Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2004 / 22 Teves, 5764

Jack Kelly

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O'Neill has ruined a reputation | Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill took a swing at President Bush... and punched himself in the nose.

"The Price of Loyalty," written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind on the basis of interviews with and documents supplied by O'Neill, made two sensational charges:

First, that Bush was detached and disengaged in Cabinet meetings, "a blind man in a room of deaf people."

Second, Bush had planned to invade Iraq right from the beginning of his administration, before Sept. 11.

"From the very beginning, there was the conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and he needed to go," O'Neill said in an interview broadcast on CBS' 60 Minutes on Sunday, Jan. 11.

During the CBS interview, Suskind showed a document, supplied by O'Neill, which he said showed Pentagon plans to divvy up Iraqi oil after a successful invasion.

O'Neill's characterization of Bush as "detached" was denied by Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.

"He drives the meeting, asks tough questions. He likes dissent," Evans told CNN.

"I don't see any validity to (O'Neill's) criticism at all," Rumsfeld said.

"I really feel fortunate to be working for a man of (Bush's) character and ability."

It could be argued that Evans and Rumsfeld were shading the truth to protect their boss, were it not for the fact that their description of Bush is shared by Larry Lindsey, former director of the National Economic Council, who was fired at the time as O'Neill.

So it seems more likely that O'Neill's distinctly minority view of Bush's leadership skills is "sour grapes," as Rumsfeld said, or part of an effort to hype the book.

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During the 60 Minutes interview, Suskind showed a document, entitled:

"Foreign Suitors for Iraq Oilfield Contracts," which he said was a Pentagon plan for dividing up Iraq's oil after a successful war. This casts serious doubt on his - and O'Neill's - judgment and integrity.

As Laurie Mylroie pointed out, this was not a Pentagon document. It was a document prepared for Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, and it was merely a list of existing and proposed "Iraqi Oil & Gas Projects." It was one of a series of reports on global energy supplies.

To represent this as a plan for dividing up the spoils in postwar Iraq, as Suskind did, one has to be either an idiot, or a liar.

O'Neill was backtracking furiously within 48 hours of the 60 Minutes interview, telling a clearly disappointed Katie Couric on the Today show that "people are trying to make the case that I said the president was planning war in Iraq early in the administration. Actually, there was a continuation of work that had been going on in the Clinton administration that there needed to be regime change in Iraq."

Asked about his comment that Bush "was like a blind man in a room full of deaf people," O'Neill said: "If I could take it back, I would take it back."

Web logger Daniel Drezner, who worked in the Treasury Department when O'Neill was secretary, said his former boss was repeating a familiar pattern.

"The following would happen like clockwork every two weeks: O'Neill would say something he thought meant X, when if fact it could be interpreted as either X or Y - and Y is either controversial or wrong. The financial press would seize on the statement as suggestive of Y. O'Neill would have to issue a clarifying statement that he really meant X."

The controversy has served to remind people of what a truly terrible Treasury secretary O'Neill was.

"O'Neill's tenure at Treasury was marked by verbal gaffes and impolitic comments," wrote Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post. "He publicly disparaged Bush's 2002 imposition of steep tariffs on steel, roiled currency markets with his blunt talk, (and) enraged a Brazilian president."

O'Neill comes across as disloyal, egotistical, clueless about the ways of Washington, and more than a little dishonest. His book will have little impact on Bush's reputation, but a considerable impact on his own.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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