The New York Times In America

January 19, 2004

'Market for the Truth'


A series of revelations shows that Saddam Hussein never posed a threat to the security of the United States. In a turn of events especially embarrassing to George W. Bush, a member of his own cabinet has exposed the Vice President as the secret ruler in the White House.

According to close associates at the White House, President George W. Bush is "walking on clouds" these days. A second term? It seems as good as certain. The pundits are saying that Karl Rove, the seemingly all-knowing jack-of-all-trades and chief strategist behind Bush' upcoming victory at the polls, is capable of achieving miracles. They call him, half-mockingly and half-respectfully, the "Master of the Universe." Indeed, the incumbent, nine months before the election, seems to be in the best of positions: arch-enemy Saddam Hussein, literally pulled from a hole in the ground, is behind bars, his palaces now filled with victorious US soldiers. Although the attacks in Iraq are not becoming less violent, they are decreasing . The most recent quarterly data on the US economy are encouraging, and the Bush campaign's war chest is overflowing.

None of this is good news for the eight Democratic candidates for the presidency. According to the most recent polls, all of them would lose against Bush, one more pitifully than the next. Nevertheless, there is still hope for the Democrats. The administration, just as everything seemed to be going its way, has now been forced to take the defensive against a series of revelations, all of which have one thing in common: they have consistently shaken the President's credibility.

Bush has been served some truly devastating blows. For example, the US Army War College published a study in which the campaign against Saddam was referred to as "unnecessary." According to the report, the President's "War on Terrorism" is an "unrealistic objective" and creates the risk of involving the United States in wars against states that do not pose a true threat.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a world-renowned research institute devoted to the study of peace, has also stopped treating the President with kid gloves. According to its most recent report, there was never any link between Saddam and the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, and much less a risk that such a link would lead to weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists.

But the most devastating blow against the President was a book about the brief tenure of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, which became available in bookstores throughout the nation on Tuesday. In the book, experienced Washington veteran O'Neill, who served as a budget expert under Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and was most recently the CEO of aluminum giant Alcoa, confirmed that the new administration had already planned to topple Saddam when it came into office. According to the book, however, it was only the terrorist attacks of September 11th that provided the excuse the administration had been seeking for months.

The White House as a den of tricksters who would not even shy away from using the national trauma of the destruction of the World Trade Center for their own political gain? Suddenly a fundamental question of trust is being raised: Would Americans be willing to follow the lead of the man in the White House as readily as before if he were to ask once again for their support of a US preemptive strike against an alleged threat? In an editorial, a flabbergasted New York Times asked: "How could the United States have been led so astray?

This is the question to which the book about O'Neill's experiences with the current administration provides a conclusive answer. Today, the 68-year-old O'Neill says that he entrusted Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind with his memories because he is convinced that "in contrast to the way we currently engage in politics in this country, there is a market for the truth."

O'Neill describes the President as a rather dim, easily influenced politician with no clear opinions of his own. Bush is portrayed as a puppet controlled by advisor Rove and power-conscious Vice President Dick Cheney. Any attempt to communicate with the President, according to O'Neill, places one into the position of "a blind man in a roomful of deaf people."

O'Neill longs for the days of Richard Nixon. In those days, "when the documents on which decisions were based consisted of more than just one page," targeted approaches to resolving a problem were still compared and weighed against one another. Today, in contrast, Cheney and Rove are only interested in securing power and asserting their ideological convictions, says O'Neill.

O'Neill ascribes his rather pitiful failure in the Washington of the 43rd US president to conflicts surround Bush' tax cuts. In O'Neill's view, the tax cuts did nothing but turn a sizeable surplus that was in place when Bush came office into a deficit of record proportions.

As his star witness in his attack on the economic and fiscal policies of a president with whom he never had a close relationship, O'Neill enlists another friend, thus revealing him as an outspoken Bush opponent: Alan Greenspan, the legendary Washington oracle and powerful head of the US Federal Reserve Board.

What a contrast. Initially, at least, O'Neill captures both men in their weekly rhythm. But his debates with Potus (the Secret Service acronym for the President) turn into painful, sixty-minute monologues on the part of the Secretary. Potus says nothing, Potus knows nothing, and Potus seems to be out of his league. O'Neill observes his president as being increasingly clueless. It appears that Bush doesn't even bother to read the short memos O'Neill sends him.

His meetings with his friend Greenspan are entirely different. Both men have the most current economic figures at their fingertips, both are champions of extremely detailed analysis, and both are very skeptical about the tax cuts supported by Bush' more ideological advisors whenever they sense dissatisfaction among voters. The supreme edict from the White House reads: "We must look to our base."

In contrast, O'Neill and Greenspan do not want to give away the initial budget surplus in the form of tax rebates. Instead, their plan calls for a fundamental reform of the current Social Security system, which is expected to be bankrupt within the foreseeable future. They want to set aside at least a billion dollars over a ten-year period, and Greenspan's advice to his friend is to "just take it and put into a lockbox."

But the odds are against the two men. Cheney and the ideologues demand tax cuts, and they get them. O'Neill assures his president that the new investment-based Social Security system could make every insured American a millionaire at age 65. Bush isn't the least bit interested. Greenspan calls his response "irresponsible fiscal policy."

O'Neill pays dearly for his stubborn opposition. Suddenly the President, a man who is obsessed with nicknames, stops calling his treasury secretary "Pablo" and begins using the name "Big O" - a name that could easily be interpreted as the big zero. Bush himself lacks the courage to fire the man, and the task falls to the �minence grise, Cheney, in December 2002.

O'Neill's revelations about the administration's Iraq plans are really a secondary issue in the book. By virtue of his cabinet position, the Secretary of the Treasury is also a member of the National Security Council. At its first meeting on January 30, 2001, ten days after the new president had been sworn in, a fundamental shift occurred in American foreign policy. President Bush issued the directive that the US should remove itself from the uncertainties surrounding the Middle East conflict.

Instead, said National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, the US should concentrate on Saddam Hussein, who she believed was destabilizing the entire region. At the end of a discussion that lasted just under an hour, Bush instructed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to "review our military options."

By the next meeting of the National Security Council two days later, O'Neill had found among his papers (in addition to a dossier prepared by Deutsche Bank on the economic situation of Iraq) a "Political and Military Plan for the Iraq Crisis Following the Overthrow of Saddam." The document was stamped "Secret." One month later, O'Neill received a Pentagon document indicating that the Americans had long since set their sights on Iraq's oil reserves. The document lists more than 30 countries that have shown an interest in Iraqi oil.

O'Neill never had any doubts that the principal objective pursued by Cheney and the hawks at the Pentagon was to use the ouster of Saddam to impress upon other insubordinate states just how risky it is to confront the world's only remaining superpower. According to O'Neill, the only remaining task was to "find a way to do it."

September 11th solved the problem. However, O'Neill never saw any evidence of Saddam having secretly acquired illegal weapons: "During my 23 months in office, I never saw anything that I would define as evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction."

Even his former colleagues' highly vocal expressions of outrage over O'Neill's supposed betrayal cannot make up for the fact that Bush has yet to deliver this evidence. However, many Americans are not even aware of something that in other times would lead to an administration being brought to account if it was caught lying to the public. Although the Democratic presidential candidates quickly took advantage of the rash of revelations about the administration, Bush still seemed to be a step ahead of his rivals.

As Rove had been planning for some time, once the desert despot had been defeated, the President was to add a new element to fuel the expansion fantasies of his fellow Americans. America, said the President last Wednesday, must now conquer the Moon, Mars and ultimately "our entire solar system" by peaceful means.

Nevertheless, the former Treasury Secretary's accusations were taken so seriously that his former employees have launched an investigation into whether O'Neill revealed confidential information. However, the investigation is likely to end soon. The 19,000 documents that O'Neill gave Suskind were documents that had been given to the fired secretary for his personal use. Suskind announced his plans to make the incriminating material available on the internet.

Rumsfeld, of all people, was given the task of defending his boss, Bush, against his former friend. But even the Defense Secretary was unable to disprove O'Neill's accusations, leaving him with little more ammunition than the feeble claim that the overthrow of Saddam was really an invention of the Clinton administration.

It is certainly correct that the concept of "regime change" did appear for the first time under Clinton. The only problem with that logic is this: If Bush, the man responsible for a doctrine of preventive war, suddenly tries to portray himself as merely the humble executor of the will of his reviled predecessor, he would be assuming a role in which no committed Republican would be willing to see his president.

Translated by Christopher Sultan

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