Published on Friday, May 24, 2002 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Bush: Dumb by Choice
by Rick Salutin
I'd say a classic misdirection is involved in the furor over what the Bush government knew prior to Sept. 11. This puts the focus on what it did (or failed to do) before then, rather than what it has done since. Oddly, I'd say this lets it off the hook.
The furor has been over what Mr. Bush et al. knew, and if they did enough to respond. At the near end of the critique are those who say the government should have done more in view of the information it had, and therefore was derelict. At the far end is the paranoid interpretation that the government knew all but chose to let the attacks proceed so as to advance its nefarious, secret agenda.
For the defense, Bush security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the warnings weren't "precise" enough to, as people said all week, connect the dots.
Well, isn't that why it's called intelligence? If Osama bin Laden sent a detailed plan, you wouldn't really need intelligence to deal with it, would you? In a similar vein, The New York Times learned from a "Bush associate" that the President said "no one knew" Mr. bin Laden would make "the leap" from traditional hijacks to suicide attacks on buildings.
Let me pause a moment at the notion of George W. Bush actually thinking. I have seen no evidence of it. I'm not saying he doesn't, but how would you know if he had the ability? Well, he might answer a question with an argument, rather than a homily or a bromide.
But has anyone seen him work through a thought or have an idea? Since Sept. 11, he has presented prepackaged phrases, and worked on his walk (decisive, quasi-military). Just asking. It may well make no difference, given the kind of engineered politics we have.
But the main reply to the criticism came from Vice-President Dick Cheney who said, "The President and I believe that one of our most important responsibilities is to do all that we can to ensure that an attack like 9/11 never happens again" -- but added quickly that the "prospects of another attack on the U.S. are almost a certainty . . . another attack is a matter not of if but when."
He was followed by many others with the same dire theme, plus a series of alerts and warnings that reinforced this hopeless and hysterical message.
Now, my question isn't whether this is right or wrong, but whether it's responsive at all to the criticisms. Is it supposed to suggest nothing could have been done anyway, so don't blame us for not trying? Hardly. Is it meant to deflect attention from the bombings back then to ones yet to come?
That's why I want to argue the real purpose of the scary response was not to answer the critics at all, but to seize an opportunity to press one of the Bush government's main goals: getting Americans to accept the inevitability of future attacks, since its government has already chosen to pay that price, rather than pursue alternatives that might have prevented them.
Remember Dick Cheney saying: ". . . do all that we can to ensure that . . . 9/11 never happens again." Well, I'm saying he was lying. They have chosen not to do all they can. This may sound like my paranoid moment. But listen to the argument.
U.S. policies since Sept. 11 have been ineffective or counterproductive at preventing future terror. The bombing of Afghanistan did not destroy al-Qaeda the way an emphasis on black ops, bribery, assassination etc., might have; but it added fuel to anti-Americanism, as did the U.S. role in Pakistan. Washington chose not to impose a settlement in the Mideast, but instead to back an Israeli escalation, thus inflaming the single greatest grievance in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
The decision to attack Iraq, while leaving Israel with a free hand, had a similarly aggravating effect. It's one thing to say terror is ultimately unstoppable, it's another to give it a boost. Now think back to the many vague (and some specific) alerts since Sept. 11 and consider that they might have been bracing the public for those inevitable attacks. I believe government officials know the probable results of their policies and accept them for the sake of achieving other benefits and avoiding certain costs, in their terms.
Such thinking is not unusual in the world of realpolitik. Israeli writer Yitzhak Laor says, "I know that they -- that is, our generals -- accept terrorist attacks as a 'reasonable price to pay' to reach a solution," that is, a solution in and on their terms. Dick Cheney announced precisely the price he is willing to pay in his confident predictions about coming terror.
I expect there are memos outlining this or similar thinking in the State Department, White House and other policy haunts, just as there were more than 50 years ago, explaining in frank terms the real thinking behind Cold War policies. Then they were classified and only recently released. I hope to be around in half a century to read the next batch.
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