All the President’s Men

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All the President’s Men — The Sequel Is Here Plamgate may not lead to President Bush’s downfall but he has lost his aura of invincibility

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

Under the leadership of a conservative Republican president, the US was drawn into a costly military quagmire in a strategic region of Asia. The president was facing growing domestic political opposition to his management of the controversial war and some of his aides decided to launch an aggressive campaign aimed at antiwar critics.

Some elements of this effort, including the targeting of those on the president’s "enemy list" which violated the law came to light. The president’s aides were worried about the disastrous political ramifications for the administration and were engaged in cover-up tactics.

Eventually, the media, congress and the legal system responded and took action against the perpetrators of this illegal cover-up. The result was that the president and his entire administration were overwhelmed by a major national scandal that threatened not only the president’s political standing at home, but also his ability to deal with the country’s foreign challenges. It’s the Watergate scandal we are discussing now. It ended up forcing President Richard Nixon out of office and led to the conviction of several of his top political aides, some of whom had to serve time in jail.

What we sometimes forget is that the crisis that engulfed Nixon and his aides had less to do with the attempt by secret White House operatives (the "plumbers") to break into the offices of the Democratic party in the Watergate building in Washington, DC, and was more an outcome of the effort by the White House to cover up its involvement in the break-in and in other illegal activities.

Moreover, we should also not forget that although the Watergate scandal revolved around legal issues — including important constitutional dilemmas (for example, whether the president should be forced to turn in the tapes of conversations he had recorded) — and that judges, prosecutors and lawyers played central roles in the drama, Plamgate (pardon me, I mean Watergate) was first and foremost a political scandal.

Indeed, it’s impossible to understand how that "cancer on the presidency" had spread in the early 1970s without recalling its political context and, in particular, the division in the United States over the Vietnam War. That American military quagmire in Southeast Asia ignited powerful opposition against Nixon’s policies and his aides had taken action to intimidate and silence the war critics.

In fact, the same crew of Watergate "plumbers" also broke into the offices of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department official who had leaked the Pentagon Papers (the secret official history of US involvement in Vietnam) to The New York Times.

They wanted to find information that would help them discredit Joseph Wilson — oops, sorry — Daniel Ellsberg.

Following the political drama that engulfed Washington this week against the backdrop of another military quagmire in another strategic part of Asia — the uncovering of a political and media campaign to discredit war opponents and an effort to cover it up; the indictment of a White House aide who had participated in that conspiracy; a US president that is fighting for his political life; a US capital that is holding its collective breath and waiting for more heads to fall — I was reminded of Karl Marx’s famous maxim that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

Tragedy

Unfortunately, while the Plamgate scandal — that centers on the "outing" by White House officials of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative Valerie (Plame) Wilson — is beginning to look more and more like a rerun of Watergate, it certainly doesn’t have the making of a farce, but of another tragedy.

Plamgate is probably not going to bring down the Bush presidency, but it could bring to a sad end the careers of several top government officials and send some of them to jail. And it could certainly affect public and Congressional attitudes towards the Iraq War. Last Friday, the first victim in the drama was indicted by a Federal jury in Washington. I. Lewis Libby aka "Scooter," Vice-President Richard Cheney’s chief of staff, was charged with lying to investigators and misleading the grand jury that is investigating the leaking to the press of the CIA’s officer’s name.

Libby was one of the White House’s "Vulcans" that have been the driving force behind President Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy, including the invasion of Iraq. He has been described as "Cheney’s Cheney," the most powerful aide to the most powerful vice-president in American history. Libby, a neoconservative ideologue and a protégé of former Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, was also an adviser to President Bush and one of the members of the "White House Iraq Group."

This secretive entity helped manage the political and public relations campaign to win Congressional and public support for an attack on Iraq, including by suggesting that Saddam Hussein was buying significant quantities of uranium from Africa to help develop nuclear weapons (President Bush made that argument in a state-of-the-union address on the eve of the war). When former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, following a trip he made to Africa, told reporters that he could not verify that Niger sold uranium to Iraq and accused the White House of misleading the American public and Congress, Libby apparently led a behind-the-scene campaign to discredit Wilson, telling reporters that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and was responsible for sending him to Niger.

Libby denied his involvement in the conspiracy against Wilson during an FBI investigation, but the special prosecutor insisted that "Scooter" lied about that. Legal analysts are debating whether Libby will be sentenced to jail, but political analysts agree that his indictment is just the first chapter in a scandal whose main focus would be political; the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq and the political and public relations battle it launched to win support for ousting Saddam Hussein.

That the indictment of Libby took place in the same week that the death toll of Americans in Iraq passed 2,000 dramatizes the challenges that President Bush and the "war party" in his administration will have to confront in the coming weeks and months.

The trial of Libby will take place against the backdrop of the growing mess and rising American casualties in Iraq, with top White House officials, including Vice-president Cheney, being called to testify as witnesses. The trial, coupled with reports by a more aggressive press and Congress, will help uncover some of the methods of deception that were used by the administration before the Iraq War to persuade a skeptical American and international public that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and links to Al-Qaeda.

Poser

And one of the main questions that will be posed by journalists and lawmakers: "Who were the President’s men that conducted the disinformation campaign on Iraq, and what did President Bush and Vice-president Cheney know or did not know about that?"

All of this will take place at a time when President Bush is continuing to sink in the opinion polls, which suggest that his approval ratings are now in the low 40s. The White House remains under enormous strain after botching the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers and the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina.

Although Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove was not indicted last Friday, Bush’s most influential adviser ("Bush’s Brain") remains under investigation for his role in a conspiracy to "out" Valerie Wilson, and it is quite possible that he will also be indicted and forced to resign. Moreover, with the 2006 mid-term election getting closer, Bush has even been attacked by members of his own Republican party and some of his conservative allies, while some leading Republican figures have been involved in various corruption scandals.

In a way, President Bush has lost the aura of invincibility that he seemed to have acquired as the winning post-9/11 "War President" whom lawmakers and journalists refrained from attacking for fear they would be punished by a mighty White House and a supportive public.

Like Nixon at the height of Watergate, Bush is now perceived as a weak and ineffective president. This explains why so many critics of President Bush and his Iraq policy, such as former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, are coming out from their holes where they have been hiding for so long. The "fear factor" has gone and the long (political) knives are being sharpened.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).

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