April 22, 2007
President Bush has skipped the funerals of the troops he sent to Iraq. He took his sweet time to get to Katrina-devastated New Orleans. But last week he raced to Virginia Tech with an alacrity not seen since he hustled from Crawford to Washington to sign a bill interfering in Terri Schiavo’s end-of-life medical care. Mr. Bush assumes the role of mourner in chief on a selective basis, and, as usual with the decider, the decisive factor is politics. Let Walter Reed erupt in scandal, and he’ll take six weeks to show his face — and on a Friday at that, to hide the story in the Saturday papers. The heinous slaughter in Blacksburg, Va., by contrast, was a rare opportunity for him to ostentatiously feel the pain of families whose suffering cannot be blamed on the administration.
But he couldn’t inspire the kind of public acclaim that followed his post-9/11 visit to ground zero or the political comeback that buoyed his predecessor after Oklahoma City. The cancer on the Bush White House, Iraq, is now spreading too fast. The president had barely returned to Washington when the empty hope of the “surge” was hideously mocked by a one-day Baghdad civilian death toll more than five times that of Blacksburg’s. McClatchy Newspapers reported that the death rate for American troops over the past six months was at its all-time high for this war.
At home, the president is also hobbled by the Iraq cancer’s metastasis — the twin implosions of Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz. Technically, both men have been pilloried for sins unrelated to the war. The attorney general has repeatedly been caught changing his story about the extent of his involvement in purging eight federal prosecutors. The Financial Times caught the former deputy secretary of defense turned World Bank president privately dictating the extravagant terms of a State Department sinecure for a crony (a k a romantic partner) that showers her with more take-home pay than Condoleezza Rice.
Yet each man’s latest infractions, however serious, are mere misdemeanors next to their roles in the Iraq war. What’s being lost in the Beltway uproar is the extent to which the lying, cronyism and arrogance showcased by the current scandals are of a piece with the lying, cronyism and arrogance that led to all the military funerals that Mr. Bush dares not attend. Having slept through the fraudulent selling of the war, Washington is still having trouble confronting the big picture of the Bush White House. Its dense web of deceit is the deliberate product of its amoral culture, not a haphazard potpourri of individual blunders.
Mr. Gonzales’s politicizing of the Justice Department is a mere bagatelle next to his role as White House counsel in 2002, when he helped shape the administration’s legal argument to justify torture. That paved the way for Abu Ghraib, the episode that destroyed America’s image and gave terrorists a moral victory. But his efforts to sabotage national security didn’t end there. In a front-page exposé lost in the Imus avalanche two Sundays ago, The Washington Post uncovered Mr. Gonzales’s reckless role in vetting the nomination of Bernard Kerik as secretary of homeland security in December 2004.
Mr. Kerik, you may recall, withdrew from consideration for that cabinet post after a week of embarrassing headlines. Back then, the White House ducked any culpability for the mess by attributing it to a single legal issue, a supposedly undocumented nanny, and by pinning it on a single, nonadministration scapegoat, Mr. Kerik’s longtime patron, Rudy Giuliani. The president’s spokesman at the time, Scott McClellan, told reporters that the White House had had “no reason to believe” that Mr. Kerik lied during his vetting process and that it would be inaccurate to say that process had been rushed.
Thanks to John Solomon and Peter Baker of The Post, we now know that Mr. McClellan’s spin was no more accurate than his exoneration of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby in the Wilson leak case. The Kerik vetting process was indeed rushed — by Mr. Gonzales — and the administration had every reason to believe that it was turning over homeland security to a liar. Mr. Gonzales was privy from the get-go to a Kerik dossier ablaze with red flags pointing to “questionable financial deals, an ethics violation, allegations of mismanagement and a top deputy prosecuted for corruption,” not to mention a “friendship with a businessman who was linked to organized crime.” Yet Mr. Gonzales and the president persisted in shoving Mr. Kerik into the top job of an already troubled federal department encompassing 22 agencies, 180,000 employees and the very safety of America in the post-9/11 era.
Mr. Kerik may soon face federal charges, and at a most inopportune time for the Giuliani presidential campaign. But it’s as a paradigm of the Bush White House’s waging of the Iraq war that the Kerik case is most telling. The crucial point to remember is this: Even had there been no alleged improprieties in the former police chief’s New York résumé, there still would have been his public record in Iraq to disqualify him from any administration job.
The year before Mr. Kerik’s nomination to the cabinet, he was dispatched by the president to take charge of training the Iraqi police — and completely failed at that mission. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran recounts in his invaluable chronicle of Green Zone shenanigans, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” Mr. Kerik slept all day and held only two staff meetings, one upon arrival and one for the benefit of a Times reporter doing a profile. Rather than train Iraqi police, Mr. Kerik gave upbeat McCain-esque appraisals of the dandy shopping in Baghdad’s markets.
Had Mr. Kerik actually helped stand up an Iraqi police force instead of hastening its descent into a haven for sectarian death squads, there might not now be extended tours for American troops in an open-ended escalation of the war. But in the White House’s priorities, rebuilding Iraq came in a poor third to cronyism and domestic politics. Mr. Kerik’s P.R. usefulness as a symbol of 9/11 was particularly irresistible to an administration that has exploited the carnage of 9/11 in ways both grandiose (to gin up the Iraq invasion) and tacky (in 2004 campaign ads).
Mr. Kerik was an exploiter of 9/11 in his own right: he had commandeered an apartment assigned to ground zero police and rescue workers to carry out his extramarital tryst with the publisher Judith Regan. The sex angle of Mr. Wolfowitz’s scandal is a comparable symptom of the hubris that warped the judgment of those in power after 9/11. Not only did he help secure Shaha Riza her over-the-top raise in 2005, but as The Times reported, he also helped get her a junket to Iraq when he was riding high at the Pentagon in 2003.
No one seems to know what she actually accomplished there, but the bill was paid by a Defense Department contractor that has since come under official scrutiny for its noncompetitive contracts and poor performance. So it went with the entire Iraq fiasco.
You don’t have to be a cynic to ask if the White House’s practice of bestowing better jobs on those who bungled the war might be a form of hush money. Mr. Wolfowitz was promoted to the World Bank despite a Pentagon record that included (in part) his prewar hyping of bogus intelligence about W.M.D. and a nonexistent 9/11-Saddam connection; his assurance to the world that Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for reconstruction; and his public humiliation of Gen. Eric Shinseki after the general dared tell Congress (correctly) that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to secure Iraq after the invasion.
Once the war began, Mr. Wolfowitz cited national security to bar businesses from noncoalition countries (like Germany) from competing for major contracts in Iraq. That helped ensure the disastrous monopoly of Halliburton and other White House-connected companies, including the one that employed Ms. Riza.
Had Iraqi reconstruction, like the training of Iraqi police, not been betrayed by politics and cronyism, the Iraq story might have a different ending. But maybe not all that different. The cancer on the Bush White House connects and contaminates all its organs. It’s no surprise that one United States attorney fired without plausible cause by the Gonzales Justice Department, Carol Lam, was in hot pursuit of defense contractors with administration connections. Or that another crony brought by Mr. Wolfowitz to the World Bank was caught asking the Air Force secretary to secure a job for her brother at a defense contractor while she was overseeing aspects of the Air Force budget at the White House. A government with values this sleazy couldn’t possibly win a war.
Like the C.I.A. leak case, each new scandal is filling in a different piece of the elaborate White House scheme to cover up the lies that took us into Iraq and the failures that keep us mired there. As the cover-up unravels and Congress steps up its confrontation over the war’s endgame, our desperate president is reverting to his old fear-mongering habit of invoking 9/11 incessantly in every speech. The more we learn, the more it’s clear that he’s the one with reason to be afraid.