Foreign Policy

Clinton On the Half-Shell

You can teach a new dog old tricks


Right now, we know the following: The CIA is to blame for the famous sixteen-word phrase in President Bush's State of the Union address regarding Iraqi efforts to buy uranium in Niger; the CIA also tried to get the Niger reference removed from the president's speech. The United Kingdom, which provided the support for the Niger claims, remains convinced of their truth; also, British foreign secretary Jack Straw says the claims were based on forged documents. The White House wishes us to keep in mind that the Niger allegation remains reliable; however, since the Niger claim was unreliable, it should not have been included in the speech. Former ambassador Joseph Wilson provided support for the Niger claim in the fall of 2002, even though Wilson also says the claim was "exaggerated". But anyway, why are we making such a ludicrous fuss about the Niger story in the first place? Four months after the official end of hostilities in Iraq, no evidence has been found that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to the United States; that's why people pointing this out have to go out and find that evidence themselves.

This combination of mutually exclusive ideas, irreconcilable characters, and a stern insistence on the irreproachability of all concerned, is the kind of puzzle even Harm and Mac might have a hard time solving. More to the point, it's a tissue of paradoxes no normal person could contemplate for very long without going insane. But the real story here may be the stunning arrival of a presidency. The Bush Administration has come of age.

Like any other product that is all but identical to its competitors, a presidential administration is at great pains to distinguish itself through some kind of powerful brand identity. The Bush Administration positioned itself, quite successfully, as the straight-talking opposite of the slippery, bobbing-and-weaving "Clinton-Gore" administration. But Nigergate suggests a different simile than the tired appeal to brand identity.

If anything, presidencies are like new genres of heavy metal. Each new style seems at first like a refutation of the one immediately preceding it, but is in fact the same style with a few new wrinkles. Led Zeppelin comes on as the blues-based destroyer of noodling, heavily electrified psychedelia, but is really more of an improvement on that genre. Guns 'n' Roses arrives as both the two-fisted refutation of eighties hair bands, and also their apotheosis.

So did the second Bush Administration play its first two years as a long-overdue response to the Clintonian miasma, returning to America's roots while taking it to the next level. Many of the hallmarks of George H.W. Bush's presidency—the council of wise men, the conservative facade masking liberal spending increases, and most of all the invasion of Iraq—were brought out of storage for the George W. Bush administration. But in many cases these were intensified (a full-scale overthrow of Saddam Hussein rather than a limited operation) or actually improved ("No new taxes" replaced by actual tax cuts).

But it's only now that President Bush reveals how well he absorbed the Clinton administration's techniques for sidestepping the uncomfortable: always be "moving on"; never feed the scandal; keep the focus on characters—both those of your underlings and those of your detractors; remind all and sundry that, well, there's really no story here; remember that it's unpatriotic to ask questions when our troops are in harm's way (especially when the questions are about why our troops are in harm's way).

On this last point, Bush has exceeded his master: Clinton's ability to keep pressure off himself through military deployments was notoriously limited. But the technique is the same: Just as Clinton never really had to answer any tough questions about the bombed aspirin factory in Sudan or the chimerical mass graves of Slobodan Milosevic's Kosovar victims, so Bush will weather the chemical weapons dustup. The trick is to keep your eye on the obvious: The Iraq debate was always a domestic argument disguised as a foreign policy question.

An increasing taste for sophistry helps too. Witness this quotation from a John Podhoretz essay attacking Democrats for calling Bush a "liar":

You really have to be a little crazy to think Bush didn't genuinely believe Saddam was a threat to world peace because of his WMD. Maybe his conviction led him to believe things that turned out to be fraudulent, but that would mean he misled himself. And if he misled himself, then by definition he wasn't lying.

The Bush Administration should listen up. Its defenders may finally have discovered what the definition of "is" is.