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Scott McClellan’s New Spin By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 30, 2008


If there’s one point of convergence between the Bush administration’s friends and foes it is in the bipartisan belief that many of the president’s hiring decisions cannot be considered a success. Whether it was the amiable but under-qualified Harriet Miers or the well-meaning but fumbling Alberto Gonzalez, the president has a distressing knack for rewarding loyalty and friendship above competence and merit. The case of Scott McClellan, the ex-White House press secretary and former presidential favorite whose sniping tell-all about the Bush presidency has the political world abuzz, does not offer a counterexample.

The substance, such as it is, of McClellan’s 300-plus page grievance is aptly summarized in its sensationalist title, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. What happened, according to leaked excerpts from the book, is that the Bush administration lied to “sell” the Iraq war to the American public.

Stop him if you’ve heard this one before. In a darkly suggestive tone that would please the most ardent Democratic conspiracy theorist, McClellan charges that the Iraq war, by no means defensible on objective grounds, was really sold through “propaganda.” As McClellan remembers it – or rather, as we shall see, as he claims to remember it – in the “summer of 2002, top Bush aides had outlined a strategy for carefully orchestrating the coming campaign to aggressively sell the war.” Already guilty of “shading the truth,” the Bush administration then supposedly “added” the threat of nuclear weapons “to the biological and chemical threats to create a greater sense of gravity and urgency.” Before long, the troops were marching off to Mesopotamia.

It gets worse. Not content to pull a fast one on the American public, the administration “was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage.” From his vantage point behind the briefing-room podium, where he was relentlessly grilled by the White House press corps, one might think that McClellan would develop some skepticism of overwrought claims that the American press was prostrate before a conniving administration. Instead, he seems to believe that press, too, was taken in by the administration – not least on the case for the Iraq war.

As revisionism goes, McClellan’s liberties with the historical record aren’t even amusing. If the argument about weapons of mass destruction was a product of “orchestrated” manipulation by the Bush White House, how then does one explain the fact that the Clinton administration shared the exact same concerns about their threat? It was after all President Clinton who, in a February 1998 speech at the Pentagon, explained that a goal of his administration was “to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.” His Secretary Of State, Madeleine Albright, warned that same month that Iraq’s “use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat that we face.” Similarly, Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger warned that Saddam Hussein “will use those weapons of mass destruction again, as he has ten times since 1983.” Either the WMD conspiracy extends beyond the Bush White House or McClellan’s account of the pre-war debate is so much made-to-sell blather.  

All evidence points to the latter. Whatever he may say today, as press secretary McClellan presented a far more credible version of President Bush’s thinking on weapons of mass destruction. In a January 2005 press briefing, for instance, McClellan related President Bush’s view that “Saddam Hussein's regime retained the intent and capability to produce weapons of mass destruction,” and that Hussein “was systematically gaming the system to undermine the sanctions that were in place, so that once those sanctions were eliminated, which was something he was trying to do through the U.N. oil-for-food program, then he could begin his weapons programs once again.” One needn’t agree with President Bush’s suspicions – though Iraq’s history under Hussein certainly made them plausible – to see that they offer a more realistic explanation of the administration’s motives in Iraq than the great-deception theory that McClellan now finds convenient to retail in his book.

In a sense, the issue of WMD is itself something of a distraction. For as McClellan well knows, the administration’s case for war went beyond the threat of Saddam Hussein to the larger possibilities of regional transformation and reform that his ouster could set in motion. Indeed, in a January 2006 press conference, McClellan made that case himself. As he put it at the time:

“We've seen that the Iraqi people are determined to build a lasting democracy with the successful elections that took place just last month. And we will continue to stand with them, and the international community needs to, as well. It's vital to our national security interests that we succeed in Iraq, because it will help transform a dangerous region of the world.”

McClellan might counter that he personally never subscribed to this theory. That is indeed what he seems to suggest in What Happened, where he writes that in 2003 it was apparent that “there was no urgent need to address the threat posed by Saddam with a large-scale invasion, and therefore the war was not necessary.”

McClellan does himself no favors with this line of argument. If he did harbor doubts about the Iraq war, he seems to have kept silent for the full three years of his tenure as press secretary. Trent Duffy, a deputy press secretary to McClellan, has noted that “Scott never hinted, whispered, breathed any shred of this when we worked together two and a half years.” The alternative possibility reflects even worse on McClellan. If it is the case that he believed one thing privately and said another in his press conferences, then it is he, and not his employer, who was engaging in deception.

However McClellan chooses to explain away the whopping inconsistencies between his statements then and now, the damage already has been done. Apart from validating the baroque fantasies of the anti-war Left, McClellan’s memoir has given Congressional Democrats new license to claim, against all evidence, that the Bush administration “lied” about the Iraq war. Barack Obama, asked about McClellan’s allegation, claimed that it has “confirmed what a lot of us have thought for some time.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reduced to sounding like a school girl, gushing that “I totally agree” with McClellan’s charges and adding for good measure that “[t]his war is a big lie.” Never mind that these same Democrats eagerly disbelieved every word McClellan uttered in his former job. Now that he may serve their cause, he is, inevitably, a beacon of truth.  

To give McClellan his due, not all of his claims about the administration can be dismissed as easily as his distortions of the genesis of the Iraq war. In particular, his observation that President Bush suffered from a “detrimental resistance to reflection” rings true. How else to explain the fact that a perfectly undistinguished crony like Scott McClellan, mocked by the media for his “deer-in-headlights” performances at the podium, nonetheless wound up his chief spokesman?

Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com


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