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The final days of the administration have been filled with so-called "exit interviews" and attempts to make some kind of summary of it. People on both sides are already trying to get support for their interpretation of the big picture and it looks like the arguments over it will fade away about as quickly as the ones of the 60's have (i.e. when the last one of us dies). I am obviously in the "utter failure" camp and am already impatient with some of the deceptive arguments being used to defend this president. Yes, almost all analysts and intelligence agencies - domestic and foreign - believed Iraq had or would soon acquire WMD, but it was the administration that insisted on war as the answer. Yes, Democratic leaders in Congress were briefed on various torture and surveillance activities, but that just means they too are complicit - the president remains the author of those abuses and it was the White House that implemented them. And perhaps most ridiculous of all, yes we have not suffered another catastrophic terror attack since 9/11 - but the president was sworn into office eight months earlier.
These debates and others will likely continue. But it could be that the most persuasive case against this presidency will be found at the margins, in the details and through small vignettes that are unambiguously revealing. (And a case needs to be made. Those of us who believe the last eight years have been terrible for our country do not wish to see this history repeated. Getting it all out on the table, and having the public generally reject it, is an important part of that process.)
It may be a relatively obscure event that paints the fullest picture. I disagree with Dick Armey on just about every policy position, but he does not come across as a scorched earth radical who has a politics-as-warfare outlook that many of his GOP colleagues had (and have). And I will always have a place in my heart for him because of this:
As the story goes, the 54-year-old former economics professor entered politics after watching C-Span one night and remarking to his wife, "Honey, these people sound like a bunch of darn fools." "Yeah," she replied. "You could do that."
Barton Gellman traces Armey's experience with the vice president in the run up to the Iraq war on pp. 215-222 of Angler, from which the following excerpts are taken. The two had long been close, Gellman writes. "They had been allies going on eighteen years, Armey following Cheney up the GOP ladder in the House." But the looming war caused a division:
He should have been an easy vote on Iraq. Instead, Armey had made himself one of Cheney's pivot points. Congress would decide on war authority, yes or no, in another two weeks. A lot of members were unsure, but no one liked to look weak in an election year. "You remember, at the time Congress was in a panic about this," Armey recalled. "Everybody was scared to be seen as the guy that didn't want to go cut somebody's throat." If Armey could oppose the war, he gave cover to every doubter in waiting.Cheney has a private one-on-one meeting with Armey:
"I remember leaving the meeting with a very deep sadness about my relationship with Dick Cheney," he said. "It's an intuition thing. I felt like, 'I think I just got a good BS'ing.' If you'll pardon the Texas vernacular, I felt like I deserved better from Cheney than to be bullshitted by him. I reckon that's about as plainspoken as I can put it."But despite Armey's well-founded skepticism he relents:
Faced with so much certainty, Armey lost faith in his doubts. The vice president had found his pivot point, nudged an obstacle, and tipped the result, just as he did on taxes and torture and global warming..."Did Dick Cheney, a fellow who had been my trusted friend - did he purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue? I will go so far as to say I seriously feel that may be the case...Had I known or believed then what I believe I know now, I would have publicly opposed this resolution right to the bitter end, and I believe I might have stopped it from happening, and I believe I'd have done a better service to my country had I done so."
What remedy is there for such a situation? If those in power decide to lie even to close friends, and burn up decades of good will and trust in the process, how can you stop them? And if the deceiver in question is also, according to one firsthand observer, "probably the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur I've ever run into in my life" how do you keep him from working the system like a maestro?
The short, unsatisfying answer is that there is no way. Our leaders were hell bent on starting a war and were willing to pull out all the stops to make it happen. In the medium term there can be a price to pay at the ballot box, and that certainly has come to pass in the last two cycles. But there can also be a longer term commitment to justice, and investigations into the nearly guaranteed bitter fruit that such an approach will produce. We can push for it not just out of fidelity to our system of government but because doing so is the surest way to rehabilitate our image abroad. And doing so will surely be a better service to our country.