What Is Your Government Not Telling You?

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The money we talk about in Washington, D.C., is not the government's money," said President Bush, celebrating the imminent passage of his latest tax cut, as he liberated an estimated $22 million from the party faithful at a fund raiser in the nation's capital last week. "The money we talk about in Washington, D.C., is the people's money." Bush used this formulation throughout the 2000 campaign, and I always found it a bit confusing. It sounded as if the Federal Government were a toxic fungus implanted upon the banks of the Potomac by communists, space aliens or Hollywood celebrities and not, in the words of history's greatest Republican, "of the people, by the people, for the people."

But then, on the eerie afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush's counselor Karen Hughes appeared at FBI headquarters — the President had just touched down at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska — and announced that "your Federal Government continues to function effectively." The pronoun was almost as astonishing as the sentiment, but the moment of common purpose seems to have passed. The war is over, sort of, an election looms, and the President has once again orphaned the government — it's not ours anymore, and certainly not his. Bush, who seemed so focused when it came to kicking out Saddam, has reverted to his casual disdain for the nonmilitary aspects of federal governance. He has passed another tax cut, filled with trickery and guaranteed to run up huge deficits. And he has lost his way in Iraq, allowing the less dramatic but far more challenging postwar period to become a dangerous mess.

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On the latter point, here are some of the things your Federal Government was doing last week. The military imposed an assault-weapons ban on anarchic Baghdad (even as Representative Tom DeLay of Texas recently let slip that Congress won't renew one at home). It was disclosed that the Central Intelligence Agency is trying to figure out, among other things, how we came to the questionable conclusion that Saddam Hussein possessed massive stocks of illegal weapons. The CIA will surely look into the activities of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, an intelligence nodule created by Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to provide a hawkish counterforce against the other spy services. The Pentagon's extreme threat assessment, which relied heavily on dubious reports from Iraqi defectors, carried the day in the White House.

There was some good news: the French and Russians finally allowed the U.N. to lift economic sanctions on Iraq. And some not-so-good news the same day: Wolfowitz visited the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was a study in subdued opacity when it came to the Iraq reconstruction plan. In fairness, he wasn't pressed very hard by the Senators, who apparently find precise questions, unlike imprecise speeches, an unnecessary act of self-abnegation. Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel was an exception. He asked, simply: Why was former General Jay Garner so quickly replaced by former diplomat L. Paul Bremer as the American proconsul in Iraq? Wolfowitz said Garner hadn't been replaced. He had been subsumed: the Pentagon had planned all along to put someone like Bremer in charge. But this was nonsense; several military experts told me that Garner was replaced because he had been paralyzed by the political and diplomatic complexities of the job; Bremer was said to be more decisive.

Wolfowitz added that complaints about the postwar mess reminded him of the fleeting wartime controversy over troop levels and strategy. He may be right. The situation in Iraq could improve. But there is a larger problem that Wolfowitz refused to acknowledge: we are involved in a long-term occupation of a country that detests non-Muslim occupiers. He hinted at this once, when he was reminded that he had disputed, as "wildly off the mark," Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's prewar prediction that "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed to pacify Iraq. Wolfowitz said he took "several" to mean 300,000 or more — the current coalition troop level is approaching 200,000--but, more to the point, he said he had made the comment because "our enemies in the Arab world" were suggesting that a massive and lengthy American occupation of Iraq was imminent.

At the time, the Bush Administration was insisting that Iraq would quickly be turned over to the Iraqis. That is no longer the plan: Wolfowitz acknowledged that it will be years before a fully functioning national government is elected. "When is the President going to tell the American people that we're likely to be in the country of Iraq for three...six, eight, 10 years with thousands of forces and billions of dollars?" Joe Biden of Delaware asked. "They have not been told. They were not told before we went in. And you knew we were going to have to stay there, and he knew."

Wolfowitz replied, mildly, that it's difficult to predict such things. True enough, but I also sense a certain presidential reluctance to tell us what our Federal Government is facing in Iraq — or to admit that his Federal Government may have hyped what this was all about in the first place.