With more and more polls showing President Bush below 40 percent approval, the administration has launched its campaign-style offensive against critics of the war in Iraq, which started yesterday with a Bush speech that returned to the misleading claims and ugly attacks on dissent that were so prevalent from 2001-2004.
Let's consider the key passage of the speech line by line. Bush began with this:
While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began. Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs.
This is true, but highly misleading, as TNR's Jason Zengerle notes: "[T]he Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has yet to investigate what, exactly, the Bush administration did with the intelligence it received; how administration policymakers (and the administration-loyal intelligence chief, then-CIA Director George Tenet) responded to analysts who presented competing or contradictory intelligence; and whether the administration manipulated that intelligence to make its case for war."
They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein. They know the United Nations passed more than a dozen resolutions citing his development and possession of weapons of mass destruction. And many of these critics supported my opponent during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: "When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security." That's why more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate -- who had access to the same intelligence -- voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.
As Atrios notes (here, here), Bush's claims about the degree of consensus behind his "assessment" of Iraq and lawmakers having access to the "same intelligence" are overstated. Knight Ridder points out that "the administration's assertions about Iraq's ties to al-Qaeda were not supported by U.S. intelligence agencies," while the Washington Post states that "Bush does not share his most sensitive intelligence, such as the President's Daily Brief, with lawmakers," "the National Intelligence Estimate summarizing the intelligence community's views about the threat from Iraq was given to Congress just days before the vote to authorize the use of force in that country," and "there were doubts within the intelligence community not included in the NIE." (For much more on the use of intelligence in promoting the war in Iraq, see chapter 8 of All the President's Spin.)
Atrios also correctly notes that, after saying that "it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began," Bush did exactly that, claiming that lawmakers "voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power," when in fact it authorized him to use the military to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq." Bush himself said at the time of the resolution that he had not made up his mind about invading Iraq.
Back to Bush:
The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges. These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will. As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them. Our troops deserve to know that this support will remain firm when the going gets tough. And our troops deserve to know that whatever our differences in Washington, our will is strong, our nation is united, and we will settle for nothing less than victory.
This is the core demagogic attack -- claiming that legitimate dissent "send[s] the wrong signal" to US troops and the enemy. By that logic, the only way to send the right signal is to not question Bush's advocacy of the war or conduct of it. Bush and his allies have used this type of rhetoric again and again since 9/11 to try to silence their critics (see my Spinsanity column on the subject and chapter 6 of All the President's Spin for more details).
In case the thrust of the strategy wasn't clear, here's a passage from earlier in the speech:
I've joined with the veterans groups to call on Congress to protect the flag of the United States in the Constitution of the United States. In June, the House of Representatives voted for a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. I urge the United States Senate to pass this important amendment.
But the Washington Post explains (via TNR's Michael Crowley) that while Bush has supported the proposed flag-burning amendment "for years," he "almost never mentions in speeches." Hey, it worked for his father when Dukakis was ahead in the polls, right?
Lest anyone miss the implication of Bush's speech, White House press secretary Scott McClellan laid the demagoguery on even thicker in an attack on Ted Kennedy
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Mr. Kerry's fellow Massachusetts Democrat, also reacted angrily. "It's deeply regrettable that the president is using Veterans Day as a campaign-like attempt to rebuild his own credibility by tearing down those who seek the truth about the clear manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war," Mr. Kennedy said.
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, in turn accused Mr. Kennedy of exploiting the day in his remarks.
"It is regrettable that Senator Kennedy has chosen Veterans Day to continue leveling baseless and false attacks that send the wrong signal to our troops and our enemy during a time of war," Mr. McClellan said. "It is also regrettable that Senator Kennedy has found more time to say negative things about President Bush then he ever did about Saddam Hussein."
The implication, of course, is that Kennedy hates Bush more than Saddam.
And pundits, picking up on Bush's cue, are jumping into the fray, with Glenn Reynolds stating (via Kevin Drum) that "Bush needs to be very plain that this is all about Democratic politicans pandering to the antiwar base, that it's deeply dishonest, and that it hurts our troops abroad. And yes, he should question their patriotism. Because they're acting unpatriotically."
This signals a nasty turn in the debate over Iraq. The Bush administration is wounded and willing to try anything to get back on the offensive. What they're going to discover, however, is that a president with a 35 percent approval rating is not very intimidating, particularly when he's attacking critics of a war that more than 50 percent of Americans think was not worth the cost.