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Bush & Democracy Hypocrisy
Part 2: The Hypocrisy at Home

By Nat Parry
January 5, 2004           [For Part One, Click Here.]

In mid-2002, when George W. Bush’s goal of invading Iraq was clear but the American people and Congress had yet to commit, some optimists saw an opportunity for a great debate about the future course of U.S. foreign policy. Did the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, require a unilateralist military strategy against Bush’s “axis of evil,” or did a multilateral approach against specific terrorist groups and against the root causes of terrorism make more sense?

This debate, the optimists thought, could be thorough and thoughtful because Saddam Hussein’s government didn’t pose an imminent threat to the United States. Plus, there was no serious evidence connecting the secular Hussein to the Islamic fundamentalists at the core of al-Qaeda’s terrorist bands. Even Bush spoke of “gathering dangers,” not immediate ones.

It soon became clear, however, that the “great debate” optimists were wrong. From the start, Bush’s plan for winning support for the Iraq War was all about baiting, not debating. Rather than a shining moment for American democracy, the Bush administration turned the life-and-death decisions of war and peace into a mockery of democracy.

From the start, the administration presented false evidence about Iraq’s supposed vast stockpiles of trigger-ready weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, any American who questioned the bogus WMD evidence was hooted down as a dupe or a traitor. Former weapons inspector and ex-Marine Scott Ritter was maligned as some sort of Iraqi agent for questioning Bush’s WMD rationale for war.

Boycotted Celebrities

When celebrities, such as actor Sean Penn or the music group Dixie Chicks, questioned the war, Bush enthusiasts reacted with fury and boycotts. When the French government urged more time for U.N. weapons inspectors to search for the WMD, Bush backers poured French wine into gutters. Bush’s Air Force One joined the fun by renaming French toast, “freedom toast.”

When former Vice President Al Gore challenged Bush’s rush to war in a carefully argued speech, Gore’s sanity and integrity were questioned across the TV pundit spectrum. Was Bush’s former rival motivated by bitterness or was he just a compulsive liar? [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics of Preemption.”]

Throughout this period, Bush was aided and abetted by a national news media in which big-name journalists were more concerned about wrapping themselves in the flag and protecting their paychecks than in performing the deeper patriotic duty of arming the American public with reliable facts and encouraging a healthy debate. The same goofiness that marked the sex-and-crime scandal reporting of the 1990s was there again, though flavored this time with a syrupy concern for “the troops.”

MSNBC, Fox and other TV networks branded themselves in red, white and blue with sentimental features such as “America’s Bravest.” Soon to be added would be other features dubbed the “Ultimate Sacrifice” or “America’s Fallen.” Network executives were pleased that the lump-in-the-throat emotionalism brought a bump in the ratings. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s Matrix.”]

Historical Amnesia

Bush was helped, too, by members of Congress from both parties who ducked any serious examination of how U.S. policy toward Iraq had evolved. There were no public hearings on past CIA assistance for Hussein and his Baath Party. Nor did Congress ask troubling questions about how U.S. presidents from Jimmy Carter through George H.W. Bush had used Hussein as a bulwark against Iran’s Islamic fundamentalism. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Missing U.S.-Iraq History."]

The American people were spared, too, from any reprise of the Iraqgate scandal of the 1980s, which had implicated then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and other U.S. officials, including Donald Rumsfeld, in coddling Hussein even as he was using chemical warfare against his military and political enemies. While fuller disclosure of the covert U.S. role behind the precursor chemicals reaching Iraq in the 1980s might have given greater depth to the national debate about the alleged WMD, the U.S. news media politely averted its eyes from those facts during the march toward war in 2002.

If the Washington press corps had been looking, it might have discovered what has recently become public, that in 1984, Rumsfeld, then Ronald Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East, carried a reassuring private message to Baghdad.

According to a declassified cable from then-Secretary of State George Shultz, Rumsfeld was instructed to tell Hussein that Washington’s public criticism of his use of chemical weapons shouldn’t disrupt the ongoing efforts to forge warmer relations. In other words, Hussein should take any finger-wagging from Washington with a grain of salt. [See Washington Post, Dec. 19, 2003, or the document from the National Security Archive.]

But, in October 2002 as Bush pressed his case for war, the Iraqgate scandal was treated like an irrelevant, ancient story. Rumsfeld had become the flinty-eyed Secretary of Defense, the tough-guy leader who would never compromise with the likes of Hussein. Meanwhile, Bush’s political advisers were exploiting the war fever to win close congressional races, and Democratic leaders were desperate to finesse the war question and refocus the voters on domestic issues.

So, Congress handed Bush a blank check for war. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was one of the few who asked probing questions from the floor, though his eloquent speeches circulated more on the Internet and in the foreign press than through the major U.S. news media.

Even direct action by millions of Americans who joined worldwide anti-war marches was of little interest to the Washington press corps and the city’s political establishment. Bush dismissed the marches, likening the unprecedented demonstrations against a war that had yet to begin to a “focus group” that he would not let sway his determination to press forward.

The U.S. war debate was further curtailed by the incremental deployment of U.S. troops. Ironically, rather than giving the United States a wider range of options, the presence of American troops in the Middle East limited the politically acceptable U.S. course to a single option: war.

U.S. troops were first sent to the Persian Gulf allegedly to put pressure on Iraq to come clean about its supposed WMD, a seemingly reasonable idea. But once there, the argument shifted: the United States would look silly if the troops just turned around and came home without Iraq surrendering its WMD. Then, after Bush ordered the invasion – and even though the WMD stockpiles never materialized – the argument changed again: the United States couldn’t afford to fail. “Victory” – whatever that meant amid the chaos of Iraq – was the only option.

In Harm’s Way

On March 19, 2003, the U.S. government along with Great Britain and small contingents from the “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq. Without any serious national debate, young American soldiers were put in harm’s way. Thousands of Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians, would die. Washington would alienate many of its oldest allies, as worldwide animosities were stirred up, arguably worsening America’s vulnerability to terrorism, not lessening it.

Though offering the spread of democracy as one of the justifications for the invasion, Bush and his followers effectively had neutered the process at home. Their true goal in Iraq – as well as in the United States – seemed to be the creation of a “managed democracy” that would keep some trappings of popular self-government while ensuring that the outcome was always acceptable to the Bush family and its business and political allies. The insiders would make the decisions; the people would acquiesce.

Privately – and sometimes publicly – Bush insiders would celebrate this transformation of the United States from what Bush used to call a “humble” nation into a modern-day empire inspired by a quasi-religious certainty in its own righteousness. Not only has it become fashionable in some political quarters to suggest that God chose George W. Bush to be president but that God also selected the United States to carry out His political missions around the world.

Vice President Dick Cheney expressed both elements of this new spirit in a Christmas card sent to political friends in late 2003. Cheney took out of its historical context a quote from Benjamin Franklin, who said at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

Though Cheney offered no explanation for this peculiar Christmas message, the implication seemed clear enough: God was guiding America’s emergence as an empire. [For a commentary on the Cheney card and the Franklin quote, see the Washington Post’s “More to This Card Than Season’s Greetings,” Dec. 28, 2003]

Saudi Connection

Yet, as empires have discovered throughout history, the occupation of foreign peoples abroad often endangers democratic freedoms at home. That trajectory of lost liberties had already begun in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks when Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the mass arrests of thousands of Arabs and other Islamic people inside the United States for, as Ashcroft put it, the legal equivalent of “spitting on the sidewalk.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Grim Vision."]

These mass detentions, often for minor visa violations or as “material witnesses,” swept up large numbers of students and taxi drivers, but netted no one who was implicated in the Sept. 11 attacks. The only person charged in the United States in connection with the attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui, was already in detention when the attacks occurred.

Plus, in a sign of how the Bush administration routinely favors its friends, the only Arabs in the United States who might reasonably have been expected to hold useful information about Osama bin Laden – members of the bin Laden family – were given special permission to fly out of the U.S. in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

While these secret flights were supposedly humanitarian gestures to protect the safety of the bin Ladens, their removal also spared the Bushes the embarrassment of having bin Laden family members explain to the FBI about personal business dealings with former President Bush and his former Secretary of State James Baker through the Carlyle Group, an investment company that ended its relationship with the bin Ladens only after the Sept. 11 attacks..

So, as Ashcroft rounded up thousands of “usual suspect” Arabs, relatives of the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks were spirited out of the United States in flights arranged by Saudi diplomats without the bin Laden family members having to undergo FBI interrogation. [For details on the bin Laden evacuation, see Craig Unger's "Saving the Saudis," Vanity Fair, October 2003.]

In those same early days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration also began turning its attention to invading Iraq. U.S. officials started circulating unsubstantiated allegations about links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, while downplaying much stronger evidence connecting Saudi officials to the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were from Saudi Arabia. None were from Iraq.

According to a recently disclosed confidential German police report, Saudi diplomat Muhammed Kakihi met a member of the Hamburg, Germany, terrorist cell implicated in the Sept. 11 attacks in the weeks after the attacks, the Wall Street Journal reported.

A few days after the meeting in Germany, police arrested the suspected terrorist, Mounir el-Motassadeq. This year, el-Motassadeq, a 29-year-old Moroccan, was convicted as an accessory to the Sept. 11 murders and as a member of a terrorist organization. The Wall Street Journal, which disclosed the German police document, called it “the strongest indication yet of the Saudi embassy’s close dealings with radical Muslims in Germany.” [WSJ, Dec. 16, 2003]

So, while serious counter-terrorism investigators might have wanted to wring information from the bin Laden family and challenge Saudi Arabia about its terrorist ties, the Bush administration instead rounded up Arabs guilty of minor visa violations and started planning the invasion of Iraq.

War Echoes at Home

Ashcroft also was making clear that the post-Sept. 11 period was no time to criticize the Bush administration over curtailment of democratic freedoms at home.

The attorney general admonished those who fret over “the phantoms of lost liberty” because those who would make such complaints only serve to “aid terrorists – for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.” These signs of dissent “give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends,” Ashcroft said at congressional hearings in December 2001.

Ashcroft's testimony was in response to criticism of the USA Patriot Act that had been passed two months earlier. The law granted law enforcement broad new powers to secretly search homes, to monitor citizens’ Internet activity and to look into library records to see what books people are reading. The law also defined “terrorism” so broadly administration officials can now justify investigations of any number of political opponents.

Section 802 of the Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as “activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or any state; (B) appear to be intended (i) to influence policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (ii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. …” 

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association have objected to this definition, particularly the provision of (B)(i). The prohibition against seeking to influence government policy by “intimidation” is so vague and so subjective that virtually any act of civil disobedience or confrontational protest could fit under the definition, the critics say.

Conversely, administration allies are unlikely to ever fall under its terms. For instance, the terrorism definition is so broad that it could apply to the Bush administration’s leaking of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame in an attempt to discredit or intimidate her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, for disclosing evidence that undermined Bush’s claim that Iraq bought “yellowcake” uranium from Niger. Willful naming of covert CIA officers is against the law because it may put their lives in danger, but Bush is certain not to apply the “terrorism” label to his own staff and possibly to himself.

The loose anti-terrorism standards, however, already are being applied to anti-Bush protesters. The FBI sent a memorandum to local law enforcement agencies before last October’s demonstrations against the occupation of Iraq. The memo detailed protesters’ tactics and analyzed activities such as the recruitment of protesters over the Internet. The FBI also alerted the police to the tendency of some demonstrators to wear gear such as gas masks and helmets, in order to protect from tear gas and beatings.

In November, the New York Times reported that the FBI “has collected extensive information on the tactics, training and organization of antiwar demonstrators and has advised local law enforcement officials to report any suspicious activity at protests to its counterterrorism squads.” [NYT, Nov. 23, 2003.]

“The FBI is dangerously targeting Americans who are engaged in nothing more than lawful protest and dissent,” said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero. “The line between terrorism and legitimate civil disobedience is blurred, and I have a serious concern about whether we're going back to the days of [the late FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover... What the FBI regards as potential terrorism strikes me as civil disobedience.”

Hoover was FBI director from 1924 to his death in 1972. During the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, Hoover’s FBI engaged in widespread infiltration and disruption operations, including the infamous COINTELPRO program.

The Miami Model

Today’s targets go beyond protesters challenging the Iraq War to include opponents of other Bush administration policies, such as trade practices and environmental standards.

The prosecution of the Iraq War and the containment of domestic dissent crossed paths when Congress approved $87 billion for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of that total, $8.5 million was earmarked to buy tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and electric tasers to be used against demonstrators in Miami who were protesting the Free Trade Area of the Americas from Nov. 17-21.

The Miami response to those protests marked some of the worst violence ever seen against the anti-globalization movement, as police deployed a variety of assault tactics and equipment. Demonstrators complained of arbitrary and unnecessary police attacks in which anyone caught up in the protests was treated as a legitimate target.

Protesters were shot in the back with rubber bullets by police who looked more like paramilitary forces than police officers. They banged their riot batons against their shields chanting, “Back, back, back,” at the demonstrators. Legal observers – identified by their fluorescent green hats – were reportedly targeted for special abuse. One reported being snatched off the street by police disguised as protesters, thrown in a police van and beaten.

Women complained of being arrested and stripped in front of male police officers. A female reporter from Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!” also was arrested and stripped naked, after the police determined that she was not “with us,” in that she wasn't “embedded” with the Miami Police Department. [See Jeremy Scahill’s “The Miami Model.”]

The police actions drew widespread criticism from activist organizations and labor unions that were involved in the protests. Amnesty International weighed in as well, arguing that the Miami police may have broken various international laws and conventions in their systematic brutality against the demonstrators.

In a letter to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Amnesty expressed concern over “reports of the indiscriminate and inappropriate use of non-lethal weapons on nonviolent protesters resulting in scores of injuries, the obstruction of those providing medical treatment, multiple and random arrests ... and the denial of the right to freedom of expression and association,” Reuters reported on Dec. 19.

In a press release, Amnesty said that “The level of force used by police does not appear to have been at all justified.”

The police defended their actions as necessary to deal with extremists and to protect the 34 trade ministers at the negotiations. The Miami police chief praised his forces as a “well-oiled machine” and the mayor termed their handling of the protests a “model for homeland defense.” Indeed, delegates from police forces around the country were on hand to observe the Miami police in action. Some law enforcement experts have begun referring to the “Miami Model” as the future method for handling mass demonstrations.

Other battles are shaping up in the courts as Ashcroft’s prosecutors go beyond the new tools of the Patriot Act and dust off old laws that can be used to cripple troublesome groups. The Justice Department recently launched a criminal prosecution against the environmental group Greenpeace, using a 1872 law against “sailor-mongering.” The case against Greenpeace follows an attempt by a couple of its members to board a ship transporting illegally harvested Brazilian mahogany. The protesters hoped to unfurl a banner that read, “President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging

While Greenpeace members have been prosecuted in the past on an individual basis, this case is the first time the group has been prosecuted as an organization. Many civil libertarians see it as a politically motivated attack on a group that opposes Bush administration policies. They fear the larger purpose is to silence critics and chill dissent.

Democrats at War

Despite these trends toward a clamp-down on political rights, this year’s presidential campaign may hold out the last flickering hope for a “great debate” over the future course of U.S. democracy.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has jumped to the lead in polls of Democratic voters because of his consistent criticism of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Many in the Democratic base clearly want Bush challenged over his post-Sept. 11 redirection of America into a modern-day empire.

Whether the U.S. political process still has enough openness to allow for a “great” or even serious debate remains in doubt, however.

The hostility against Iraq War skeptics seems to have pervaded even the Democratic presidential field. Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry – who all supported Bush’s war resolution in October 2002 – have attacked Dean for refusing to back off his opposition in the face of public rejoicing over the capture of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. news media has echoed these attacks with repetitious discussions of Dean’s “latest gaffe.”

Dean’s alleged offense was to throw cold water on the celebrations over Hussein’s capture by arguing that the arrest “has not made Americans safer.” Dean’s point was that the Iraq War was always a diversion from the greater threat posed by al-Qaeda terrorists and that therefore Hussein’s capture represented only a false sense of renewed security, that the real danger was still out there.

But Dean’s apostasy brought quick denunciations from some of his Democratic rivals and such pillars of the Washington establishment as the Washington Post editorial page.

Joe Lieberman said Dean “has climbed into his own spider hole of denial if he believes that the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer.” Kerry said Dean’s comment “raises serious doubts about both his realism and resolve.” [NYT, Dec. 28, 2003] A Washington Post editorial entitled “Beyond the Mainstream” declared that Dean’s “argument that this tyrant was not a danger to the United States is not just unfounded but ludicrous.”

Oddly, it was the Bush administration that unintentionally vindicated Dean’s “ludicrous” position a couple of days after the Post editorial. Shortly before the Christmas holidays, the administration elevated the national terrorism alert from yellow to orange and canceled a number of international flights into Dulles Airport outside Washington.

But after days of pounding Dean for his “gaffe,” the U.S. news media made little acknowledgement that he may have had a point after all. Indeed, Dean's Hussein “gaffe” has solidified the conventional wisdom within the Washington press corps that Dean is, as the Post put it, “beyond the mainstream.”

As the presidential election campaign takes shape over the next few months, a key question may be whether Dean or any insurgent candidate has any hope of getting out his message over the din of media ridicule.

An even more serious question may be whether the American political process has so narrowed that citizens will begin to believe they have no real power to affect the outcome, so why bother?

Has “democracy” become just another word that has lost its meaning? Has the Bush administration so altered the concept – both inside the United States and in Iraq – that democracy is now just another feel-good expression disconnected from any genuine concept of the people governing?

Is this rewriting of democracy’s meaning perhaps the greatest of all threats to democracy?

[To read the first part of Bush & Democracy Hypocrisy, click here.]

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