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Optical delusion

Maureen Dowd

All White Houses spin and lots of presidents stray into fiction.

Johnson on Vietnam. Nixon on Watergate. Bill Clinton trying to squeeze through silly semantic loopholes on his sex life. And when Ronald Reagan made statements that turned black into white – trees caused pollution or welfare queens drove Caddys – his aides said that authenticity was irrelevant because the Gipper was sharing “parables” or “notions,” reflecting larger truths as he saw them.

The Bush White House does not merely aim to put the most appealing gloss on truth. By holding back documents, officials, information, images and the sight of returning military coffins, by twisting and exaggerating facts to fit story lines, by demonizing anyone who disagrees with its version of reality, this administration strives to create an optical delusion.

There was always something of the boy in the bubble about George W. Bush, cosseted from the vicissitudes of life, from Vietnam to business failure, by his famous name.

In the front yard of the Kennebunkport estate, he blithely announced his run for president knowing virtually nothing about foreign affairs, confident that Poppy would surround him with the protective flank of his own Desert Storm war council.

But now Bush is trying to pull America and Iraq into his bubble.

In briefings delivered in the bubble of their own security bunkers, Paul Bremer and military officials continue to insist that democracy and stability are taking root in Iraq. The occupation administrator travels Iraq surrounded by armed guards while attacks get scarier, culminating in last week’s bestial block party in Fallujah.

American commanders in Iraq have claimed the violence is primarily the work of outsiders, Islamic terrorists with at least loose links to al-Qaida. They said, as The New York Times’ John Burns wrote, that “the worst of the ‘Saddamist’ insurgency was over, its power blunted by a wide American offensive that followed the former dictator’s capture.”

The administration does not want to admit the extent of anti-American hatred among Iraqis. And even if some of the perpetrators are outsiders, they could never succeed without the active help of Iraqis.

Just as they once conjured a mirage of a Saddam sharing lethal weapons with Osama, now the president and vice president make the disingenuous claim that al-Qaida is on the run and that many of its capos are behind bars. Meanwhile, counterterrorism experts say terrorism has become hydra-headed, and one told Newsweek that the spawned heads have perpetrated more major terror attacks in the 30 months since 9/11 than in the 30 months before. Experts agree that the nature of the threat has shifted, with more than a dozen regional militant Islamic groups reflecting growing strength.

Sen. Bob Graham compared the new, decentralized al-Qaida to a blob of mercury that “you slam your fist into and it suddenly bursts into a hundred small pieces.”

Bush also likes to brag that the Taliban is no longer in power. But the Taliban roots are deep. At least a third of Afghanistan is still so dicey that voters there cannot be registered, and the Kabul government has postponed June elections.

The president did not want to mar the gay mood of his fund-raiser here Wednesday night, so he did not mention the ghoulish slam dance in Fallujah. As The New York Times’ David Sanger wrote, “In the Bush campaign, casualties are something to be alluded to obliquely, if at all.” In the Bush alternative universe of eternal sunshine, where the environment is not toxic and Medicare is not a budget buster, body bags and funerals just muddy the picture.

Bush strategists say that good or bad Iraq news is still good for Bush; they think scenes of desecration will simply remind voters of his steely presidential resolve.

The Bushies are busy putting a retroactive glow on their terrorism efforts, asserting that their plan was more muscular and “comprehensive” than Clinton’s. To support that Panglossian view, they held back a load of Clinton documents on terrorism from the 9/11 commission.

If we can’t take a cold, hard look at reality, how can we protect ourselves from terrorists? And how can we rescue Iraq from chaos? Now we’re told the military is preparing an “overwhelming” retaliation to the carnage in Fallujah. You can hear the clammy blast from the past: We’re going to destroy that village to save it.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.

In the Bush alternative universe of eternal sunshine, body bags and funerals just muddy the picture.


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