“Enough With Puff Pieces About Painting”: Bush Crew’s Deplorable Return, How Their Reemergence Sends A Deadly Message
It’s been more than five years since Dick Cheney left the White House and nearly eight years since Donald Rumsfeld was booted from the Pentagon. With the obvious exception of George W. Bush himself, no two men were more responsible for the United States’ disastrous and criminal invasion of Iraq, as well as its embrace of a counter-terrorism model built on the twin barbarities of indefinite detention and systematic torture. In the years that have passed since their departure from public office, both men have released best-selling memoirs, made countless media appearances and no doubt added substantially to their already considerable wealth.
In fact, to get a real sense of just how little these men have had to pay for their sins, consider three recent examples.
One is a recent comment from Dick Cheney, delivered in public — not in private, not on background, not via unknown insiders with intimate knowledge of the former vice president’s thinking, but in public — about whether he still supports waterboarding (or torture, as most people besides Cheney tend to call it): “If I had to do it all over again,” Cheney said, “I would.”
The second is the new documentary, “The Unknown Known,” by Errol Morris and about Donald Rumsfeld. Estimations of the film’s quality vary, but all reviewers are unanimous in at least one regard: Rumsfeld, as he comes off in the film, truly has no regrets. Asked by Morris if invading Iraq for the second time, causing hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths and turning millions more into refugees, was worth it, Rumsfeld shrugs off the question and settles for a fittingly cold and glib answer: “Time will tell.”
The third story is, to my mind, the most disturbing. It’s a piece in the New York Times, published Friday, about a third man, a man who ignored warnings of a terrorist attack, plunged his country into two disastrous wars, invaded a sovereign nation without sanction from the United Nations and on false pretexts, signed off on the implementation of a worldwide torture regime, secretly initiated domestic surveillance on an unprecedented scale, oversaw the destruction of one of the world’s greatest cities, and cut taxes for, and thwarted regulations against, the Wall Street power-players who destroyed the global economy and consigned millions of people to lives of poverty, unemployment and deferred dreams. That man is George W. Bush, and the article is a puff piece about his kitschy paintings.
Obviously, the fact that these men continue to live charmed lives offends our sense of fairness. But it has a more tangible consequence, too. Consider the state of foreign policy thinking within the Republican Party today. Granted, with the recent ascendance of the relatively isolationist Sen. Rand Paul, the GOP’s view of foreign policy is somewhat in flux. But Paul is still an outlier, and a quick glance of the Mitt Romney campaign’s foreign policy experts is enough to show that neoconservatives like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and the rest of that ghoulish clique still call the foreign policy shots for national Republicans. Despite their abject failures — both technocratically and morally — Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld remain in good standing with the people who run one of America’s only two serious political parties. If Mitt Romney were president right now, with Dan Senor by his side, the United States could be ramping up for war with Iran or Russia, preparing to once again spread freedom from the barrel of a gun as if Fallujah and Abu Ghraib never happened.
There’s next to no chance any of these men will ever be officially held accountable for their crimes. All three clearly harbor no regrets. These are the fruits of belonging to the American elite in an era of widespread inequality, when not only the economy, but many pieces of the state itself, act to reinforce and perpetuate the divide separating those who have from those who do not.
Of course, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush are hardly the first American war criminals to escape justice. Richard Nixon, in whose administration the former two men served, immediately comes to mind. Henry Kissinger, too. As was the case for Nixon and Kissinger, Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld have benefitted from a decision of the political ruling class — and, to a lesser degree, of the general public— that it’s best not to dwell too much on the nastier bits of America’s recent history. Back when some touchingly naïve souls thought it a possibility, President Obama used to dismiss the notion of holding his predecessors accountable for torture by urging America to “look forward.” This was an order that the vast majority of Americans showed themselves willing to follow.
This same dynamic, this resistance on the part of the powerful to hold their fellow elites to account — as well as the general public’s silent acceptance of these different, looser ethical standards — was also a key driver of the government’s response to the financial meltdown of 2008. After the crisis had passed and the Obama administration had begun reconstituting the financial sector (mostly in its prior form, sadly), there were public demands that some of the Wall Streeters responsible be prosecuted for the damage they wrought. But these flashes of public discontent were mostly ignored by the White House, and here we are, five years later, with essentially no Wall Street villain having had to worry about seeing the inside of a jail cell. Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein are richer and more powerful than ever.
I’m hardly the first to notice the difference between how not only society, but also the state, treats the powerful and the rest of the public. Salon alum Glenn Greenwald has made the same point, as has MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. But while it’s a point well worth repeating, I don’t bring it up in order to shed light on the past but rather to sound a warning about the future. Because as bad as accountability norms have already become in the United States, there’s ample reason to worry that they’re soon to get even worse.
For an example of how this might be, consider the recent, much-talked-about essay in the Wall Street Journal by billionaire industrialist and right-wing donor Charles G. Koch. The piece is an odd one, residing somewhere between a talking-points-filled press release and a list of conservative maxims that are too hoary for all but the dullest politicians and the most thoughtless ideologues (despite his political activities, Koch is much more the latter). It’s littered with pablum about liberty and “the principles of a free society,” and is defined by the kind of sloppy, lazy thinking that lays claim to “dignity, respect, equality before the law and personal freedom” without acknowledging that, in the real world, disagreements over the proper application of these universally agreed upon values is the essence of democratic politics.
As Koch goes on, however, it begins to make quite a bit of sense, his inability to recognize the basic mechanics of American democracy. It’s not merely that he’s an unsophisticated and unoriginal thinker (though he certainly is), it’s that he truly doesn’t understand what democracy even is. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the brief, passive-aggressive section of the essay in which Koch defends himself against unnamed “collectivist” bullies. Responding to a fusillade of criticism sent his way by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Koch complains that “collectivists” reject “a free and open debate” and “strive to discredit and intimidate opponents” like himself with “character assassination,” just as “so many despots” and Saul Alinsky did before. (Small consolation, I suppose, that Koch is self-aware enough not to actually call his opponents Hitler, choosing instead to merely make the implication.)
Beyond his comically exaggerated sensitivity, what Koch’s mini jeremiad shows is that the man can’t quite fathom the idea that free speech is not the same thing as freedom from critical speech. At no point in his many attacks has Harry Reid — or any other Democrat of significance, for that matter — said anything about Koch’s private life or soul. Throughout, the criticism has been directed toward his politics and the groups he pays to promote them. Reid has said that Koch wishes to establish a political status quo that shields his power and wealthy from scrutiny or competition. Reid cannot authoritatively speak to what goes on inside Koch’s brain, but his interpretation of Koch’s motives is hardly outside the realm of acceptable discourse in American politics. Keep in mind that ours is an era in which politicians malign the the poor as having bad values, bad habits, bad families and bad minds. People infinitely less influential than Charles Koch, in other words, routinely suffer much worse.
Then again, Koch, in so many ways, isn’t like most people. Unlike most people, he can directly reach any Republican politician in the country by simply picking up the phone. Unlike most people, he can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on misleading attack ads and cynical, quixotic campaigns to persuade young people to forego health insurance. Unlike most people, he can take advantage of Citizens United in order to funnel countless millions through shadowy outside groups, largely obscuring his political activities and denying Americans the right to know whose interests are being represented when a politician swears to fight higher taxes on the wealthy and roll back regulations on industrial pollution. Unlike most Americans, Koch can now take advantage of McCutcheon, the Supreme Court’s sequel to Citizens United, which lifted aggregate caps on political donations and took us one more step closer to having no limits whatsoever on how America’s wealthiest citizens can use their largesse to influence the political process.
And that, from all appearances, is how Koch and his ilk like it. With Republicans in Congress stymying any attempt to make political donations transparent, so people at least can follow the money, and with the conservative Supreme Court widely considered to be far from finished destroying campaign finance law from within, Koch can rest easy knowing that his power will remain not only overwhelming but also little understood. He can go on supporting politicians who thwart Medicaid expansions one minute and funding outside groups who castigate Obamacare for not covering more people the next. He can keep bankrolling anti-Obamacare ads that stretch the truth so thin as to render it translucent. He can keep polluting our air, contaminating our water and destroying our environment without having to even pay for the privilege.
He can keep being unaccountable.
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, April 5, 2014
Say this for Rudy Giuliani: He gave away the game with his now-infamous admiring comments on Fox News two days ago about Vladimir Putin. “He makes a decision and he executes it, quickly,” the former mayor said. “Then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader. President Obama, he’s got to think about it. He’s got to go over it again. He’s got to talk to more people about it.”
Giuliani, once a genuinely moderate Republican (go look up his mayoral immigration record) and a man whom aides used to describe a long time ago as the one figure capable of pulling the national GOP back toward the center (I swear, I had those conversations), has served for some time now as little more than a right-wing standup comic—and a staggeringly hypocritical one at that. I’ll never forget his St. Paul convention speech, when he defended Sarah Palin by mocking Barack Obama and the Democrats for not thinking her hometown was “cosmopolitan enough.” This from a man who, while ostensibly campaigning against Hillary Clinton in 1999 and 2000 to represent all of New York state in the U.S. Senate, I think literally never spent a single night upstate. Zoom—as soon as the event in Albany or Schenectady was over, it was on the plane and right back to the emotional safety of the Upper East Side.
A standup comic often serves as his audience’s id, and so it is in this case. The neocons, on some emotional level, prefer Putin to Obama. He’s rugged. He goes shirtless. He knows his way around a Kalashnikov. He “wrestles bears and drills for oil,” as Palin put it Monday night, also on Fox. Palin, of course, is a pretty id-dy figure in her own right. She and Giuliani can say what some others who live and operate in Washington may feel constrained from saying. But every time John Bolton and Charles Krauthammer and Lindsey Graham and others carry on about Obama’s weakness, they’re also implying that he’s not half the man Putin is. And in neocon world, it always comes down to who’s the manlier man (although this makes Osama bin Laden a manlier man than Bush or Cheney, and Obama a manlier man than all of them, but never mind).
Now of course these people can’t openly cheer for Putin, because that would constitute outright treason, but they can test treason’s perimeter fence and probe it for weaknesses. I don’t quite think they want war with Russia; Russia ain’t Iraq. And obviously I don’t believe that if it came to that they’d be against their own country.
But that said, they are certainly undermining the commander in chief at a pivotal moment—not merely protesting his policies, but denouncing his character.
And don’t we suspect that they’re doing this because there’s a little part of them that wants a full-blown crisis? Of course there is. A crisis would vindicate them. A crisis would make the neocons—at risk of being flushed down history’s toilet by Rand Paul, who’s suddenly being called “front runner” by more and more people—relevant inside the Republican Party again.
What good would a settlement do them? Putin keeping the Crimea and stopping there, and that being the end of it? Why, they’d be reduced to carrying on about the Crimea as if it mattered to the United States one way or the other who ran it. Settlements are so kiss-your-sister. Settlements are for… community organizers.
No, they thirst for crisis. They can attribute it to Obama’s “weakness.” They can work in some shots at Hillary Clinton and try to hang it around her neck, since the Benghazi noose has shown an infuriating habit of slipping loose. And they can say to America, “See? You need us.”
The reality is that America needs their advice like it needs John Travolta’s pronunciation guide. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that if President Romney were in the Oval Office and John Bolton at Foggy Bottom and all the Doug Feiths and Randy Scheunemanns and ex-deputies to Rumsfeld and Wolfie filling all the key positions, the situation would be far worse than it is. Romney would have spent the last year goading Putin. We’d already have been at a boiling point over Syria—whereas under Obama, at least Russia agreed on paper that Bashar al-Assad should turn over his stock of chemical weapons. A NATO membership card for Georgia would have been in the works, if not already chiseled, and an expanded and souped-up missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe would have been announced. Basically, everything the United States could do to play right into every one of Putin’s lurid, paranoid fantasies about America’s true aims in the world (i.e., crush Russia), the Romney administration would have done, almost undoubtedly leading him to have behaved more obstreperously than he already has, and at an earlier point.
I’m not doing any dances over how the Obama administration has handled this situation (and why just $1 billion in aid? We should be matching Putin’s $15 billion). The European Union’s posture, it’s worth noting, has been far more abysmal than the administration’s, and it’s mattered far more too, since the Europe vs. Asia tension is at the heart of Putin’s concerns about Ukraine (read this excellent and concise rundown of the EU’s five huge errors in its recent dealings with the country). There’s blame to go around.
But most of the blame rests on the manly shoulders of the megalomaniac who is most responsible for creating this situation (and let’s remember to save some for Viktor Yanukovych, and even a little for Ukraine’s current government). For the neocons to blame Obama for the actions of a madman, incessantly using adjectives that are meant to communicate to the world that the president of the United States can be steamrolled, and possibly should be for his own good, is close to anti-American. But they can’t blame Putin. He’s their doppelganger, psychologically. He is them, and they are him. Woe betide the world if they ever do face each other.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 5, 2014
I liked former New Republic writer Dana Milbank’s column this morning about how “Republicans mindlessly oppose Iran Nuclear Deal.” I liked it not just because it was witty, but because its prominence in the Washington Post—and its place when I woke up near the top of its list of the most popular stories—suggests that in this latest fracas over foreign policy, the conventional wisdom, as well as public opinion, is on the side of liberal internationalism rather than neo-conservative war-mongering. That this time it is the Bill Kristols and Ari Fleischers and Marco Rubios who are howling at the moon.
That’s especially important because in this case, there is an underlying truth—an emperor without any clothes, an elephant in the room—that no one in the administration or in the Republican opposition wants to openly acknowledge. It goes something like this: We all want Iran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, and we hope that through sanctions and negotiations, and the threat of war, we can achieve that result. But we Americans also know that if negotiations fail, then war may not be a real option. As the debate over intervention in Syria showed, the American public is not eager to go to war in the Middle East when the United States itself is not in danger. The Obama administration would have a hell of a time carrying out its threat. And even if it did, it would have a hell of a time achieving its objective of knocking out Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
So the various politicians and pundits who called for upping the sanctions as the interim deal was being negotiated, and who now denounce the deal as being woefully inadequate are doing a particular disservice. On one level, they are calling for war, which is the only alternative if we don’t pursue diplomacy. But on another level—if you consider the political and strategic difficulty, in this case of war—they are calling for a shutdown of our foreign policy—for the kind of national embarrassment and blow to our global standing from which we were saved in Syria by the Russians. So three cheers for Dana Milbank and for the good sense of the American people and the old foreign policy establishment of the Scowcrofts, Albrights, and Brzezinskis.
By: John B. Judis, The New Republic, November 26, 2013
If you want to know how the neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War are reacting to the interim deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program, the best way is to head over to the website of the Weekly Standard, where you can witness their wailing chagrin that the Obama administration doesn’t share their hunger for yet another Middle East war. All five of the featured articles on the site concern Iran, including editor Bill Kristol’s “No Deal” (illustrated with twinned photos of Bibi Netanyahu and Abraham Lincoln, believe it or not), one titled “Don’t Trust, Can’t Verify,” and “Abject Surrender By the United States” by the always measured John Bolton.
These people would be simply ridiculous if they didn’t already have so much blood on their hands from Iraq, and the idea that anyone would listen to them after what happened a decade ago tells you a lot about how Washington operates. But there is something important to understand in the arguments conservatives are making about Iran. Their essential position is that now that Iran has finally agreed to negotiate, we must “keep the pressure on” by not negotiating until they offer, to use Bolton’s words, an actual abject surrender. We should not just maintain but increase sanctions, to make them understand that they’ll get nothing and like it. The only way to get future concessions from Iran is to maximize their pain now.
You’ll recall how much progress the Bush administration made in getting Iran to pull back its nuclear development with this approach (none). It seems pretty clear that the neocons understand about as much about negotiating as my dog does about delayed gratification. So let me suggest that an easing of sanctions now is exactly what could get them to agree to more concessions at the end of the interim agreement’s period of six months. The reason is that what we’ve done is give the Iranians not only something to gain, but something to lose.
You may be familiar with the theory of loss aversion, which states that we tend to fear losses more than we are eager for gains. The pain of losing ten dollars you have is greater than the pleasure of gaining ten you don’t yet have. According to Daniel Kahneman, who pioneered the theory with his late colleague Amos Tversky, the “loss aversion ratio” in experiments is usually around two to one. For instance, if I offer you a bet in which you’ll lose $100 if you’re wrong, I’ll probably have to offer you $200 if you win in order to induce you to take the bet. Loss aversion has been demonstrated in a large number of experiments in a wide variety of contexts.
But as Bob Dylan said, when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose, which brings us back to Iran. Sanctions have by all accounts had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. What conservatives would like to offer Iran is continued economic misery, in the hopes that a little more of that will get them to do what we want, i.e. dismantle their nuclear program. But under this new agreement, they’ll get a bit of temporary relief. Money will flow in to their economy, easing some of that misery. It might not be actual prosperity, but things will be better than they are now. The Iranian public will be pleased about the improved economy, likely making the regime feel more politically secure. Then at the end of the agreement’s time frame in six months, the country as a whole and the government in particular will have something to lose. The western powers will be able to say to them: Things are going better for you now. If you don’t take the next step in dismantling the nuclear program, we’ll reimpose the sanctions, and you’ll squander what you’ve gained.
Obviously, there are many other variables at play—the need to save face, the desire to be considered a world power, and so on. But if this agreement gives the Iranians something to lose, it might be just the thing to induce them to give up more later.
Or we could just listen to the neocons and start another war. Because that always works out well.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, November 26, 2013
Well, the ayatollah appears to have lent his provisional support to the historic U.S.-Iran accord announced Saturday night. In a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said the deal “can be the basis for further intelligent actions.” Now we just need sign-off from our American ayatollahs. But the early indications are that the Republicans, eager to perform Bibi Netanyahu’s bidding—not that they needed a second reason to oppose something Barack Obama did—will do everything within their power to stop the thing going forward.
We shouldn’t get too carried away in praising this accord just yet. It’s only a six-month arrangement while the longer-term one is worked out. Those talks are going to be harder than these were, and it’s not at all a stretch to envision them collapsing at some point. Iran is going to have to agree to a regular, more-or-less constant inspection regime that would make it awfully hard for Tehran to be undertaking weapons-grade enrichment. It’s easy to see why they agreed to this deal, to buy time and get that $4.2 billion in frozen oil revenues. But whether Iran is going to agree to inspections like that is another question.
Still, it is indeed a historic step. Thirty-four years of not speaking is a long time. So it’s impressive that this got done at all, and even more impressive are some of the inner details, like the fact that Americans and Iranians have been in direct and very secret negotiations for a year. Rouhani’s election does seem to have made a huge positive difference—four of five secret meetings centered in Oman have been held since Rouhani took office, which seems to be a pretty clear indication that he wants a long-term deal to happen.
So this is potentially, I emphasize potentially, a breakthrough that could have numerous positive reverberations in the region—not least among them the virtual elimination of the chance that the United States and Iran would end up at war. And what a refutation of those harrumphing warmongers! I’d love to have had a tap on John Bolton’s phone over the weekend, or Doug Feith’s, or Cheney’s, and heard the combination of perfervid sputtering and haughty head shaking as they lament Obama’s choice.
Well, then, let’s compare choices. They chose war, against a country that never attacked us, had no capability whatsoever to attack us, and had nothing to do with the allegedly precipitating event, 9/11. We fought that war because 9/11 handed the neocons the excuse they needed to dope the public into supporting a unilateral war of hegemony. It has cost us more than $2 trillion now. It’s taken the lives of more than 100,000 people. It has been the author of the trauma of thousands of our soldiers, their limbs left over there, their families sundered. And on the subject of Iran, the war of course did more to strengthen Iran in the region than Obama could dream of doing at his most Machiavellian-Manchurian. Fine, the world is well rid of Saddam Hussein. But these prices were far too steep.
Then along came Obama in 2008, saying he’d negotiate with Iran. I’d love to have a nickel for every time he was called “naive” by John McCain or Sarah Palin (after the differences between Iran and Iraq were explained to her) or any of dozens of others (and yeah, even Hillary Clinton). I’d settle for a penny. I’d still be rich. You might think that watching this past decade unfold, taking an honest measure of where the Bush administration’s hideous decisions have left us, that some of them might allow that maybe negotiation was worth a shot.
Of course that will never happen. Marco Rubio was fast out of the gates Sunday, but he will be joined today by many others. Some will be Democrats, yes, from states with large Jewish votes. Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez have already spoken circumspectly of the deal (although interestingly, Dianne Feinstein, as AIPAC-friendly as they come, spoke strongly in favor of it). There will be a push for new sanctions, and that push will be to some extent bipartisan.
But the difference will be that if the Democrats get the sense that the deal is real and can be had, they won’t do anything to subvert it, whereas for the Republicans, this will all be about what it’s always about with them—the politics of playing to their Obama-hating base. But there’ll be two added motivations besides. There’s the unceasingly short-sighted and tragic view of what constitutes security for Israel, which maintains the conditions of near-catastrophe that keep just enough of the Israeli public fearful of change so that they perpetuate in putting people like Netanyahu in power, thus ensuring that nothing will ever change. And perhaps most important of all in psychic terms to the neocons, there is contemplation of the hideous reality that Obama and the path of negotiation just might work. This is the thing the neocons can’t come to terms with at all. If Obama succeeds here, their entire worldview is discredited. Check that; even more discredited.
Rouhani appears to be moving his right wing a bit. Ours, alas, isn’t nearly so flexible as Iran’s.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, November 24, 2013