Nuclear Fiction

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

October 11, 2004

When W. debated Al Gore, it was the Insufficient versus the Insufferable.

When W. debated John Kerry, it was the Obfuscating versus the Oscillating.

We face a choice now between a president who rolled us on Iraq and a senator who got rolled by the president on Iraq.

George Bush is not giving an inch on Iraq. He's toughing out the cascade of confirmation and criticism from his own people about the hyperpower hyperbole that led to an unnecessary war and an unruly occupation. His advisers say it's better for the president to appear out of touch than apologetic. He'd rather seem delusional than deluded.

He can't admit what the Duelfer report says, that Saddam was no threat to the U.S. or any other country. The mushroom cloud was a Fig Newton of Dick Cheney's feverish imagination. That would mean W. didn't fix his father's screw-up, but he screwed up his father's fix. A big Oedipal oops.

After Bush 41's Persian Gulf war, Saddam devolved into the Norma Desmond of vicious dictators, shrinking but pretending to still be big, writing romance novels, trying to order liposuction machines, teeth-whitening material and hair transplant equipment, soaking up American culture like his favorite song, Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night,'' and his favorite book, Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."

The president may not have gotten his money's worth with the report of Charles Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector. After all, in a vain retroactive attempt to justify his hokum about W.M.D., he had 1,200 people working for 15 months - stretching our scarce supply of Arab linguists - to produce 918 pages at a cost of about a billion dollars just to find out that Saddam would have liked to have had weapons if he could have, but he couldn't, so he didn't.

But at least for his billion, the president got some earnest Introduction to American Literature analysis of the Iraqi dictator and his taste for some Western culture, noting that Saddam felt a kinship with Hemingway's protagonist Santiago, the poor Cuban fisherman (even though the rich Saddam liked to grenade-fish - toss a grenade in the water and then send in scuba divers to fetch the dead fish).

"Saddam's affinity for Hemingway's story is understandable, given the former president's background, rise to power, conception of himself and Hemingway's use of a rustic setting similar to Tikrit to express timeless themes," the report stated. "In Hemingway's story, Santiago hooks a great marlin, which drags his boat out to sea. When the marlin finally dies, Santiago fights a losing battle to defend his prize from sharks, which reduce the great fish, by the time he returns to his village, to a skeleton. The story sheds light on Saddam's view of the world and his place in it. ... to Saddam even a hollow victory was by his reckoning a real one."

Even though his own report stated that U.N. sanctions had worked to defang Saddam, Mr. Bush decided to stand firm on nonsense, insisting in the debate Friday night that "sanctions were not working. The United Nations was not effective at removing Saddam Hussein."

When a questioner named Linda asked the president to give three bum decisions he had made in office, Mr. Bush took a pass. Lincoln could admit mistakes. J.F.K. could admit mistakes. But W. thinks admitting mistakes is for powder puffs. Of his decision to invade Iraq, he said: "Sometimes in this world you make unpopular decisions because you think they're right." Or you stick to them even after you know they're wrong.

The president's living in a dream world. He kept insisting that 75 percent of Al Qaeda has been "brought to justice," even though such a statistic is misleading, since counterterrorism experts say that the invasion of Iraq was a recruiting boon for Osama and that Al Qaeda has metastasized and spawned other terrorist groups.

Mr. Bush tried to pretend the devastating Duelfer report backed him up, noting after the report came out that Saddam "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction and could have passed this knowledge to our terrorist enemies."

W. should have followed his father's policy on hypotheticals. As Poppy Bush would say, when someone asked him to be speculative: "If a frog had wings, it wouldn't bump its tail on the ground."