By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Mr. President, it won't work this time.
With a Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll finding 57 percent of Americans agreeing that George W. Bush "deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq," the president clearly needs to tend to his credibility problems. But his partisan attacks on the administration's critics, in a Veterans Day speech last week and in Alaska yesterday, will only add to his troubles.
Bush was not subtle. He said that anyone accusing his administration of having "manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people" was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. "These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will," Bush declared last week. "As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them."
You wonder: Did Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel in the Valerie Plame leak investigation, send the wrong signal to our troops and our enemy by daring to seek the indictment of Scooter Libby on a charge of perjury and obstruction of justice? Must Americans who support our troops desist from any criticism of the use of intelligence by the administration?
There is a great missing element in the argument over whether the administration manipulated the facts. Neither side wants to talk about the context in which Bush won a blank check from Congress to invade Iraq. He doesn't want us to remember that he injected the war debate into the 2002 midterm election campaign for partisan purposes, and he doesn't want to acknowledge that he used the post-Sept. 11 mood to do all he could to intimidate Democrats from raising questions more of them should have raised.
The big difference between our current president and his father is that the first President Bush put off the debate over the Persian Gulf War until after the 1990 midterm elections. The result was one of most substantive and honest foreign policy debates Congress has ever seen, and a unified nation. The first President Bush was scrupulous about keeping petty partisanship out of the discussion.
The current President Bush did the opposite. He pressured Congress for a vote before the 2002 election, and the war resolution passed in October.
Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat who is no dove, warned of rushing "pell-mell" into an endorsement of broad war powers for the president. The Los Angeles Times reported that Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, protested in September: "We're being asked to go to war, and vote on it in a matter of days. We need an intelligence estimate before we can seriously vote." And Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, put it plainly: "This will be one of the most important decisions Congress makes in a number of years; I do not believe it should be made in the frenzy of an election year." But it was.
Grand talk about liberating Iraq gave way to cheap partisan attacks. In New Mexico, Republican Steve Pearce ran an advertisement against Democrat John Arthur Smith declaring: "While Smith 'reflects' on the situation, the possibility of a mushroom cloud hovering over a U.S. city still remains." Note that Smith wasn't being attacked for opposing the war, only for reflecting on it. God forbid that any Democrat dare even think before going to war.
Marc Racicot, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, said about the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's opposition to the war resolution: "He has set about to diminish the capacity of this nation to defend itself. That is a legitimate issue." Wellstone, who died in a plane crash a few days before the election, was not intimidated. But other Democrats were.
The bad faith of Bush's current argument is staggering. He wants to say that the "more than a hundred Democrats in the House and Senate" who "voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power" thereby gave up their right to question his use of intelligence forever after. But he does not want to acknowledge that he forced the war vote to take place under circumstances that guaranteed the minimum amount of reflection and debate, and that opened anyone who dared question his policies to charges, right before an election, that they were soft on Hussein.
By linking the war on terrorism to a partisan war against Democrats, Bush undercut his capacity to lead the nation in this fight. And by resorting to partisan attacks again last week, Bush only reminded us of the shameful circumstances in which the whole thing started.