Thursday, November 10, 2005 | American presidents rarely receive good receptions in Latin America, but Bush’s trip last week rates right down there with Richard Nixon’s in 1958: protests and political defeat.
Bush’s approval rating at home has fallen to 37 percent in the latest AP-Apsos poll, and the results of Tuesday’s elections show he is dragging down his party with him. If the world was polled, his rating would be in single digits. He is the most unpopular U.S. president ever in Latin America, and that’s saying something.
At least when Eisenhower and Nixon were being booed in Latin America in the 1950s we still had friends elsewhere. When Nixon came to Paris in 1969, the crowds cheered him from one side of town to the other. The welcome had been just as warm for Eisenhower and Kennedy across Western Europe. Maybe the Latin Americans hated us for supporting their corrupt dictatorships, but the West Europeans knew we were the bulwark between them and Moscow.
It hurts to see this nation’s reputation wrecked. The only trips abroad Bush makes are for long-scheduled summits like last week’s in Argentina. State visits, like the ones when Nixon and Kennedy were cheered by throngs across Europe, are out of the question for this president. The protests would be too strong. Isolated Brasilia and former colony Panama are as much as he dares to risk.
Who’s responsible for the mess we’re in? Thirty months ago, when I began telling readers of the local newspaper that Bush’s planned conquest of Iraq would end in bloody failure, the letters columns filled up with angry protests. The war-whooping was strong in San Diego. Saddam Hussein was a cruel dictator, the whoopers said, and America was going to make Iraq safe for democracy.
Where are the war-whoopers today? Bush’s war has gone exactly as history told us it would go, with thousands of American and Iraqi lives thrown away for nothing. The arrogance and the stupidity of this administration in leading the nation into a futile war and occupation will be dealt with by historians, we can be sure of that.
But what of the whoopers? Who’s to hold them to account? One year ago, 51 percent of voters returned Bush to office – though 14 percent of those today seem to think they were mistaken. In the meantime, a thousand more Americans and some 10,000 more Iraqis have died. We have wrecked a nation and are trapped in its civil war.
At least some of the villains will be held to account. I. Lewis Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff – “Cheney’s Cheney” – a man who along with Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon had been agitating for war against Iraq for a decade, has been indicted. Libby is accused of lies regarding the smearing of Joseph Wilson and his wife after Wilson exposed one of the key White House deceptions about Iraq.
Libby’s trial may be the only chance we have to get at the whole truth about Bush’s war. We’ve had glimpses of truth up to now – from Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke and the 9/11 Commission, for example – but Congress, where the administration should be held to account for this great national tragedy, stays silent because Congress is an accomplice. The complicity is widespread – from the administration to Congress to the media – and the Libby trial will give us a chance to peek under the veil.
Already the whoopers are covering their tracks. In Europe, after World War II, it was said you could never find a German who was a Nazi or a Frenchman who hadn’t been in the Resistance. It’s hard to find a whooper today. With Bush at 37 percent in the polls and his war turned to disaster, they have gone silent.
So I’ll remind them what they were saying: Saddam Hussein was a blood-thirsty dictator with weapons of mass destruction (there were none). It was America’s duty to remove the monster from power and make Iraq democratic (Iraq is closer to anarchy or theocracy than democracy). The war would be swift (it is never-ending) and inexpensive (it has cost $217 billion so far). U.S. casualties would be low (2,040 dead so far plus more than 15,000 wounded), and U.S. forces brought home quickly (no end in sight). Thanks to America, Iraq would be a bulwark against Iran (Iraq’s Shias are allied with Iran).
That was the litany, and to its shame, the nation bought it. The only truth in the litany was that Saddam Hussein was a blood-thirsty dictator, and the problem with that is that he was our blood-thirsty dictator.
We supported Saddam’s war against Iran. Donald Rumsfeld went to Baghad in 1985 after Saddam was accused of using poison gas against the Iranians to assure him we still supported him. The CIA helped Saddam’s forces to target the Iranian forces against which Saddam used his gas.
With Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, we became enemies, and over the following decade Saddam was weakened through sanctions, inspections and no-fly zones. Invading Baghdad in 1991 had been ruled out because the realists who ran our foreign policy at the time understood that to invade and occupy a nation as large and hostile as Iraq would be self-defeating. Better to contain than to colonize: time-honored policy.
The Bush crew thought it knew better. Of Cheney, Brent Scowcroft, one of the 1991 realists, now says, “I don’t know Dick Cheney anymore.” Of war architect Wolfowitz, Scowcroft says: “He’s got a utopia out there.” Of himself, Scowcroft says: “What the realist fears is the consequences of idealism.”
Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby, these are the people the war-whoopers delivered our nation to, and they have led us down a false path. The nation, like the world, now massively opposes Bush’s war. Too bad for all those dead people.
We fall back on Santayana’s immortal words to console us: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries.