Sunday, November 06, 2005

Three Scandals or One?

In the fifth year of George W. Bush's presidency, three great storm clouds have come piling up from the recent past to converge in the present, and throw the deepest possible shadow over the future.

The first cloud is of course the scandal surrounding the disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, in connection with which the Vice President's Chief of Staff, I. Lewis Libby, was recently indicted, and the President's own closest advisor, Karl Rove, remains in possible legal jeopardy.

The second cloud is that which swirls around the question of whether the Bush administration knowingly distorted intelligence in making its case for war against Saddam Hussein, thereby creating the impression of an imminent threat where none existed--a question recently given new life by, among other things, Sen. Harry Reid's bold use of Senate Rule 21 to force the majority to undertake a promised, but never-delivered, Intelligence Committee investigation of the matter.

The third cloud shadowing the Bush presidency is one that first appeared on the scene with the Abu Ghraib revelations in April 2004, and that has gained new urgency from such events as the disclosures regarding prisoner abuse by Capt. Ian Fishback of the 82nd Airborne, and the recent revelation of a CIA-run network of secret prisons abroad.

The betrayal of Valerie Plame, the distortion of pre-war intelligence, the torture of prisoners: Each of these scandals has, by itself, the potential to damage the Bush presidency deeply enough, that nothing short of an internal coup--along the lines of what Howard Baker did for Ronald Reagan's second term in the wake of Iran-Contra--will save it.

Is there anything of substance connecting the three scandals? Do they share a common root?

That we cannot know--at least not yet. For each of the three scandals is surrounded by its own firewall. Mr. Libby, as John Dean recently remarked, is the firewall for Mr. Cheney--or, at least, what Patrick Fitzgerald's five indictments allege to be Libby's systematic program of deception is acting as a barricade to prevent Mr. Fitzgerald from following the trail of Valerie Plame's exposure wherever in the administration it might lead. If Mr. Libby knew that George W. Bush would not be in a position to extend to him, in the event of a conviction, the same courtesy that George H. W. Bush extended to the Iran-Contra conspirators, this might concentrate his mind more on his own fate. But Mr. Bush seems unlikely to let Mr. Libby feel thus abandoned, so long as the firewall stays in good repair.

The situation is even less promising in the other two cases, for there we have no special prosecutor to test the resilience of the firewalls. On the question of torture, it is true, Sen. McCain is making himself troublesome to the administration and its loyal defenders in the House majority. But Sen. McCain is asking only that the administration disavow torture from now on. He has 90 votes in the Senate for that, but he does not have 90 votes for getting the administration to come clean about who is responsible for the torture that has already happened. On that question, the firewall is probably manned by reliable majorities in both houses.

Sen. Reid, meanwhile, has certainly shown that the Senate minority is not without weapons of its own, and he has successfully deployed one of these to compel at least a formal resumption of the stalled-then-abandoned investigation into the politicization of pre-war intelligence. But Sen. Reid's arsenal cannot contain many more weapons like that one, and the majority knows this. Moreover, his Rule 21 gambit succeeded largely through the element of surprise, and the majority is unlikely to be taken unawares a second time. It remains to be seen whether his threat created enough fear to force from the majority more than token adherence to the promise of completing a genuine investigation into how intelligence was used (and misused) in the run-up to the war.

Under these circumstances, it will hard enough for any one scandal to be traced to its ultimate source, much less for the links between any two, or all three, to be disclosed. If I were to guess, I would say that all roads, in the end, lead back to what Col. Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former Chief of Staff, has called the "cabal" centered around Dick Cheney. At least, it very much looks as if the "Team B" mentality, with which the Vice President has long been associated--contempt for regular military and intelligence institutions and procedures, belief that real power should be in the hands of parallel institutions staffed by trusted hawks-- has dominated the administration's foreign policy agenda. It might fall to historians, more than to contemporaries, to test that intuition.

Whatever the actual connections between them, however, these three embarrassments are now crystallizing into a unified scandal more powerful than any since Watergate. And as in Watergate, the disparate elements of super-scandal are held in concentric orbits by the inescapable gravity of a war gone bad--or rather, of an administration's failed wager concerning such a war.

Nixon wagered his presidency on the idea that he could extract the country from Vietnam by drawing down troops while unleashing more and wider-ranging violence on the enemy. This was the real "secret plan" to end the war, on the promise of which he had campaigned. The draw-down would placate a home front that had, at the very least, lost faith in the government's predictions of imminent success. The redoubled destruction, meanwhile, would make the North Vietnamese pliant at the bargaining table, out of fear of what "crazy" Nixon would do next.

Nixon lost that wager because neither the Vietnamese enemy nor the American people responded as he had hoped they would. The former proved endlessly resilient, and the latter proved unwilling to overlook that fact--or to forgive Nixon for not having reckoned with it. The more obvious it became that the wager had been a bad one, the more Nixon staked on it, lashing out both publicly and clandestinely at all those who raised their voices in protest at the ever-rising losses. Watergate is the name history ultimately gave to the secret portions of that organized lashing-out.

George W. Bush placed his own wager in the spring and summer of 2002. The spontaneous upwelling of national unity following 9-11 had given him an unprecedented amount of what he likes to call "political capital," and he was determined to use it to make even more. But Bush's political capital of 2002 was, like Nixon's of 1969, highly leveraged. Bush was betting that a splendid little war would silence critics who pointed to the absence of an imminent threat, or of a connection between Hussein and the perpetrators of 9-11, or of substantial international support. Even more, regime change in Iraq, charter member of the "axis of evil," would transform the War on Terror into the political equivalent of World War II--and Bush himself into a sort of right-wing FDR.

Like Nixon, Bush's initial wager was consumed by the uncertainties of war. And like Nixon, he has responded to bruising losses by throwing good coin after bad. It was bad enough to have exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in order to get us into the war; it was worse yet to let panic about the war's course take over administration policy, driving it to an increasingly flagrant and widespread use of torture abroad, and an increasingly ruthless program of character assassination of the war's critics here at home. The former gave us Abu Ghraib and the other torture scandals, the latter gave us the exposure of Valerie Plame as a means to bury Joe Wilson.

One of the things that set Watergate apart from the typical Washington scandal was how what began with the disclosure of a seemingly small-bore bit of political skullduggery--the famous third-rate burglary--ultimately precipitated the unveiling of an entire political demimonde of force and fraud underlying the Nixon presidency.

In that respect, it is starting to look like 1973 all over again.

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