White House Wonks Work Feverishly on Reasons for War
By Dan Broomkin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 26, 2005; Page A05
WASHINGTON DC, Aug. 26 -- It could pass for any DC office. Clean-cut college graduates with rolled-up sleeves hustle between cubicles lit by the glow of computer screens. Eager young men and women huddle around conference tables to debate ideas while graybeards with thinning hair watch with approval.
But these are no ordinary Beltway policy wonks. Their mission? To generate fresh new rationales for the war in Iraq. And with public approval for the war at its lowest ebb, their job is getting tougher by the minute.
The Executive Armed Response White House Iraq Group – or EARWHIG – was formed during the early days of the Bush Administration as a small task force inside Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s office. But after September 11, 2001, everything changed.
“After 9/11 we got our own stationery—you know, the fancy, embossed kind,” says Dick Richards, a member of the original task force. “They moved us to the Reagan Building and began staffing up like crazy.”
Now the group’s more than 600 employees face the increasingly difficult task of fabricating arguments to justify a war the US public no longer wants.
Executive Director Bob Roberts waxes nostalgic for the days when a gullible public and a compliant mass media made warmongering almost pleasurable.
“‘Weapons of mass destruction’ was a thing of beauty,” says Roberts. “It had everything -- an easy-to-remember acronym, a bad guy with a big black mustache, and of course it scared the hell out of people. Too bad it wasn’t true.”
Since then, drumming up reasons for the war has become much more difficult. “Before March 2003 we had time to run focus groups and really refine our approach,” says Roberts. “Now we’re in high production mode, churning out new ideas as fast as we can.”
He quickly ticked off a list of arguments EARWHIG has generated over the past three years.
- Saddam Hussein had ties to the 9/11 attackers. “We figured they were all dead, so who would know? We didn’t actually expect anyone to check.”
- We need to fight them over there so they won’t attack us over here. “The old ‘flypaper strategy’” he notes. “Turns out they were pretty good at attacking us over here. Should have seen that one coming, I guess.”
- Toppling Iraq will bring stability to the Middle East. “Frankly, nobody here could say that one with a straight face, but Paul [Wolfowitz] insisted.”
- The war will bring a secular democracy to Iraq that will guarantee the rights of women and minorities and serve as a model for other Middle Eastern states. “The new Iraq constitution just blew that one to bits,” he shrugs. “What can you do?”
- If we leave now, then the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq will have been meaningless. “An oldie but a goodie,” notes Roberts. “Countries have been using that one since Harold at the Battle of Hastings.”
Roberts says it’s too early to see how the last argument, unveiled by President Bush during a speech earlier this week, will play with the public. Meanwhile, the work continues.
“We can’t slow down for a second,” he says. “Some of these arguments have a shelf life of less than a week.”
Roberts says his group is even considering a radical shift toward honesty. “Our latest one is, ‘Let’s face it: we need the oil.’ It might work.”
So far, nothing else has.