Bush should beware his own Watergate


By Alistair Horne
(Filed: 09/11/2005)

That great historian Lewis Namier once observed: "History never repeats itself; only historians repeat each other." Maybe. But, having spent weeks immersed both in the intricacies of Watergate in 1973 and the current scandal that is electrifying Washington, I cannot help but see echoes of the episode that brought down Richard Nixon.

To attempt to encapsulate two highly complex affairs: on June 17, 1972, five "burglars" were arrested breaking into a Democrat Party HQ at the Watergate office complex in Washington. At the time, it seemed like the littlest of "little local difficulties". But by October, FBI agents established that it stemmed from a complex operation of political espionage, conducted on behalf of the campaign to re-elect President Richard Nixon.

First, indictments were made against the burglars, and fingers began pointing at Nixon's attorney-general, John Mitchell, who also ran a secret Republican election fund. Nevertheless, despite Nixon's fears, in November he was re-elected in a landslide.

But, the following year, the train of powder crept ever closer to the White House. In April 1973, Nixon's two closest advisers, Haldeman and Erlichman, were forced to resign. By that summer, under stress of events, there were times when Nixon was making no sense - if not actually drunk. As of September, Henry Kissinger, newly appointed Secretary of State, found himself in the role of the most powerful man in the world - by default. At that moment of Nixon's extreme weakness, taken by total surprise, America was suddenly plunged into the most serious international crisis of the decade - the Yom Kippur War against Israel.

Nixon was forced to resign the following August. As a consequence of Watergate, American foreign policy wobbled dangerously. "My constant nightmare," recalls Kissinger, "was that, sooner or later, some foreign adversary might be tempted to test what remained of Nixon's authority, and discover that the emperor had no clothes." Without Kissinger's hand on the tiller, there is no telling where the 1970s may have left the world.

So where does the Washington train of powder lead today? It is, of course, all about Iraq. Its opponents in America are baying for blood. The ultimate objective is the destruction of George W Bush, who currently has his lowest ever popularity rating of 40 per cent, but the immediate target is his Vice-President, Dick Cheney. An unappealing man with killer eyes, Cheney's current rating is down to 19 per cent.

Yet Cheney manages to merit a nine-motorcycle cavalcade and has been known to have no fewer than 60 secret servicemen on duty when he dines out. He has accreted more absolute power than any other "Veep" in history, taking into his hands many of the strands of intelligence management that used to reside in the National Security Council, once headed by Kissinger.

Cheney also appears to share Nixon's distrust of the State Department, and hatred of the East Coast "Establishment". A committed Neo-Con, Cheney is widely regarded as having been the principal force pushing America into Iraq. He is now accused (by the Washington Post and others) of wanting to legalise torture of terrorist suspects.

At the end of October, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indicted Cheney's chief-of-staff, "Scooter" Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice. The charge could lead to up to 30 years' imprisonment.

The perjury involved lying about the "outing" of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame, which has been widely seen as a means of discrediting her husband, a former US ambassador. He (Joseph Wilson) had accused the White House of "sexing up" spurious (British-supplied) intelligence about Saddam's acquisition of "yellow cake" uranium from Niger. Out of this murky tale, the New York Times has come out with its reputation particularly tarnished, both for its shoddy editorial standards and allowing a "loose-cannon" reporter (Judith Miller) to run amok - which eventually landed her in prison.

"It's not over," Fitzgerald has declared ominously. At the White House, Bush's own chief adviser, Karl Rove, has so far not been indicted, but is still under investigation. Meanwhile, up on the Hill, vindictiveness reigns; the veteran Democrat Senator Teddy Kennedy remarked recently that, in all his long years there, he has never known such a lack of amity between parties. But even Democrats seem to have an irrational affection for Blair, although suspicion is beginning to creep around that, maybe, it was his heavily leant-on MI6 that sold the whole Iraq deal to Bush.

Washington - a delightful and friendly place to work - remains in some ways a small village at heart. Everybody knows everything. The Libby case has been the topic of conversation all autumn. Many of the pundits are in denial about the Watergate parallels. They stress that this President, much as they loathe him, and unless we're missing something, could have no stained cocktail dress hidden away, and - dumb as he is - would never stoop to the "tricky dickery" that brought Nixon down.

On the other hand, it could well bring down Cheney. Will it stop there? Senior members of the Bush Administration who, with a sense of history, remember Watergate are deeply alarmed at the implications of this scandal: a distracted and weak administration, a demoralised CIA - and the war in Iraq. They worry about the comfort being given to America's enemies at a particularly dangerous time, when neither that war, nor the war on terror, is being won. By contrast, by 1973 America was no longer engaged in a hot war in Vietnam; and she had reliable allies.

In many ways the situation looks more loaded with menace now. Meanwhile, out of all the mess, domestically the dreadful Bill Clinton somehow arises as having been almost a serious president - with all that may mean for Hillary's chances (not hitherto looking bright) at the coming election.