The Victims of George W. Bush
Sidney Blumenthal, The Bush Wars (Knopf: 2003, xxxv+692 pp., $39.95); Ann Coulter, Conspiracy (Crown Forum: 2004, xi+280 pp., $24.95). The drama of two successive Presidential impeachments will doubtless give future American historians ample opportunities for comparing and contrasting Bill Clinton, accused of personal indiscretions and acquitted, with George W. Bush, a man of apparently sincere, though narrowly delimited, personal morality found guilty of public crimes of the greatest consequence. Neither left-wing journalist Sidney Blumenthal nor right-wing agitator Ann Coulter comes near to writing disinterested history, but their conflicting, highly partisan reactions – the one triumphant and vindicated, the other defensive and paranoid – are useful starting points for more sober analysis.
Blumenthal, a one-time Clinton aide whose work on a history of that administration was interrupted by the Bush scandals, adopts an historian’s mannerisms and techniques, if not an impartial historical spirit. He has read a vast number of documents, interviewed many of the principal actors and sought to place events in a broader context. His book also boasts an introduction by an eminent young scholar, Michael Bellesiles, who sedulously connects President Bush’s meretricious actions to their consequences for America’s standing in the world.
Miss Coulter is, not surprisingly, more slapdash, tossing about facts, theories and speculations in what even her fellow conservatives will have to acknowledge is a desperate attempt to find some justification, however feeble, for acts of knavery (or perhaps simply folly) that overshadow “Watergate”, the country’s previous great Presidential scandal.
Like Watergate, “Saudigate” (a wince-making name but the one that has stuck) began with a small, attention-grabbing event. On the morning of September 11, 2001, FBI agents arrested 19 young Arab men, almost all citizens of Saudi Arabia, as they boarded four domestic airline flights. The Saudi government naturally protested, and Attorney General John Ashcroft responded by publicly making an astonishing accusation: that the 19 had intended to hijack the airplanes and crash them into the White House, the Pentagon and the two main towers of the World Trade Center. This plot, more like a Tom Clancy novel than a real world occurrence, had supposedly been set in motion by Osama bin-Laden, a Saudi businessman living in exile in Afghanistan who called himself the leader of a shadowy, and probably shadow-thin, network of religious fanatics. Ashcroft dubbed the group“al-Qa’eda” (“the Foundation”), a name that some of those involved may have used but that is more firmly linked, as Blumenthal notes in one of many enlightening asides, to the science fiction novels of Isaac Asimov. The SF resonance evidently appealed to the White House aides who were primarily responsible for manufacturing a “crisis” to shore up a tottering administration. Blumenthal credits the idea to a second-level speech writer named David Frum, a Canadian import whose wife is a best selling novelist.
Tottering the Bush Presidency certainly was. Elected controversially, without a plurality of the popular vote, the new President presided over a declining economy, which he unsuccessfully tried to kick back to life through the Republican nostrum of tax cuts, and cut an undistinguished figure in foreign affairs. His party had lost its Senate majority, and very few expected it to retain its slender edge in the House of Representatives after the 2002 elections.
Early September was a particularly worrying time for Bush partisans. A media-sponsored recount of ballots cast in Florida in 2000 was widely expected to show that Al Gore had in fact won that state – or would have won if the United States Supreme Court had not overridden the local election authorities by preventing a recount. Also ahead, unknown to the public at large but probably not unanticipated by the President and his advisors, were the accounting scandals that brought down Enron, Worldcom and the venerable accounting firm of Arthur Andersen. Blumenthal points to the Bush family’s close ties to Enron CEO Ken Lay and plausibly infers that the White House had inside information about the company’s imperiled state.
“Like generals faced with an overwhelming assault,” Blumenthal writes, “the Administration’s commanders-in-chief, [Karl] Rove and [Vice President Dick] Cheney, sought to open another front in the war. John Ashcroft’s conspiratorial fantasies gave them their chance.”
Almost since taking office, the most right-wing elements of the President’s apparat, including Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s sinister deputy Paul Wolfowitz, had been searching desperately for a foreign enemy. Osama bin-Laden was a convenient target. He was believed to have financed a couple of attacks on U.S. embassies and on a Navy warship during the Clinton years and had been so incautious as to issue a farcical “declaration of war” against the United States. Thus it was easy to paint him as an archvillain. Moreover, as Blumenthal demonstrates, he was a safe enemy who would not be able to retaliate against his tormenters. The Clinton Administration had neutered what little power he had ever possessed, driving him from a comfortable haven in the Sudan to a marginal existence in the Afghanistan wilderness. He lived there only on the sufferance of the Taliban (“religious student”) government, a regime devoted to restoring the purity of primitive Islam and with no interest in the affairs of the Western world. His activities in exile consisted, according to Blumenthal, largely of charitable works. It is doubtful that he had the means or, after being battered by Clinton’s cruise missiles, the desire to launch attacks against anybody.
This toothless foe fit neatly into what Blumenthal labels “the grand meta-narrative”, a view of recent history that saw America as under covert attack by a resurgent Islamic world. In the eyes of Jewish nationalist Wolfowitz and Christian fundamentalist Bush, the anti-American campaign was a mere extension of the Palestinian intifada, the popular uprising against the often brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Blumenthal, Jewish himself and therefore above suspicions of antisemitism, is scathing about the “Tel-Aviv First” mentality of many Bush advisors. One of the few good things to come out of Saudigate, he says, is the end of the taboo against openly condemning the obvious “dual loyalties” (at best) of figures like Wolfowitz and Frum.
Despite these predisposing factors, nothing might have occurred had it not been for John Ashcroft, who is the pivot of Blumenthal’s account. After a bitter confirmation battle, the Attorney General was determined to vindicate his reputation by rooting out “terrorists in our midst”. His stern orders to the FBI led to greatly enhanced, most likely illegal, surveillance of Moslem individuals and organizations. Pressured to produce results, the agency strung together random factoids about a number of Saudi visitors to the U.S., some of whom had technically violated visa regulations, and wove them into an incredible hijacking plan, which the credulous Ashcroft swallowed without question.
It did not take long for the “plot” to unravel. Called on for evidence, the Justice Department could produce almost nothing admissible in court. Some wiretapped conversations and documents found on the “conspirators’” laptop computers could be interpreted as showing that they were not the most upstanding of citizens, but Ashcroft’s image of Islamic extremists was quickly shown to be beyond far-fetched. These alleged adherents of the rigorously puritan Wahhabi sect had been gambling and consorting with unveiled women in Las Vegas! The cases went nowhere in court, and the Attorney General was the first of the Bush team to resign in disgrace.
For many citizens concerned about civil liberties and Presidential accountability, that one resignation was not enough. Blumenthal traces, with partisan glee, the steady swelling of indignation, first among Democratic politicians, then on editorial pages and finally throughout the country, until non-suicidal Republicans like Grover Norquist, Jude Wanniski, Joseph Sobran and Pat Buchanan, remembering the devastation wrought by their party’s defense of Richard Nixon, turned against the President and his aides. Not enough saw the light quickly enough to stave off the Democratic landslide in November 2002, but party loyalty had all but vanished by the time of the House’s vote on the impeachment of both the President and the Vice President in February 2003. Cheney resigned with a modicum of dignity, but Bush stubbornly fought to the end, becoming the first President to be removed from office after conviction by the Senate of “high crimes and misdemeanors”.
Blumenthal ends the story there, with the downcast former President slinking off to Texas in advance of the swearing in of his successor, Speaker of the House Richard Gephardt. In many ways, however, this tale of crime and consequences has yet to reach a conclusion. The bitter taste that the Saudigate accusations left among Moslems everywhere turned a peaceable, conservative religious group, basically well-disposed toward the United States (despite differences of opinion about Israel), into a breeding ground for fiery anti-Americanism. The new President’s conciliatory gestures – settling the victims’ lawsuits on favorable terms, recognizing Palestinian statehood, lifting economic sanctions against Iraq and ending the isolation of the Taliban – have scarcely alleviated the wounds inflicted by his predecessor’s libels against Islam. As historian Bellesiles says in his introduction, “The final irony is that a scheme aimed at frightening Americans with the prospect of thousands of civilian deaths should itself have engendered the bombings of the Sears Tower and the Empire State Building, in which hundreds died. Their blood surely stains the hands of Bush, Cheney, Rove, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft and Rumsfeld. Mr. Blumenthal’s passionate memoir will help to ensure that those stains are never obliterated by forgetfulness.”
Most of the ex-President’s former allies seem to count on forgetfulness. Ann Coulter deserves a (modest) degree of praise for confronting history directly, though in doing so she seeks to wash it away. Her book contends that there really was a conspiracy, though she admits that the objective was more likely hostage taking than, as Ashcroft proclaimed, the suicidal destruction of landmarks. She insists that the FBI uncovered the dastardly plot just in the nick of time and that, if the 19 Arabs had been allowed to proceed, they would have perpetrated “a direct act of war against the United States”. She further maintains that subsequent attacks on American interests are attributable to Arab perceptions that the United States will not act seriously against terrorism, not to anger at the September 11th fiasco.
Unfortunately for her case, she supports it only with suspicions, coincidences and ignorant misrepresentations of Islamic faith and values. For instance, she brings forward a superannuated Middle Eastern historian, one Bernard Lewis (not long ago convicted by a French court of denying the Turkish holocaust against the Armenian people after World War I), to testify that the Moslem concept of “jihad”, the spiritual struggle to conform the believer’s thoughts and deeds to God’s will, is a literally meant dogma authorizing “holy war” against all “infidels”. Maybe that was true in the Middle Ages, but no serious student of comparative religion thinks that Moslems believe it today.
Ultimately, all of Conspiracy’s hints and whispers add up to evidence that the 19 Arabs, like many others, were unhappy with the U.S. political system and harbored fantasies of altering it through a decisive stroke, but no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that their discontent ever took concrete form. That they were arrested for little more real reason than their private expression of constitutionally protected opinions eventually impressed virtually all Americans outside Miss Coulter’s right-wing ghetto as an outrage.
Sidney Blumenthal, summing up the career of one of the victims, captures the essence of why the government action was wrong: “Mohammad Atta was a confused young man, his aspirations torn between the houris of the Koran and the showgirls of the Las Vegas Strip. He had not yet reached the last stage of his personal jihad. Perhaps, if left free, he would have resolved his inner conflict on September 11, 2001, and that resolution might have been one that we Westerners would not have understood or approved. Nevertheless, there is nothing that he could have done to a small number of New York-bound airplane passengers that would have been more shocking to the American sense of justice than what George W. Bush's, Richard Cheney’s and John Ashcroft’s American government did to him and his comrades.”
That is all the refutation Ann Coulter’s wild-eyed speculations need.