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The hawks go down in flames

May 25, 2007 | Page 5

ALAN MAASS reports on how the Bush administration's hawks were brought low.

A FEW years ago, they were riding high, key players in directing the most right-wing presidential administration since the 1920s. Now, they're political road kill as the Bush White House lurches toward further humiliations and failures.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales still hadn't resigned as the Memorial Day weekend approached, but he faced a likely "no confidence" vote in the U.S. Senate, and even Republicans speculated that the congressional censure would finally force him out.

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz--formerly a chief architect of the U.S. war on Iraq--did say he was quitting after weeks of growing pressure, cutting a deal to avoid further scrutiny of the scandal that cost him his job.

Gonzales and Wolfowitz were two of the most important and trusted operators in the Bush administration, whether it came to launching a war on Iraq to project U.S. military power, or tearing up the Constitution and defying international prohibitions on the use of torture.

They were celebrated in Washington--feted as heroes by Republicans and viewed as unstoppable by Democrats--so long as the Bush administration could exploit the September 11 attacks to win support for its policies.

But now the occupation of Iraq has spiraled deeper into disaster, the use of torture against "war on terror" prisoners has exposed the U.S. in the eyes of the world, and George Bush's approval ratings are in the same territory as Richard Nixon's during the Watergate era, just before he resigned in disgrace.

The era of right-wing political dominance is over in Washington, and one by one, all the president's men are paying the price.

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GONZALES HAS been facing pressure to resign since April over the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys for not being sufficiently loyal to the Bush administration and its allies. Federal prosecutors have been fired before, but not a group of them in the middle of their terms, and for such baldly political reasons.

Gonzales' appearances before Congress to answer questions about the firings were a joke--at one hearing, he used the phrase "I don't recall" 64 times. But thanks to the Bush White House's stubborn refusal to concede to any opposition, Gonzales seemed to be holding on.

Then, a new story worthy of a John le Carré spy novel emerged. In testimony to Congress, former acting Attorney General Jim Comey described a late-night confrontation with Gonzales' predecessor as attorney general, a strangely principled John Ashcroft.

As Ashcroft lay in intensive care in a hospital, he was visited in the middle of the night by then-White House counsel Gonzales and Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who tried to pressure him into signing an order that would have permitted continuation of warrantless wiretapping, supposedly confined to terrorism investigations. Ashcroft refused.

The revelation reinforced the emerging picture of Gonzales as a ruthless hack who would do anything to anyone at any time to further the Bush agenda of strengthening state repression and punishing political enemies.

As for Wolfowitz, the rank hypocrisy of his foreshortened reign at the World Bank is beyond debate. According to a special committee of Bank directors, Wolfowitz violated ethics rules by setting up his girlfriend and Bank employee Shaha Riza in a high-paying State Department job--as he was meanwhile complaining about "corruption" in governments that get Bank aid.

For example, not long after Wolfowitz carried out the job switch for his companion, he ordered a halt to a bank plan to forgive the debt of desperately poor Congo, claiming government corruption, even though Congo had met standards set out by the Bank and International Monetary Fund.

But Wolfowitz seems to have responded to any criticism of his behavior like a mobster from the movie Goodfellas. "If they fuck me or Shaha, I have enough on them to fuck them, too," Wolfowitz reportedly declared--to the head of human resources for the World Bank, no less.

Wolfowitz's ethics violation was the tip of the iceberg, serving as a lightning rod for grievances about the Bank president's arrogance. "He presumes that anyone who opposes him is incompetent or corrupt," said Roberto Dañino, the bank's former general counsel, who was pushed to resign after calling Wolfowitz's attention to the problem of Riza remaining at the Bank.

Wolfowitz went over the heads of Bank veterans to recruit top officials straight out of the Bush administration. And of the top five outside international appointments he made as Bank president, "three were senior political appointees of right-wing governments that provided strong backing for U.S. policy in Iraq," wrote Emad Mekay and Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service.

Wolfowitz further angered Bank officials by demanding a greater presence in Iraq--a bald attempt to use the institution in support of the U.S. government's catastrophic occupation.

When Christiaan Poortman, a Bank vice president for the Middle East, objected to Wolfowitz's proposal, he was ordered to transfer to Kazakhstan. Poortman resigned instead.

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OF COURSE, Wolfowitz was notorious for his arrogance long before he took over at the World Bank.

He and his fellow neoconservatives descended on Washington like a plague when George Bush took over the White House in 2001, determined to implement their long-held plans for more aggressive use of U.S. military power around the world--with Iraq, ravaged by more than a decade of U.S. war and sanctions, holding a central place in their scheming.

September 11 provided the hawks with their opportunity--the kind of "catastrophic and catalyzing event, like a new Pearl Harbor" that Wolfowitz had openly hoped for in a document co-written with other neocons from the Project for a New American Century think tank.

While most people were still dealing with the tragedy of the attacks, Wolfowitz was building the case for a new war. He helped propagate the lies about Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

As he admitted to a Vanity Fair writer, "[W]e settled on the one issue that everyone would agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason, but--hold on for one second--" That's when Wolfowitz's handler made him stop talking.

At the Pentagon, Wolfowitz helped his boss Donald Rumsfeld in his crusade to "streamline" the U.S. invasion force--on the assumption that Iraqis would welcome American troops with open arms.

When Army Gen. Eric Shinseki estimated that the occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops, Wolfowitz said he was "wildly off the mark." Before long, Shinseki was pushed out of the Pentagon.

For his part, Alberto Gonzales ran in different circles, but he, too, distinguished himself as a zealous servant of the right-wing agenda in American politics.

Gonzales joined the Bush inner circle back in Texas, becoming general counsel for then-Gov. George Bush. In this job, Gonzales reviewed the cases of more than a third of the 152 people put to death during Bush's reign in Texas--and he advised his boss to go ahead in every single case, regardless of all claims of innocence, incompetent lawyers or any other consideration.

For his not-so-hard work to keep the execution machine running, Gonzales was rewarded with an appointment as secretary of state--and then a position on the Texas Supreme Court.

But he left this choice post to follow his old boss to Washington. He led a secretive group of White House lawyers who developed the administration's "legal" arguments for ignoring the Geneva Conventions in the treatment of prisoners of the "war on terror," establishing military tribunals without congressional approval, and justifying the torture techniques used at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.

Those scandals were well known when Bush nominated Gonzales to take over as attorney general for John Ashcroft for Bush's second term, but Gonzales got the kid-gloves treatment from senators and easily won confirmation.

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WOLFOWITZ AND Gonzales aren't the first high-flying hawks to be brought low. One of the first to go was Douglas Feith, a former colleague of Wolfowitz at the Pentagon who, in the words of the Financial Times, "attained notoriety for predicting that Iraqis would greet U.S. soldiers with flowers, but who will also be remembered 'as the stupidest [expletive] guy I ever met,'" in the words of retired Gen. Tommy Franks.

There was Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, who paid the price for his bosses' obsession with smearing former Ambassador Joseph Wilson after Wilson exposed the administration's war lie about Saddam Hussein seeking uranium from Niger. Libby resigned when he was indicted in connection with the outing of Wilson's wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame.

John Bolton finally resigned as Bush's belligerent ambassador to the UN after the election of a Democratic Congress made it certain he would never be confirmed in the post. Before that, of course, Rumsfeld got the boot following the Republicans' drubbing in the 2006 election.

And these are only the most prominent administration officials to go down. Over the past year, scandals have struck virtually every cabinet department in the Bush administration--from Defense to Education, Justice to Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Plus, wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich, "no fewer than four inspectors general, the official watchdogs charged with investigating improprieties in each department, are themselves under investigation simultaneously--an all-time record."

It's no coincidence that scandals are emerging now, as the crisis of the Bush White House grows deeper on every front.

So long as the bipartisan Washington establishment was largely united around the main points of the Bush agenda--from the "war on terror" and the massive Pentagon buildup to tax cuts for the rich and more deregulation for Corporate America--administration officials got a pass on their misdemeanors, and the White House gained a reputation for being invincible, capable of absorbing any challenge as it drove through its program.

Now, the administration's agenda is failing on every front--with the catastrophe in Iraq looming above all others.

The shift of ruling-class support away from the Republicans and behind the Democrats, which began with the 2006 congressional elections, is continuing--and one consequence is a more combative mainstream media that questions rather than only panders to the White House, at least on basic issues of corruption and competence.

Even Bush's fellow Republicans are increasingly desperate to avoid association with the White House. In the two early debates among contenders for the Republican presidential nomination for 2008, Ronald Reagan's name was invoked every few minutes, and George Bush's barely came up.

After years of silence in the face of the Bush juggernaut, the Democrats have been emboldened to go on the offensive against the White House. But while the tougher talk is welcome, no one should forget their concessions to the right on so many issues while Bush was riding high.

The solution won't be found in Washington. If official politics is shifting to the left, it is because of pressure from outside Washington--mostly at the level of overwhelming public sentiment against the Iraq war and the other main points championed by Bush and the right, but beginning to express itself in a confidence to take a stand for what's right.

The crash of hawks like Wolfowitz and Gonzales is sweet vindication for all the people who hated the Bush agenda all along. But it also signals an opportunity to build a movement that can hold the right to account for all its crimes.

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