Thursday, 29th January, 2004

Maureen Dowd: Dump Cheney Now!

New York Times, January 29, 2004

WASHINGTON — The awful part is that George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein were both staring into the same cracked spook- house mirror.

Thanks to David Kay, we now have an amazing image of the president and the dictator, both divorced from reality over weapons, glaring at each other from opposite sides of bizarro, paranoid universes where fiction trumped fact.

It would be like a wacky Peter Sellers satire if so many Iraqis and Americans hadn't died in Iraq.

These two would-be world-class tough guys were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to show that they couldn't be pushed around. Their trusted underlings misled them with fanciful information on advanced Iraqi weapons programs that they credulously believed because it fit what they wanted to hear.

Saddam was swept away writing his romance novels, while President Bush was swept away with the romance of rewriting the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war to finish off the thug who tried to kill his dad.

The two men both had copies of "Crime and Punishment" — Condi Rice gave Mr. Bush the novel on his trip to Russia in 2002, and Saddam had Dostoyevsky down in the spider hole — but neither absorbed its lesson: that you can't put yourself above rules just because you think you're superior.

When Dr. Kay spoke these words on W.M.D. — "It turns out we were all wrong, probably, in my judgment, and that is most disturbing" — both America and Iraq learned that when you try too hard to control the picture of reality, you risk losing your grasp of it.

In interviews, Dr. Kay defended the war with Iraq, saying that the U.S. "has often entered the right war for the wrong reason," and he defended Mr. Bush, saying, "if anyone was abused by the intelligence, it was the president." He also told Congress "there's no evidence that I can think of, that I know of" that Saddam collaborated with Al Qaeda.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, the ex-C.I.A. weapons sleuth used a metaphor that was perhaps inspired by Martha Stewart, comparing the C.I.A. with a lousy stockbroker.

"If I were your broker," he told Senator Jack Reed, "and you were investing on my advice . . . and at the end of the day, I said Enron was the greatest company in the world, and you had lost a substantial amount of money on it because it turned out differently, you would think I had abused you."

Certainly the C.I.A. has a lot to answer for. For a bargain price of $30 billion a year, our intelligence aces have been spectacularly off. They failed to warn us about 9/11 and missed the shame spiral of a deranged Saddam, hoodwinked by his top scientists.

They were probably relying too much on the Arabian Nights tales of Ahmad Chalabi, eager to spread the word of Saddam's imaginary nuclear-tipped weapons juggernaut because it suited his own ambitions — and that of his Pentagon pals.

But while he is skittering away from his claims about Iraqi weapons, President Bush is not racing toward accountability. It's an election year.

The Times's David Sanger wrote about an administration debate "over whether Mr. Bush should soon call for some kind of reform of the intelligence-gathering process. But the officials said Mr. Bush's aides were searching for a formula that would allow them to acknowledge intelligence-gathering problems without blaming" the C.I.A. or its chief.

The president wants to act as though he has a problem but not a scandal, which he can fix without rolling heads — of those who made honest mistakes or dishonest ones by rigging the intelligence.

Dick Cheney, who declared that Saddam had nuclear capability and who visited C.I.A. headquarters in the summer of 2002 to make sure the raw intelligence was properly interpreted, is sticking to his deluded guns. (And still trash-talking those lame trailers.)

The vice president pushed to slough off the allies and the U.N. and go to war partly because he thought that slapping a weakened bully like Saddam would scare other dictators. He must have reckoned there would be no day of reckoning on weapons once Saddam was gone.

So it had to be some new definition of chutzpah on Tuesday, when Mr. Cheney, exuding more infallibility than the pope, presented him with a crystal dove.

- Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd: Dump Cheney Now!
logged by alf at 14:54, Thursday, 29th January, 2004

Wednesday, 28th January, 2004

Last of the believers

Jonathan Freedland
Wednesday January 28, 2004

It's getting embarrassing. Anybody who's anybody now admits that there are no, and were no, weapons of mass destruction worth the name in Iraq. The roll-call of converts to what used to be the exclusive position of the anti-war camp gets more impressive by the day.

David Kay, President Bush's handpicked arms inspector and the former chief weapons monitor of the CIA - hardly a limp-wristed European peacenik - quit his post at the head of the Iraq Survey Group last week, concluding that there are no Iraqi WMD to be found: "I don't think they existed," he said bluntly. Forty eight hours later, Colin Powell, the US secretary of state who a year ago was holding the UN security council rapt with his slide show on Saddam's weapons' concealment, complete with scary satellite shots of secret arms factories, admitted that such weapons may never be found. Even the president himself seems to have got the message. In his state of the union address last week, Bush knew better than to bang the tired drum of 2003. In a phrase so qualified as to be comic, he spoke only of "weapons of mass destruction-related programme activities".

This is one verdict we do not need to hear from Lord Hutton at lunchtime today. Everyone gets it already - there were no weapons of mass destruction; everyone, that is, but the British government.

Like the Japanese soldier of cliche, still shooting from his cave because no one has told him the war is over, Tony Blair and faithful lieutenant Jack Straw are sticking to the cause long after their commanders have surrendered. Their tenacity in the face of all the evidence is almost touching. Blair still says he has "absolutely no doubt". Straw wobbles a bit on the radio, admitting it's "disappointing" that no weapons have yet been found, but he keeps the faith. Washington may have abandoned the pre-war script, but their loyal retainers in London are staying true. They are like a pair of old Communist cadres defending some appalling Stalinist action, unaware that the party line from Moscow haschanged.

It might be a technique. Journalist Peter Stothard, who followed Blair during 30 crucial days in the lead-up to the war, told the excellent Channel 4 documentary, What Hutton Won't Tell You, that Blair deliberately poses as decisive, even when he is uncertain - just to ensure he carries the day. It worked for him then, his eye-blazing conviction of the danger posed by Saddam; it persuaded many Labour waverers that the PM must have known something they didn't. But right now the pose looks silly.

So why does Blair not just come clean and admit he got it wrong? One factor could be the Hutton inquiry itself. Downing Street might have calculated that such an admission would have weakened its position, or at least confused things, during the long wait for today. Better to see what his lordship decides, and then concede what has to be conceded. Hutton apart, a recognition that the WMD do not exist would force a painful choice. Blair would have to admit either that he knew they were not there - and that he exaggerated or lied when he said they were - or that he made an honest mistake.

The first confession is politically unthinkable: as Blair told Lord Hutton from the witness box, a prime minister proven to have deceived the country into war would have to resign. But the second option is not much easier.

For one thing, Tony Blair would have to confess that he has poorer judgment of military and international affairs than the majority of the British public, who told pollsters for months that they did not consider Saddam an immediate threat. He would have to concede that every one of those demonstrators who filled central London last February had a better grasp of Iraqi's military weight than he did. If it stuck in his craw to accept that he had been wrong to predict that Ken Livingstone would be a "disaster" for London, imagine how he would face the entire anti-war movement and say, out loud: "When it came to weapons of mass destruction, you were right and I was wrong."

And there are greater difficulties than mere pride. For the honest mistake argument rests on the premise that the PM did not mislead the public into war, but was himself misled. The culprit is obvious. As the former defence minister Lewis Moonie puts it: "Sooner or later we may well have to say, 'Yep, the intelligence was faulty.'" In other words, Blair may have to argue that he made the best call he could, based on the intelligence placed before him. If that material was flawed, that is not his fault but the fault of the intelligence services.

Downing Street would have some allies for this approach. In Washington, congressional Republicans are moving fast to brand Iraq a systemic intelligence failure and to dump the blame on the CIA. (Even David Kay has said that since the entire intelligence community reckoned Saddam had weapons, a review is needed of the way such work is done.)

But there is a large flaw in the blame-the-spooks argument. For no one believes that the security services were quietly making their own inquiries into the situation in Iraq and then simply presented their best guess as to what was really going on. On the contrary, we now know that on both sides of the Atlantic the intelligence agencies were under two kinds of pressure. First, they were urged to find information that would cast the worst possible light on Baghdad and its intentions. Witness the joint intelligence committee's "last call" to all agencies to come up with some thing juicy to enliven the September 2002 dossier. Witness too the office of special plans set up in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon. Former official Karen Kwiatowski told Channel 4 that that body was specifically tasked with "cherry-picking" from the raw intelligence data to find items that might harden the case for a pre-emptive war.

Second, the intelligence services were pressured to present their findings - themselves the result of pressure - in the strongest form possible. That much we know from Alastair Campbell's now-infamous memo to JIC chairman John Scarlett, "suggesting" no fewer than nine changes to the wording of the dossier, each one proposing a toughening of language.

Neither of these actions - sending the spooks in a specific direction, or beefing up the presentation of their research - are crimes. But they do undermine the claim that the government was simply making a cool, disinterested judgment based on the evidence laid before it.

Tony Blair needs us to believe that he was confronted with evidence of a threat from Iraq and made a decision, in good faith, to tackle it. But most signs in both the US and Britain point in the opposite direction: that first came a decision to take action and next came pressure on the spooks to hunt down the evidence - even single-sourced, hearsay evidence - that might justify it.

It is unlikely that Lord Hutton will draw this conclusion today: it is probably beyond his remit. But long after the detail of memos and dossiers and emails are forgotten, a plain fact will stand out for future historians to see with perfect clarity. In 2002-03, governments in London and Washington stretched every sinew to persuade their publics that war was necessary because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But Iraq did not and so the war was fought on a false basis. For that, surely, there must be a reckoning.

The Guardian

Last of the believers
logged by alf at 15:17, Wednesday, 28th January, 2004

Tuesday, 13th January, 2004

America's Red Ink

NYT January 12, 2004

The International Monetary Fund has long been accused of failing to sound the alarm before countries with reckless fiscal policies implode. So it was nice to see staff members of the fund's Western Hemisphere department hold a press conference last week to publicize one nation's worrisome trends, which threaten foreign investors and the global economy.

Who was in for the scolding? Haiti? Argentina? Mexico? Not exactly. It's the United States the fund is worried about. An economic slowdown and President Bush's huge tax cuts conspired to swing America's federal budget from a surplus of 2.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2000 to a deficit of some 4 percent in 2003. Add the states' own budget shortfalls and the country's trade deficit, the I.M.F. report notes, and the United States faces an "unprecedented level of external debt for a large industrial country."

Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, and Donald Kohn, a Federal Reserve governor, have also railed against the deficit in recent days. But there is something humbling about hearing it from an international organization charged with monitoring economies on the brink.

In most countries, the I.M.F. is often viewed as America's agent, preaching the inconvenient gospel of fiscal discipline and austerity. There is a certain poignancy now in having the I.M.F. preach the so-called "Washington consensus" to Washington.

The I.M.F. forcefully argues that the United States will need to adjust taxes and spending to bring its finances under control; the recovery alone won't do it. The fund's report warns that America's profligacy and its voracious appetite for credit will drive up interest rates around the world, threatening the global economic recovery and American productivity growth.

Foreign investors are already selling the dollar in reaction to Washington's fiscal recklessness, but the fund warns that this selling could accelerate and create a currency crisis. It also notes that present trends pose dangers for the future of Medicare and Social Security.

Most damning of all, the report attacks the "complicated and nontransparent manner" in which the administration's $1.7 trillion in tax cuts were enacted, designed as they were to mask their true budgetary impact. The I.M.F.'s frustration is understandable. The United States has provided other nations with a terrible model of obfuscatory governance. Congress and the Bush administration enacted "phased in" tax cuts that were supposed to be retired in a decade, accelerated their phasing in and then, after they were priced under the assumption that they would fade away, pledged to make them permanent.

No wonder the rest of the world is appalled.

America's Red Ink
logged by alf at 11:07, Tuesday, 13th January, 2004