Is Bush Losing Support For His Corrupt Quagmire?
Howard Fineman, who has been one of Bush’s best cheerleaders and inside-the-Beltway whores for the last three years, writes in the November 3 issue of Newsweek that Bush is in trouble over Iraq and the $87 billion. It’s not that Bush won’t get the money under the terms he wants. What Fineman says will hurt Bush is the steamrollering of Congress to get it, and the anger of the voters resulting from the request at a time of unmet needs here at home.
Worse yet, there are signs that Bush is losing the support of key senators in his own party, namely John McCain and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Though there is no love lost between Bush and McCain—the residue of the brutal nomination race—the senator has been a dutiful soldier. Until now.
In a NEWSWEEK interview, McCain for the first time compared the situation in Iraq to Vietnam, where he survived six years of wartime imprisonment, and began openly distancing himself from Bush’s war strategy. McCain, aides say, was rankled by what he saw as a useless, Panglossian classified briefing, especially after reading Donald Rumsfeld’s now infamous internal memo. In it, the secretary of Defense said that Iraq would be a “long slog,” and admitted the government had no “metric” for knowing if it was making net progress in ridding the world of terrorists.
“This is the first time that I have seen a parallel to Vietnam,” McCain declared, “in terms of information that the administration is putting out versus the actual situation on the ground. I’m not saying the situation in Iraq now is as bad as Vietnam. But we have a problem in the Sunni Triangle and we should face up to it and tell the American people about it.” Also reminiscent of Vietnam, McCain said, was the administration’s reluctance to deploy forces with the urgency required for the quickest victory. “I think we can be OK, but time is not on our side... If we don’t succeed more rapidly, the challenges grow greater.”
For Bush, the political challenges are growing just as rapidly. Having made one of the most fateful decisions in the modern presidency—to try to remake the Middle East, starting with Iraq—he has no choice but to press ahead with his request for the $87 billion, even if it is unpopular. Democrats, meanwhile, see a chance to link the lethargy of the economy and an increasingly controversial war—and use the two together to unseat Bush. “The president has handed Democrats a huge issue called ’87 billion’,” said polltaker John Zogby, whose latest poll shows Dean surging in New Hampshire. “That much money crystallizes everyone’s concerns about the war.”
Republican senators still fume about a confrontational session they had with the president about the matter before he left on a trip to Asia. Bush all but demanded that they agree with him. “I’m not here to debate with you,” he declared. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina grew upset. “That didn’t set well with me,” he recalled. “I told him I wasn’t there to debate him, either.” American voters, he told the president, see Iraq as an oil-rich nation that will use U.S. taxpayers’ cash to repay outstanding Iraqi loans owed the French, Germans and Russians. “I told the president that his domestic political support could be in jeopardy if taxpayers decide they’re being treated unfairly,” Graham said.
And this situation may not get better for Bush anytime soon. The Newsweek cover story by Rod Nordland and Michael Hirsh details by its own description how the Bush Administration has set up a “money pit” of hand-picked contractors sucking down American taxpayer dollars unaccountable to a Coalition Provisional Authority of Paul Bremer that has no plan or systems in place to run a reconstruction. Worse yet, Saddam Hussein did a better job rebuilding his country in 1991 than the US has done this year.
Six months ago the administration decided to cut corners on normal bidding procedures and hand over large contracts to defense contractors like Bechtel and Halliburton on a limited-bid or no-bid basis. It bypassed the Iraqis and didn’t worry much about accountability to Congress. The plan was for “blitzkrieg” reconstruction. But by sacrificing accountability for speed, America is not achieving either very well right now. For months no one has seemed to be fully in charge of postwar planning. There has been so little transparency that even at the White House “it was almost —impossible to get a sense of what was happening” on the power problem, says one official privy to the discussions.
Numerous allegations of overspending, favoritism and corruption have surfaced. Halliburton, a major defense contractor once run by Vice President Dick Cheney, has been accused of gouging prices on imported fuel—charging $1.59 a gallon while the Iraqis “get up to speed,” when the Iraqi national oil company says it can now buy it at no more than 98 cents a gallon. (The difference is about $300 million.) Cronies of Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, NEWSWEEK has learned, were recently awarded a large chunk of a major contract for mobile telecommunications networks.
All this has called into question the Bush administration’s larger agenda: inspiring gratitude and admiration in the hearts of Iraqis and other Arabs, creating a model for a troubled region. Even many Iraqis who are grateful for liberation say they hate being a U.S. protectorate.
NEWSWEEK’s investigation indicates that there may be just as many problems ahead, raising serious questions about the vast amounts of money Bush has demanded for Iraq with little tolerance for debate.
Contractors in Iraq complain that the CPA’s staff consists largely of political appointees who don’t understand the process. “CPA is run by a bunch of political hacks and incompetents who have no idea what they’re doing,” said a project manager for a firm working on a major USAID contract. “Every time we turn around there’s a new order coming from CPA, ‘Do it this way—no, do it that way instead.’ It’s just unbelievable.” Privately, some CPA officials admit the staff is less than the best the United States has to offer. Right now, “we’re not talking A-team, even B-team. We’re talking C-team,” says one official with the CPA. The Bush administration denies that any major changes are afoot, but all these problems have prompted a new reckoning back in Washington: Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld’s policy chief and a key official involved in postwar planning, is no longer sitting in on reconstruction meetings, NEWSWEEK has learned, and the White House has wrested oversight from the Pentagon.
So will things get any better in Iraq anytime soon? Or has Bush and PNAC brought upon themselves a situation that even the greatest military in the world cannot overcome without an unacceptable political cost to the Commander in Chief?