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Cheney and Reality

The Bush administration (n.) — The presidency (2001–2005) in which stubborn men were undaunted by stubborn facts.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any wider, the gap between the Bush White House and reality grew even larger last week as both the prez and veep took issue with the findings of the 9/11 Commission that there was no “collaborative relationship” between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

You can understand the sense of desperation inside the White House bunker as one after another raison d’être for the Iraqi War has been shown to be a fraud. No weapons of mass destruction; no Iraqis hailing us as liberators (in a recent poll taken for our own Coalition Provisional Authority, just 2 percent of Iraqis, asked to label us as either “occupiers” or “liberators,” chose the latter). And now, from the bipartisan commission chaired by Tom Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, the conclusion that there were no links between Osama and Saddam. The commission’s staff report did detail some occasions on which al Qaeda agents asked Iraq for help. Alas for the administration, it also detailed the Iraqis’ refusal to offer any help.

Lesser men might get second thoughts from such findings, but the thoughts of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have long been unsullied by anything so petty as empirical data. “The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda,” Bush said, “[is] because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.” Cheney complained that the commission just dwelled on the absence of Iraqi complicity in the attacks of 9/11 and “did not address the broader question of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda in other areas.” But when Kean, on the Sunday talk shows, asked Cheney to provide any additional information he had about such contacts, the White House replied that the administration had already provided the material that it had.

Cheney is even unwilling to concede that 9/11 coordinator Mohammed Atta did not meet with an Iraqi agent in Prague in April 2001 — a Czech intelligence report that the CIA had long dismissed. The commission documented that Atta’s cell-phone bills show he was in San Diego at the time, yet Cheney still contends that the existence of the Prague rendezvous has “never been refuted.”

But then, this administration has been breathtakingly anti-empirical since the day it took office. Its failure to have an occupation policy for Iraq after Saddam was overthrown was a stunning triumph of will over information. Bush simply discarded the voluminous CIA, State Department and armed services’ reports on what Iraq would be like in the wake of Saddam’s overthrow and what it would take to provide the security needed to rebuild the country. Instead, he opted for the fantastical but pleasant assumption that all would be well once Saddam was driven from power. Such folly was based on the “intelligence” provided by Ahmad Chalabi’s apparatchiks, who planned to rule post-Saddam Iraq if only they could snooker us into going there. No government agency compiling actual data on Iraq believed Chalabi for a nanosecond, but data don’t count for much in the Bush White House.

In part, what we have here is a president who will never admit a mistake, and has either selected lieutenants of equivalent stubbornness or instilled that stubbornness in them. For these inscrutable Texans, saving face is everything. But in part, we also have a remarkable indifference to fact.

And not just about Iraq. Certainly by design and possibly by belief, George W. Bush has repeatedly positioned himself crossways to science. As the Union of Concerned Scientists asserted in a report last February, the Bush administration has engaged in the “manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science” on such issues as global warming and biotechnology. It’s not just that the administration’s forays into such bioethical issues as stem-cell research come down on the side of obscurantist religion. It’s that any scientific data that stand in the way of their precooked conclusions are ignored, as are the scientists who’ve discovered the data and best know the field — as the 48 Nobel laureates in scientific fields who endorsed John Kerry on Monday took care to note.

 

But there’s a method to this madness. Say you’re Karl Rove, poring over the increasingly depressing Bush polling in the dark of a White House night. Your guy looks to be losing the middle of the political spectrum. The percentage of Republicans backing Bush has declined from the mid 90s to the low 80s. The moderates, those upscale loosely Republican professionals, are defecting. Iraq screwed everything up, and those last old-line mainline Republicans (many changed parties decades ago) are not coming back.

So who’s left to turn this thing around? If not the Republican periphery, there’s always the Republican base. Rove always planned to increase the size of that base by getting the 4 million evangelical Christians who didn’t vote in 2000 to come to the polls in 2004.

And so the Republican campaign may come down to the churches. That’s why the GOP has put together a network of 1,600 churches in Pennsylvania; that’s why congressional Republicans are suddenly thinking about repealing the laws that deny tax deductions to churches that endorse candidates. (A crystal-clear violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, but hey, we’re talking the presidency here.) It’s why Bush, in his meetings at the Vatican, asked Rome to urge the American bishops to take a harder line against pro-choice Democrats.

America has had rifts between science and faith before, of course, most notably in 1927, when Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes was accused of teaching Darwinism instead of biblical creation to his students. But presidents, including Calvin Coolidge in 1927, have tended to avoid such brouhahas. Bush, by contrast, wants nothing more than to promote them in the nation’s observant precincts.

By faith alone shall Bush’s presidency be saved. Well, there’s money and chicanery too, but you get the picture.