Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill reminds me of a disgruntled former employee who returns to his old workplace and starts shooting to avenge his perceived mistreatment.
In a new book by Ron Suskind and in a series of interviews, O'Neill charges that President Bush planned to topple Saddam Hussein almost from Bush's first day in office. The White House denies it and says it followed the same policy of regime change in Iraq embraced by the Clinton administration.
On CBS' "60 Minutes," O'Neill grudgingly acknowledged that the improved economy and economic growth of more than 8 percent in the last quarter of 2003 were largely the result of tax cuts. But he claimed that if taxes had not been cut, growth would have been more than 6 percent anyway, plus we could have made progress on reforming the tax code and Social Security. This argument has been made by others, most of them Democrats, but when people who believe such things are in power, they do not use the revenue to reform Social Security or even spend the people's money more wisely.
O'Neill suggests he was surprised by the determination of the administration to cut taxes. He thought that was just campaign rhetoric and never believed President Bush actually meant it.
O'Neill says he never got much out of the president, who mostly sat and listened to him and did not respond. A former Bush advisor who remains close to the White House tells me that O'Neill is apparently unaware that when the president sits silent at a meeting it is because he doesn't "know, trust or like the person ... all of those have to be earned."
The former secretary clashed on one of the administration's cornerstone policies: tax cuts. When you are Secretary of the Treasury and disagree on such a fundamental issue, you should resign. He had to be fired, along with his deputy, Lawrence Lindsay. Lindsay went quietly and with dignity. He wrote a column in last Wednesday's (Jan. 14) Wall Street Journal in which he disagreed with O'Neill's assertions about the president.
Why didn't O'Neill write his own book, instead of turning over 19,000 pages of documents to a former Wall Street Journal reporter? Were some of those documents classified? Treasury's Inspector General will inquire.
As for plans to invade Iraq prior to 9/11, Suskind claimed on "60 Minutes" he has documents that prove the administration was plotting war against Iraq almost from the start. Suskind cited and showed what he said was a Pentagon document proving plans were underway before 9/11 for an Iraq war. CBS promotions about the interview also contained this claim.
The organization Judicial Watch obtained the same documents cited by Suskind in a lawsuit that sought records of meetings between Vice President Dick Cheney and energy industry executives. The document has nothing to do with accessing oil fields in a post-war Iraq, as Suskind claims, but is a study of global oil supplies. Credit to Laurie Mylroie, Ph.D, author of two books on Saddam Hussein and consultant to the Pentagon and Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, for digging out this information and for e-mailing "60 Minutes" that Suskind's claim is incorrect. While the map is of "potential areas for exploration," says Mylroie, O'Neill and Suskind don't mention that the same set of documents, which contain the map of Iraq and the list of Iraqi oil projects, also have maps and similar lists of projects for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Do Suskind and O'Neill think President Bush was about to invade these nations, too?
What you see depends on where you stand. O'Neill's intention was to cause harm to an administration that gave him a unique opportunity. He squandered that opportunity by opposing his boss' policies. O'Neill's economic policies have been proved wrong and the claims about Iraq will be proved incorrect as well.