George Bush rushed uncomfortably through two days of Katrina remembrance last week. Who could blame his discomfort as he went from one photo op to another with rolled up shirt sleeves as if to say “I’m working on it”. Stiff upper lip notwithstanding, he knows that, because of his administration’s ineptness, the Gulf Coast remains in disrepair and a wounded New Orleans has been transformed into The Big Uneasy. Katrina didn’t merely destroy that remarkable city, it was Bush’s Waterloo and he can’t make it go away.
In contrast to August 29, the President is undoubtedly looking forward to September 9 which, cloaked in hyperbolic rhetoric ever since (what Dick Cheney darkly calls the “Post 9/11 world”), is seen even by many critics as his best moment. It was the tragedy of that day that transformed a seemingly rudderless and rapidly declining presidency into one of unimaginable possibilities, or so we naively thought. Americans were united in a way that was probably most akin to where they were in the days following Roosevelt’s historic “Day of Infamy” speech more than 60 years earlier. Citizens, politicians of all stripe and foreign states stood as one ready to respond. As we were soon to learn he blew all that the day he dissed all but the “Coalition of the Willing” and marched into Iraq. In retrospect, it’s clear that the Administration’s seeming drift on September 10, 2001 was more a perception than a reality. It had big plans, and in fact the terrorist attack was more of a distraction than something to be seriously confronted. Afghanistan was to be handled with dispatch as the trinity of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld set out on their pre-determined activist agenda, one that even some of their supporters have come to believe was wrong headed.
In a perverse way, September 9th and terrorism has now come to be Bush’s closest ally and friend, certainly his seemingly reliable crutch. Iraq and Katrina, regardless of the spin, are dual failures linked in a profound way by the same two problems. The first is short sighted or limited planning, the kind that assumes a neat straight line from point A to B with no provision for the unexpected. If any gaming was done in preparation for either, it appears to have had few if any “what ifs” built in. The second is the Administration’s inability to execute. Despite being led by the first president with an MBA and filled with high profile (overpaid) business executives, it seems incapable of managing a real world task of any complexity. In contrast, where results are harder to measure, Bush even now claims some support (certainly relative to everything else) for his so-called “war on terrorism”, and he doesn’t intend to let go of that perception. Terrorism has been his saving grace and refuge, and he savors every moment of it. He and his handlers have tried to keep the public similarly focused.
The only fly in that ointment is that at the moment the country’s attention has shifted away from terrorism and instead is increasingly focused on the Administration’s demonstrable failures. The President’s approval ratings have been in free fall, and whatever marginal bumps have come his way since Katrina have been few and short lived. Katrina has become a metaphor for everything that is going wrong at home while Iraq stands for a failed policy abroad. Katrina, because of its principal victims, reminds us that we have a growing underclass left more behind with every passing day. Iraq, whose casualties grow by the hour looks more like a Viet Nam redux reminding us of the limits not the extent of our power, a view reinforced by the now close to 2650 American fatalities, more than 10,000 wounded and still counting. The New York Times reported the other day that civilian deaths there are up 50% since the new Iraqi government took office, an astounding 120 each day, in most cases Sunnis and Shiites killing each other, reflecting an age old enmity. So the President and his surrogates have spent the last weeks ignoring that historic reality by refocusing our country on the Administration’s most reliable ally, terrorism and Iraq’s centrality in the war against it.
After holding that single topic (staying the course) press conference the week before, Bush granted an on-the-ground interview to NBC’s super anchor Brian Williams during his commemorative visit to the Gulf Coast. Sure he talked briefly about the event at hand, but his major focus was again on getting across his take on Iraq, its connection to terrorism and what, as a result, was really at stake there. He surely couldn’t blame Katrina on Osama and company, so he quickly changed the subject. And his argument was perhaps more vigorous and blatant than ever before. It took misinformation by innuendo to new heights. Gone are the WMDs and more than pro-forma talk of regime change and even democracy, Iraq is the central battle ground in the war on terrorism. No of course Saddam didn’t order 9/11 but...the ever present impression left hanging of a connection, dots to be filled in by a gullible public. Stand in New Orleans and change the subject. Expect him to stand in New York next week and connect 9/11 to Iraq. Hammer home your perceived strong suit including attributing all the significant disruption on the ground there to terrorists – long gone are the Baathists or dead-enders. Where is Sgt. Joe Friday when we need him to demand the President give us “just the facts” not spin?
With this urgency to change the subject, a new argument has emerged, supported by an astounding analogy. The struggle against terrorism is a struggle against an ideology. First characterized obliquely as fascism, it has now morphed overtly into today’s Nazism. Those who oppose the war or the policy are modern day Chamberlain appeasers. Forget the fact that that those who tried to prevent American intervention in the 1930s were isolationists while today’s critics of Iraq are largely internationalists who, among everything else were appalled when this Administration adopted a go-it-ourselves attitude that continues to this day to undermine the UN and ignore historic allies except when they might be useful in the moment. The problem with the new rhetoric is that once again it manifests the kind of shoot from the hip talk that has characterized George Bush and company from the start – “Bring them on” and this is a “Crusade”.
We’re told this is a battle between ideologies? Well, it is fair to ask what ideologies are those. Terrorism isn’t an ideology; it is a battle tactic of people who have an ideology. Therefore, we have to look at the ideology of those using terror: in this case extreme Islamists. Equating followers of Islam, however far out they may be, with the Nazis is not only historically inaccurate it is highly, and potentially dangerously, inflammatory. However opposed many Moslems, perhaps even most, may be to terrorism or those who carry it out, the broad brush strokes are getting uncomfortably close and that suggests closing ranks. Nothing brings Jews together more than loose anti-Semitic talk and the same holds true for followers of Islam. Coming from the most overtly religious (Christian) president in modern times, it is not a great leap for Moslems around the world and even here at home to see this as a war between his religion and theirs, not against a specific battle tactic.
This Administration prides itself on spin and the ability to manipulate perceptions with language and slogans, with staying on the day’s message. But language can be as dangerous as it is powerful. This latest coordinated verbal offensive constitutes mindless propaganda that, if not quickly corrected, can have unintended consequences. I understand why they want to change the subject, why they see themselves suddenly fighting for their own political survival, but equating Islam with National Socialism goes beyond the pale. It is crude, historically inaccurate and, while doing great damage to the discourse, it also won’t work. August, we remember Katrina. September, we’ll pay lip service to 9/11 but most of us will be thinking about Iraq. We’ll be thinking about those nine additional servicemen whose pictures were shown on the News Hour tonight and with the exception of one 46 year old timer ranged in age from 18 o 23. A sectarian civil war is brewing there, once again acknowledged by the Pentagon, and talk of terrorism won’t change that reality or our recognition where we really are and who brought us here. You can’t really change that subject.