How Bush planned from the outset to depose Hussein

Review Politics

October 08, 2006|By Art Winslow | Art Winslow,Chicago Tribune

The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina

Frank Rich

Penguin / 341 pages / $25.95

Since 2004, a small crop of books has put forth similar testimony, some of it firsthand, some based on reporting and interviews, on the roots of the decision to attack Iraq. The basic theme, beginning with Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, an account of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's experiences in the Cabinet (written with O'Neill's full cooperation and documentation from his 19,000 files), is that from the outset of George W. Bush's presidency, there was an intent to effect regime change in Iraq.

The horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, in this rendering, were to prove useful to that goal: After bombing Afghanistan and routing the Taliban in retaliation for the attack, but failing to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in the process, American military efforts were essentially hijacked for another purpose: removing Saddam Hussein from power. In the short march to war, the public and Congress were misled, perhaps by intent, perhaps by myopia as an administration cherry-picked evidence that could lead only to conclusions that fit its policy desire.

Into this breach steps Frank Rich. In the introduction to his new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Rich says: "[W]hatever else 9/11 was, we can see now that it was the beginning of a new national narrative - a compelling and often persuasive story that was told by the president of the United States and his administration to mobilize a shell-shocked country desperate to be led. The story was often at variance with the facts that were known at the time, let alone with the facts that have come to light since. But it did have a slick patina of plausibility."

Noting that "[o]nce in office, Bush turned the presidency into an ongoing festival of audiovisual cognitive dissonance," and that the president "struck 9/11 like a gong in every fear-instilling speech about Iraq he could," Rich concludes: "Whether the administration's inflated claims about Saddam's [weapons of mass destruction] and Iraq-Qaeda ties were outright lies or the subconscious misreading of intelligence by officials with an idee fixe is a distinction without a difference."

Others may part company with Rich significantly on that point, but his book is overbrimming with examples of government officials making assertions that were contradicted by facts apparently known to them at the time, often from information in secret intelligence evaluations.

Rich has also put together an extensive appendix to demonstrate this graphically, a timeline that, in parallel columns of text, contrasts what the principal players - Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser (now Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, former Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet and others - said publicly and what the administration was learning behind the scenes and not telling the public. Although The Greatest Story Ever Sold shows a similar pattern of dissembling to have taken place in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, the timeline focuses on the Iraq war.

Rich's argument is political and cultural, which will come as no surprise to readers of his New York Times columns, in which he routinely intertwines the two spheres to sardonic effect. The interplay between the government and the news media is one of his central concerns, the use of leaks to favored and credulous reporters, whose accounts are then echoed by officials as news. But, Rich notes: "Al Qaeda's attack on America was a genuine apocalypse, not a soap opera that could be turned into a 24/7 cable news miniseries or tabloid fare. It was one tragedy that could not be safely guided to that satisfying denouement that had been in vogue ever since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado: `closure.' "

Rich's saucy tone might raise suspicions of overstatement or animus, but his account is in general accord with what has been sketched by his predecessors, whom he credits. This includes O'Neill and his revelation that the future of Iraq was a topic discussed at the very first National Security Council meeting he attended, at the beginning of February 2001, a scant 10 days after Bush's inauguration and eight months before Sept. 11. "From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country. ... It was all about finding a way to do it," O'Neill recalled, and Rich quotes.

The Greatest Story Ever Sold is both a period piece and not. At the book's end, Rich poses several what-if questions. What if there had been no hyping of intelligence? What if there had been an attempt to argue for regime change on its merits, or an early admission of miscalculation in post-Hussein Iraq, or more debate at home? "These questions, simple and even naive as they may be, matter more than all the tactical questions combined," Rich writes. "That they are so rarely asked in the wake of this debacle is a measure of just how much the very idea of truth is an afterthought and an irrelevancy in a culture where the best story wins."

Art Winslow's introduction to H.L. Mencken's collected coverage of the Scopes "monkey trial" appears in the recently published "A Religious Orgy in Tennessee." Winslow wrote this review for the Chicago Tribune.

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