Against Thought: Writing Iraq


Books on current affairs and politics typically receive far more attention from newspaper review sections than they deserve. This is mainly because they are either written by reporters (that is, newspaper employees) or newsmakers, and deal with matters of interest to the kinds of people who still read newspapers. Some of them even contain news. They recommend themselves because they tend to be written (or ghostwritten, as the case may be) in a fast-paced, journalistic style that makes for a quick and easy read, though they can also be uncomfortably bulky, padded with a lot of background detail that most reviewers are tempted to skim. Such haste is encouraged, as current affairs, by definition, don’t stay current for long. These books are the acknowledged rulers of the remainder pile, often out of date by the time of their initial publication and rarely worth bothering to bring out months later as a paperback. Nevertheless, if the topic is of sufficient interest and controversy, they can be enormously successful. And like any journalistic account of contemporary events they can provide readers a rough first draft of history.

The administration of President George W. Bush, and in particular its handling of the war in Iraq, is a topic that has inspired a truly monumental amount of instant literature. And this is a trend that will likely continue as we get even more accounts written by the principals involved and reporters come up with further revelations. One can imagine historians going over the wreckage of these years for a long time to come. What follows is an early overview of some recent books covering many of the same events and personalities: Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy by Andrew Cockburn, Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency by Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic by Chalmers Johnson, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA by George Tenet (with Bill Harlow), and State of Denial by Bob Woodward. What brief and abstract history of the times do they provide?

Any approach to the Bush (II) years has to begin with a look to the preceding Clinton administration and what it represented. The significant thing about the Clinton years is that they were good years. The stock market, fueled by the growth of the technology sector, boomed. International conflict, for the most part, could be either ignored (as in Rwanda) or safely managed from afar in “virtual wars” involving no loss of life (as in the air operations over Bosnia). Upon his election, Bush would find it remarkable that he had run against eight years of peace and prosperity and won. And indeed there was something surprising in this. But the real lesson Americans seem to have taken from the Clinton years is that the office of the president was (contrary to Clinton’s own assertions, significant in the fact that they even had to be publicly expressed) irrelevant. America, it was widely assumed, was so rich and powerful that anyone could be put in charge and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Or, as retired general Tony McPeak remarked at the end of a 2007 panel discussion appearing in Rolling Stone on the unfolding disaster in Iraq (“Beyond Quagmire”): “America has been conducting an experiment for the past six years, trying to validate the proposition that it really doesn’t make any difference who you elect president. Now we know the result of that experiment [laughs]. If a guy is stupid, it makes a big difference.”

Stupid? Well: “Kissinger liked Bush personally, though he told colleagues that it was not clear to him that the president really knew how to run the government.”

“I’ve never thought Bush was dumb at all,” [Carl] Levin said, lightly rapping on the table for emphasis. “But I think he’s intellectually lazy.”

Bear in mind that these are diplomats speaking of their wartime commander-in-chief.

There seems to have been little disagreement even before his election that the “guy” was, in fact, not just ill-informed and inexperienced but a moron (almost officially “too dumb to fly” by the standards of the Air Force National Guard). Void of charisma, incapable of thinking on his feet, and inarticulate to the point of appearing to many to be dyslexic, his dependence on a tightly controlled script became his chief political virtue. The standard line, which began as a media joke at his expense, was that he had no “intellectual curiosity.” This was only a witty way of saying he was stupid, since only a thoroughly ignorant person is without any intellectual curiosity. And yet even this euphemistic insult was eventually adopted as a mark of distinction and worn as a badge of pride. This president would not be an effete intellectual, but someone who operated through a blend of faith and instinct, eschewing “facts” and “reality” (the quotation marks are necessary) while “thinking” with his heart and his gut.

That is, when he would be called upon to do any thinking at all. Early indications were that he would be spending record amounts of time on vacation, leaving the adult business of government to his veteran handlers. It had been this way all his life. And perhaps this explains his immaturity, particularly as expressed in his very silly and theatrical acts of rebelliousness against his father. For Bush Jr. had to understand himself to be, at a profound level, the very antithesis of the self-made man: Someone whose every accomplishment and achievement in life was a gift presented to him by others. A gift not for actually doing anything, but simply for being who he was. Even his much ballyhooed background in the Texas oil “bidness” had been nothing but a series of expensive disasters, with his only marketable quality being his name and connections (which were indeed valuable, as the career of his vice-presidential running mate, nearly equally incompetent as an executive, clearly demonstrated). These non-credentials in place, he would not even be elected, but purchased and installed like an appliance.

To play such a role ignorance was no liability. The new president’s “brain” was a function tasked to one of his closest political advisors. Bush himself wouldn’t take any interest in details, even when presented as a way of understanding and dealing with crisis situations (a quality he apparently shared with fellow bureaucrat-chief executive booby and good friend Kenneth Lay). His aforementioned handlers, chief among them the vice-president, would make sure he didn’t get too confused. One has to wonder how many readers are deeply disturbed, if not shocked, by non-critical assessments like the following:

On December12, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush and Cheney by a 5-4 vote. In the weeks and months to come, Cheney would assemble Bush’s cabinet. The vice president-elect understood that Bush didn’t want briefing books or excessive detail. Cheney would provide Bush what he needed to know in digestible nuggets.

Without such careful preparation the “decider” could become exasperated and petulant. Confronted with the worsening security situation in Iraq during an NSC meeting, “Bush later expressed his frustration to [White House Chief of Staff Andrew] Card that he was getting sucked into the details of the issue.” God forbid.

This background is important to understand because it goes straight to the heart of the issue of responsibility. In the wake of the bungled mission in Iraq the fingers began to point in different directions. At the top of the chain of command W. would solemnly affirm that he was the “decider.” And yet if nothing else these books make it clear that Bush was hardly even in the loop. Looking for Junior in these pages becomes like a game of “Where’s W?” One has no idea of what he thought or felt, or for that matter even knew, of what was going on around him. There are virtually no telling anecdotes or quotes or anything else of the sort, aside from odd, and jarring, examples of attempts at crude frat-boy machismo (“Kick ass, Jay,” “Yo, Blair”). In his collection of reporting into the Bush White House (Armed Madhouse), the super-diligent Greg Palast writes as follows:

In over four years of investigation, not one insider I spoke with suggested that George Bush weighed in at all on the decisions that would determine the fate of Iraq, the length of war or the price Americans would pay for oil.

And when the going got rough Bush, not a strong man, began to further regress. State of Denial paints an unnerving picture of how this worked in practice. It is October 2003 and things are really starting to unwind in Iraq:

Doubt was corrosive and would lead only to hand-wringing. The president had been the head cheerleader for the football team in his prep school days. There is little or no evidence that he engaged in much substantive policy debate at this point in the war cabinet meetings. His role was to express confidence and enthusiasm.

What makes it especially difficult to follow the trail of culpability away from this present absence at the top is what one insider describes as the administration’s “rubber glove syndrome.” Cheney and Rumsfeld in particular had already learned the value of deniability in their long political careers. Sources close to Rumsfeld describe him to Cockburn as “very good at keeping his fingerprints off things” and wanting “to leave no tracks in the snow.” (In response to Woodward’s questioning he hilariously tries to deny that he is even a military commander.) Dubose and Bernstein refer to secrecy as Cheney’s “personal fetish.” Indeed the vice-president’s goal was to resurrect the “imperial presidency” of Richard Nixon: a pathologically paranoid structure that viewed all news media as enemies while rejecting any notion of ultimate accountability. From mortgaging the future through derelict fiscal policy to ignoring forecasts of global warming, the tone of the culture was set from the highest levels. The buck would stop nowhere. Going a step beyond Nixon, mistakes weren’t even made in the passive sense. There had been no mistakes. A handful of rednecks and hillbillies would take the fall for Abu Ghraib. The man in charge of the federal government’s response to Hurrican Katrina would be congratulated for doing a “heckuva job.” Paul Wolfowitz would be sent off to head the World Bank. George Tenet and Paul Bremer would both be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. If Iraq seemed a bit of a mess, that was all a matter of perception. Negative spin. The fault of the media “elite” (President Bush to Woodward: “you run in different circles than I do. Much more elite.”) or the system (Rumsfeld to Woodward: “the current system of government makes competence next to impossible”). If troubled by doubt one need only look to the great example of the cheerleader-in-chief: Believe, stay the course, don’t think, and remain utterly convinced of your own rectitude. General Peter Pace offers up his own moment of Zen:

“Do you have any doubts that this was the right decision to invade Iraq?”
“I have no doubts at all,” he said. “None. Zero.”
“Isn’t the process, though, you always have some doubt?” I said. “I live on doubt.”
“I’m sorry for you,” the Marine general said.
“Don’t be sorry for me,” I replied. “It’s a wonderful process.”
“I do not have any doubt about what we’ve done,” he said. “We did not do this. When we were sitting home minding our own business, we got attacked on 9/11.”
There it was: “We did not do this.” There is a deep feeling among some senior Bush administration officials that somehow we had not started the Iraq War. We had been attacked.

Appalling is the only word to describe such a thug-like mindset. Utterly thoughtless, utterly ignorant, and absolving itself, through patent untruths (the connection between 9/11 and Iraq, the farcical notion that America, with more than 730 military bases in over 130 countries around the world, is ever “sitting home minding [its] own business”), of all responsibility for a tragedy of biblical proportions. This is the moral legacy of the Decider: “We did not do this.” We don’t do responsibility. We are not to blame.

And who was there to point the finger of blame anyway? Certainly not the media.

I think it’s clear now that whatever opinion one has on the invasion of Iraq, one has to despise the role of the media throughout. A case could be made for an imperial war of conquest in Iraq, just as one can argue, for example, that Spain under Napoleon’s brother might have been a better deal for that country than the long hell of its resistance. And a case can, I think, still be made that given the goals of the Iraq war, the present conflict might conclude in some approximation of success. But such matters have never been debated in the media. References are made to staying in Iraq until “victory” is achieved or until the “job is done,” with no explanation whatsoever of what these terms mean (a point I tried to address in my review of Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco). The talking heads provide an echo chamber for what has turned out to be a bottomless barrel of bullshit: weapons of mass destruction, links to al Qaeda, planting the seeds of democracy.

Even on the surface such claims have always been ludicrous. Isikoff and Corn have a wonderful footnote that tells the story of a reporter asking NSA director Michael Hayden “how the seemingly damming intercepts [referred to by Colin Powell in his U.N. address] squared with the postwar failure to find any WMD.” Of course the “seemingly damning intercepts” were nothing of the kind, but rather a bit of Cheech-and-Chong dialogue in the desert. They were evidence of nothing. “In a revealing moment,” Isikoff and Corn report, “Hayden admitted the intercepts were arguably more ambiguous and open to interpretation than Powell had suggested.” Arguably. But, of course, that didn’t lead anyone to argue them at the time. Or, since then, any of the other bogus justifications for war presented. Mencken on prohibition is worth recalling:

Always, in this great republic, controversies depart swiftly from their original terms and plunge into irrelevancies and false pretences. The case of prohibition is salient. Who recalls the optimistic days before the Eighteenth Amendment, and the lofty prognostication of the dry mullahs, clerical and lay? Prohibition, we were told, would empty the jails, reduce the tax rate, abolish poverty and put an end to political corruption. Today even the Prohibitionists know better, and so they begin to grow discreetly silent upon the matter. Instead, the come forward with an entirely new Holy Cause. What began as a campaign for a Babbit’s Utopia becomes transformed into a mystical campaign for Law Enforcement. Prohibition is a grotesque failure, but the fight must go on. A transcendental motive takes the place of a practical motive. One categorical imperative goes out and another comes in.

The latest categorical imperative/transcendental motive is democracy, the risible “Bush Doctrine” as it is sometimes imaginatively styled. Simply more bullshit to blow about the echo chamber. The last thing the U.S. wants – indeed, according to Ricks the intolerable nightmare scenario for the U.S. – is democracy in Iraq. Wayne White, a State Department Iraq analyst wrote a classified report before the invasion explaining the obvious:

Even if democracy somehow did take root in Iraq or elsewhere, White wrote, it was likely that the government elected would be more antipathetic toward the United States and Israel and closer to militant Islamism. “Liberal democracy would be difficult to achieve,” the report read, and elections could actually bolster “anti-American elements.”

White’s findings, Isikoff and Corn dryly remark, “weren’t revolutionary.” The administration knew the score. Immediately after the December 2005 elections Bush was making it clear “he wanted to weigh in heavily” on the formation of the Iraqi government, “not to dictate outcomes or choose personalities, but to shape an outcome.” As Woodward observes, “It was a fine distinction – shape an outcome but not dictate it. After more than two and a half years it was clear that Bush and the others were not going to let power in Iraq slide to someone unacceptable to them.”

One would have thought attitudes like this, which were hardly secret, would lead to at least some smiles from the media at America’s much-ballyhooed goal of bringing democracy to Iraq. But arguing, with a straight face, the merits and the practicality of the Bush Doctrine gave the chattering classes something with which to fill the news hole. Just as, at the time of this writing, the discussion mostly revolves around the ghastly consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Civil War! Genocide! Perhaps. But it’s all a moot point. The U.S. is not going to withdraw from Iraq. In fact it’s unlikely the U.S. is even going to “withdraw” from Iraq, at least any time soon. (There is a difference in these two statements. The second usage of “withdraw,” placing the word in quotation marks, refers to the – generally accepted if not widely understood – notion that “withdrawal” means leaving some 80,000 troops stationed in three or four giant bases in the country. Permanently.)

Most of these books have been written by critical outsiders. What is interesting in turning to George Tenet’s At the Center of the Storm is how much of a piece it is with all of the others. It is a whitewash, to be sure. Tenet’s take on the events he describes is as airbrushed as his oily cover photograph. Both maudlin and sanctimonious, self-aggrandizing and self-pitying, the “guy from Queens” spreads the patriotic claptrap on with a trowel. Apparently it is “only in the United States of America” that “the son of immigrants” (he never gets tired of playing this card) can have a job like head of the CIA. “Thorough and thoughtful oversight . . . distinguishes the country from all other countries in the world.” And so it goes. Can he really be this much of a yahoo? The possibility has to be entertained. Certainly the fact that much of what he says doesn’t make the least bit of sense doesn’t bother him. Merrily he steams along:

Beneath the surface of the Islamic fundamentalist world, hatred for the West kept building and building for countless reasons. We could see it approaching. We could see those who were trying to harness this mindless animosity and bend it to their own purposes. And we struggled mightily every day to find ways to defuse or deflect the coming explosion.

Aside from the painful tread of the boiler-plate rhetoric (I struggled mightily just to read this book), one has to wonder if this is an accurate description of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s “thinking” on the subject at the time. For how could hatred of the West keep building “for countless reasons” and be “mindless animosity” at the same time? Given the ludicrous premises they begin with – “UBL’s goal is the destruction of the United States” – why even bother setting up a special division to “get inside bin Laden’s head”? Obviously there’s nothing in there that couldn’t be gleaned from watching Dr. Evil in a couple of the Austin Powers movies.

Such mastery of doublethink is impressive, especially as Tenet has no sense of irony. This can result in moments of campy fun like the party the FBI and CIA throw after the capture of Aimal Kasi, which features officers hugging and crying while Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” booms out of the speakers. Were they all wearing blue jeans, too? Unfortunately a lack of irony, of that doubt and self-awareness that General Pace pitied in Woodward, leads to the same ignorant, self-righteous brutality and machismo. What starts off as merely laughable turns into something unspeakably vile:

A tribal leader who sided with the United States would, within hours, see the answer to his clan’s prayers drop from the sky. It gave those warlords tremendous clout within their organizations. But if a tribal leader refused to work with us, essentially declaring himself and his clan our enemies, his clan might find themselves on the receiving end of a different kind of airdrop – a two-thousand-pound bomb courtesy of the U.S. military. Subtle, it wasn’t, but neither were the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York that had brought us to Afghanistan.

This is the voice of the pit. In Nemesis Chalmers Johnson relates such modern “desk murderers” to Arendt’s theory of Eichman’s banality of evil (“not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think”). And the comparison is entirely apt.

How did things go so wrong? The most common answers are arrogance and ignorance, and those were both in prominent display. Why, for example, in the face of the wave of international support the U.S. received after 9/11 did the Bush administration alienate the entire world with its unilateral posturing? “We are all Americans” the French press declared. But America wasn’t buying any part of it. Instead, “We all became Israelis on that day,” Tenet solemnly informs the chief of Israel’s Shin Bet, perversely casting the most powerful and widely emulated nation on the planet in the role of a fragile besieged community of believers surrounded by enemies intent on their destruction. What mad folly was this?

Was it inevitable? Some kind of inevitability is the default setting for most historians – what happened is always what had to happen because it’s what did happen. Inevitability is also the preferred position for most participants in a disaster such as Iraq to adopt, as it covers everyone’s ass. Even at the time, however, it was clear that there was nothing inevitable about Iraq. Pre-invasion propaganda had to “fix” the evidence so the war could be sold, and ignore strong public and diplomatic opposition both at home and abroad. Nevertheless Tenet’s plaintive question, “When did the war in Iraq become inevitable?” is often trotted out. This is because it goes back to the central question of responsibility, while incidentally highlighting the truly farcical nature of all the phony diplomacy leading up the actual invasion. The cynicism of the operation nearly beggars belief. Especially if, as Kevin Phillips writes in American Theocracy, a “near-final decision to invade seems to have been made in early 2001.”

The people doing the deciding were labeled “idealists.” You can’t make this stuff up.

The idealists (really the most blatant cynics imaginable) would soon be mocked for their lack of realism. But their mindset was impervious to such critiques, as most famously evidenced by an unidentified Bush aide to author Ron Suskind in 2004:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” . . . “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The aide’s position is perhaps not so much anti-reality as anti-thought, opposed to “judicious study,” or really any study at all. What he describes is, to modify Arendt, not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic opposition to thinking. Thinking, like doubt, is a form of weakness. This was the essence of the “faith-based” presidency, a prescription for ideological zealotry grounded in the naked and narrow ambitions of its leading proponents. The Bush administration’s attitude toward the “judicious study of discernible reality” could be seen in its handling of the evidence with regard to everything from global climate change to WMD. In Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy Andrew Cockburn describes a 1978 meeting between Rumsfeld, then head of G. D. Searle, with a public interest advocate about the marketing of aspartame. Scientific studies suggested extreme caution, but

Rumsfeld was “not interested in facts, not interested in truth, not interested in finding out what the fundamental realities are, but is much, much more interested in setting a goal and then, by will and force, pulling all the resources that he could possibly pull together to achieve that goal: i.e., to get [aspartame] on the market and sold.”

Power means never having to stop and think, and never having to say you’re sorry.

Today there is much speculation over whether the people making the case for war against Iraq deliberately lied about the evidence or whether they honestly believed their own propaganda. The truth, however, seems to be that no one even cared. They were simply “not interested in facts, not interested in truth, not interested in finding out what the fundamental realities are.” Later, to admit doubt and accept responsibility would be psychologically intolerable.

Powell said Bush and Cheney didn’t dare express reservations. Armitage agreed. “They cannot have any doubts about the correctness of the policy because it opens too many questions in their minds.”

No questions, no doubt. Because of the strength of their faith? Or something else? Two glimpses of imperial life in the Oval Office. First, Bob Woodward on Jay Garner’s failure to be totally forthcoming when briefing the president on Iraq:

It was only one example of a visitor to the Oval Office not telling the whole story or the truth. Likewise, in these moments where Bush had someone from the field there in the chair beside him, he did not press, did not try to open the door himself and ask what the visitor had seen and thought. The whole atmosphere too often resembled a royal court, with Cheney and Rice in attendance, some upbeat stories, exaggerated good news, and a good time had by all.

And here is WMD inspector David Kay returning to Washington to give the administration the bad news (from Hubris):

Kay discerned no disappointment coming from Bush. The White House had just been rocked by the controversy over the State of the Union claims and the Wilson op-ed. But the president seemed disengaged. “I’m not sure I’ve spoken to anyone at that level who seemed less inquisitive,” Kay recalled. “He was interested but not posing any pressing questions.” Bush didn’t ask, Are you sure? He didn’t ask about the prospects of finding actual weapons. Or whether WMDs had been hidden or spirited away. Instead, he asked, Kay, what do you need?

Recall Rumsfeld and aspartame: Uninterested in facts, focused on the goal. The meeting goes on:

None of the other Bush officials grilled Kay. He was surprised by that, too. Rumsfeld, known for being rough on briefers, had mostly been quiet. “They were all deferential to Bush,” Kay later said.
After leaving the meeting, Kay was perplexed and perturbed. “I cannot stress too much,” he subsequently remarked, “that the president was the one in the room who was least unhappy and the least disappointed about the lack of WMDs. I came out of the Oval Office uncertain as to how to read the president. Here was an individual who was oblivious to the problems created by the failure to find the WMDs. Or was this an individual who was completely at peace with himself on the decision to go to war, who didn’t question that, and who was totally focused on the here and now and what was to come?”

Or, in the alternative, someone who didn’t care one way or the other. The WMDs, as admitted by Paul Wolfowitz after the fact, had merely been a political expedient anyway, the best way to sell the war. Now that the war was under way they became irrelevant. So let’s replace “faith” with that “something else” I mentioned earlier. And let’s call that something else bullshit.

One of the surprise bestsellers of 2005 was a slender pocketbook with the catchy title On Bullshit. The author’s arguments go a long way to help address the issue of the Bush administration’s apparent lies:

When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. . . . Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response to the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

This isn’t to suggest that the bullshitter doesn’t care about anything. He does. He has his interests and purposes that bullshit can be employed as a tool to help realize. What is remarkable, looking at the record of the Bush years, is the amount of faith other people placed in the bullshit, and the way that bullshit seemed to take on a life of its own. America, which has always had some appetite for the stuff, became as dangerously addicted to bullshit under this administration as they already were to oil. Future presidents may find, to their dismay or delight, that after so much atrophy of thought the present dependence on oblivion will be hard to break.

Review first published online July 31, 2007. Another take on the question of “Where’s W?” comes from an interview with Jane Mayer (New Yorker reporter and author of The Dark Side): “The president, it’s funny, I asked a lot of questions about him when I was doing interviews, and he keeps disappearing from the frame of the picture.” It will be interesting to see how future historians try to spin this.