I do not understand blogger triumphalism

by Ted on January 12, 2004

The Paul O’Neil book is an instructive case. President Bush has been accused by his ex-Treasury Secretary of being disengaged, over his head, and led by advisors who put political calculations over the good of the country (cough, Mars mission). Furthermore, O’Neil says that the Bush administration had made its decision to invade Iraq almost immediately after the inauguration.

Glenn Reynolds sees the issue as such:

As I understand it the big hype is that he says (1) that Bush can talk a lot in meetings; and (2) the Administration wanted to topple Saddam before 9/11.

First of all, Glenn has point (1) exactly backwards (which he later admits). O’Neil says that Bush was unengaged and unresponsive, sitting through large and small meetings without questions or comments. Reynolds’ comprehension of stories he doesn’t want to hear doesn’t give one a lot of confidence in the rest of his analysis. And, in fact, confidence is not warranted.

Re: point (2), the new right-wing story line seems to be that the Bush Administration had always been upfront about their intention to attack Iraq and depose Saddam. Hmmm.

To support this… controversial theory, Reynolds quotes from the 2000 Presidential debates:

MR. LEHRER: With Saddam Hussein, you mean?

GOV. BUSH: Yes, and —

MR. LEHRER: You could get him out of there?

GOV. BUSH: I’d like to, of course, and I presume this
administration would as well.

That’s how to keep a secret — say it out loud during the Presidential debates, and nobody will notice!

I paid pretty close attention to the debates, and I really didn’t remember Bush proposing an invasion of Iraq. Is that the way it happened? Let’s go to the transcript for the full quote:

GOV. BUSH: I’d like to, of course, and I presume this administration would as well. But we don’t know — there’s no inspectors now in Iraq. The coalition that was in place isn’t as strong as it used to be. He is a danger; we don’t want him fishing in troubled waters in the Middle East. And it’s going to be hard to — it’s going to be important to rebuild that coalition to keep the pressure on him.

Was Bush revealing that he intended to attack and depose Saddam Hussein? In a word, no. In this debate, candidate Bush was proposing that we use the existing coalition to contain Saddam and keep the pressure on.

Bush’s quote, if read in its entirety, shows the exact opposite of what Reynolds is trying to argue.

Bad form, that.

In January 2003, Bush was asked if his administration had been planning a war against Iraq before September 11th. Did Bush take advantage of the opportunity to mention his forethought?

“Actually, prior to September 11, we were discussing smart sanctions. We were trying to fashion a sanction regime that would make it more likely to be able to contain somebody like Saddam Hussein. After September 11, the doctrine of containment just doesn’t hold any water… the strategic vision of our country shifted dramatically… because we now recognize that oceans no longer protect us, that we’re vulnerable to attack. And the worst form of attack could come from somebody acquiring weapons of mass destruction and using them on the American people… I now realize the stakes. I realize the world has changed. My most important obligation is to protect the American people from further harm, and I will do that.”

If Reynolds is correct today, then Bush was lying then. (Via Tom Tomorrow, who is pretty appalled at this up-is-downism.)

Here’s Colin Powell on February 24, 2001, talking frankly about the need to invade and wipe out Saddam’s weapons:

Sanctions exist — not for the purpose of hurting the Iraqi people, but for the purpose of keeping in check Saddam Hussein’s ambitions toward developing weapons of mass destruction … And frankly they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.

Umm…. well, maybe Powell was out of the loop. What about straight-shootin’, rough-ridin’ Donald Rumsfeld? He had been agitating for the deposition of Saddam for years before the election; surely he’d back up Reynolds’ assertion that the intention to invade was there before September 11th.

The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit” of weapons of mass destruction, Mr Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We acted because we saw the evidence in a dramatic new light – through the prism of our experience on 9/11.”

Glenn later quotes a reader email:

MORE: Reader Jason Gustafson emails: “So, basically, President Bush is being accused of wanting to fight terrorism before 9/11?”

Yeah, that seems to be O’Neill’s bombshell. Just call Bush a “premature anti-terrorist,” I guess!

You see, Iraq = terrorism. Oh, sure, the War College’s Strategic Studies Institute might not think so. But do they have a blog? Didn’t think so.

I repeat: I do not understand blog triumphalism.

(I should make a pre-emptive note: no sensible person would object to the fact that the Administration had a plan to fight a war with Iraq in early 2001. To do so would only be prudent. The Pentagon makes plans to attack just about every country on Earth.

However, there is a significant difference between plans to attack and intention to attack. We almost certainly have a plan to attack Great Britain, which is unobjectionable. However, if we had the intention to attack Great Britain, this would be a very significant problem. It is easy ‘n’ fun to pretend that these are one and the same, but a moment’s thought reveals that they are not.

Opponents of the Iraq war are making the assertion that the Administration had the intention to attack early in 2001, before 9/11 and before any attempt at intelligence analysis.

Mr O’Neill was also quoted in the book as saying the President was determined to find a reason to go to war and he was surprised nobody on the National Security Council questioned why Iraq should be invaded.

“It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it,” Mr O’Neill said.

“The President saying ‘go find me a way to do this’.”

This is very different from having a plan in case of war. I hope that having dealt with this here, I won’t have to swat it down in the comments.)

UPDATE: Rick DeMent at The Rant has some related thoughts, including an excerpt from James Baker’s pre-9/11 CFR energy report about smart sanctions. His conclusions sound right to me:

Now there are two ways to look at this that seem plausible to me. The first is that the administration was planning on getting the sanctions lifted and then in the wake of 9/11 reevaluated the situation and felt that that would be a bad idea and now felt that and invasion would be a better idea in order to counter the threat of terrorism. But the only thing that really changed on the ground was the attack on American soil. To believe this notion you would have to think that the Administration sort of woke up and said to themselves, “Wow this terrorism stuff is really serious.” But this would totally contradict the notion that terrorism was a big issue to the administration before 9/11.

Another way to look at it was that the administration realized that there was no politically tenable way to way to get the Iraqi sanctions dropped now. It would look pretty bad giving Saddam the soft glove treatment as we waged our “war on terrorism”. Rather it was a perfect opportunity to do what many had thought would be the easier option even if political realities before 9/11 would not allow it; invade, whip a western style government on Iraq friendly to the US and US investment and be done with it.

It seems to me that nether one of these ideas put the administration in a particularly good light.



praktike 01.12.04 at 11:46 pm

So swatted.

Be careful, however, in assuming that public statements by administration officials are evidence of intention.

You know we can’t trust these guys.


Thomas 01.13.04 at 1:58 am

Unfortunately the story told here isn’t very compelling. The US had, after all, a policy in favor of ‘regime change’ as a matter of law, a policy that predated the Bush administration. And the Bush administration was, in fact, working on ‘smart sanctions’ before 9/11–that’s a matter of public record. What to make of O’Neil’s tale? Not much.


some dude 01.13.04 at 2:57 am

What to make of O’Neil’s tale? Not much

Perhaps. But one is hopeful that one of these straws will break the camel’s back. Or something like that.


jason 01.13.04 at 3:23 am

i just don’t see any story in o’neill. just another jerk who is going to get loaded by writing a bush lied book and selling to the left. at this point it’s a formula.


steve 01.13.04 at 3:28 am

How do you spell sour grapes? Paul O’Neill. , his ideas were tried and tested with Nixon and Ford, they didn’t work then and he’s pissed that they were rejected by Bush, et al.



JRoth 01.13.04 at 3:44 am

“Just another jerk?” No, jason, you’re just another jerk. Paul O’Neill is a highly respected CEO who was working in the Federal government when Bush was avoiding Vietnam. O’Neill had several flaws as a Treasury Secretary, one of which was inadvertantly blurting out the truth, as he saw it.

Meanwhile, thomas is claiming that “smart sanctions” are indistinguishable from “aggressive war.” Is this the best and brightest of Bush defenders? Are these the people who insist that the Web is right-leaning because the right has the best arguments?

You boot-lickers are pathetic. If Bush kicked your dog, you’d defend him.

PS – O’Neill is already loaded, you idiot. He’s incredibly wealthy.


will 01.13.04 at 4:27 am

FWIW, according to the BBC:

“Mr O’Neill does not stand to earn money from the book, which is about him, not by him.”


will 01.13.04 at 4:28 am

FWIW, according to the BBC:

“Mr O’Neill does not stand to earn money from the book, which is about him, not by him.”


ahem 01.13.04 at 10:19 am

just another jerk who is going to get loaded by writing a bush lied book and selling to the left.

Or not, as the case may be.

Loyalty is perhaps the most prized quality in the White House. In the book, O’Neill suggests a very dark understanding of what happens to those who don’t show it. “These people are nasty and they have a long memory,” he tells Suskind. But he also believes that by speaking out even in the face of inevitable White House wrath, he can demonstrate loyalty to something he prizes: the truth. “Loyalty to a person and whatever they say or do, that’s the opposite of real loyalty, which is loyalty based on inquiry, and telling someone what you really think and feel—your best estimation of the truth instead of what they want to hear.” That goal is worth the price of retribution, O’Neill says. Plus, as he told Suskind, “I’m an old guy, and I’m rich. And there’s nothing they can do to hurt me.”

Since O’Neill has an estimated worth of around $100 million thanks to his business career, he doesn’t need the money; and even if he were getting paid for contributing to Suskind’s book, it wouldn’t be near enough compensation for having Karl Rove’s hounds set upon you. (See: Wilson, J. & Plame, V.)


Matthew 01.13.04 at 10:29 am

Ted, you are right but I have a feeling you and Tom (Tomorrow) are already victim of the spin on this story. Endless debates about the nation-building intentions of W just blur the fact that the counter-terrorism frenzy post-9/11 was redirected to the old linchpin foe, Iraq.


ahem 01.13.04 at 10:34 am

The US had, after all, a policy in favor of ‘regime change’ as a matter of law, a policy that predated the Bush administration.

Yeah, and if you look at that law, you’ll note the final clause:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of United States Armed Forces (except as provided in section 4(a)(2)) in carrying out this Act.

Section 4(a)(2) refers to the cost of equipping and training designated ‘Iraqi democratic opposition organizations’, to the sum total of $97m, roughly 0.1% of the projected total spent on the war and its aftermath. And one suspects that much of what has been allocated already under those provisions went into Ahmed Chalabi’s back pocket.

So, if you can pluck a policy of full-scale military action out of that bill, you may need to sit a basic reading test.


Gary Farber 01.13.04 at 11:28 am

“You see, Iraq = terrorism. Oh, sure, the War College’s Strategic Studies Institute might not think so. But do they have a blog? Didn’t think so.”

No, they have a web-site, which I’m afraid you didn’t look at. Unfortunately, the facts: differ significantly from your characterization here, Ted. The War College and the Strategic Studies Institute specifically says no such thing. That paper, however correct or incorrect, is by Dr. Jeffrey Record: “The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”

I don’t disagree with any of your other points in your post, but might I murmur that it’s best not to assume and suggest bad faith on the part of people presenting quotations, particularly when the quotations are clearly obtained via third parties, and the quotations or references prove to be misleading?

It might simply turn out — though it needn’t — that the very busy writer/pundit/blogger simply was careless about passing along a third-party-obtained quote that supported their prejudices and case, and they didn’t bother to check an original source on the quote.

Mightn’t it?

(I do like the suggestion from a commenter above that the reason O’Neill helped Ron Suskind with his book (it’s not O’Neill’s book, as I’ve , while supplying some must-read references) is to make money, and “get loaded.” Obviously a commenter well-familiar with the career of the former head of Alcoa, a wee neighborhood firm.)


dsquared 01.13.04 at 2:00 pm

Gary, you’re being precious here. If the SSI publishes a report, with a foreword by its director, then “The SSI thinks …” is a reasonable precis. Note that the SSI is not the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.13.04 at 6:11 pm

I obviously haven’t read the book yet, but some questions leap to mind.

Preface, this is why I hate book summaries which don’t provide quotes for the most interesting contentions. “Mr O’Neill was also quoted in the book as saying the President was determined to find a reason to go to war and he was surprised nobody on the National Security Council questioned why Iraq should be invaded.”

What is the context? Did they discuss Iraq, mention that there were standard plans for invasion (see UK example above), address the fact that regime change was the official policy of the Clinton administration, decide to continue it, and discuss how it might best be implemented? In that discussion was it mentioned that invasion might be necessary or there would be no regime change?

I suspect the above is very close to what actually happened, and it would fit the non-quote that we have. That would be just taking Iraq seriously enough to seriously discuss it.

BTW, the idea that Iraq would quite probably have to be invaded in order to effect regime change isn’t really that surprising is it? If Bush was seriously considering it (with alliances) before, and then 9-11 turned up the heat and made him decide to go on without allies, that isn’t so shocking now is it?

If Clinton had a meeting that where they discussed nationalizing health care and then discussed political strategies for making it happen, that wouldn’t have been surprising. (Maybe he should have done that more if he really wanted to change health care.) If there had been some flu pandemic that year with thousands dying despite an available but not widely distributed vaccine, it might have spurred him to act more quickly. It might have encouraged him to act more forcefully. And it would not be shocking to find out that he had some plans EVEN BEFORE THE FLU PANDEMIC.

Saddam has been a problem to the US for 15 years, and for the whole world much longer. It isn’t at all surprising that Bush was discussing doing something about Saddam even before 9-11. Would it have happened without UN approval before 9-11? I suspect not. But we will never know.


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.13.04 at 7:49 pm

Looks like I was right:

“People are trying to make the case that I said the president was planning war with Iraq early in the administration. Actually, it was a continuation of work that was going on in the Clinton administration, with the notion that there needed to be regime change,” he said.



Thomas 01.13.04 at 7:52 pm

jroth, I’m not sure what to make of your response. I never claimed that ‘smart sanctions’ equal “aggressive war.” But ‘smart sanctions’ were proposed by the administration prior to 9/11, which suggests some problems with O’Neil’s claim that the administration was hell-bent on war with Iraq.

Were ‘smart sanctions’ consistent with the policy of regime change? I don’t think they’re inconsistent, but they suggest the administration wasn’t preparing an imminent attack.


velkro 01.13.04 at 8:39 pm


There’s a reason Professor Reynolds get 70,000 hits a day, and it’s not because of a lack of confidence in him.

He’s the best; period!


JP 01.14.04 at 5:55 am

I cannot believe what a filthy liar Glenn Reynolds is. It makes me want to vomit.

Velkro, I’m assuming your last comment was in jest.


Dave F 01.14.04 at 11:39 am

I think instapundit is popular not so much for Reynolds’s views as his daily link fest to interesting stuff.

As for jp: cometh the hour, cometh the ad hominem.


JP 01.14.04 at 4:08 pm

Nope, sorry. The point of an ad hominem is to distract people from the substance of your opponent’s argument. I’m not addressing the substance of Reynolds’ argument – that may be general topic of this thread, but it was not my particular concern. My point was expressly about Reynolds’ character. I did not make it to distract people from his argument. (To the contrary, it was if anything a fact that was proven by his argument.) And I was right.

Glenn Reynolds doctored a quote to make it sound like it was saying the opposite of what it really said. That is a lie, and he is a liar.

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