By Frank Rich
The New York Times
MICHAEL CHERTOFF, President Bush’s fallback choice for secretary of Homeland Security after Bernard Kerik, is best remembered for his tragicomic performance during Hurricane Katrina. He gave his underling, the woeful Brownie, a run for the gold.
It was Mr. Chertoff who announced that the Superdome in New Orleans was “secure” even as the other half of the split screen offered graphic evidence otherwise. It was Mr. Chertoff who told NPR that he had “not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who do not have food and water,” even after his fellow citizens had been inundated with such reports all day long.
With Brownie as the designated fall guy, Mr. Chertoff kept his job. Since then he has attracted notice only when lavishing pork on terrorist targets like an Alabama petting zoo while reducing grants to New York City. Though Mr. Chertoff may be the man standing between us and Armageddon, he is seen as a leader of stature only when standing next to his cabinet mate Gonzo.
But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Last week, as the Bush administration frantically tried to counter Republican defections from the war in Iraq, Mr. Chertoff alone departed from the administration’s script to talk about the enemy that actually did attack America on 9/11, Al Qaeda, rather than Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the jihad-come-lately gang Mr. Bush is fond of talking about instead. In this White House, the occasional official who strays off script is in all likelihood inadvertently coughing up the truth.
Mr. Chertoff was promptly hammered for it. His admission of “a gut feeling” that America might be vulnerable to a terrorist attack this summer was universally ridiculed as a gaffe. He then tried to retreat, but as he did so, his dire prognosis was confirmed by an intelligence leak. The draft of a new classified threat assessment found that Al Qaeda has regrouped and is stronger than at any time since 2001. Its operational base is the same ungoverned Pakistan wilderness where we’ve repeatedly failed to capture Osama bin Laden dead or alive for six years.
So give Mr. Chertoff credit for keeping his eye on the enemy while everyone else in the capital is debating never-to-be-realized benchmarks for an Iraqi government that exists in name only. Just as President Bush ignored that August 2001 brief “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” so Washington, some of its press corps included, is poised to shrug off the August 2007 update “Al Qaeda Better Positioned to Strike the West.” The capital has been sucker-punched by the administration’s latest P.R. offensive to prop up the fiasco in Iraq.
The White House’s game is to create a new fictional story line to keep the war going until President Bush can dump it on his successor. Bizarrely, some of the new scenario echoes the bogus narrative used to sell the war in 2002: an imaginary connection between Iraq and the attacks of 9/11. You’d think the Bush administration might think twice before recycling old lies, but things have gotten so bad in the bunker that even Karl Rove is repeating himself.
Fittingly, one of the first in Washington to notice the rollout of the latest propaganda offensive was one of the very few journalists who uncovered the administration’s manipulation of W.M.D. intelligence in 2002: Jonathan Landay of the McClatchy newspapers.
This time around, he was ahead of the pack in catching the sudden uptick in references to Al Qaeda in the president’s speeches about Iraq — 27 in a single speech on June 28 — and an equal decline in references to the Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence at the heart of the Iraqi civil war America is powerless to stop. Even more incriminating was Mr. Landay’s discovery that the military was following Mr. Bush’s script verbatim. There were 33 citations of Al Qaeda in a single week’s worth of military news releases in late June, up from only 9 such mentions in May.
None of this is accidental. The administration knows that its last stated mission for the war — “an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself” — is as doomed as the Iraqi army that would “stand up” so we could stand down. So now there’s a new “mission” — or at least new boilerplate. “Victory is defeating Al Qaeda,” Tony Snow said last week, because “Al Qaeda continues to be the chief organizer of mayhem within Iraq.” What’s more, its members are, in Mr. Bush’s words, “the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th.”
This is hooey, of course. Not only did Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia not exist before we invaded Iraq in 2003, but it isn’t even the chief organizer of the war’s mayhem today. ABC News reported this month that this group may be responsible for no more than 15 percent of the attacks in Iraq. Bob Woodward wrote in The Washington Post on Thursday that Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, told Mr. Bush last November that Al Qaeda was only the fifth most pressing threat in Iraq, after the insurgency, sectarian strife, criminality and general anarchy.
So what if the Qaeda that’s operating with impunity out of Pakistan, North Africa and other non-Iraq havens actually is the most pressing threat to America? This president is never one to let facts get in the way of a political agenda. That agenda is to avoid taking responsibility for losing a war, no matter how many more Americans are tossed into its carnage. From here on in, you can be sure that whomever we’re fighting in Iraq on any given day will be no more than one degree of separation from bin Laden.
Nor do the latest fictionalizations end there. To further prop up the war, Mr. Bush had to find some way to forestall verdicts on the “surge,” which commanders had predicted could be judged by late summer. He also had to neutralize last week’s downbeat Congress-mandated report card on the Iraqi government’s progress toward its 18 benchmarks.
The latter task was easy. The report card grades on a steep curve (and even then must settle for a C-minus average and a couple of incompletes). Deflecting gloom about the “surge” is trickier. It’s hard to argue that we’re on our way to securing Baghdad, the stated goal, when attacks on our own safe haven, the Green Zone, are rising rapidly, more than doubling from March to May, according to the United Nations.
But you can never underestimate this White House’s ingenuity. It turns out that the “surge,” which most Americans thought began shortly after the president announced it in January, is brand-new! We’re just “at the starting line,” Tony Snow told the network morning news shows last week, as he pounded in the message that “we have a new course in Iraq, and it’s two weeks old.”
Mr. Snow’s television hosts were not so rude as to point out that the Pentagon had previously designated Feb. 14 as the starting line of the surge’s first operation, and had also said that its March report on Iraq should be used as the “baseline from which to measure future progress.” That was then, and this is now. The Baghdad clock has been reset. July is the new February. As we slouch toward the sixth anniversary of 9/11, the war against Al Qaeda has only just begun.
Swamped with such fiction, Washington is unable to cope. Network newscasts are still failing to distinguish the Qaeda Mr. Bush talks about from the 9/11 terrorists. The Iraq dead-enders in Congress and the neocon punditocracy have now defined victory down to defeating Mr. Bush’s mini-Qaeda in a single Iraqi province, Anbar. Meanwhile, our ally Pervez Musharraf’s shaky regime in Pakistan lets Al Qaeda plot its next mass murder.
The capital’s entire political debate over Iraq — stay-the-surge versus “precipitous withdrawal” — is itself pure hot air. Even though felons and the obese are now being signed up to meet Army recruitment shortfalls, we still can’t extend the surge past next April, when troops for Iraq run out unless Mr. Bush extends their tours yet again. “Precipitous withdrawal” (which no withdrawal bill in Congress calls for) is a non sequitur, since any withdrawal would take at least 10 months. Rather than have the real debate about how to manage the exit, politically panicked Republicans hope to cast symbolic votes that will allow them to tell voters they were for ending the war before they prolonged it.
That leaves Mr. Chertoff, whose department has vacancies in a quarter of its top leadership positions, as the de facto general in charge of defending us from the enemy he had that “gut feeling” about, the Qaeda not in Iraq. Last week we learned from a sting operation conducted by Congressional investigators that this enemy needs only a Mail Boxes Etc. account, a phone and a fax machine to buy radioactive material from American suppliers and build a dirty bomb.
For all Washington’s hyperventilating about the Iraqi Parliament’s vacation plans, it’s our own government’s vacation from reality this summer that should make us very afraid.Photo Credit: Frank Rich. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)