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Politics in the ‘New Normal’ America

Iraq’s weapons of mass terror and the terror networks to which the Iraqi regime are [sic] linked are not two separate themes—not two separate threats. They are part of the same threat. Disarming Iraq and the War on Terror are not merely related. Disarming Iraq of its chemical and biological weapons and dismantling its nuclear weapons program is a crucial part of winning the War on Terror.

The effort to shift responsibility for the wreckage that had been our Iraq policy had become, by this spring and summer, general, spreading from those who had most fervently made the war to those who had most ardently backed it. David Brooks, we learned on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times on April 17, 2004, had “never thought it would be this bad.” (Just seven days before, in the Times dated April 10, the same David Brooks had advised “Chicken Littles” on the subject of Iraq to “get a grip.”) He “didn’t expect,” he now allowed, that “a year after liberation, hostile militias would be taking over cities or that it would be unsafe to walk around Baghdad.” Most of all, he had “misunderstood” the way in which “normal Iraqis” might respond to the American occupation. Thomas J. Friedman, in May 2004, again on the Op-Ed page of the Times, admitted to having been “a little slow,” but admirably so: he had tried, he disclosed, “to think about something as deadly serious as Iraq, and the post-9/11 world, in a bipartisan fashion.” His only error, in this construct, had been generous, one of attributing the same approach to others: he had “assumed the Bush officials were doing the same.”

The potential for cover in having “tried to think in a bipartisan fashion” was immediately apparent. “Were We Wrong?” The New Republic asked itself on the cover of a special June 2004 issue. The answer inside was yes, no, mea culpa but not exactly, not in the larger framework. (“We hawks were wrong about many things,” David Brooks had written in the Times, an early responder to the larger-framework approach. “But in opening up the possibility for a slow trudge toward democracy, we were still right about the big thing.”) Peter Beinart of The New Republic had “worried,” but, like Thomas J. Friedman in the Times, he had also “assumed.” He “didn’t realize.” He “might have seen some of the war’s problems earlier than I did” had he “not tried so hard” to separate his thinking from “partisanship.”

Senator Joseph Biden, also in The New Republic, believed his vote for the war to have been “just,” but had “never imagined” the lack of wisdom with which the war would be pursued. “I am not embarrassed by my assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed the sort of arsenal that made him a clear and present danger,” Leon Wieseltier declared in the same New Republic. The cadences surged: “And so I was persuaded,” “Prudence and conscience brought me to the same conclusion,” “But I was deceived.” As for the collective “we” that represented the magazine’s editors, they could see “in retrospect” that there might have been “warning signs,” to which “we should have paid more attention.” “At the time,” however, “there seemed good reason not to,” and, in any case (the larger framework again), “if our strategic rationale for war has collapsed, our moral one has not.”

For Fouad Ajami it had been “an honorable and noble expedition.” Leon Wieseltier could “imagine no grander historical experiment in our time than the effort to bring a liberal order to an Arab society.” David Brooks could see the Iraq we had made as one in which “nationalism will work in our favor, as Iraqis seek to become the leading reformers in the Arab world.” For these early enthusiasts, then, the “expedition” was in the past, its “moral rationale” intact, its errors not their own. The “historical experiment” was over. That it might have already passed beyond the limits of our control was not, in the thousands of words of self-examination that appeared during this period, a consideration.


There seemed in New York on the September Friday morning after the balloons finally fell in Madison Square Garden a relief so profound as to approach euphoria. The President was gone, spirited from the Garden and the city to campaign from the porches and yards of those “undecided” citizens who had become as familiar as our neighbors. The black SUVs with police escorts were gone (even obscure political figures had seemed to “need” motorcades, and not only motorcades but Secret Service protection); the whine of the helicopters was gone. The low dread that had afflicted the city was dissipating. There would be no further need to plot movements around town so as not to be caught in the orange netting of one or another police sweep. (“You can’t arrest 1,800 people without having somebody in the middle who shouldn’t have been arrested,” the mayor of New York said to this point, not reassuringly, on WABC-AM. “That’s what the courts are there to find out afterwards.”) There would be no further need to regard an official credential to enter the Garden (or “the perimeter,” as the sealed area was called) as our sole protection, our fragile laissez-passer in a city that might at any time close down around us. (Closing down the city around us was called “expanding the perimeter.”) “If you’re leaving the perimeter, hide that credential,” one convention aide warned me as I was leaving the Garden. “Because they are definitely out there.”

The Republican convention, then, had done what September 11 never did, rendered the city embattled, an armed camp, divided between “they” and “we.” This new mood had been reinforced by the convention itself, a stated theme of which was “A Safer World, A More Hopeful America” but the persistent message of which was that any notions of safety or hope we might have entertained were but reeds dependent for their survival on the reelection of the incumbent administration. “It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice,” Vice President Cheney would say a few days later, in Des Moines, and no one who had listened to what was said in Madison Square Garden could have been unaware that this had been its subtext: “Because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again and we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.”

That entire week in New York had been, not unexpectedly, an exercise in the political usefulness of keeping a nation in a state of unending crisis. The events of September 11, we were told repeatedly in Madison Square Garden, had “changed everything.” We had entered “a new age of terrorism.” Republicans understood this. Democrats did not. “Even in this post-9/11 period,” Vice President Cheney said on the night he accepted his renomination, “Senator Kerry doesn’t appear to understand how the world has changed.” This changed world demanded “strong leadership,” “conviction,” above all “resolve,” a quality understood in the Garden to be the President’s long suit. “He has not wavered,” John McCain declared on the first night of the convention. “He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield.” Rudy Giuliani, on the same night, claimed to have looked at the falling towers and said to Bernard Kerik, then the police commissioner: “Bernie, thank God George Bush is our president.”

The changed world also demanded that the President be allowed to demonstrate his unwavering resolve unhindered by possible disagreement from the nation’s citizens. Demonstrators were corralled outside his sight line, penned behind movable barricades, kept under the watch of closed-circuit video cameras and an NYPD surveillance blimp. Not only demonstrators but also members of the opposition party could be seen as enemies of the republic. “Where is the bipartisanship in this country when we need it most?” Senator Zell Miller demanded, winding up for his fairly unveiled suggestion that nominating an opposition candidate for the presidency fell into the category of treason. (Locating treason was not a new task for Senator Miller, who had in May said on the Senate floor that those discussing the abuses at Abu Ghraib were “rushing to give aid and comfort to the enemy.”) “Now, while young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan,” he shouted from the podium to positive response, “our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander-in-chief.”

Yet this “changed world,” as presented in the Garden, also demanded assent to the President on certain fronts, notably domestic, that did not actually involve his role as “commander-in-chief.” This was the stealth part of those four days in the Garden. There were many evasions about what the President had actually done, or wanted to do, on those domestic fronts. There were misrepresentations. It was the President, we learned from Laura Bush, who had been “the first president to provide federal funding for stem cell research,” which was technically true but misleading; embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998; the Department of Health and Human Services ruled in 1999 that such research could receive federal funding; the National Institutes of Health set guidelines for such funding in 2000; the President limited this research to “existing lines,” which numbered no more than twenty-one and are now considered less safe than new lines, in 2001. The President, then, was not “the first president to provide federal funding” but the first president to claim any control whatsoever over, and in real terms to cut off, the funding that already existed.

Nor, if there remained any doubt about the efficiency of the operation, was Madison Square Garden the first venue to which Mrs. Bush had been dispatched with this sly message for anyone who might have listened to Nancy Reagan or seen her son at the Democratic convention in Boston. There were other misrepresentations. We heard a good deal about how this president was, in the words of the vice- president, “making health care more affordable and accessible to all Americans,” as well as “reforming medical liability so the system serves patients and good doctors, not personal injury lawyers.” The President himself told us how he was “honoring America’s seniors” by “strengthening Medicare,” “creating jobs” by “reducing regulation and making tax relief permanent.” He was, we heard, “building an ownership society,” in which “people will own their own health plans and have the confidence of owning a piece of their retirement.”

We heard about “health savings accounts,” and about “reforming Social Security.” We heard, to the latter point, how we could “strengthen Social Security by allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes in a personal account—a nest egg you can call your own and government can never take away.” We did not hear what would happen when those “younger workers” reached retirement age and realized that the “individual marketplace decisions” they had made for their “personal nest eggs” had proved unwise, or when the “health savings account you own yourself” got emptied by unexpected illness. “The magnitude of the Bush proposals is only gradually dawning on members of Congress,” Robin Toner and Robert Pear had reported in The New York Times in February 2003, an assessment suggesting that members of Congress were less acutely aware of their vulnerabilities than the rest of us were. To read the Republican platform on this subject was in fact to enter a world in which no unexpected or catastrophic events could occur, a world in which we ourselves, not our employers, would pay insurers, but not exactly to “insure” us: one way the party would restore “choice” to health insurance, for example, was by overruling state laws requiring insurers “to provide benefits and treatments which many families do not want and do not need.”

In this “changed world,” then, one thing remained unchanged: the primacy, for this administration, of its domestic agenda, the relentless intention to dismantle or “reform” American society for the benefit, or “protection,” since the closest model here was a protection racket, of those segments of the business community that supported the President. Everything said in Madison Square Garden on domestic issues was predictable. We knew what the domestic agenda was about. We had known it since the 2000 campaign, when the same messages got sent. We had seen clear-cutting our national forests described as “wildfire control,” part of the “Healthy Forests Initiative.” We had seen the administration distract us with arguments about whether our national parks should be “faith-based,” even as that administration lifted the regulation of snowmobiles in the same national parks.

We had seen the President “right the wrong,” as Senator Bill Frist put it in the Garden, of “miracle medicines denied by Medicare,” and we had also seen who benefited from “righting this wrong”: there would first be, since the law as enacted banned Medicare from negotiating the price of drugs, the pharmaceutical industry. Then there would be, still more meaningfully, since the drug benefit was to be offered only through private insurers and health plans (despite the fact that it cost Medicare significantly more to cover recipients through private plans than directly), the insurance industry. Finally, in the case of those Medicare recipients currently covered under their retirement plans, there was the considerable benefit to their former employers, who, by the government’s own estimates, were expected to reduce or eliminate drug coverage for 3.8 million retirees. Those who lost coverage would then be forced, if they wanted a drug benefit at all, out of not only their retiree plan but also of Medicare’s fee-for-service coverage, in other words into an HMO.

Such “improved benefits,” like “personal nest eggs” and “healthy forests,” had been since 2000 what was meant when the Bush administration talked about restoring “choices” to Americans. What made these misrepresentations seem more grave in 2004 was the larger misrepresentation: the fact that the administration had taken us, ineptly, with the aid and encouragement of those who had “never thought,” or who had “misunderstood,” or who “didn’t realize,” into a war, or a “noble expedition,” or a “grand historical experiment,” which was draining the lives and futures of our children and disrupting fragile arrangements throughout the world even as it provided the unending “crisis” required to perpetuate the administration and enact its agenda. “This is a great opportunity,” the President was reported by Bob Woodward to have said in an NSC meeting on the evening of September 11, 2001. That large numbers of Americans continued to support him could be construed as evidence of their generosity, but it was also evidence of how shallowly rooted our commitment to self-government had turned out to be.

—September 23, 2004

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