Editor's Note: It is odd indeed to find Howard Fineman in the pages of truthout. Mr. Fineman has been, for some time, a Bush apologist of the first rank. Perhaps, however, his faith has begun to slip. Read the essay below with care, and understand from whom it has come. - wrp
Waiting for War In White House
By Howard Fineman
Wednesday 12 March 2003
Blame game could start soon
I m waiting for war to break out not in Iraq, but in the Bush administration. I m wondering what s going through Colin Powell s mind. The secretary of State is looking pretty grim these days, like a man going through the motions. Might he bail out after a not-too-distant decent interval? Friends say no, he s a team player. But he s not a happy camper, one admits.
In the meantime, who s going to be blamed for the Turkey screwup, or the U.N. screwups? Who s going to leak the authoritative and explosive estimates of the true cost of maintaining 100,000 troops in Iraq for the indefinite future? (One general already has been whacked for piping up, but there will be others.) Who s going to take the fall for the fact that we ve lost the international moral high ground? The world is blaming the president, of course, but that s not the way things work here. Someone else goes down. Who? The neocons ? Donald Rumsfeld? The State Department? Dick Cheney? Condi Rice?
Maybe everything will go so swimmingly in Iraq that it ll be one big happy family here at home. Maybe the war will last only a few days and Iraqis will be in the streets, joyfully greeting GIs as liberators. Maybe a world that now sees us as an imperial pariah will suddenly acknowledge the wisdom of our ways. But never has so much blood, treasure and destiny been gambled on the hope that folks will smile at us. It s the War of the Happy Iraqis.
But few think it s going to be that easy. And my guess is that team discipline inside the Bush administration is about to be fractured by the collateral damage that already is being caused by a war we have yet to fight. We are embarrassingly alone diplomatically, and State Department underlings (privately) blame Rumsfeld & Co. Inside the Pentagon but outside of Rumsfeld s offfice I m told that E-Ring brass have adopted what one source calls a Vietnam mentality, a sense of resignation about a policy (military occupation of Iraq) they seriously doubt will work. For their part, the neocons view Pentagon and State as hives of careerists wimps. No one dares take on Cheney; no one is sure Rice has the clout to keep it all together.
Blame games aren t supposed to happen in and around George W. Bush. I ve covered him since his days as a gubernatorial candidate in Texas a decade ago. I know that he and his team are extraordinarily focused, disciplined and tight-lipped. I know that he is stubborn and that once he decides on a course he generally sticks to it. I know that when John McCain clobbered him in New Hampshire in 2000 the kind of blow that can cause panic and recrimination inside any campaign Bush and his lieutenants stayed calmly united.
The last round of open warfare within the Bush administration, last summer, was largely a stage-managed confrontation. The president at that time basically decided to put a war with Iraq s Saddam Hussein at the top of his antiterrorism to do list.
At the same time, he let the leading figures in his administration (and their various allies) tussle publicly about the wisdom of such a course, and about whether the United Nations should have a role. It was the Powellites versus the Rumsfeldians, but the decision had already been made.
This served everyone s purposes. The president could look judicious and open-minded. Rumsfeld and Cheney could talk tough. And Powell could be suitably conflicted. He could play the good soldier, while still making it clear (primarily though Bob Woodward) that he had deep reservations about war.
This time around is a different story. The closer we get to the event, the less Bush is in control of events and the greater the risk of a vicious blame game breaking out inside his own administration. Hardliners, never enamored of going the U.N. route, are saying I told you so in private, and soon will do it publicly. From the Powellites point of view, the bad guys are going out of their way to make things difficult. The latest example: Rumsfeld s curt statement (later recanted) that the U.S. was prepared to go it alone without the British.
In fact, the U.S. has been humiliated, diplomatically and strategically. And just whose fault is that? The latest slap came the other day from Turkey s soon-to-be-installed prime minister. Some 60,000 American soldiers are bobbing around on ships in the Eastern Mediterranean, denied permission to enter Turkey on their way to a northern front. Bush called the other day to see if there was a chance that the Turkish parliament would change its collective mind. Not only did Recap Tayyip Erdogan say no, he went further. He said that the U.S. couldn t even use airbases for launching sorties into Iraq. That was a huge step backward: The U.S. had long assumed the right to use those airbases; indeed, we ve been using them for years. Did Powell or Rice warn the president that he d be rebuffed at least by Erdogan?
That s just one example, but there are many others. Bush seemed to think that the French would play ball. They did: hardball. Who was responsible for figuring out the ways and wiles of the French? Who told the president that it was a good idea to go for a second U.N. resolution that getting one would be a piece of cake? For that is the way the administration was reacting until a few days ago. We are reduced to begging Cameroon for a vote. Yes, they are a sovereign nation entitled to respect. But who did the whip count for the White House?
The key now is Powell. He could unhinge the Bush administration in a New York minute. He s never been fully trusted by the Bush innermost circle. He wasn t among the group of advisers who briefed Bush in Austin as he prepared for a presidential campaign in 1999. More important, Powell has too much of an independent political (and media) base to suit the president. Bush values loyalty above all, and he likes to dominate the room. He doesn t like knowing that one critical word from Powell could cause chaos in Washington.
Is there one, and will we hear it?
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