Why did we go to war in Iraq? Frank Rich has the answer.
Why we are really in Iraq
Bush dragged the U.S. to war so the GOP could win midterm elections -- and the press went along for the ride -- argues the New York Times' Frank Rich.
By Gary Kamiya
Sept. 21, 2006 | As it lied its way to war in Iraq, the Bush administration had powerful allies at the New York Times. Judith Miller, whose stenographic reporting on Saddam's WMD helped the administration make the case for war, was the most notorious. And the intellectual support of Thomas Friedman, widely considered to be the most influential foreign-policy columnist in the world, was also key.
At the same time, the newspaper of record produced two formidable critics, who emerged from somewhat unexpected places. One was an economics professor named Paul Krugman, who from his perch on the Op-Ed page ventured far beyond the confines of the dismal science to savage the administration. The other was the paper's former drama critic, Frank Rich, who used his feature-length column in the Arts & Leisure section (it was later moved to the Week in Review) to expose the way the Bush team manipulated the facts, staged events, intimidated critics, and generally created a convincing but utterly fake narrative about itself and its disastrous war.
Rich's columns had an instantly identifiable slant and tone. He had an unerring nose for the stench of corrupted truth, no matter how heavily doused in patriotic perfume. Rich combined his skills as a drama critic with his political savvy to "review" the banal, but brutally effective, Broadway play that Karl Rove, John Ashcroft and Bush's other stage managers so masterfully produced. A kind of Everyman's semiotician, Rich was unmatched at exposing the slick imagery (inevitably revolving around flag-waving and fear) that the Bush administration substituted for reality. And especially in the run-up and early days of the war, before the Times emerged from the fog of bad reporting and confused, timid editorial thinking that had plagued its coverage, his column was a much-needed shot of reality. For millions of readers thinking, "They didn't really use that moth-eaten 'Triumph of the Will' set again, did they?" Rich could be a virtual sanity-preserver.
In "The Greatest Story Ever Sold," Rich's canvas is larger than his columns would ever allow -- he's dealing with the entire Bush presidency, not an individual scam or lie. The book isn't as dazzlingly adroit as his best columns, but how could it have been? There are plenty of his trademark sharp aperçus, cultural comparisons and metaphorical skewerings here, but if he had approached the entire book that way it would have been all salt and no meat. Rich is smart enough not to push his politics-as-performance trope too far: In the end, he knows that politics is about power and its consequences in the real world, not some postmodern theory where everything dissolves into images. Accordingly, most of "The Greatest Story" is a straight, well-researched, clearly written narrative of Bush and his cohorts' lies, deceptions and misdeeds, and of the cowardly and lazy press and "opposition party" that let him get away with them.
But even if Rich's book is mostly a chronological retelling of familiar tales, it is invaluable as a comprehensive record of the tawdry machinations of a debased presidency, a kind of one-stop-shopping mall for all things truthy and Bushiful. Need a pithy, accurate account of the "Mission Accomplished" episode? Check. Need to refresh your memory about Bush's various, contradictory accounts of his relation to "Kenny Boy"? Check. Searching for a record of bleak news bulletins that were immediately followed by sudden "revelations" of impending terrorist attacks? Check. Want a transcript of what Cheney actually said about the nonexistent link between Saddam and 9/11? Check.
Of course, Rich frequently displays his trademark Roland Barthes-with-a-remote chops, too. Explaining the failure of Bush's sudden attempt to claim that the war had really been about spreading democracy, not WMD, he notes, "it was tantamount to ambushing an audience at a John Wayne movie with a final reel by Frank Capra." Of Bush's lame "inspiring" appearance in New Orleans' Jackson Square after Hurricane Katrina, he writes that the carefully selected backdrop, St. Louis Cathedral, "was so brightly painted that it registered onscreen like a two-dimensional Mittel Europa castle painted on a backdrop for a nineteenth-century operetta." But for the most part, the events he describes tell their own story -- no commentary is really needed to explicate the Bush administration's outrageously cynical political maneuverings.
Rich situates this sad story in a larger cultural frame, which he alludes to in his subtitle: "The Decline and Fall of Truth." In a brilliantly incisive and damning epilogue -- these 20 pages alone are worth the price of the book -- he writes, "the very idea of truth is an afterthought and an irrelevancy in a culture where the best story wins." That culture, he notes, took off in the mid 1990s, when "the American electronic news media jumped the shark. That's when CNN was joined by even more boisterous rival 24/7 cable networks, when the Internet became a mass medium, and when television news operations, by far the main source of news for most Americans, were gobbled up by entertainment giants such as Disney, Viacom, and Time Warner. While there had always been a strong entertainment component to TV news, that packaging was now omnipresent ... In this new mediathon environment, drama counted more than judicious journalism." The Bush administration did not create this culture, he notes, but it "was brilliant at exploiting it to serve its own selfish reality-remaking ends." To his credit, Rich does not claim that America's infotainment culture was the decisive factor that allowed Bush to wage a war whose likely consequences, as he points out, could cause Bush to be judged the worst president in American history. But he is indisputably correct that it played an important role.
Of course, Rich is hardly the first to anatomize the decline of America's news culture. Far more compelling -- and originally argued -- is his insight into the real reason Bush went to war in Iraq. His answer to this endlessly debated question, and his related excursus on the personality of Bush himself, may be the single most lucid and convincing one I've ever read. Although it is almost painfully obvious, and wins the Occam's Razor test of being the simplest, it is put forward considerably less often than more ideological theories -- whether about controlling oil, supporting Israel, establishing American hegemony, or one-upping his father.
Perhaps this is because Americans, in their innocence, cannot accept that any president would deliberately launch a major war simply to win the midterm elections. Yet Rich makes a powerful argument that that is the case.
Playing the key role, not surprisingly, is Karl Rove. "To track down Rove's role, it's necessary to flash back to January 2002," Rich writes. The Afghanistan war had been a success. "In a triumphalist speech to the Republican National Committee, Rove for the first time openly advanced the idea that the war on terror was the path to victory for that November's midterm elections." Rove decided Bush needed to be a "war president." The problem, however, was that Afghanistan was fading from American minds, Osama bin Laden had escaped, and the secret, unglamorous -- and actually effective -- approach America was taking to fighting terror wasn't a political winner. "How do you run as a vainglorious 'war president' if the war looks as if it's winding down and the number one evildoer has escaped?"
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
-President Barack Obama, 1st Inaugural address
Last edited by FeelTheLove; 09-21-2006 at 10:09 AM.