Thursday, May 03, 2007

George Tenet goes public

Dick Cheney must get a kick out of watching George Tenet and Hilary Clinton try to change the subject.

Tired of being Dick Cheney’s bitch, and remaining silent as the Vice President repeatedly and publicly blamed the decision to go to war on his assurances that Iraq had stockpiles of WMD, George Tenet is lashing back. In his new book, At the Center of the Storm, Tenet contends that the Vice President and the Administration were intent on going to war all in Iraq along, and that WMD merely served as a pretext.

This is old news. After all, in a 2003 interview in Vanity Fair magazine, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz forthrightly explained that the Bush Administration had several reasons for launching its war with Iraq––none of which, incidentally, suggested Iraqi complicity in the 9/11 events or constituted a casus belli under the generally accepted laws of war––but chose WMD as the central rationale because it was the easiest to sell.

Much to Tenet’s chagrin, the WMD narrative––including the ensuing claims of intelligence failure and political manipulation––remains central to public discourse around the history of the war, and continues to obscure the more wide-ranging motivations. Riding the talk show circuit, interviewers ignore the substance of his book––the threats the to the nation, the depth and breadth of Al Qaeda's capabilities––and return to the WMD soap opera. What did he know? When did he know it? What did others know? Did he want to apologize to the American people? [Wolf Blitzer, CNN, 5/2/07.]

Bush, Cheney and their acolytes are indifferent to the public WMD debate, however, because it was never determinative. Prior to September 11th, as Tenet suggests, the Bush Administration was intent on removing Saddam Hussein from power for a range of reasons, which reflected the perspectives of different groups within the Administration. First, there were the Neoconservatives. As typified by Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol, this group saw the institution of democratic governments in the Middle East as critical to regional stability and global security, and supported military action in Iraq as a means to establish a beachhead from which to catalyze political transformation.

Second, there was the Office of the Vice President. While Cheney was a member of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, his strategic focus was on energy security. This group saw Saddam’s commitment to give Russian, Chinese and French oil companies leases to develop the massive Iraq oil fields––after United Nations sanctions were removed––as a fundamental threat to American commercial interests and economic security, and supported military action as a means to achieve three goals: Preventing Russo-Sino control of vital resources, establishing a regime that would direct those contracts to American and British companies, and putting boots on the ground within striking distance of both Saudi and Kuwait, to deter future threats to America’s interests in the region.

Third, there was the group whose views in many respects most closely mirrored those of the Clinton Administration that first promulgated the policy of regime change in Iraq. Led by Rumsfeld, this group saw Saddam as a proven threat to the region, and international terrorism as a growing strategic threat to America’s interests. They viewed action in Iraq as imperative both to forestall further aggression by Saddam, and to prevent an alliance with terrorist groups that had declared war on America and the west years earlier.

For each group, the attacks on September 11th escalated the urgency of acting, and Tenet’s assurance that Iraq harbored WMD provided a compelling narrative for selling a war that each group believed critical to the nation’s interests. While Tenet blames Cheney for continuing with the public charade and hanging him out to dry, others across the political spectrum have found it useful to stick to the script. Among Democratic presidential aspirants who voted for the war, the formulation of blaming bad intelligence and manipulation has become the accepted route for appeasing the Party faithful. For his part, John Edwards has elevated apologizing to a central campaign theme as he expresses his regret for trusting the intelligence rather than his own judgment, while Hillary Clinton clings to the “If I knew then what I know today…” formulation.

Hillary Clinton continues to resist John Edwards full-throated apologia because she wants to be President more than she wants to be the Democratic nominee, and this chosen path grates against her––and no doubt her husband’s––instincts. From a strategic standpoint, the clamor for an exit from Iraq is fraught with risk for the nation and the region. While not necessary a neocon-petrocentric-militarist, she is probably closer to the Administration’s world view than Edwards––and no doubt shares Joe Biden’s assessment that he is “clueless” on matters of foreign affairs. She understands that the prospect of American disengagement from the Middle East is already creating fear across the region, and leading the Sunni states––among them Egypt, Jorden and Saudi Arabia––rushing to develop nuclear programs as a deterrent to growing Iranian and Shia power, and that the next President must have a mandate to build a new strategic framework for the region. Almost alone among the Democratic candidates, she embraces Anthony Zinni's view that no Democrat, if elected, will be able to deliver on the withdrawal commitments they are now so eagerly proffering.

Politically, Clinton views Edwards’ apology-as-job-qualification as suicide for a Democratic nominee come November 2008. Edwards’ account––that as a Senator, he trusted the CIA rather than his own judgment––is simply a more convenient history to embrace than the less convenient truth that he did trust his own judgment. In the toxic political climate of the day, with the drums beating and the rhetoric flying, when it came time to vote, it was easier to fly the flag and vote Aye than to vote Nay and risk the scorn that would ensue. For Edwards the Presidential aspirant, it is better now to plead guilty to having been duped than to face the far worse indictment of having lacked the courage to vote Nay, of having chosen to vote for war and to send soldiers to die, in order to preserve––in Bill Clinton’s words––his own future political viability.

When the general election rolls around 18-months from now, neither George Bush nor Dick Cheney will be on the Republican ticket, and while Iraq looms to be a central issue, the protagonists of that war will be leaving the theatre. It is notable that even as the Democrats are being pushed to the left by their base, the Republican field is notably lacking in fire-breathing partisans, and that the Democratic debate two weeks ago included more Senators who voted for the war than the Republican debate this evening. In a sense, the Republican field may actually be less captive of the war, and may be adapting more quickly to a new political landscape where a resurgent Independent center looms to be critical once again, comprising voters for whom apologies for bad judgment will do little to win votes for the highest office, and Out Now will not suffice for a strategic vision for America’s role in the world.

Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney both understand what George Tenet seems to have missed, the WMD narrative worked––and it is still working. And Clinton and Cheney also understand that the longer it remains central to the Democratic campaign, the more it will weaken and diminish the ultimate victor, and the more likely it is that a Republican will the White House 18 months from now.