By FRANK RICH, NYT
RARELY has a television network presented a more perfectly matched double feature. President Bush’s 9/11 address on Monday night interrupted ABC’s “Path to 9/11” so seamlessly that a single network disclaimer served them both: “For dramatic and narrative purposes, the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue, as well as time compression.”
No kidding: “The Path to 9/11” was false from the opening scene, when it put Mohamed Atta both in the wrong airport (Boston instead of Portland, Me.) and on the wrong airline (American instead of USAirways). It took Mr. Bush but a few paragraphs to warm up to his first fictionalization for dramatic purposes: his renewed pledge that “we would not distinguish between the terrorists and those who harbor or support them.” Only days earlier the White House sat idly by while our ally Pakistan surrendered to Islamic militants in its northwest frontier, signing a “truce” and releasing Al Qaeda prisoners. Not only will Pakistan continue to harbor terrorists, Osama bin Laden probably among them, but it will do so without a peep from Mr. Bush.
You’d think that after having been caught concocting the scenario that took the nation to war in Iraq, the White House would mind the facts now. But this administration understands our culture all too well. This is a country where a cable news network (MSNBC) offers in-depth journalism about one of its anchors (Tucker Carlson) losing a prime-time dance contest and where conspiracy nuts have created a cottage industry of books and DVD’s by arguing that hijacked jets did not cause 9/11 and that the 9/11 commission was a cover-up. (The fictionalized “Path to 9/11,” supposedly based on the commission’s report, only advanced the nuts’ case.) If you’re a White House stuck in a quagmire in an election year, what’s the percentage in starting to tell the truth now? It’s better to game the system.
The untruths are flying so fast that untangling them can be a full-time job. Maybe that’s why I am beginning to find Dick Cheney almost refreshing. As we saw on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, these days he helpfully signals when he’s about to lie. One dead giveaway is the word context, as in “the context in which I made that statement last year.” The vice president invoked “context” to try to explain away both his bogus predictions: that Americans would be greeted as liberators in Iraq and that the insurgency (some 15 months ago) was in its “last throes.”
The other instant tip-off to a Cheney lie is any variation on the phrase “I haven’t read the story.” He told Tim Russert he hadn’t read The Washington Post’s front-page report that the bin Laden trail had gone “stone cold” or the new Senate Intelligence Committee report(PDF) contradicting the White House’s prewar hype about nonexistent links between Al Qaeda and Saddam. Nor had he read a Times front-page article about his declining clout. Or the finding by Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency just before the war that there was “no evidence of resumed nuclear activities” in Iraq. “I haven’t looked at it; I’d have to go back and look at it again,” he said, however nonsensically.
These verbal tics are so consistent that they amount to truth in packaging — albeit the packaging of evasions and falsehoods. By contrast, Condi Rice’s fictions, also offered in bulk to television viewers to memorialize 9/11, are as knotty as a David Lynch screenplay. Asked by Chris Wallace of Fox News last Sunday if she and the president had ignored prewar “intelligence that contradicted your case,” she refused to give up the ghost: “We know that Zarqawi was running a poisons network in Iraq,” she insisted, as she continued to state again that “there were ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda” before the war.
Ms. Rice may be a terrific amateur concert pianist, but she’s an even better amateur actress. The Senate Intelligence Committee report released only two days before she spoke dismissed all such ties. Saddam, who “issued a general order that Iraq should not deal with Al Qaeda,” saw both bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as threats and tried to hunt down Zarqawi when he passed through Baghdad in 2002. As for that Zarqawi “poisons network,” the Pentagon knew where it was and wanted to attack it in June 2002. But as Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News reported more than two years ago, the White House said no, fearing a successful strike against Zarqawi might “undercut its case for going to war against Saddam.” Zarqawi, meanwhile, escaped.
It was in an interview with Ted Koppel for the Discovery Channel, though, that Ms. Rice rose to a whole new level of fictionalizing by wrapping a fresh layer of untruth around her most notorious previous fiction. Asked about her dire prewar warning that a smoking gun might come in the form of a mushroom cloud, she said that “it wasn’t meant as hyperbole.” She also rewrote history to imply that she had been talking broadly about the nexus between “terrorism and a nuclear device” back then, not specifically Saddam — a rather deft verbal sleight-of-hand.
Ms. Rice sets a high bar, but Mr. Bush, competitive as always, was not to be outdone in his Oval Office address. Even the billing of his appearance was fiction. “It’s not going to be a political speech,” Tony Snow announced, knowing full well that the 17-minute text was largely Cuisinarted scraps from other recent political speeches, including those at campaign fund-raisers. Moldy canards of yore (Saddam “was a clear threat”) were interspersed with promising newcomers: Iraq will be “a strong ally in the war on terror.” As is often the case, the president was technically truthful. Iraq will be a strong ally in the war on terror — just not necessarily our ally. As Mr. Bush spoke, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was leaving for Iran to jolly up Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Perhaps the only way to strike back against this fresh deluge of fiction is to call the White House’s bluff. On Monday night, for instance, Mr. Bush flatly declared that “the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.” He once again invoked Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, asking, “Do we have the confidence to do in the Middle East what our fathers and grandfathers accomplished in Europe and Asia?”
Rather than tune this bluster out, as the country now does, let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s pretend everything Mr. Bush said is actually true and then hold him to his word. If the safety of America really depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad, then our safety is in grave peril because we are losing that battle. The security crackdown announced with great fanfare by Mr. Bush and Mr. Maliki in June is failing. Rosy American claims of dramatically falling murder rates are being challenged by the Baghdad morgue. Perhaps most tellingly, the Pentagon has nowstopped including in its own tally the large numbers of victims killed by car bombings and mortar attacks in sectarian warfare.
And that’s the good news. Another large slice of Iraq, Anbar Province (almost a third of the country), is slipping away so fast that a senior military official told NBC News last week that 50,000 to 60,000 additional ground forces were needed to secure it, despite our huge sacrifice in two savage battles for Falluja. The Iraqi troops “standing up” in Anbar are deserting at a rate as high as 40 percent.
“Even the most sanguine optimist cannot yet conclude we are winning,” John Lehman, the former Reagan Navy secretary, wrote of the Iraq war last month. So what do we do next? Given that the current course is a fiasco, and that the White House demonizes any plan or timetable for eventual withdrawal as “cut and run,” there’s only one immediate alternative: add more manpower, and fast. Last week two conservative war supporters, William Kristol and Rich Lowry, called for exactly that — “substantially more troops.” These pundits at least have the courage of Mr. Bush’s convictions. Shouldn’t Republicans in Congress as well?
After all, if what the president says is true about the stakes in Baghdad, it’s tantamount to treason if Bill Frist, Rick Santorum and John Boehner fail to rally their party’s Congressional majority to stave off defeat there. We can’t emulate our fathers and grandfathers and whip today’s Nazis and Communists with 145,000 troops. Roosevelt and Truman would have regarded those troop levels as defeatism.
The trouble, of course, is that we don’t have any more troops, and supporters of the war, starting with Mr. Bush, don’t want to ask American voters to make any sacrifices to provide them. They don’t want to ask because they know the voters will tell them no. In the end, that is the hard truth the White House is determined to obscure, at least until Election Day, by carpet-bombing America with still more fictions about Iraq.