Escape From the Green Zone

By MAUREEN DOWD

The New York Times

July 1, 2004

You'd think that President Bush would have learned by now to keep those snappy aphorisms to himself.

Gonna get Osama dead or alive.
Or neither.

Gonna smoke Osama out of his cave.
When exactly?

Bring 'em on.
Please don't.

Mission Accomplished.
Not.

Let freedom reign.
Couldn't Karl Rove and his minions at least get that "ad-lib" right about freedom ringing?

Not gonna cut and run.
We can't cut, but we certainly ran.

Paul Bremer scuttled out of Baghdad so fast, he didn't even wait for the new ambassador, John Negroponte, to arrive so he could pass along some safety tips. Mr. Negroponte, assuming the most perilous diplomatic post in the world, is going to need all the security advice he can get if Iraq keeps slouching toward Islamic fundamentalism and rampant terrorism.

The administration went from Shock and Awe to Sneak and Shirk. Gotta run, guys keep chins up and heads down. The Bush crowd pretended the country was free and able to stand on its own, even as the odd manner in which Mr. Bremer scooted away showed that it wasn't. The president acted as if Iraq was in control, but our forces can't come home because Iraq's still out of control.

As Paul Bremer was sneaking out, Ahmad Chalabi, the swindler who has bilked America out of millions, was sneaking in. He was smiling from ear to ear at the swearing-in ceremony for the new prime minister, Iyad Allawi (a ceremony so secretive that coalition officials confiscated reporters' cellphones to enforce an embargo on the news for security reasons).

If Americans needed any more confirmation that they're viewed as loathed occupiers, not beloved liberators, it came with the sad little spectacle of a hasty, heavily guarded hand-over that no Iraqi John Trumbell will memorialize in an oil painting of the Declaration of Iraqi Independence.

Dick Cheney and the neocons had once hoped for a grand Independence Day celebration, no doubt, where Saddam's toppled statue once loomed, dreaming of a parade of Iraqi high school pep squads and the Iraqi Olympic bobsled team; sky boxes for Halliburton executives; grateful Iraqis, cheering and crying; President Bush making a surprise drop-in from the NATO summit meeting in nearby Turkey, with "Mission Accomplished" pen sets for the new government; Katie, Matt and Diane beaming it back to proud Americans.

Instead, there was no real transfer of power because there was no power to transfer. It was a virtual transfer, just the way the rationale for war was virtual and the shift of Saddam's custody to Iraq is virtual. The Bush team is not going to trust Iraqi security to hang onto Saddam because it doesn't even know yet whether Iraqi security can hang onto the country. With rumblings in Iraq that a strongman may be needed to tamp down the anarchy, what if the old Baathist crowd rushed to crown Saddam, instead of his foes storming the prison to "hack him to pieces," as Mr. Bremer speculated on the "Today" show?

Mr. Bremer's escape from the Green Zone was uncomfortably reminiscent of the last days of Saigon. No one was hanging onto the skids of helicopters, but the mood was furtive, not festive. American troops are still trapped in Iraq and being killed there, and 5,600 ex-soldiers are being involuntarily recalled in America's undeclared draft.

The White House pretended that the sovereignty was real. The administration that is loath to share information and presidential papers even to help the 9/11 investigation find ways to make the country more secure quickly turned over a photo of Mr. Bush's handwritten "Let freedom reign!" comment on Condi Rice's note to him announcing the transfer.

But it rings or reigns hollow in a week when Sandra Day O'Connor and the Supremes except the Bush family fixer Clarence Thomas slapped the commander in chief for torturing without a license. "A state of war is not a blank check for the president," the court ruled.

Still, Mr. Bremer put the best foot forward. Noting that the ex-proconsul was standing on the White House lawn still in the boots he wore with suits in Iraq, Charlie Gibson of ABC asked the escapee how he felt.

"Well, it's like having a rather large weight lifted off my shoulders," he said. "I'm delighted to be back."

If only our soldiers could say the same.