Okay, it's another lemon, the second you've bought from the same used-car lot -- and for $1,000 more than the first. The transmission is a mess; the muffler's clunking; smoke's seeping out of the dashboard; and you've only had it a week. You took it, grudgingly, as a replacement for that beat-up old Camry that only lasted two months, but the salesman assured you it was a winner. No wonder you're driving onto the lot right now. Before you can even complain, the same salesman's there. He's firm. It's not his fault. You must have done something. Nonetheless, he's ready to offer you a great deal. For an extra 2,000 bucks, you can have the rusted-out Honda Prelude right behind him, the one that, as a matter of fact, has just burst into flames -- and, he assures you, it's a dandy. It may not look so great today, what with the smoking hood and all, but it's a vehicle for the ages.
Would you buy a used car from this man? (Hint: He looks remarkably like George Bush.)
Or try it this way:
When you first fell ill -- nausea and gnawing stomach pain -- you went to that new doctor in town. He diagnosed you with stomach flu, prescribed an acid blocker and vicodin, and told you not to worry a bit. After that, you started vomiting up brown gunk. So you dragged yourself back to the doctor, who added an anti-nausea drug and a cathartic to your regimen. Two days later, you blacked out. You wake up to find yourself in a hospital bed, blood transfusing into your arm. The same doctor is at your bedside, insisting that you be anesthetized and immediately operated on for a bleeding ulcer. He also has a form he says you must sign that relieves him of all responsibility for perforating your stomach or anything else that may occur in the course of the procedure.
Would you take the advice of this man? (Hint: He looks remarkably like Dick Cheney.)
In fact, no set of images from elsewhere in life can do real justice to the Bush administration and the Washington it exists in. In our normal lives, no one could get it so wrong so often and still be given the slightest credence.
And everything in the world of opinion polls points to Americans having reached exactly this conclusion about the President and his team. Call it the American consensus. Recent polls indicate that most of the public has simply stopped listening to George W. Bush and other administration figures who have proven incapable of predicting which policy foot will fall where in the next 60 seconds, no less what might happen, based on their acts, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, or anywhere else.
The polling figures also indicate that there are essentially no Democrats left to be moved from the presidential approval to the disapproval columns; that hardly an "independent" remains on the approval horizon; and that what's always referred to as the President's Republican "base" is delaminating by the week. The latest Harris poll, for instance, has the President's approval ratings at 26% and so in a tie with Richard Nixon's Watergate-worst Harris low; and the Vice President has hit his own new low at 21%; while, in the cumulative average of polls at Pollster.com, Bush's approval rating has dropped under 28%. In the last six weeks, if you check out the long-term arc of such ratings, it looks as if George has taken a nosedive off a disapproval cliff.
The latest Gallup poll has, for the first time, breeched 30% on the twisting, downward road away from presidential approval and has also registered a record high in opposition to Bush's Iraq policy. In addition, only 24% of Gallup's respondents claim to be "satisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time" (27% in the latest Newsweek poll, and a mere 19% in the last NBC/Wall Street Journal poll). Other polls show similar results.
In fact, the American people have so stopped listening to this most chaotic and tin-eared of administrations -- once proudly billed by the media (and itself) as the "most disciplined" in our history -- that, according to a recent ARG poll, a stunning 54% of Americans now favor the launching of impeachment hearings against Vice President Cheney (only 40% oppose) and 45% favor it against the President (46% oppose). For an idea that was, nine months ago, on the frontiers of political discussion and the far edge of unmentionability, this is nothing short of remarkable. Now, outside of Washington, it's evidently starting to look as American as apple pie for a public that has had it and may not care to wait for election 2008.
On the other hand, Washington, or that part of it made up of pols, inside-the-Beltway journalists, think-tank pundits, and assorted lobbyists, is quite a different story. The Washington consensus is now way behind the American one. In the rest of the country, the verdict is in on the President and his administration. He's so long gone and Iraq should be so over that there's a massive rush for the exits. In Washington, capital of the universe, where the imperial presidency and what passes for American "interests" abroad still hold sway, this administration, however tattered, continues to stagger along the heights of power. Remarkably enough, the President and his top officials, civilian and military, still manage to frame the Iraq "debate" inside Washington's corridors of power, to define what issues should be at stake and which things are to be discussed.
As Peter Baker of the Washington Post put the matter last Friday, President Bush "still holds the commanding position in his showdown with Congress over Iraq. Even with Republican defections, as votes in both houses made clear this week, opponents do not have anywhere near the veto-proof majorities needed to wrest leadership of the war."
Headlined "As the War Debate Heats up, Stagnant Air Is in the Forecast" and reflecting the political mood of the moment in the capital, the piece was littered with words like "stalemate" and "gridlock." It described a President "pummeled yet defiant" and predicted "at least two more months of anger and posturing but no change in direction." In all this it was typical. A New York Times front-page piece the same day had the headline: "A Firm Bush Tells Congress Not to Dictate Policy on War"; a Los Angeles Times headline went: "Bush Quiets Revolt over Iraq"; and U.S. News in a piece headlined, "Defiant Bush Holds Firm on Surge," had the horserace line: "Most analysts believe the President gained little ground yesterday."
Indeed, all of this is true, after a fashion. Congress is deep in the big muddy of whether the President's surge plan in Iraq has met its "benchmarks" (suggested by the White House), of whether or not to wait for the President's general, David Petraeus, to report back in September on "progress" before insisting on what is likely to be a relatively modest change of strategy, and about whether, by the President's standards, there is, or is not, "progress" in Iraq.
When you think about it, that's little short of a miracle for the Bush administration. After all, you have a President rounding in at 27% "approval" in a nation where about 70% of the public now believes we are on "the wrong track" and yet Bush and his people are still, however desperately, capable of setting the "benchmarks" for -- and of framing -- the debate in Washington.
Short, perhaps, of Jefferson Davis, has any American leader ever been more relentlessly wrong? Since September 12, 2001, hardly a single move this administration has made in foreign policy hasn't turned out -- and relatively quickly at that -- to be the equivalent of a roadside bomb, exploding under the Humvee of American foreign policy.
For the benefit not of the public, but of our Congressional representatives who may have been in Washington a little too long and spent a little too much time reading the Washington-inspired press corps, here, at a glance, is the actual record of the President and his administration on Iraq (and allied topics) since 2001.
Top administration officials, the President, and/or Vice President claimed that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear program; that he was searching for yellowcake uranium in Niger; that the Iraqi dictator had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (and that they knew where these were); that he had "mobile biological warfare labs"; that he had unmanned aerial vehicles capable of spraying the East Coast of the U.S. (hundreds of miles inland, no less) with deadly toxins, including anthrax; that he was allied with al-Qaeda; and that he had something to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong again!
Top administration officials, the President, and/or Vice President claimed that the Iraqis -- the previously oppressed Shiites, in particular -- would welcome us as liberators ("I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators" -- Dick Cheney); that they might strew "bouquets" of flowers at the feet of our troops; that the war would be a "cakewalk"; that the war and occupation would cost perhaps $40 billion or, at most, $100 billion (actual cost so far: at least $450 billion); that the occupation could easily be funded thanks to the "sea of oil" on which Iraq "floated"; that the neighbors in the region, especially Syria and Iran, would be shock-and-awed into submission or would fall before our might -- as some neocons then put it: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran."; that, by August 2003, American troop strength in that country would be down to 30,000-40,000 troops.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong again!
On September 14, 2001, George W. Bush stood on a pile of rubble in downtown New York City, a megaphone in his hands, and swore that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon"; not so long after, he claimed that Afghanistan had been "liberated" from the Taliban and al-Qaeda; soon after, he ordered American military attention (and crucial forces) shifted from Afghanistan and those al-Qaeda remnants to Iraq, where plans for a much-desired invasion were already in progress; on May 1, 2003, speaking under a "mission accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln, he proclaimed "major combat" in Iraq "ended"; in July 2003, he challenged the Iraqi insurgency ("bring 'em on").
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong again!
In the ensuing years, the President promised "victory" in Iraq again and again, and he has indicated that "progress" was being made there in just about every speech or news conference he's ever given on the subject. On November 30, 2005, the President announced that he had a specific "strategy for victory in Iraq" in a speech in which he used the word "victory" 15 times and "progress" 28 times; until the Golden Mosque in Samarra was bombed in late February 2006, he and his top officials and military commanders continued to insist that Iraq was not in a state of incipient civil war; throughout all these years, he and his Vice President have repeatedly indicated that the press was simply feeding bad news to the American public and avoiding the "good news" in Iraq.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong again!
Top administration officials, the President and/or the Vice President claimed that the following were "milestones" and/or "turning points" in Iraq: the killing of Saddam's two sons in July 2003; the capture of Saddam himself in December 2003 (The President even accepted Saddam's pistol from some of the American soldiers who captured him as a memento and placed it in a study beside the Oval Office, near a bust of Winston Churchill. "He really liked showing it off," according to a visitor); the official turning over of, as the President put it, "complete, full sovereignty" to an Iraqi "interim government" in June 2004; the "purple finger" election of January 30, 2005 that led to the writing of the Iraqi Constitution; the nationwide voting of December 15, 2005 that elected a national parliament; the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006 (about which the President felt so strongly that he personally congratulated the pilot of the plane that killed him on a trip to Baghdad and returned home reportedly feeling "buoyant").
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong again!
When, before the invasion of Iraq, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki testified before Congress that "several hundred thousand troops" would be needed for an occupation of Iraq, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called him "wildly off the mark" and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared him "far off the mark"; when a relatively small American force took Baghdad in April 2003 and stood by while the Iraqi capital and its cultural treasure houses were looted, the Defense Secretary declared "freedom's untidy" and "stuff happens"; in June 2004, Wolfowitz denied that an insurgency was even taking place in Iraq ("An insurgency implies something that rose up afterwards ... [This] is a continuation of the war by people who never quit..."); by that June, the administration's viceroy in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, had already officially dissolved the Iraqi military and issued 97 legal orders, "binding instructions or directives to the Iraqi people" (to remain in force even after any transfer of political authority), meant to control practically all Iraqi acts down to how you drove your car; in these years, the administration's representatives refused to deal diplomatically with Iraq's neighbors, Syria and Iran.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong again!
The Pentagon arrived in Iraq with plans to build four vast permanent military bases; later, the administration embarked on the construction of the largest embassy on the planet ("George W's Palace," as Iraqis sardonically dubbed it) in the heart of Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone; American officials, handing out enormous no-bid contracts to crony corporations, promised that Iraq would be "reconstructed," that electricity service would be suitably restored; that potable water would be delivered; that damaged sewage systems would be repaired; and that the oil industry would soar above the production levels of the end of the Saddam era.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong again!
This January, in a speech to the nation, the President announced a "new way forward in Iraq" and assured Americans that his new "surge" plan would: "change America's course in Iraq," "help us succeed in the fight against terror," and "put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad"; that "America would hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced"; that "the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November"; that "Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis"; that "Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year"; that "the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution"; that the administration plan would use "America's full diplomatic resources to rally support for Iraq from nations throughout the Middle East," "bring us closer to success," and "hasten the day our troops begin coming home."
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong again!
And the flood of misstatements, mistakes, missed predictions, and mistaken assessments of the Iraqi and global situations continue to pour in. To take just a few examples from the last week of news:
*Since 2005, the President has been repeating the ad-jingle-style mantra about the Iraqi military: "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." In fact, $19 billion dollars has already been poured into training, advising, and equipping that military and the Iraqi police. Yet, according to the White House Progress Report, "Despite stepped-up training, the readiness of the Iraqi military to operate independently of U.S. forces has decreased since President Bush's new [surge] strategy was launched in January." Outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Peter Pace, in fact, claims that "the number of Iraqi army battalions that operate independently, with no assistance from U.S. forces, has dropped from 10 to six over the last two months."
*The President promised in January that, in areas touched by his surge plan, American and Iraqi troops would begin to establish real "security," end sectarian cleansing, and allow no place to be a "safe haven" for militias. However, Julian E. Barnes and Ned Parker of the Los Angeles Times, reporting from a militia-controlled Baghdad neighborhood, write: "[A]s the experience of the troops in Ubaidi indicates, U.S. forces so far have been unable to establish security, even for themselves. Iraqis continue to flee their homes, leaving mixed areas and seeking safety in religiously segregated neighborhoods. About 32,000 families fled in June alone, according to figures compiled by the United Nations and the Iraqi government that are due to be released next week."
*The President began his global war on terror by swearing that the U.S. would be eternally "on the hunt" for al-Qaeda and has claimed ever since that U.S. forces have radically weakened Osama bin Laden's organization (though, just recently, a frustrated Congress raised the price on Osama's head from $25 million to $50 million). At his most recent news conference, Bush offered the slippery formulation: "[B]ecause of the actions we have taken, al Qaeda is weaker today than they would have been." But a new administration intelligence report from the National Counterterrorism Center entitled "Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West," reportedly claims that "the terrorist network is gaining strength and has established a safe haven in remote tribal areas of western Pakistan for training and planning attacks."
*The President has constantly pointed to "progress" in Iraq. As Bob Woodward just revealed in the Washington Post, however, CIA Director Michael Hayden, offering an assessment of progress to the Iraq Study Group in a meeting last November, stated that "the inability of the [Maliki] government to govern seems irreversible." He added that he could not "point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around.... We have spent a lot of energy and treasure creating a government that is balanced, and it cannot function." Last week as well, a new intelligence assessment, a document signed off on by all 16 of the agencies in the U.S. Intelligence Community, offered significantly grimmer news than the already grim White House interim Progress Report on possibilities for Iraqi national reconciliation and so "cast new uncertainty about the chances of success for President Bush's plan to contain the war through the deployment of an additional 28,000 U.S. troops, mostly in and around Baghdad."
But why go on? Only in Washington would such a consistent record of woeful failure lead to "stalemate." Only in Washington would a group of officials with such a record still be able to set the basic ground rules for debate. No individual would go back to the lot that sold you a string of automotive lemons, or let the doctor who had repeatedly misdiagnosed your disease (and maybe killed your neighbor with an overdose of anesthetic), operate on you.
In relation to Iraq, the situation can be summed up this way: The greatest gamblers in our history rolled the dice for a long-desired invasion, based on a dream of dominating the oil heartlands of the planet. This vision of a Pax Americana planet was based on the vaunted ability of the highest-tech military anywhere to dominate all in its path. (Domestically, a high-tech, well-oiled, utterly disciplined Republican Party was to establish political and lobbying dominion -- a Pax Republicana -- over Washington and the nation for a generation or more to come). On both imagined dominions, as on everything else, they were wrong. They were, that is, wrong in their expectations at the planetary level, and they have been wrong at every lesser level ever since. It has proven to be a cavalcade of stupidity.
If you take just the situation in Iraq in six-month increments, starting with the taking of Baghdad in 2003, any reasonable assessment would conclude that the American position has weakened and the country grown more chaotic, dangerous, and murderous in each of them. There is no reason to believe that, under the ministrations of this President, this Vice-President, these officials, and this set of military commanders anything could possibly change for the better as long as we remain stuck on the idea of occupying Iraq.
That's the logic of recent history. If you prefer the logic of dreams and of an empire of stupidity, then do stick with the present "stalemate."
Otherwise, it would make more sense to play an opposite's game with whatever positions the President and his officials take. Your odds on being right are guaranteed to be phenomenally high. Why, in fact, listen to them for one more second? Why be forced to look back and say "Wrong again!" one more time?
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt