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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

January 12, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 181




Tom Roberts Looking before leaping

Tom Roberts, NCR editor

Having not yet read The Price of Loyalty, the book that former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill is currently pitching in print and on television, I can't say what there is to back up his somewhat provocative quotes about President Bush's intent to take Iraq by force from the very earliest days of the administration or his derogatory comments about the Bush leadership style.

I was, however, a bit amused by the breathless surprise with which commentators greeted O'Neill's revelations that, as he said on CBS's 60 Minutes, "From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go."

Recent Takes by Tom Roberts
Nov. 14, 03 Sports fascinate me
Nov. 10, 03 Visible symptoms of deeper troubles
Sept. 5, 03 Horses, a child and a fancy recently revived
Sept. 4, 03 'Not what I thought it was going to be'
Sept. 3, 03 Reporters on the religion beat
One of the advantages that U.S. politicians always have -- and this advantage has worked especially well among the empire builders of this administration -- is how quickly even the most recent history seems to fade from the electorate's view.

How surprising could it be that Bush and company would want to do in the dictator who made a mess of the elder Bush's political plans? After all, the United States continued bombing Iraq weekly during the eight years of the Clinton administration and that even included "sorties" well outside the no-fly zones established in the North and the South.

Those 10 years of almost nonstop bombing raids -- combined with a complete lockdown by sanctions, the ongoing weapons inspections and the destruction of weapons by inspectors -- made it far easier to believe that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction than that it was on the verge of joining the nuclear club.

Such points aside, one can only presume that the book, bolstered by thousands of documents provided by O'Neill, including transcripts of National Security Council meetings, should be a revealing look, a kind of insider tick-tock on how the administration works.

O'Neill, it is important to know, is no bleeding-heart liberal. He got bounced by the Bush administration when he opposed the Bush tax cuts, but he was friends with Vice President Dick Cheney and had served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. He was no na´ve newcomer to Washington politics. Quite the contrary, he's beyond any need for money or to guard his career -- often the best kind of truth-teller.

The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind, with whom O'Neill so elaborately cooperated, might make an interesting balance to an earlier days-in-the-life of the administration by Bob Woodward. His Bush at War chronicles the 100 days just after 9/11. Presumably, the book was pleasing to the administration since few complaints were heard, and Woodward was given nearly four hours of interview time with the president surrounding this book and another project he was doing at the time for The Washington Post. A reporter of Woodward's caliber can elicit a lot of information and confirmation in four hours.

Woodward notes in the book that on Sept. 12, "Rumsfeld raised the question of Iraq. Why shouldn't we go against Iraq, not just al Qaeda? He asked. Rumsfeld was speaking not only for himself when he raised the question. His deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, was committed to a policy that would make Iraq a principal target of the first round in the war on terrorism."

So, from the very start, evidence of any kind was apparently seen as unnecessary to raising the specter of pre-emptive war.

And Woodward notes, almost in passing, that before the 9/11 attacks, "the Pentagon had been working for months on developing a military option for Iraq."

What I found most disturbing about Bush at War was the fact that from the moment of 9/11, in the discourse of the Bush inner circle, the only option discussed was war. Never was there a suggestion, at least in Woodward's account, that advice and consultation might be sought from other countries to any significant degree. Never was there a hint that the rest of the world might be called into a discussion of how to fight terrorism.

Bush's intent, according to Woodward, "was to produce a military plan that would inflict real pain and destruction on the terrorists."

And most shocking is the brief conversation Woodward recounts in this chronology about postwar Afghanistan. It occurs deep in the book, at the beginning of Chapter 14, on Thursday, Oct. 4., just days before the Oct. 7 beginning of the war.

After nearly a month of talks about what they were going to do, the talk turns to post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Writes Woodward:

"Who will run the country?" Bush asked.
"We should have addressed that, Rice thought. Her most awful moments were when the president thought of something that the principals, particularly she, should have anticipated.
"No one had a real answer, but Rice was beginning to understand that that was the critical question. Where were they headed?"

Where, indeed. Reading that passage relieved for me any mystery about why we appeared so woefully unprepared for post-Saddam Iraq.

Perhaps now that we are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, realizing once again that war is terribly messy and that creating peace is far more difficult than bombing civilizations, we will give up any new thoughts of pre-emptive strikes. Maybe the next tick-tock to come out of this administration will be accounts of long sessions discussing the need to build coalitions and to seek the help of the rest of the world in these global crises.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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