Publisher's Note 

The credibility gap: If Bush wants followers, he needs to lead

A year ago on Sept. 12, 2002, one year after the traumatic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and one year before last Sunday night’s televised address from the White House, President Bush appeared before the General Assembly of the United Nations and presented the delegates with two distinct visions of the future.

In the high-handed manner now widely recognized as the trademark of his administration, the president challenged the delegates by rhetorically asking, “Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?”

Specifically, President Bush wanted the U.N. to authorize the use of force to disarm Iraq. Failure to do so, the president implied, would prove a major setback to the U.N.’s authority.

The president didn’t need the prescience of an oracle to offer this insight, because it wasn’t based on anything so esoteric as prophecy. It was a barely concealed threat, and he could make it painfully real. If the U.N. would not stand with the U.S., then the U.S. could and would render the U.N. obsolete.

Later in the spring, when the Security Council rejected a resolution supporting military action, President Bush tried his level best to make good on his threat by waging war without U.N. support, but not surprisingly, American authority, rather than the U.N.’s, has been the most significantly damaged in the process.

Eager to remake the world, and particularly the Middle East, the president has put U.S. credibility in serious jeopardy. To keep our reputation as tyrant-toppling global defenders of democracy from unraveling completely, he now estimates that the effort is going to cost at least $87 billion this year alone, and that’s on top of the $79 billion already approved for the war in April.

To put this in perspective, the total amounts to roughly $600 for every man, woman and child living in the United States. It is six times as much as we spend on food stamps, and more than three times as much as the federal government contributes to education.

The enormous costs beg the question of value. Can we buy lasting security with that kind of money? Is it worth it?

By most accounts, those questions have already become merely academic, because we’ll be in truly terrible trouble if we keep flailing in Iraq. The president has put U.S. authority on the line, and we have little choice now but to cover his bets.

In a confidential memo leaked to London’s Daily Telegraph, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warns, “The lack of political progress in solving the linked problems of security, infrastructure and the political process are undermining the consent of the Iraqi people to the coalition presence and providing fertile ground for extremists and terrorists.”

President Bush insisted on Sunday that our occupation of Iraq has solved more problems than it is creating, but the accuracy of his assessments has been so dubious up until now that it is easy to second guess him on this assertion, too.

Although the president is maintaining his resolute, reassuring stance, projecting an unshakable faith in the righteousness of his cause and the certainty of the outcome, it is clearly becoming harder for the White House to marginalize its critics. The gaps in the administration’s logic are more and more obvious as events unfold and the consequences of its policies become apparent.

To many around the world, the apparent holes in the Bush administration’s story confirm the suspicion that the U.S. is projecting its imperial ambitions at the expense of the truth, and without regard for human suffering. Who can blame them? Evidence of U.S. exaggerations in the rush to war, and perhaps outright deceit, is hard to ignore.

For example, coalition forces have yet to discover any weapons of mass destruction, despite an intensive search. The supposed existence of these weapons provided the most fundamental rationale for the invasion. Of course, the president and his advisors continue to insist that Iraq actively pursued development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and that those weapons posed a grave danger to the rest of world, but their claims seem increasingly speculative.

What’s worse, there is good reason to suspect that the White House deliberately overstated the threat to win public approval for military action. Earlier this summer, the Washington Post meticulously documented how the Bush administration increased its emphasis on Iraq’s supposed nuclear capabilities in the weeks immediately prior to the invasion, while disregarding the contradictory intelligence gathered by our own agents.

A formal investigation into similar allegations has been initiated by the British into the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. In response, Blair has predicted that history will look kindly on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s sadistic rule, even if the coalition was mistaken about the weapons of mass destruction.

You can imagine how Blair’s political pirouette goes over in a place like Damascus. Al Jazeera, the infamous Arab news network that occupies the same strident niche in the Middle East that Fox represents here, characterizes the claims regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as “blatant lies.”

Even here at home, the Green Party, which attracted 2.8 million voters in the 2000 election, has officially adopted a platform that calls for the impeachment of President Bush for making false statements to Congress to gain support for the war. While undeniably extreme (the Greens also want the president charged with war crimes), the platform dramatically demonstrates the depth of the skepticism about the President’s motives.

The president got himself in deeper on Sunday, when he rationalized the occupation of Iraq by redefining it as the central front in the war on terrorism. Critics were quick to point out that the terrorists probably showed up after the occupation, not before. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that the terrorists have opened up a front against the U.S., rather than the other way around. As the British Foreign Secretary has noted, we are probably the cause of our own trouble.

The alleged connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda has always been one of the least convincing elements of the president’s argument for invasion, but casting Iraq as a preferred haven for terrorists represents a feeble new low in White House efforts to influence public opinion about the war. When the Commander in Chief misconstrues visible causes and effects, there is little reason for an already reluctant world to recognize U.S. authority, much less yield to it.

Nevertheless, the president and his advisors are back at the U.N., hoping the Security Council will allow bygones to be bygones, and that the international community will find a way to cooperate in Iraq, in the same manner that would have been appropriate the first time around.

If we’re lucky, the U.N. will bail us out by lending legitimacy to the military occupation and reconstruction. And despite U.S. missteps, there are good reasons for the Security Council to get involved in Iraq now and share the cost of reconstruction. The potential for an unspeakably devastating terrorist attack elsewhere in the world should be incentive enough to intervene. And a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Iraq would help pacify a region that is producing far too many of the most dangerous men in the world.

President Bush comes across most agreeably when he’s trying to inspire us with courage and confidence to fight the war on terror. It’s tempting to allow ourselves to believe his assurances, and to imagine that the purity of our intentions, the nobility of our character, and the strength of our arms will lead to the inevitable triumph of freedom. But of course, that’s just self-aggrandizing fantasy.

The reality is more uncertain, and much more perilous.

The president almost admitted as much on Sunday night, when he warned of the long, hard, and colossally expensive project ahead of us. But that was only a modest step toward restoring his credibility. To convince the world that his leadership is truly worthy of its respect, he’ll need to talk about much more complex and subtle realities with much more convincing precision, and then deliver to us an unambiguous result.

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