By Frank Rich
The New York Times
GERALD FORD spoke the truth when he called Watergate “our long national nightmare,” but even a nightmare can have its interludes of rib-splitting farce.
None were zanier than the antics of Baruch Korff, a small-town New England rabbi who became a full-time Richard Nixon sycophant as the walls closed in. Korff was ubiquitous in the press and on television, where he would lambaste Democrats and the media “lynch mob” for vilifying “the greatest president of the century.” Despite Nixon’s reflexive anti-Semitism, he returned the favor by granting the rabbi audiences and an interview that allowed the embattled president to soliloquize about how his own faith and serenity reinforced his conviction “deep inside” that everything he did was right.
Clearly we’ve reached our own Korffian moment in our latest long national nightmare. The Nixon interviewed by the rabbi sounded uncannily like the resolute leader chronicled by the conservative columnists and talk-show jocks President Bush has lately welcomed into his bunker. For his part, William Kristol even published a Korffian manifesto, “Why Bush Will Be a Winner,” in The Washington Post. It reassured us that the Bush presidency would “probably be a successful one” and that “we now seem to be on course to a successful outcome” in Iraq. A Bush flack let it be known that the president liked this piece so much that he recommended it to his White House staff.
Are you laughing yet? Maybe not. No one died in Watergate. This time around, the White House lying and cover-ups have been not just in the service of political thuggery but to gin up a gratuitous war without end.
There is another significant difference as well. Washington never drank the Nixon Kool-Aid. It kept a skeptical bipartisan eye on Tricky Dick throughout his political career, long before the Watergate complex had even been built. The charmed Mr. Bush, by contrast, got a free pass; both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and both liberals and conservatives in the news media were credulous enablers of the Iraq fiasco. Now a reckoning awaits, and the denouement is getting ugly.
The ranks of unreconstructed Iraq hawks are thinner than they used to be. Some politicians in both parties (John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Gordon Smith) and truculent pundits (Peter Beinart, Andrew Sullivan) who cheered on the war recanted (sooner in some cases than others), learned from their errors and moved on. One particularly eloquent mea culpa can be found in today’s New York Times Magazine, where the former war supporter Michael Ignatieff acknowledges that those who “truly showed good judgment on Iraq” might have had no more information than those who got it wrong, but did not make the mistake of confusing “wishes for reality.”
But those who remain dug in are having none of that. Some of them are busily lashing out Korff-style. Some are melting down. Some are rewriting history. Most seem more interested in saving their own reputations than the American troops they ritualistically invoke to bludgeon the wars’ critics and to parade their own self-congratulatory patriotism.
It was a rewriting of history that made the blogosphere (and others) go berserk last week over an Op-Ed article in The Times, “A War We Just Might Win,” by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. The two Brookings Institution scholars, after a government-guided tour, pointed selectively to successes on the ground in Iraq in arguing that the surge should be continued “at least into 2008.”
The hole in their argument was gaping. As Adm. Michael Mullen, the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said honorably and bluntly in his Congressional confirmation hearings, “No amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference” in Iraq if there’s no functioning Iraqi government. Opting for wishes over reality, Mr. O’Hanlon and Mr. Pollack buried their pro forma acknowledgment of that huge hurdle near the end of their piece.
But even more galling was the authors’ effort to elevate their credibility by describing themselves as “analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.” That’s disingenuous. For all their late-in-the-game criticisms of the administration’s incompetence, Mr. Pollack proselytized vociferously for the war before it started, including in an appearance with Oprah, and both men have helped prolong the quagmire with mistakenly optimistic sightings of progress since the days of “Mission Accomplished.”
You can find a compendium of their past wisdom in Glenn Greenwald’s Salon column. That think-tank pundits with this track record would try to pass themselves off as harsh war critics in 2007 shows how desperate they are to preserve their status as Beltway “experts” now that the political winds have shifted. Such blatant careerism would be less offensive if they didn’t do so on the backs of the additional American troops they ask to be sacrificed to the doomed mission of providing security for an Iraqi government that is both on vacation and on the verge of collapse.
At least the more rabid and Korff-like of the war’s last defenders have the intellectual honesty not to deny what they’ve been saying all along. But their invective has gone over the top, with even mild recent critics of the war like John Warner and Richard Lugar being branded defeatist “pre- 9/11 Republicans” by Mr. Kristol.
It’s also the tic of Mr. Kristol’s magazine, The Weekly Standard (and its Murdoch sibling The New York Post), to claim that the war’s critics hate the troops. When The New Republic ran a less-than-jingoistic essay by a pseudonymous American soldier in Iraq, The Weekly Standard even accused it of fabrication — only to have its bluff called when the author’s identity was revealed and his controversial anecdotes were verified by other sources.
A similar over-the-top tirade erupted on “Meet the Press” last month, when another war defender in meltdown, Senator Lindsey Graham, repeatedly cut off his fellow guest by saying that soldiers he met on official Congressional visits to Iraq endorsed his own enthusiasm for the surge. Unfortunately for Mr. Graham, his sparring partner was Jim Webb, the take-no-prisoners Virginia Democrat who is a Vietnam veteran and the father of a soldier serving in the war. Senator Webb reduced Mr. Graham to a stammering heap of Jell-O when he chastised him for trying to put his political views “into the mouths of soldiers.” As Mr. Webb noted, the last New York Times-CBS News poll on the subject found that most members of the military and their immediate families have turned against the war, like other Americans.
As is becoming clearer than ever in this Korffian endgame, hiding behind the troops is the last refuge of this war’s sponsors. This too is a rewrite of history. It has been the war’s champions who have more often dishonored the troops than the war’s opponents.
Mr. Bush created the template by doing everything possible to keep the sacrifice of American armed forces in Iraq off-camera, forbidding photos of coffins and skipping military funerals. That set the stage for the ensuing demonization of Ted Koppel, whose decision to salute the fallen by reading a list of their names in the spotlight of “Nightline” was branded unpatriotic by the right’s vigilantes.
The same playbook was followed by the war’s champions when a soldier confronted Donald Rumsfeld about the woeful shortage of armor during a town-hall meeting in Kuwait in December 2004. Rather than campaign for the armor the troops so desperately needed, the right attacked the questioner for what Rush Limbaugh called his “near insubordination.” When The Washington Post some two years later exposed the indignities visited upon the grievously injured troops at Walter Reed Medical Center, The Weekly Standard and the equally hawkish Wall Street Journal editorial page took three weeks to notice, with The Standard giving the story all of two sentences. Protecting the White House from scandal, not the troops from squalor, was the higher priority.
One person who has had enough of this hypocrisy is the war critic Andrew J. Bacevich, a Boston University professor of international relations who is also a Vietnam veteran, a product of the United States Military Academy and a former teacher at West Point. After his 27-year-old son was killed in May while serving in Iraq, he said that Americans should not believe Memorial Day orators who talk about how priceless the troops’ lives are.
“I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier’s life,” Professor Bacevich wrote in The Washington Post. “I’ve been handed the check.” The amount, he said, was “roughly what the Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning.”
Anyone who questions this bleak perspective need only have watched last week’s sad and ultimately pointless Congressional hearings into the 2004 friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman. Seven investigations later, we still don’t know who rewrote the witness statements of Tillman’s cohort so that Pentagon propagandists could trumpet a fictionalized battle death to the public and his family.
But it was nonetheless illuminating to watch Mr. Rumsfeld and his top brass sit there under oath and repeatedly go mentally AWOL about crucial events in the case. Their convenient mass amnesia about their army’s most famous and lied-about casualty is as good a definition as any of just what “supporting the troops” means to those who even now beat the drums for this war.