oil fields and installing a puppet regime headed by a compliant thug such as Ahmed Chalabi or, as it turned out, the CIA favorite Ahmed Allawi, was drafted and tweaked by the National Security Council within weeks of taking office. Cheney’s shadowy energy task force even produced maps allocating Iraqi reserves to different oil companies. Of course, they didn’t offer an exit strategy. Perhaps, they didn’t plan on leaving?
On the remote chance that impeachment charges are ever leveled against this coven of pre-emptive warriors, Bush may have a minor case for plausible deniability here. According to O’Neill, the president drifts off during the excruciating tedium of these sessions. Bush only perks up during cabinet meetings when Condi Rice strolls into the room, whereupon he cleaves to each sanguinary phrase, nodding excitedly like his very own bobblehead doll.
Not that Bush seems to care all that much about the veracity of his briefings, but Rice’s information is not always noted for its reliability. For example, Rice, who got her start in politics working on the 1988 presidential campaign of Gary Hart, persisted for months in pushing the the preposterous notion that Iran was working with Pakistan to inflame anti-American sentiments across Southwest Asia. Of course, the rulers of Iran are Shiites and the elites of Pakistan are Sunni Muslim and, thus, as bitter rivals as Iran and Iraq-that is, until, the Bush administration succeeded in congealing their desperation and rage.
Bush’s Mask of Anarchy
And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.. . .And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Mask of Anarchy”
By the smirk, ye shall know him. It is Bush’s identifying mark. The cruel sneer fissures across his face at the oddest moments, like an execution or a spike in the deficit or the news of a light-stick being rammed up the anus of an Iraqi prisoner. It hints at this own sense of inviolateness, like the illicit grin of some 70s porn star–which may not be so far off target if even half of what Kitty Kelley dishes in her delicious book The Family about Bush’s peregrinations turns out to be true.
Flash to Bush’s most famous moment, the instant when he supposedly redeemed his tottering presidency. There at ground zero, megaphone in hand, using firefighters as props, Bush squeaks out his war cry. It won’t be a war of justice, but revenge, cast as a crusade against evil. Then, hands palsied with anxiety, he closes with his signature sneer and gives the game away.
The mask drops, revealing in a flash, like a subliminal cut, the dark sparkle of the real Bush. You get the sense that he detests his own supporters, those who refuse to see through the act. But perhaps that’s giving Bush too much credit. He reminds me of one of the early popes or one of the more degenerate emperors, such as Domitian: cruel, imperious, humorless, and psychologically brittle.
Bush and his team turned 9/11 into a kind prime-time political necrophilia, an obscene exploitation of the dead. For example, Flight 93 was transformed into Bush’s Masada, where the passengers committed group suicide by bringing the plane down into the remote Pennsylvania field in order to save the White House. Of course, this was a lie.
Bush lied about his actions in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He lied about why the US was attacked. He lied about what his own government knew in advance about impending plans by al-Qaeda to attack targets in the US. He lied about how much the wars would cost. About weapons of mass destruction. About the relationship between Saddam and Bin Laden. About the progress of the war. These daily manipulations of the truth aren’t impromptu faux pas. Bush is kept on a tighter leash by his staff than any president in US history. He’s not permitted extemporaneous comments. Bush’s prevarications roll right off the teleprompter.
In the memorial service at the National Cathedral, Bush announced his mission: “Rid the world of evil.” Part of that evil would, naturally, be the burdensome tax rates on the super-rich.
Bush was hot for war without congressional debate. “I’d rather have them [American troops] sacrificing on behalf of our nation than, you know, endless hours of congressional testimony.” And they were primed to give him any thing he wanted. Any thing at all. No one rose to stop him. No one would even question him at the precise moment he most needed to be restrained.
The remote-control war on Afghanistan is a shameful chapter in American history. It rode unbridled on the fervor of a kind of national bloodletting against one of the most destitute nation’s on earth, which had only the most tangential responsibility for the events of 9/11. More than 3,400 civilians perished, most of whom had never heard of Osama Bin Laden.
The Pentagon drilled Kandahar and other Taliban strongholds with cruise missiles and pulverized convoys of pack mules with unmanned Predator planes armed with Hellfire guns. The ground war was turned over to the Northern Alliance, a CIA-financed band of thugs with a bloodier reputation than the Taliban.
Why do they hate us? Bush proffered the two word cue-card answer: Our freedom. But how could this be? Only a few years ago the Mujahideen, the Taliban and the Chechen separatists were hailed by neo-cons and neo-libs alike as “freedom fighters.”
Yes, they knew them very well indeed. They had not only traded with the enemy. They had created them. Bin Laden and Mullah Omar were armed, funded and sheltered by the CIA in its insane proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. A $3 billion war that brought to power the most tyrannical and fundamentalist’s sect this side of Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College. The Taliban regime was fired by an unquenchable hatred of the West, a political pathology it acted out through the violent suppression of the nation’s own women, homosexuals and academics. Then came the first Gulf War, the US bases on Saudi soil, the misguided adventure into Somalia, the blind support of the bloody Israeli suppression of the second Intifada. Al-Qaeda, financed by Saudi millions and sequestered by the Taliban, turned its attention to the great Satan, which was indeed acting like a malevolent titan across the globe. The events of 9/11 have blowback written all over them.
In the end, though, the Taliban weren’t toppled. They simply dispersed back into the Pashtun tribal areas from which they arose, where they knew the US and its mercenary army would never come to get them. As recounted in Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command, the few ground engagements were US troops faced off with the Taliban proved embarrassing for the Pentagon. And today the Taliban have reasserted their control over most of Afghanistan. The only city that remains under the uneasy grip of Hamid Karzai and his CIA masters is Kabul, the old British capital which has never been a Taliban stronghold.
So much for the opening act. As Condoleezza Rice put it, Bush, the conquistador in a jogging suit, soon got bored with “swatting flies.”
(Torturing flies was, of course, a favorite past time of Domitian. According to Seutonius, “At the beginning of his reign, Domitian used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catching flies and stabbing them with a keenly sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked if anyone was in there with the Emperor, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply, ‘Not even a fly.” Domitian, that wanton boy emperor, was also the inspiration for the famous line in Lear.)
Bush wanted to put away such childish things and squash bigger game. Iraq, naturally.
Coda: The House Rules
Even Laura couldn’t stop him. By most inside accounts, the first lady opposed the war on Iraq. She told Bob Woodward on the eve of the war that she found the prospect of the invasion horrifying. Later she whispered to others of being repulsed by the killing of Iraqi children and American soldiers. Generally, Bush cleaves to Laura like a security blanket. Since 1988, he hasn’t spent more than two consecutive nights away from her. Still, he denied her on Iraq, just as he has done on abortion, which Laura demurely supports.
His father also couldn’t deter him. Poppy Bush opposed the invasion of Iraq, reportedly fretting that Junior was wrecking the global coalition that he’d built. The old man thought that the toppling of Saddam would destabilize the Middle East and the occupation would be a bloody quagmire that would end with many Americans dead and a fundamentalist regime in control of much of Iraq. He sent his warnings through emissaries, such as his old National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Scowcroft wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing the war. The text of the piece had been floated by Bush, Sr., who gave it the thumbs up. It went to press on August 15, 2002 under the title “Don’t Attack Saddam.” Plank by plank, Scowcroft ripped apart the Bush brief for war, as if it were a dilapidated barn. He said that the sanctions and UN inspections were working. Saddam was essentially contained and didn’t pose a threat to the US, Israel or other protectorates in the Middle East.
Scowcroft also blew up the notion that Saddam had cosseted Al Qaeda. “There is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the September 11 attacks. Indeed, Saddam’s goals have little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for him to make common cause with them…There is virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time. So long as that sentiment persists, it would require the US to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq, making military operations more difficult and more expensive.” The occupation and reconstitution of Iraq, Scowcroft warned with vivid prescience, could be bloody, protracted and might ultimately result in a fundamentalist regime more hostile to US interests than Iraq was under Saddam.
The article was warmly received by Colin Powell and Richard Armitage at the State Department, who wanted some breathing room from their rivals in the Pentagon. Armitage in particular seemed to be looking for a way to stick it to Cheney and Rumsfeld. He advised Powell to use the Scowcroft column to tell Rumsfeld to “Fuck off.” Typically, Powell, always reflexively subservient, declined to press the advantage opened by his former colleague.
Meanwhile Scowcroft’s broadside enraged Cheney and Rumsfeld. Being experienced hands at this game, they didn’t attack their old associate frontally. Instead, they sent Condoleezza Rice out to lambaste Scowcroft. She accused the apex insider of betraying the home team and demanded that he muzzle his objections to the war. Shamefully, Scowcroft backed down, sulking mutely in his holding pen at the Scowcroft Group, his international lobbying firm headquartered in DC, content to be Cassandra for a day.
The prickly George W. was peeved at his father for trying to pull the rug out from under his planned conquest of Baghdad. He sniped that he wasn’t about to recapitulate the mistakes of his father in regard to Saddam or the tax code. He privately ridiculed his father’s lack of bravado in failing to take out Saddam in 1991, which the president characterized as a lack of nerve typical of those inclined toward diplomacy. Then in an interview with Bob Woodward, Bush, Jr. twisted the knife one last, fatal time. Bush confessed that he never consulted his father on the Iraq war. “You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to for strength,” Bush said. “There is a higher father that I appeal to.” Notice the implication here: his own father was weak. W.’s war on Saddam was in many ways not to redeem his father or avenge him, but a way to outdo him. Bush goes from choir boy to frat boy in a nanosecond. On the eve of the war, he gloated to Italian prime minister Sylvio Berlusconi, “Just, watch us, we’re going to kick Saddam’s ass.”
As Seymour Hersh discloses in Chain of Command, the decision to invade Iraq, high on the agenda of the neo-cons in Cheney’s office and the Pentagon since the election, had been given the greenlight almost immediately after the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At 2.40 in the afternoon on September 11, Rumsfeld convened a meeting of his top staffers. According to notes taken by an aide, Rumsfeld declared that wanted to “hit” Iraq, even though he well knew that Iraq was not behind the attack. “Go massive,” ordered Rumsfeld. “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
For Rumsfeld and his gang, 9/11 was an opportunity more than a hardship. It augured a war without end, a war without rules, a war without fiscal constraints, a war where anything was permitted and few questions asked. Almost immediately the Secretary of Defense conjured up his own personal hit squad, Joint Task Force-121, which he endearingly refers to as his “manhunters.” Though we wouldn’t hear about it for months, this operation launched the kidnappings, wholesale round-ups, assassinations, and incidents of torture that are only now coming partially to light.
Of course, it can’t all be pinned on Rumsfeld and his band of bureaucratic thugs. It goes right to the top. On February 7, 2002, Bush signed an executive order exempting captured members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the protections of the Geneva Conventions. With that stroke of the pen, Bush affixed his imprimatur to the prosecution of his wars unbound by the constraints of international law. That secret imperial decree set into motion the downward spiral of sadism-as-government-policy which led directly to the torture chambers of Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib and obliterated the last molecule of moral authority from Bush’s global war. Of course, such concerns are mere trifles to these cruise missile crusaders.
* * *
From the beginning, the problem was concocting a rationale for the Iraq war, as the hunt for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan turned into a futile game of bomb and chase and anthrax letters and terror alerts kept the American public pinioned on tenterhooks. Rumsfeld ordered his number 3, the arch-neocon Douglas Feith, to establish the Office of Special Plans to develop the case for war against Iraq, a case built on raw information supplied mainly by Iraqi defectors under the control of Ahmed Chalabi. Another crucial source was Israeli intelligence, which was pushing hard for the ouster of Saddam. A similar war council was set up in Cheney’s office, under the control of his chief of staff Scooter Libby.
For its part, the CIA realized that its rivals in the Pentagon and the White House were attempting to wrest control of the brief for war. Cheney and Rumsfeld had long loathed Tenet for his timidity and distrusted many CIA analysts has being sympathetic to the Powell / Armitage axis of diplomacy at the State Department. Cheney in particular fumed that the CIA and the State Department were badmouthing his pal Chalabi and had conspired to freeze $92 million payments to the Iraqi National Congress. “Why are they denying Chalabi money, when he’s providing unique intelligence on Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction?” The spigot was soon turned back on.
And to stay in the game, the CIA began to play along. Over the course of the next year, the CIA briefings for Bush became more and more bellicose. But they contained all the empirical rigor of silly-putty. Agency analysts knew that Iraq’s military was in a decrepit condition; its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs were primitive at best; and its links to al-Qaeda non-existent. Yet, as James Bamford reported, CIA analysts were to instructed to bend their reports to bolster Bush’s martial ambitions. “If Bush wants to go to war, it’s your job to give him a reason to do so,” a top CIA manager told his staff. It wasn’t long before George Tenet himself was calling the case for war “a slam dunk.”
This wasn’t exactly a covert operation. In fact, Paul Wolfowitz let the cat out of the bag before the bombs started falling on Baghdad. “For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction because it was one reason everyone could agree on,” Wolfowitz gloated.
Why WMDs? For starters, they knew they could hook the Democrats into biting on that issue. After all, back in 1992 Al Gore himself had led the charge against Bush I for failing to topple Saddam in 1991, invoking the very same threat. “Saddam Hussein’s nature has been clear to us for some time,” Gore wrote in a New York Times essay. “He is seeking to acquire ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons; it is only a matter of time…Saddam is not an acceptable part of the landscape. His Baathist regime must be dismantled as well…We should have bent every policy-and we should do it now-to overthrow that regime and make sure that Saddam is removed from power.”
Wolfowitz understood the political lay of the land. The WMD threat paralyzed the Democrats into giving Bush carte blanche for war. Wolfowitz also knew he could count on the press playing along, fanning anxiety on the homefront about Saddam’s murderous intentions. Shortly after 9/11, Rumsfeld and his gang set up a special propaganda office in the Pentagon,which admitted that it intended to plant false stories in the foreign press. Evidently, they didn’t have to worry about a similar operation for the US press, which seemed eager to cultivate its own fantastical scenarios.
The brahmins at the New York Times gave reporter Jayson Blair a merciless public flogging for his harmless flights-of-fancy. The destruction of Blair was overtly racist, suggesting that the scandal illustrated the perils of a zealous pursuit of affirmative action. Contrast this with the Time’s agonizing comedown on its mound of stories on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction that daintily elided all mention of the name Judith Miller. Yet, Miller’s cynical and malign front-page fictions, cribbed from her intimate contacts with the crook Ahmed Chalabi and his frontman Richard Perle, functioned as official fatwas for Bush’s jihad against Saddam. Thousands perished due in part to Miller’s fantasies, but she writes on, immune to the carnage her lies sanitized.
The thinly sourced stories were patently bogus to the attuned eye, but that didn’t stop the flock of other war-maddened reporters, such as the equally gullible Jeffrey Goldberg at The New Yorker, from peddling their alarmist fantasies. Take Dan Rather, lately stung by airing apparently forged documents regarding Bush’s ghostly tenure in the Texas Air National Guard. These days the Rove machine targets Rather as the poster boy for liberal bias in the media . Yet not so long ago Rather, part owner along with Donald Rumsfeld of a sprawling high desert ranch in New Mexico, confessed that he was willing to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt when it came to war and measures like the Patriot Act.
“I want to fulfill my role as a decent human member of the community and a decent and patriot American,” Rather told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. “And, therefore, I am willing to give the government, the president and the military the benefit of any doubt here at the beginning. I will give them the benefit of the doubt, whenever possible, in this kind of crisis, emergency situation.”
Hold on, Mr. Rather. that’s not a slippery slope; it’s the sheer face of Half Dome.
So, with no resistance from the press or the so-called opposition party, Bush got his war.
Despite the fear mongering and threat inflation, Saddam’s slave army of conscripts didn’t fight back. Battered by a decade of sanctions and two week’s worth of saturation bombing (including illegal cluster bombs), they didn’t have the means, the will or the desire. Not until later, when the occupation, where the military essentially served as armed guards for what the neo-cons hoped would be the corporate plunder of Iraq, turned vile and bloody.
Anxious for a victory celebration, Bush, the cross-dressing in chief, put on his flight suit and was ferried onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, where, braying like Caligula on the shores of Britain, he pronounced the war over and hailed himself as victor. Up to that day, when Bush told the world that major combat operations had concluded, 141 American soldiers had been died in Iraq. Then the real killing begin.
Two or three a day. One day after another. Week after week. Month by month. Bring ’em on, he said, hiding out in his ranch. And so they did. A current blood swirled through the summer and autumn, Americans, Brits, and Italians. And Iraqis. By the thousands.
There wasn’t a good photo-op to be found. Normally, war presidents find time to console the wounded and grieve with the families of the slain. But Bush didn’t want any bloodstains on his flight suit, fearing political forensics teams would use the evidence against him in the 2004 election.
The longer the occupation went on, the worse it got. In July, Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay, the sadists of the Tigris, were killed in a villa in Mosul. Their corpses were displayed before the world press in a wind-buffeted tent like slabs of meat in a butcher shop. No one in Iraq cared about their fate. Until that barbarous moment. Then came the uprisings in Fallujah and Najaf, the rise of al-Sadr, and the exposure of the Sadean circus going on after dark at Abu Ghraib. By June of 2004, it was obvious to nearly everyone who was paying attention the US had lost Iraq.
Bush acted oblivious to the carnage. He sequestered himself from the press, refused to read the papers, got his news ladled to him in palatable bite-sized bits by Condi Rice. When he made the occasional public appearance, he delivered fidgety non-sequiturs, as divorced from reality as the vapid mutterings of Liza Minelli.
So what was it all about? It was about oil, of course. Oil and fealty to Israel. And blood vengeance. And politics. And multi-billion dollar no bid contracts for political cronies. And empire building. And even cowboy chutzpah. Most of all, it was about collusion. That’s how republics are undermined and replaced by empires. Go read Tacitus or Twain.
Bush’s path to war was cleared by the Democrats, who were passive at best and deeply complicit at worst. Take House Leader Dick Gephardt and Senator Joe Lieberman, who rushed to the White House to stand side-by-side with Bush in a Rose Garden war rally, where they pledged their support for the invasion of Iraq.
John Kerry, a man who gives gravitas a bad name, went along with the war and refused to retract his support even after it became obvious that the grounds for the invasion were bogus at best and fabricated. (Kerry has been wrongly diagnosed as a chronic flip-flopper. He’s simply a flipper. The senator and war criminal does a lot of gymnastical contortions of his position, but he keeps landing in the same place time after time.) So did his faithful sidekick John Edwards. And the rest of the Democratic leadership.
Look across the political taiga of the Democratic Party; it is a landscape denuded of any fresh sprigs of resistance. Even the august Russ Feingold’s regular objections seem like perfunctory exercises, mere footnotes for the record. Feingold is the bland moral accountant of the senate. Dry and austere. He is also ignored, by the press and the bosses of his own party, partly because he is so bland. But mostly because he is usually right.
But most don’t even express regrets. Take Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Nearly a year after the war was launched, after every pretext had dissolved away and the US military found itself mired in a bloody and hopeless occupation, Daschle pronounced himself satisfied with the progress of the war. On February 19, 2004, Daschle told the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce: “I give the effort overall real credit. It is a good thing Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. It is a good thing we are democratizing the country.” He also assured the business leaders of the Great Plains that he was not the least upset the over the bogus pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. As the summer of 2004 turned to autumn, Daschle, locked in a tight reelection race with Jim Thune, launched TV ads touting his support of the war, highlighted by a photograph of the senator being hugged by Bush. There you have it. Harmony in government. It boils down to a shared faith in the imperial project, a raw certitude in the righteousness of their collective crusade.
The cardinal rule of a grifter’s game is to control both sides of the action. Under those rules of engagement, the house (read: empire) always wins.