THE opening salvo, fired on Fox News during Thanksgiving week, aroused little notice: Dana Perino, the former White House press secretary, declared that “we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.” Rudy Giuliani upped the ante on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in January. “We had no domestic attacks under Bush,” he said. “We’ve had one under Obama.” (He apparently meant the Fort Hood shootings.)
Now the revisionist floodgates have opened with the simultaneous arrival of Karl Rove’s memoir and Keep America Safe, a new right-wing noise machine invented by Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz and the inevitable William Kristol. This gang’s rewriting of history knows few bounds. To hear them tell it, 9/11 was so completely Bill Clinton’s fault that it retroactively happened while he was still in office. The Bush White House is equally blameless for the post-9/11 resurgence of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Iran. Instead it’s President Obama who is endangering America by coddling terrorists and stopping torture.
Could any of this non-reality-based shtick stick? So far the answer is No. Rove’s book and Keep America Safe could be the best political news for the White House in some time. This new eruption of misinformation and rancor vividly reminds Americans why they couldn’t wait for Bush and Cheney to leave Washington.
But the old regime’s attack squads are relentless and shameless. The Obama administration, which put the brakes on any new investigations into Bush-Cheney national security malfeasance upon taking office, will sooner or later have to strike back. Once the Bush-Cheney failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran again come home to roost, as they undoubtedly and explosively will, someone will have to remind our amnesia-prone nation who really enabled America’s enemies in the run-up to 9/11 and in its aftermath.
There’s a good reason why Rove’s memoir is titled “Courage and Consequence,” not “Truth or Consequences.” Its spin is so uninhibited that even “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” is repackaged with an alibi. The book’s apolitical asides are as untrustworthy as its major events. For all Rove’s self-proclaimed expertise as a student of history, he writes that eight American presidents assumed office “as a result of the assassination or resignation of their predecessor.” (He’s off by only three.) After a peculiar early narrative detour to combat reports of his late adoptive father’s homosexuality, Rove burnishes his family values cred with repeated references to his own happy heterosexual domesticity. This, too, is a smoke screen: Readers learned months before the book was published that his marriage ended in divorce.
Rove’s overall thesis on the misbegotten birth of the Iraq war is a stretch even by his standards. “Would the Iraq war have occurred without W.M.D.?” he writes. “I doubt it.” He claims that Bush would have looked for other ways “to constrain” Saddam Hussein had the intelligence not revealed Iraq’s “unique threat” to America’s security. Even if you buy Rove’s predictable (and easily refuted) claims that the White House neither hyped, manipulated nor cherry-picked the intelligence, his portrait of Bush as an apostle of containment is absurd. And morally offensive in light of the carnage that followed. As Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, said on MSNBC, it’s “not a very comforting thing” to tell the families of the American fallen “that if the intelligence community in the United States, on which we spend about $60 billion a year, hadn’t made this colossal failure, we probably wouldn’t have gone to war.”
Rove and his book are yesterday. Keep America Safe is on the march. Liz Cheney’s crackpot hit squad achieved instant notoriety with its viral video demanding the names of Obama Justice Department officials who had served as pro bono defense lawyers for Guantánamo Bay detainees. The video branded these government lawyers as “the Al Qaeda Seven” and juxtaposed their supposed un-American activities with a photo of Osama bin Laden. As if to underline the McCarthyism implicit in this smear campaign, the Cheney ally Marc Thiessen (one of the two former Bush speechwriters now serving as Washington Post columnists) started spreading these charges on television with a giggly, repressed hysteria uncannily reminiscent of the snide Joe McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn.
This McCarthyism has not advanced nearly so far as the original brand. Among those who have called out Keep America Safe for its indecent impugning of honorable Americans’ patriotism are Kenneth Starr, Lindsey Graham and former Bush administration lawyers in the conservative Federalist Society. When even the relentless pursuer of Monicagate is moved to call a right-wing jihad “out of bounds,” as Starr did in this case, that’s a fairly good indicator that it’s way off in crazyland.
This is hardly the only recent example of Republicans’ distancing themselves from the Cheney mob. The new conservative populist insurgency regards the Bush administration as a skunk at its Tea Parties and has no use for its costly foreign adventures. One principal Tea Party forum, the Freedom Works Web site presided over by Dick Armey, doesn’t even mention national security in a voluminous manifesto on “key issues” as far-flung as Internet taxes and asbestos lawsuit reform. Ron Paul won the straw poll at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference after giving a speech calling the Bush doctrine of “preventive war” a euphemism for “aggressive” and “unconstitutional” war. Paul’s son, Rand, who has said he would not have voted for the Iraq invasion, is leading the polls in Kentucky’s G.O.P. Senate primary and has been endorsed by Sarah Palin.
In this spectrum, the Keep America Safe crowd is a fringe. But it still must be challenged. As we’ve learned the hard way, little fictions, whether about “death panels” or “uranium from Africa,” can grow mighty fast in the 24/7 media echo chamber. Liz Cheney’s unsupportable charges are not quarantined in the Murdoch empire. Her chummy off-camera relationship with a trio of network news stars, reported last week by Joe Hagan in New York magazine, helps explain her rise in the so-called mainstream media. For that matter, Thiessen was challenged more thoroughly in an interview by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” on Tuesday than he has been by any representative of non-fake television news.
What could yet give some traction to the Keep America Safe revisionism is the backdrop against which it is unfolding: an Iraq election with an uncertain and possibly tumultuous outcome; the escalation of the war in Afghanistan; and an increasingly cavalier Iran. If any of these national security theaters goes south, those in the Rove-Cheney cohort will claim vindication in their campaign to pin their own failings on their successors.
Obama may well make — or is already making — his own mistakes. And he will bear responsibility for them. But they must be seen in the context of the larger narrative that the revisionists are now working so hard to obscure. The most devastating terrorist attack on American soil did happen during Bush’s term, after the White House repeatedly ignored what the former C.I.A. director, George Tenet, called the “blinking red” alarms before 9/11. It was the Bush defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who lost bin Laden in Tora Bora, not the Obama Justice Department appointees vilified by Keep America Safe. It was Bush and Cheney, with the aid of Rove’s propaganda campaign, who promoted sketchy and often suspect intelligence about Saddam’s imminent “mushroom clouds.” The ensuing Iraq war allowed those who did attack us on 9/11 to regroup in Afghanistan and beyond — and emboldened Iran, an adversary with an actual nuclear program.
The Iran piece of the back story doesn’t end there. As The Times reported last weekend, Dick Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, kept doing business with Tehran through foreign subsidies until 2007, even as the Bush administration showered it with $27 billion in federal contracts, including a no-bid contract to restore oil production in Iraq. It was also the Bush administration that courted, lionized and catered to Ahmed Chalabi, the Machiavellian Iraqi who lobbied for the Iraq war, supplied some of the more egregious “intelligence” on Saddam’s W.M.D. used to sell it, and has ever since flaunted his dual loyalty to Iran.
Last month, no less reliable a source than Gen. Ray Odierno, the senior American commander in Iraq, warned that Chalabi was essentially functioning as an open Iranian agent on the eve of Iraq’s election, meeting with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and other Iranian officials to facilitate Iran’s influence over Iraq after the voting. (Dexter Filkins of The Times reported on Chalabi’s ties to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006.) As the vote counting began last week, fears grew that he could be the monkey wrench who corrupts the entire process. It’s no surprise that Chalabi, so beloved by Bush that he appeared as an honored guest at the 2004 State of the Union, receives not a single mention in Rove’s memoir.
If we are really to keep America safe, it’s essential we remember exactly which American politicians empowered Iran, Al Qaeda and the Taliban from 2001 to 2008, and why. History will be repeated not only if we forget it, but also if we let it be rewritten by those whose ideological zealotry and boneheaded decisions have made America less safe to this day.