compulsory reading, Iraq, US Politics

Body Language. N’Sync.

Tonight, CNN dug out footage from the “scandalous” Munich Security Conference from February this year where Joschka Fischer lashed out at Donald Rumsfeld in English – “You have to make the case, excuse me, but I am not convinced.”

Back then, Michael Kelly [who tragically died in Iraq as embedded journalist] excused Fischer in the Washington Post by saying that there is no need to convince Fischer because of his violent 1968 past. CNN is not alone these days to remember Fischer’s skepticism. Less and less people, journalists included, are inclined to trust the US government’s statements.

In particular, a lot of British MPs who supported Tony Blair after his pro-war speech on March 18 are less than happy with the renewed public uncertainty about the true reasons for the war the British forces just had to fight. It’s a long way to go to November 2004, the next US Presidential elections, but if the Bush administration cannot contain the “they lied to us”-tsunami, given their abysmal economic policy they might well be swept away when the wave hits the shore. And how could they possibly contain the British outrage? Wolfowitz might actually have handed the Democrats the opportunity they had hoped for to escape the post 9/11 “patriotism”-trap. Maybe now there’s a chance that it will once again be “the economy, stupid.”

As for Wolfowitz, in my opinion the whole confusion stems from the fact that Wolfowitz inadvertently crossed a fine line. He spelled out the secret subtext everybody had “agreed” never to tell.

Different actors had different bundles of motivations to go support the policy of ousting Saddam Hussein [or to oppose it] – just as Wolfowitz says in the interview (see left column for the link). For Tony Blair, being “America’s staunchest ally” was probably an important element in his equation to go to war – and – legitimately so.

However, one fundamental ambiguity was never satisfactorily clarified prior to the war – the ambiguity between the US government’s body language and its words – the former was clearly “regime change – it’s strategically important [and the guy tried to kill my dad!], let’s find a rationale to sell it”, the latter one was, “regime change, if Saddam Hussein is guilty, so let’s talk about the burden of proof.”

[ note: this is something we should not forget over the Wolfowitz debate – according to the UN weapon inspectors Iraq never accounted for a significant amount of biological and chemical agents that could be used as weapons of mass destruction. So it would be equally wrong to suggest that Iraq never had, or never even tried to get hold of, weapons of mass destruction. The risk and the amount of these weapons posed were subject to diverse assessments and public statements, some of which seem to have been exaggerated. ]

Of course, all the relevant players knew they were probably playing the body language game. But formally, through the international system, they had to and they were in fact playing the “burden of proof”-game. That’s where so many of the diplomatic problems stem from.

And that’s why there is so much public outrage about the Wolfowitz admissions – someone who has taken the US government’s pre-war words literally and supported their policy simply must feel now that he was not told the whole story. As opposed to Condi Rice, whose recent stipulation that Iraq might have had “just-in-time” WMD assembly lines was as much “admission” as one could reasonably expect without revealing the subtext, Paul Wolfowitz has crossed the line.

Thanks to him, the US government’s body language is now in sync with its words. It was about time for the administration of a President whose personal mantra is one rather unusual for a politician – I say it, I mean it. Or could that be another body language trap?