WASHINGTON - Criticism of President Bush's
motives and decision-making in attacking Iraq last year may be
acquiring critical mass with voters following criticism by
former top counterterrorism official Richard Clarke.
Political consultants and analysts said Clarke's allegation
that Bush ignored the al Qaeda threat before the Sept. 11
attacks and was obsessed by a desire to invade Iraq were
especially damaging because they confirmed other previous
revelations from policy insiders.
"Each of these revelations adds to the others so that the
whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the message gets
reinforced with voters," said Richard Rosecrance, a political
scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Before Clarke, there was former Treasury Secretary Paul
O'Neill, who asserted in a book published in January that Bush
began laying the groundwork for an attack on Iraq from the
moment he took office.
Then came the bombshell from former weapons inspector David
Kay that the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that Bush
launched the war to find and destroy probably did not exist.
Kay on Tuesday warned that U.S. credibility at home and
abroad was in grave danger and urged the Bush administration to
own up to its intelligence failures.
"We are in grave danger of having destroyed our credibility
internationally and domestically with regard to warning about
future events," he said. "The answer is to admit you were
wrong, and what I find most disturbing around Washington ... is
the belief ... you can never admit you're wrong."
Earlier this month, former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix
added to the fire by accusing Bush and British Prime Minister
Tony Blair of "exaggerating the risks they saw in order to get
the political support (for the war) they would not otherwise
The response from the White House, especially to Clarke,
has been fierce and sometimes personal. It rejects any
suggestion that Bush, running for re-election this year as a
"war president," failed to take the al Qaeda threat seriously.
"The administration can huff and puff but if there are
enough bricks in the structure, they can't blow the house down
any more," said American University historian Allan Lichtman.
"Right now, you have quite a number of bricks. It's not
just scaffolding any more," he said.
Clarke's bombshell came at an awkward time for Bush. His
presidential re-election campaign was just picking up momentum
after being on the defensive for most of this year. His attacks
on his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry,
seemed to be finding the mark.
Now, he is back on the defensive again.
"Bush has chosen national security and his response to the
terrorist attack as a cornerstone of his campaign and now comes
this guy Clarke, their guy, who says that the administration
was intentionally or unintentionally not paying enough
attention to the terrorist threat," said Rick Davis, a
Republican political consultant.
With the economy struggling, Bush's strongest asset is his
claim to be a strong leader best equipped to protect the
country in a "war on terrorism."
"If people start to doubt that claim and if the message
from Clarke and O'Neill and others begins to stick, it would
seriously weaken Bush on his strongest point," said Fordham
University political scientist Tom DeLuca.
The administration response has usually been to try to
destroy the reputations of its critics. It suggested O'Neill
had illegally used classified documents and said he was
motivated by sour grapes after having been forced to resign
from the Cabinet. A Treasury probe has cleared him of misusing
Similarly, White House aides said Clarke was bitter about
having been denied a promotion and "out of the loop" in the
administration. They also said he was a closet Democrat working
as a proxy for Bush's presidential opponent, John Kerry.
"This administration has shown a tremendous ability to
demonize its opponents. But at some point, people start to ask
themselves, could all these people be pathological liars? At
some point, they can't all be liars," said Democratic
consultant Michael Goldman.
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