Bush's costly fixation

March 28, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - I find myself imagining a news conference that never happened. It's early in 2001 and the new president takes a few questions from the media.

FIRST REPORTER: "Mr. President, please tell us what you intend to do about global warming."

PRESIDENT BUSH: "Well, Tom, we've given it a lot of study and we think the best way to confront the problem is to invade Iraq."

FIRST REPORTER: "Huh? But that makes no - "

SECOND REPORTER: "Mr. President, how do you propose to fix the schools?"

PRESIDENT BUSH: "It's not going to be easy, Jim, but it is important that we take the first and most crucial step by invading Iraq."

THIRD REPORTER: "Mr. President, I'd like you to outline your economic stimulus package."

PRESIDENT BUSH: "With pleasure, Sue. I believe the American people can decide how to spend their money better than government can. So I think the way you improve the economy is, you return the people's money to them in the form of a tax cut. And then invade Iraq."

Granted, the foregoing exchange never took place, but that doesn't mean it's untrue. For proof, look no further than recent headlines.

As you know unless you've been locked in a sensory deprivation tank at the South Pole, Richard A. Clarke, a government counterterrorism expert, ignited a firestorm last week with the release of a new book (Against All Enemies) and an interview on 60 Minutes. Mr. Clarke slams President Bush for allegedly not making terrorism a priority before Sept. 11, 2001, and for ignoring his, Mr. Clarke's, warnings that a catastrophic attack was imminent.

In response, the White House and its allies in Congress have counterattacked with a ferocity seldom seen outside the veldt. Mr. Clarke's accusations have been called offensive, irresponsible and scurrilous. Vice President Dick Cheney would have us believe Mr. Clarke "wasn't in the loop" on terrorism issues. Which is an interesting claim, given that Mr. Clarke was a senior counterterrorism adviser under President Bush, as he had been for Mr. Bush's father and for Bill Clinton. Mr. Clarke has also been accused of having a political ax to grind. Another fascinating charge, given that he says he was a registered Republican in the last presidential election.

One might, if one were cynical, suspect a direct correlation between the shrillness of the attacks and the truth of Mr. Clarke's accusations.

Of which arguably the most vexing is that Mr. Bush was obsessed from the beginning of his presidency with making war on Iraq. And that this obsession blinded him to the threat posed by al-Qaida, even after the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Clarke writes that although the intelligence community had conclusively fingered that group as the author of the atrocity, Mr. Bush still pressed him to search for "any shred" of information tying it to Saddam Hussein. No such shred has ever been found.

Mr. Clarke's account dovetails neatly with that of another former administration official, Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who also criticized what he saw as a Bush fixation on Iraq. He, too, was treated as the lions treat the zebras.

Still, it becomes ever more apparent that this war was based on half-truths, untruths and that stubborn fixation. Ever more apparent that the show of diplomacy preceding the invasion was just an insincere genuflection to world opinion. Ever more apparent that this war, long sought by conservatives angered that the first President Bush didn't go all the way to Baghdad, was always in the cards once his son took office.

Because George W. Bush is a man who will not allow himself to be unduly influenced by facts. Bad enough that that's a characteristic of his social, environmental and economic policies. Now we see it with appalling clarity in his war policy. As a result, we fight the wrong enemy for the wrong reasons.

The U.S. death toll as of Friday morning was 586, according to the Pentagon. And rising.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays. in The Sun.

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