Playing the avoid-blame game

This being once again the month of 9/11, it is increasingly fascinating to watch the gyrations of those seeking to either capitalize on that culture-altering event for political purposes or to find a haven in history that allows them to escape the blame for all the mistakes since.

Take Rudolph Giuliani, for instance. The former New York mayor and front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination has based his entire campaign on his actions during that fateful day six years ago when two airliners full of passengers were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center, tumbling the twin towers to the ground and producing a toxic dust storm.

Giuliani has claimed a persona of heroic proportions in this tragedy, rarely missing an opportunity to link his on-the-spot performance with those of the first responders, fire fighters, police and average citizens who found themselves confronted with the unbelievable. Without the event, his prospects in the presidential sweepstakes would be far worse than they are. In fact, until that day, his administration of the city had come under increasingly sharp criticism and his personal popularity had declined substantially.

Now there are those, including some of the fire fighters and others who risked their lives in the early hours and days of the disaster, who have begun to challenge the former mayor’s claims and his campaign posing. They have even been so unkind as to note that the city’s communications shortcomings, well documented before 9/11, were instrumental in the scope of the tragedy. The implication for Giuliani, who had been mayor for two terms, is obvious. Why hadn’t the problems been fixed?

But the flurry of dissent about Giuliani’s role in the aftermath of 9/11 is relatively minor compared to the stampede of past and present Bush administration officials, including the president himself, to find a favorable place in history over what happened next. With the end of his tenure in sight, the president’s men, as could be expected, are seeking to find scapegoats for the post-9/11 mistakes and to present them to the historians as the real culprits in what clearly is one of the worst decisions in modern history — the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The finger-pointing is comparable to a circular firing squad, and as lethal careerwise.

The chief scapegoat from the earliest days was the original viceroy, as it were, to Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, whose precipitous dismantling of both the Iraqi army and the controlling Ba’ath party has been roundly blamed for the security failures that led to so many American and Iraqi deaths. In a new book, President Bush is presented as being dismayed by Bremer’s decision, indicating that it was not supposed to go that way. But hold on. Bremer seems mad as hell over this and isn’t going to take it anymore.

In national columns and TV interviews, he not only disputes the assumption that he acted contrary to pre-invasion plans, but says the entire approach was discussed and approved.

“It has become conventional wisdom that the decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s army was a mistake, was contrary to American prewar planning and was a decision I made on my own. In fact, the policy was carefully considered by top civilian and military members of the American government,” Bremer wrote recently in The New York Times. He then outlines a convincing case as to why it was the right, perhaps the only decision, because, he says, the Iraqi army no longer existed at war’s end.

Meanwhile, the buildup to blame former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for much of what went wrong has reached new heights, with stories about the rising White House anger over Rumsfeld’s management of the war and in-house demands for his resignation. Leaks about Rumsfeld’s stubborn refusal to heed the advice of his military counselors have grown exponentially. So far, however, Rumsfeld hasn’t replied, preferring, one can almost be certain, to present his side in a future memoir.

None of this should surprise anyone. The rush to reach a favorable accommodation with history occurs at the end of every president’s official life. Those seeking the job likewise must put the best spin possible on past actions, just as Giuliani has done. One must always remember that history is often subjective perspective.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)