By Gene Lyons
Lately, even once-worshipful GOP pundits have been puzzled by the mystery of George W. Bush. Some find his jauntiness in the face of disaster inspiring; others find it unsettling. Almost everybody finds it rather unusual (but hold that thought).
With Iraq War support eroding among Republicans, the White House launched a recent propaganda offensive. On Independence Day, Bush informed a West Virginia audience, “Many of the spectacular car bombings and killings you see are as a result of Al Qaeda – the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th. A major enemy in Iraq is the same enemy that dared attack the United States on that fateful day.”
“The very same folks,” he said. Except that Al Qaeda in Iraq – the fanatics he’s talking about – didn’t exist on 9/11. The 2003 U.S. invasion created them. The word “folks,” incidentally, is what poker players call Bush’s “tell.” It invariably signifies he’s lying to people he considers yokels.
According to The Washington Post, CIA director Michael Hayden has told the White House that Al Qaeda is a deadly but relatively minor threat in Iraq. Many experts believe rival Sunni and Shiite militias would decimate them following a U.S. withdrawal.
During a July 12 press conference, Bush nevertheless mentioned the organization 31 times. What an amazing coincidence that in Baghdad on July 13, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner announced the capture and successful interrogation of Khalid al-Mashhadani, supposedly a high-level courier who hand-carried operational orders from Osama bin Laden to his Iraqi understudies.
I don’t believe that even the Bush administration would be dumb enough to announce the capture of someone with knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Nor do I believe the Al Qaeda leader would try to run an indigenous Iraqi uprising from the wilds of Pakistan. Unfortunately, he’s a far more cunning adversary, having duped the United States into a terrible strategic blunder in Iraq, squandering lives and treasure, bitterly dividing Americans and helping bin Laden foment murderous rage among Muslim youth.
If Bergner’s name sounds familiar, it is because he was on the White House national security staff until May. On July 2, The New York Times reported his claim that “senior leadership” in Iran helped mastermind “a January raid in Karbala in which five American soldiers were killed.” He provided no evidence except his say-so.
USA Today has reported that an Army investigation of the Karbala incident blamed Iraqi police conspiring with insurgents. It’s a measure of how bad things are that these are not mutually exclusive possibilities. Even so, Bergner’s flair for timely “intelligence” coups supporting the White House line is impressive.
The great hero of Baghdad, however, is expected to be Gen. David Petraeus. The president evoked his name 11 times on July 12. Bush has cashiered all the generals who opposed his “surge.” It’s to this mighty Caesar a war-weary nation is expected to turn for an objective appraisal of Iraq policy come September.
Alas, the fix is in. By all accounts a brave and capable soldier, Petraeus declared the “surge” a success approximately four years before it was conceived. On his Salon.com blog, Glenn Greenwald documents an extensive series of triumphal claims by Petraeus dating to December 2003, when he told Newsweek the Iraqi insurgency was already fading.
To hear Petraeus tell it, the United States has turned more corners in Iraq than a stable of barrel-racing horses. Six weeks before the 2004 presidential election, he wrote a Washington Post column claiming victory was imminent, largely because of the fighting spirit of Iraqi soldiers Petraeus himself had trained – an effort that’s quietly been all but abandoned.
On evidence, Petraeus appears to be a familiar American type, a capable soldier combining strong right-wing views and dreadful political judgment. Compare him, for example, to Gen. Douglas C. MacArthur.
On July 13, Bush invited a platoon of conservative columnists to the White House to admire his steely resolve. “Bush seems empowered,” gushed David Brooks of The New York Times. “His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency.” Evidently, Bush assured the pundits that “the Almighty” is firmly on his side.
One conservative who wasn’t invited is The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. Citing a “rock-ribbed” Republican friend who told her “I don’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth,” Noonan admits being creeped out by “the president’s seemingly effortless high spirits. ... His Iraq leadership has failed. His standing is lower than any previous president’s since polling began. He’s in a good mood. Discuss.”
(Some of the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder include “a grandiose sense of self importance” and “fantasies of unlimited success, power.”)
It’s the classic con man’s personality. For such an emotional cripple, every day being genuflected to and addressed as “Mr. President” would be “Mission Accomplished” Day.
Nothing else would matter.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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