Bush of a Thousand Days
By FRANK RICH
LIKE the hand that suddenly pops out of the grave at the end of "Carrie," the past keeps coming back to haunt the Bush White House. Last week was no exception. No sooner did the Great Decider introduce the Fox News showman anointed to repackage the same old bad decisions than the spotlight shifted back to Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury room, where Karl Rove testified for a fifth time. Nightfall brought the release of an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll with its record-low numbers for a lame-duck president with a thousand days to go and no way out.
The demons that keep rising up from the past to grab Mr. Bush are the fictional W.M.D. he wielded to take us into Iraq. They stalk him as relentlessly as Banquo's ghost did Macbeth. From that original sin, all else flows. Mr. Rove wouldn't be in jeopardy if the White House hadn't hatched a clumsy plot to cover up its fictions. Mr. Bush's poll numbers wouldn't be in the toilet if American blood was not being spilled daily because of his fictions. By recruiting a practiced Fox News performer to better spin this history, the White House reveals that it has learned nothing. Made-for-TV propaganda propelled the Bush presidency into its quagmire in the first place. At this late date only the truth, the whole and nothing but, can set it free.
All too fittingly, Tony Snow's appointment was announced just before May Day, a red-letter day twice over in the history of the Iraq war. It was on May 1 three years ago that Mr. Bush did his victory jig on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. It was May 1 last year that The Sunday Times of London published the so-called Downing Street memo. These events bracket all that has gone wrong and will keep going wrong for this president until he comes clean.
To mark the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion last month, the White House hyped something called Operation Swarmer, "the largest air assault" since the start of the war, complete with Pentagon-produced video suitable for the evening news. (What the operation actually accomplished as either warfare or P.R. remains a mystery.) It will take nothing less than a replay of D-Day with the original cast to put a happy gloss on tomorrow's anniversary. Looking back at "Mission Accomplished" now is like playing that childhood game of "What's wrong with this picture?" It wasn't just the banner or the "Top Gun" joyride or the declaration of the end of "major combat operations" that was bogus. Everything was fake except the troops.
"We're helping to rebuild Iraq, where the dictator built palaces for himself, instead of hospitals and schools," Mr. Bush said on that glorious day. Three years later we know, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers, that our corrupt, Enron-like Iraq reconstruction effort has yielded at most 20 of those 142 promised hospitals. But we did build a palace for ourselves. The only building project on time and on budget, USA Today reported, is a $592 million embassy complex in the Green Zone on acreage the size of 80 football fields. Symbolically enough, it will have its own water-treatment plant and power generator to provide the basic services that we still have not restored to pre-invasion levels for the poor unwashed Iraqis beyond the American bunker.
These days Mr. Bush seems to be hoping that we'll just forget every falsehood in his "Mission Accomplished" oration. Trying to deflect a citizen's hostile question about prewar intelligence claims, the president asserted at a public forum last month that he had never said "there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein." But on May 1, 2003, as on countless other occasions, he repeatedly made that direct connection. "With those attacks the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States," he intoned then. "And war is what they got." It was typical of the bait-and-switch rhetoric he used to substitute a war of choice against an enemy who did not attack us on 9/11 for the war against the non-Iraqi terrorists who did.
At the time, "Mission Accomplished" was cheered by the Beltway establishment. "This fellow's won a war," the dean of the capital's press corps, David Broder, announced on "Meet the Press" after complimenting the president on the "great sense of authority and command" he exhibited in a flight suit. By contrast, the Washington grandees mostly ignored the Downing Street memo when it was first published in Britain, much as they initially underestimated the import of the Valerie Wilson leak investigation.
The Downing Street memo — minutes of a Tony Blair meeting with senior advisers in July 2002, nearly eight months before the war began — has proved as accurate as "Mission Accomplished" was fantasy. Each week brings new confirmation that the White House, as the head of British intelligence put it, was determined to fix "the intelligence and facts" around its predetermined policy of going to war in Iraq. Today Mr. Bush tries to pass the buck on the missing W.M.D. to "faulty intelligence," but his alibi is springing leaks faster than the White House and the C.I.A. can clamp down on them. We now know the president knew that the intelligence he cherry-picked was faulty — and flogged it anyway to sell us the war.
The latest evidence that Mr. Bush knew that "uranium from Africa" was no slam-dunk when he brandished it in his 2003 State of the Union address was uncovered by The Washington Post: the coordinating council for the 15 American intelligence agencies had already informed the White House that the Niger story had no factual basis and should be dropped. Last Sunday "60 Minutes" augmented this storyline and an earlier scoop by Lisa Myers of NBC News by reporting that the White House had deliberately ignored its most highly placed prewar informant, Saddam's final foreign minister, Naji Sabri, once he sent the word that Saddam's nuclear cupboard was bare.
"There was almost a concern we'd find something that would slow up the war," Tyler Drumheller, a 26-year C.I.A. veteran and an on-camera source for "60 Minutes," said when I interviewed him last week. Since retiring from the C.I.A. in fall 2004, Mr. Drumheller has played an important role in revealing White House chicanery, including its dire hawking of Saddam's mobile biological weapons labs, which turned out to be fictitious. Before Colin Powell's fateful U.N. presentation, Mr. Drumheller conveyed vociferous warnings that the sole human source on these nonexistent W.M.D. labs, an Iraqi émigré known as Curveball, was mentally unstable and a fabricator. "The real tragedy of this," Mr. Drumheller says, "is if they had let the weapons inspectors play out, we could have had a Gulf War I-like coalition, which would have given us the [300,000] to 400,000 troops needed to secure the country after defeating the Iraqi Army."
Mr. Drumheller says that until the White House "comes to grips with why it did this" and stops "propping up the original rationale" for the war, it "will never get out of Iraq." He is right. But the White House clings to its discredited fictions even though their expiration date is fast arriving. There are new Drumhellers seeking out reporters each day. The Fitzgerald investigation continues to yield revelations of administration W.M.D. subterfuge, president-authorized leaks included. Should the Democrats retake either house of Congress in November, their subpoena power will liberate the investigation of the manipulation of prewar intelligence that the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, has stalled for almost two years.
SET against this reality, the debate about Donald Rumsfeld's future is as much of a sideshow as the installation of a slicker Fleischer-McClellan marketer in the White House press room. The defense secretary's catastrophic mistakes in Iraq cannot be undone now, and any successor would still be beholden to the policy set from above. Mr. Rumsfeld is merely a useful, even essential, scapegoat for the hawks in politics and punditland who are now embarrassed to have signed on to this fiasco. For conservative hawks, he's a convenient way to deflect blame from where it most belongs: with the commander in chief. For liberal hawks, attacking Mr. Rumsfeld for his poor execution of the war means never having to say you're sorry for leaping on (and abetting) the blatant propaganda bandwagon that took us there. But their history can't be rewritten any more than Mr. Bush's can: the war's failures were manifestly foretold by the administration's arrogance and haste during the run-up.
A new defense or press secretary changes nothing. The only person who can try to save the administration from itself in Iraq is the president. He can start telling the truth in the narrow window of time he has left and initiate a candid national conversation about our inevitable exit strategy. Or he can wait for events on the ground in Iraq and political realities at home to do it for him.