IS A SHOWDOWN WITH SADDAM HUSSEIN PART OF GEORGE BUSH’S RE-ELECTION STRATEGY?
THE SEARCH FOR ENEMIES
IS A SHOWDOWN WITH SADDAM HUSSEIN PART OF GEORGE BUSH’S RE-ELECTION STRATEGY?
The film script rests on a puckishly improbable premise. An American president, in search of foreign enemies against which to unite the nation, decides to manufacture his required new foe. With a calculated propaganda blitz, he whips up a public frenzy calling for the invasion of his country of choice: Canada. That is the plot line of Canadian Bacon by Michigan filmmaker Michael Moore, whose hit 1989 documentary, Roger and Me, took on General Motors. Scheduled to start shooting this fall, Moore explained his comic case for the villainization of Canadians to Maclean’s last week. “After all, Canada has a lock on the world’s largest supply of party ice,” he pointed out. “They’ve taken over Hollywood and they’re a Red Menace: the New Democratic Party controls 53 per cent of the population up there.” The satire was inspired by Moore’s outrage at the White House campaign to demonize Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the Persian Gulf War two years ago. The film-maker found his outrage reawakened last week with renewed threats of U.S. air strikes against the leader whom President George Bush was again calling the “Baghdad bully.” Said Moore: “Bush is trying to save himself. They need the enemy again for the election.”
In fact, most foreign-policy experts blamed the Iraqi president, not Bush, for provoking the latest crisis. But as Moore’s skepticism about the gravity of events seemed to be largely shared by an American public increasingly disenchanted by revelations about the Gulf War, he provided a telling barometer of just how drastically the political climate has changed for the embattled Bush. Last week, with the approach of the second anniversary of Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, the President once hailed as a foreign-policy genius for orchestrating Operation Desert Storm
found himself pilloried even by members of his own party for mishandling his most recent round of brinkmanship with the Iraqi dictator.
In a week when Bush’s domestic fortunes plunged to a humiliating new low—with some leading conservatives urging him not to run for reelection—his attempt to find refuge in foreign-policy triumphs past turned into a foray through a political minefield.
Instead of underlining Bush’s strengths, the three-week standoff against Iraq served as an unwelcome reminder that Hussein remains in power, the prime item of unfinished Persian Gulf business.
Despite international sanctions, the Iraqi leader has managed to rebuild much of his country’s bombed-out infrastructure. But more than that, he has proven to be no slouch in the war of nerves and propaganda. Hussein celebrated his success in dictating the terms and timing for a United Nations inspection of the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture—aimed at uncovering evidence of nuclear or biological weapons—by showing off his biceps with a well-photographed “victory swim” in g the Tigris River. §
Last week, one diplomat, who requested anonymity, told Maclean ’s that UN teams plan similar inspections of Iraqi facilities on short notice over the coming months in an effort to reassert UN authority. That, in turn, risks raising tensions once more. But most
analysts said that even an eventual allied bombing strike against Iraq might not work to Bush’s electoral advantage. “Politically, the risks are probably greater than the benefits,” said Peter Rodman, a former Bush aide now at Washington’s Johns Hopkins University. “It’s very unlikely you can remove Saddam Hussein from power. And if you don’t, the American people will still think it’s a failed policy.” Or, as
Madeleine Albright, president of Washington’s Centre for National Policy and a sometime adviser to Democratic party candidate William Clinton, put it: “If Bush has to go in and bomb Iraq now, he may only point up that he screwed up the first time. It may be a no-win situation.” Certainly, no-win situations were becoming increasingly familiar to a president who seemed dogged by disaster at every turn less
than 100 days before the Nov. 3 election. First, a poll revealed that in the former Republican party stronghold of California, the state with the largest harvest of the electoral college votes that determine the presidency, Clinton had leaped 34 points ahead of Bush. Then, a former Florida Republican chairman took out full-page newspaper advertisements across the country blaring the message, “Stand Aside”— a less-than-subtle invitation to Vice-President Dan Quayle to voluntarily remove himself from the ticket. Demands for Quayle’s withdrawal
have grown more voluble ever since Clinton tapped respected Tennessee Senator Albert Gore as his running mate last month. And Clinton's deference to Gore’s foreign-policy expertise last week further underlined what some analysts term the “stature gap” between the two vice-presidential rivals.
But the attack on Quayle further enraged the already-alienated Republican right wing. The
Washington Post ’s high-profile conservative columnist George Will, along with Virginia direct-mail tycoon Richard Viguerie, issued public calls for Bush himself to stand aside. Said Adam Meyerson of Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation: “At this point, conservatives do not think a Clinton administration would be much worse than a Bush administration.”
Underlining the current panic in Bush’s campaign was the informal confirmation by White House aides that Secretary of State James Baker would relinquish his cherished cabinet portfolio later this month to take charge, as he did in 1980 and 1988, of his old friend’s election campaign. But as Albright pointed out, that action in itself raised some awkward questions about the latest campaign theme. “If foreign policy is so important,” she asked, “then why has Baker gone to the White House?” As well, there were grim developments on the domestic economic front. New government statistics confirmed that the nation’s economy was mired in stagnation—the projected annual growth in gross domestic product shrinking from 2.9 per cent in the first three months of the year to a meagre 1.4 per cent between April and June.
Even Bush’s attempts to show off his hands-on crisis management style internationally took an unanticipated slapstick turn. Cancelling a planned campaign trip to huddle with top aides at Camp David, his Maryland retreat, he had ordered the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy to go to the Persian Gulf on such short notice that its captain left 50 crew members behind in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Then, after Hussein finally allowed the UN team into his ministry of agriculture, defusing the crisis, one former member of the inspection group told a Washington seminar that the whole incident may have been based on a misunderstanding. He disclosed that the arms monitors
had demanded immediate access to the building without realizing that it was an Iraqi ministry headquarters—one of the sites that UN officials had earlier pledged they would inspect only with great discretion.
Even White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater's attempts to capitalize on the Iraqi standoff by pointing to Clinton’s lack of foreignpolicy experience left the noted master of spin
control red-faced. Seizing on a little-noticed statement by Clinton on the Balkan conflict that called for UN-supported air strikes against Serbian forces blocking relief convoys in Bosnia, Fitzwater branded it “reckless”—only to be denounced by Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, who pointed out that he and fellow Republicans had advocated identical positions. In fact, at the very moment Fitzwater was holding forth, defence secretary Richard Cheney was arguing a case similar to Clinton’s before Congress.
Bush’s own attempts to underline his qualifications were no more successful. On a campaign stop in Wyoming, his dramatic claim to have “the guts” to handle postmidnight calls to the White House “carrying news of a coup in a powerful country or asking how we should stand up to a bully halfway around the world” led to a spate of telephone jokes from latenight talk-show hosts. And in Arkansas, Clinton declared that the most threatening crisis was now at home, not abroad. “Yes, the phone is ringing, Mr. President,” he said. “And it’s been ringing for a long time.”
Supported by Gore and Jimmy Carter, the last Democratic president, Clinton reaffirmed his support of Bush against Iraq but accused the White House of trying to politicize foreign policy. His haste in countering the Republican attacks on his foreign-policy expertise showed a determination not to suffer the same fate as the 1988 Democratic nominee, former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Four years ago, Bush’s television ads telegraphed Dukakis’s vulnerability on national security issues by featuring footage of the candidate swamped by a goofylooking helmet, riding around in a tank. One reason that Clinton may succeed in avoiding such pitfalls is that, unlike many Democrats, neither he nor Gore has shrunk from advocating the use of military force.
But another reason for Clinton’s apparent confidence is that, with the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, foreign-policy issues have lost their urgency. Said Albright: “When people ask me what is different now than in 1988, I have to laugh. The answer is: everything. What we see is an electorate most concerned about what is going on in the economy.”
Most experts agree that foreign policy is an unreliable presidential vote-getter. But if, as Rodman argued, voters still “subliminally” care about a competent commander-in-chief, Bush’s own image may prove unexpectedly
vulnerable. Democratic campaign commercials could make devastating use of images of Bush’s embarrassing collapse at a Tokyo state dinner in January. And his once-vaunted seizure of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega lost its lustre in June when riots during a Panama stopover forced Bush to retreat from a rally in the arms of Secret Service agents,
disoriented and blinking back tear gas.
Even Bush’s undisputed mastery in assembling an allied coalition for Operation Desert Storm has been tarnished over the past two years by a series of unsettling revelations that have led to a reassessment of just how that war was waged. In April, a bipartisan congressional study reported that, contrary to the Pentagon’s claims during the war that Saddam had massed 500,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq, the real number was closer to 183,000. For many congressmen, that created a sense that, like the American public, they too had been targets of a concerted administration propaganda campaign to drum up support for military action.
But most damaging to Bush’s reputation for foreign-policy brilliance have been the dogged investigations of Democratic Texas Representative Henry Gonzalez, widely known as Gonzo, the 76-year-old chairman of the House banking committee. For the past two years, Gonzalez has spent hours every week addressing a usually empty House chamber, reading into the congressional record the fruits of his inquiry into how U.S. taxpayers unwittingly financed
Hussein’s arms buildup. Taken together, and supported by a bank of classified memos, his 20 speeches offer a devastating chronicle of how the Bush administration knowingly backed a covert program to help arm Iraq from 1983 until the eve of the Gulf War in 1991, arranging for $6 billion in aid disguised as U.S. agricultural export credits to be funnelled through the
obscure Atlanta branch of an Italian bank, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. In the process, Gonzalez has implicated top administration officials, including Bush, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and deputy secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger.
So disturbing have Gonzalez’s revelations proved that another congressional committee has called for a special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal indictments in the case. In fact, some skeptics have theorized that Bush’s latest sabre rattling against Iraq may be an attempt to divert attention from that growing scandal. Few foreign-policy experts dispute that Saddam Hussein’s shadow will continue to loom over the campaign in the coming months—or that Bush may ultimately arrange for allied bombers to target their payloads on Baghdad. But as for targeting Hussein himself, film-maker Michael Moore argued that Bush should not eliminate his Baghdad bully. “If they get rid of him, who’s the next enemy?” asked Moore. Then he chortled mischievously. “Canada?”
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