The Way We Were
The Way We Were
Here we are just past our Independence Day, past that moment in memory when the United States was, by active example, a "beacon of freedom" to the world, past the moment in memory when, as Barbara Ehrenreich reminded us in the New York Times on July 4th, the signers of the Declaration of Independence penned their names to the following line (Their George and Ours): "And for the support of this Declaration... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." She adds:
"Today, those who believe that the war on terror requires the sacrifice of our liberties like to argue that 'the Constitution is not a suicide pact.' In a sense, however, the Declaration of Independence was precisely that. By signing
Now, let's leap a couple of centuries-plus and consider another group of Americans who signed onto what's looking more and more like an inadvertent (political) suicide pact. Our media washes over us like some mind-cleansing drug, so today, in the shambles of Bush administration Iraq policy, in the wake of Abu Ghraib, just beyond the "transition to Iraqi rule," it's difficult to recall what life was like back when the press was simply a lapdog; CBS's Dan Rather was burbling, "George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where"; war was a swift, smiting blow (when was the last time you heard the phrase "shock and awe"?), and we were about to be anointed as the New Rome.
It's hard to remember that we were then ruled by the greatest, and most arrogant, gamblers in our history, men (and a single woman) ready to roll the dice any old time on the fate of the Earth. In the wake of every crumbling pseudo-explanation for the war in Iraq, it's hard to remember just how sweeping their vision actually was or what they had in mind when, not so long after September 11th, 2001, they loaded some high-tech hummer (regular cars being far too retro for them) with explosives and drove out into the world looking for something to blow up. Now that the strategists among them are in decline and the "realists," long left in the lurch, are wheeling and dealing in Iraq and Washington, it's hard to recall the utopian (or dystopian) fantasies they were so intent on imposing on what turned out to be a surprisingly recalcitrant world.
For the nostalgia buffs among you, the increasingly lonely Dick Cheney, who not so long ago imagined himself to be the co-ruler of our energy planet, continues to hoof it around the country reiterating charges of al-Qaeda/Saddam ties on a "best of 2001-2002" Bush administration top-ten tour (LA Times, 7/2/04). But even the man who prided himself on never cracking, no less cracking a smile, has had his public bad moments and temper squalls -- and all without a duck, quail or pheasant in sight to knock out of the skies.
In a bow to the Veep's oldies-but-badies routine, let's try, for a moment, to recall the strategic thinking that lay behind the shock-and-awe campaign seen 'round the world: From the start, of course, this was an energy administration. After all, how many national security advisers in our history have had an oil tanker named after them? How many vice presidents ran a giant energy company deeply entangled with the
They identified an "arc of instability" that stretched east-west from the former
Post 9/11, the top strategists of this administration followed their President happily into the "war on terror," the wilder among them imagining it as World War IV, the equivalent of, if not World War II, at least the Cold War, and so engendering dreams of another half-century twilit struggle to victory. Endless years of war would release them to act exactly as they pleased. The President (and his speechwriters), dreaming "Good War" dreams from his movie-made childhood, then elevated a pathetic "Axis of Evil" (Iran, Iraq and North Korea, none of which previously knew of their close relationship) to the role of the Axis powers (Germany, Japan, Italy) in World War II; and so, with an enemy of nation states in hand, far more worthy of a world at war than Osama bin Laden and small groups of fanatic Islamists, they announced a policy of global supremacy not over terrorists, but over all the other nations of our planet, swearing that no future bloc of powers would be allowed to interfere with our benevolent hegemony over the Earth -- and of preventive war. We would reserve the right to take out anybody we even thought might sooner or later in some way or another challenge us. A list of up to 60 states believed to "harbor" terrorists was also drawn up. This was a list for a lifetime. And finally, declaring weapons of mass destruction evil, they made it our job to decide who exactly shouldn't have them and to bolster our own nuclear forces in order to prepare for a series of what Jonathan Schell has called anti-proliferation wars. With this trio of policies in their foreign policy quiver, they looked around for some action.
Of course, the neocon strategists of this administration had long been spoiling for, planning for, and dreaming of a second American Gulf War that would take down Saddam Hussein's regime. (Just a peek at the wonderfully named Project for the New American Century website, where they proudly posted their wares, will give you a sense of this.) Assessing the satanic trio that made up the Axis of Evil -- a fierce and desperate despotism with a sizeable air force but no fuel to get pilots aloft to practice flying planes; an increasingly embattled and unpopular but combative semi-theocracy; and a country sitting on the world's second largest oil reserves, strung out by three failed wars, twelve years of economic sanctions and periodic bombings, and run by a detested, brutal, increasingly out-of-touch regime with a military that was just a ghost of its former self -- they naturally chose the third. It was a grudge rematch to begin with; it looked like a snap (there was little question that Saddam's army, crushed in our first Gulf War, wouldn't last long in a second one); and the assaults of
Nothing could be worse than Saddam, so
And then, of course, there was all that oil. In our desperately over-determined world where the multiple-explanation is the only explanation, the point of all this was never simply to take Iraq's oil, though the neocons did think it would be most useful in reconstructing and running the country on the cheap, as Pentagon Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made quite clear numerous times and still claims. In a world of rising oil desire and potentially limited oil resources, the point was to find ourselves ensconced militarily at the very heart of the
Iran, another of those grudge-match countries, with American encampments on two of its borders -- don't forget our war in Afghanistan here -- would be ripe for an Iraqi-style regime change, a bring-back-the son-of-the-Shah event filled with Orange County Iranians (already promising the same cakewalks and flowers). The Saudis, that giant oil-well of a state, would, of course, be thoroughly intimidated. With NATO well established in the old Eastern Europe preserves of the Soviet Union, American troops flowing into increasingly permanent encampments in its former Central Asian SSRs as well as into a complex of expanding bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with a strengthened American alliance with a right-wing Hindu government in India (also growing ever closer to Israel), impoverished Russia would finally be "contained" along its many-thousand-mile frontier (in a way the Cold Warriors of the twentieth century could only have dreamed of).
By the way, if you consider this vision, you immediately grasp one of the great, post-war mysteries of
What's the difference between the two military strategies? Rumsfeld's was a no-exit strategy. Remember, administration strategists were setting up in
For such a vision of the world, gaily decorated with much talk about bringing "democracy" to the benighted, they were ready to take any step imaginable: targeted assassinations (Ã la Israel), the setting up of an offshore mini-gulag, the torture of those from whom information must be extracted... all the dark arts of the world were to be mobilized for that bright dream of benevolent imperial domination. They planned for the worst they could imagine with the worst tools they could dream up. Where they failed was in their inability to imagine the world as it was, not as they wished it to be. In this sense they were both a Feith-based and faith-based administration; and this was why -- despite copious prewar planning over at State -- the boys from the Pentagon arrived in
Starting with Iraqi nationalism, the basics of our planet in the last century, no less the new one, escaped them, but at least one has to grant them the audacity of their vision. It couldn't have been grander -- though there was no way for the American public to know much about it, since at no other time in our recent past has the American press been so demobilized. At a time when our leaders were putting together the most expansive of global maps, most of the time you could hardly find a piece of analysis, no less news, in our papers that had two countries in it at the same time.
The administration neocons were utopian fantasists who, If you think of Afghanistan as the first enforced stop on their path to Iraq, and Iraq as the chosen second stop on the way to the larger Middle Eastern region, didn't actually get far along the path they set out for themselves. And here's the almost incomprehensible thing (if you don't consider the history of resistance to imperial power of every sort over the last centuries), they were stopped by a group of ill-armed nobodies, lacking predator drones, tanks, billions in intelligence, access to the globe's emails, or even evidently a central command. They were stopped by relatively small groups of brutes and thugs, fanatics and dead-enders backed by the extraordinary power, the overwhelming desire of everyday Iraqis not to be occupied and ruled by a foreign power or its proxies.
And yet the neocons weren't completely wrong. They imagined
They weren't, of course, much at predictions. None of us are. It's one of those human failings. We can't help ourselves when it comes to predicting, but we're almost always surprised by reality. Still, they were worse at it than most, insistent as they were on imposing their soaring vision on a stubborn reality (exactly the charge long laid to the left). In a sense, of all their dreams, only the permanent bases in
Of all the things they couldn't imagine, the first and foremost -- they would have found the thought laughable only a year ago, as laughable as the idea that George W. Bush, our war president, could lose the next election -- was that a ragtag Iraqi insurgency would find itself in the driver's seat of some battered sedan, well-packed with munitions, and driving the Bush administration willy-nilly toward disaster in November. (This wasn't actually so hard to imagine. It was something I predicted at this site at least a year ago -- and if you were reading on the Internet rather than in our mainstream media, you wouldn't have found me alone.)
Just about everyone who represented respectable opinion in our country knew, only months ago, that Americans didn't really vote foreign policy. The media repeated this truth endlessly. The war simply couldn't, wouldn't be the decisive factor in an American election. Well, think again. Now they know and they still can't quite believe it. Now the administration knows too and can't quite believe it either. Now, they're in a rush to repair the damage and so Chalabi is replaced by Allawi, the Pentagon by the State Department and the CIA, and Bush II's boys by the dealers of the Bush I administration. In
This is the famed getting-the-toothpaste-back-in-the-tube dilemma and, given John Kerry's insipid imperial suggestions for Iraq, it's likely to be with us next January no matter who wins in November. One of the few things the neocons seem to have done successfully is pass on a no-exit catastrophe to whomever. Ending the occupation -- I mean the real one -- and withdrawing our troops, these are not live thoughts in much of
But, as Dr. Seuss might have said, that is not all, oh, no, that is not all. The administration policies that crystallized in the invasion of and high-handed occupation of
In our country, the President's poll numbers look dreadful indeed. (As sociologist Michael Schwartz writes, "The really bad news for Bush in these polls lies in the voters' evaluations of his leadership, and all three polls concur in recording dramatic declines to his lowest scores since 9/11. To cite just some of this evidence, the WP [Washington Post]-ABC poll registers Bush's overall approval job rating at 47%, below 50% for the first time since 9/11. Only losing incumbents have been below 50% at this point, with the exception of the Truman miracle of 1948. His ratings on specific issues are also at low ebbs.") Already, for an election victory, a number of things will have to break very right for him -- and we're only in the early days of July. There's so much worse to come in Iraq as well as inside the Beltway where a lethal brew of investigations, court cases, commission reports, angry leakers and whistle-blowers, all released by or fallout from this administration's Iraq policies, ensure unending months of messiness. The president may already be political dead meat, even if the opinion poll head-to-heads with Kerry don't yet register it.
And here's an odd little bit of polling info, pointed out by John Nichols of the Nation magazine (Will the Senate Tip?): "Democratic candidate Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina's superintendent of education, leads in the polls [for a South Carolina Senate seat in a state Bush won by 57%] --despite the fact that one of her opponents dismisses her as 'an Emily's List liberal.' And Tenenbaum's not alone in showing unexpected strength. Democrats are running even or ahead in four of five races for open Senate seats in the South, and they're also even or ahead in contests for Republican-held seats in
The Bush people were audacious; they were visionary (and didn't mind telling you so); the only liberty they truly valued was their liberty to do as they damn pleased; they were focused on unilateral global domination of a sort seen at most only a few times in history; they had the mentality of plunderers and didn't hesitate to use fear to herd Americans in the directions they most desired. In the end, they may find themselves alone and vulnerable in a Baghdad-on-the-Potomac of their own making with no Green Zone in sight and chaos in the driver's seat.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]