A tragicomedy of errors

By CRAIG UNGER  |  November 20, 2007

Bush and Cheney reshuffled the cabinet, strengthening the neocon hand. Condoleezza Rice replaced Powell. Much to Scowcroft’s dismay, she had proven to be less a voice for the realists than an enabler and repeater of others’ formulations, in effect a neocon fellow traveler. Her deputy, Stephen Hadley, a Cheney ally, in turn took her old job as national security adviser. As for intelligence, Porter J. Goss, a former Republican congressman from Florida, who had become the new CIA director before the election, issued a memo to CIA employees that instantly confirmed his reputation as an administration loyalist: “As agency employees we do not identify with, support or champion opposition to the administration or its policies.” The memo added that their job was “to support the administration and its policies in our work.”

With Rice, Hadley, and Goss in key positions, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld had consolidated control over national security to an unprecedented degree. The notion that America’s $40 billion intelligence apparatus would speak truth to power had become a pipe dream. State Department veterans desperately fantasized that Scowcroft, former Secretary of State James Baker, or even Bush 41 himself would somehow soon ride to the rescue.

Purple fingers, blue in the face
Meanwhile, in both Iraq and Washington, the dream of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East continued to be mocked by the brutal realities of war. On January 30, 2005, 58 percent of the Iraqi electorate defied threats of violence to vote in the first elections since Saddam’s ouster. After reaching the polls, Iraqis proudly displayed their ink-dipped purple fingers as indications that they had voted. In Washington, Republican congressmen flaunted purple fingers as a sign of solidarity with Bush and pride at how the United States had brought democracy to Iraq. “Giving Terrorism the Purple Finger,” read a headline. “Purple finger” cocktails were concocted, consisting of grenadine, cassis, black currants, and vodka.

After nearly two years of bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations in Iraq, at last the White House had a concrete achievement to celebrate — one that no one could deny. In his 2005 State of the Union address on February 2, President Bush proudly saluted the Iraqi voters and the American soldiers who had made the election possible, introducing as his special guest Iraqi human-rights advocate Safia Taleb al-Suhail: “Eleven years ago, Safia’s father was assassinated by Saddam’s intelligence service. Three days ago in Baghdad, Safia was finally able to vote for the leaders of her country — and we are honored that she is with us tonight.” At last, Bush said, Iraq had turned the corner.

The speech also showed that Bush had been reading from the neocon handbook — he proclaimed to the world that his administration’s goal was the promotion of “democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

“This is real neoconservatism,” Robert Kagan, a leading neocon, told the Los Angeles Times. “It would be hard to express it more clearly. If people were expecting Bush to rein in his ambitions and enthusiasms after the first term, they are discovering that they were wrong.”

Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a conservative think tank that hewed more closely to realist policies, had a different point of view. “If Bush means it literally, then it means we have an extremist in the White House,” he said. “I hope and pray that he didn’t mean it.”

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