Bush's PR push on Iraq

October 15, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush went to New Hampshire the other day with his current justification for invading Iraq, he seemed to have forgotten those missing weapons of mass destruction he insisted earlier posed such an imminent threat.

He didn't have a word to say, either, about that supposed link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that, according to him, made his Iraq invasion part of the war on terrorism. He couldn't very well mention that link, having only recently acknowledged there was no evidence it ever existed.

Instead, the president offered the following: "Who can possibly think that the world would be better off with Saddam Hussein still in power?" The answer to that one is: nobody in his right mind.

But Mr. Bush went on to beat that particular dead horse: "Surely not the dissidents who would be in his prisons or end up in mass graves. Surely not the men and women who would fill Saddam's torture chambers, or the women in his rape room. Surely not the victims he murdered with poison gas. Surely not anyone who cares about human rights and democracy and stability in the Middle East. There is only one decent and humane reaction to the fall of Saddam Hussein: Good riddance."

The president continues to peddle a different rationale for his invasion from the one he used in getting a blank check from a gullible Congress to launch a pre-emptive war. In the absence of his earlier unproven justifications, he falls back on the indisputable fact that the Iraqi dictator was (and probably still is) a very bad man.

Mr. Bush's speech was part of a new full-court press on public opinion in the face of growing voter discontent and slipping polling support on his handling of the chaotic situation in occupied Iraq. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and, especially, Vice President Dick Cheney joined the effort, even as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell continued an uphill quest for help from the supposedly "irrelevant" United Nations.

Mr. Cheney tried to make lemonade out of chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay's lemon that he had found no evidence of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The vice president accentuated Mr. Kay's finding of materials and sites merely "suitable for" research into chemical and biological weapons production and other secondary and unconfirmed conclusions.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush continues a pointed assault on an American news media that have been focusing on the administration's use or hype of faulty intelligence about the threat from Iraq. He has complained about "the filter" through which news passes to the public, implying that the American people are not being told the truth about what's going on in Iraq.

Even soldiers at the front are being employed in this regard. According to the Gannett News Service, some agreed to send form letters home that they had not written themselves, painting a more positive picture of the situation than conveyed by working reporters there.

In New Hampshire, Mr. Bush told his audience of National Guard families: "It's a lot better than you probably think. Just ask people who have been there. They're stunned when they come back ... and the stories they tell are much different from the perceptions that you're being told life is like."

But the daily reports of Americans being killed or wounded are creating a credibility problem for a president who keeps shifting his rationales for having gone into Iraq without the United Nations and dissembles on the situation there now.

At the same time, his $87 billion occupation and reconstruction bill has been a dash of cold water in the face of voters and Congress even as he rejects calls for an end or reduction of his tax cuts for the wealthy to meet the war's huge costs.

Maybe the latest public relations push will stem the growing criticism of the president and his elective war. But in the television era, when what's happening brings reality into American living rooms each night, it will be a hard sell, as we learned in Vietnam, if those body bags keep coming home.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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