Using American veterans as props, on November 11, 2005 President George Bush delivered a speech designed to justify his foreign policy failures since 9/11. Throughout his talk he intoned his audience to recognize the goodness of American foreign policy and the inherent democratic character of the United States. Bush increasingly appears somewhat like a frustrated Lyndon Baines Johnson who could not quite understand why “all” Americans did not recognize their prosperity during the democratic upheavals of the 1960s, and with some embarrassment declared to the public “I’m not saying have you ever had it so good, but have you?” Yet, President Bush, unlike LBJ shows no such humility in asserting the democratic quality of US foreign policy. Like an American abroad who can’t seem to communicate with the natives when they don’t get the message, his answer is merely to turn up the volume and repeat the message as a tautology: US policy is democratic because America is free. One suspects that if there was more truth to the assertion it would not have to be repeated so frequently, but merely be understood.
But, let’s inspect his administration’s latest attempt to persuade us of his case. In some ways his address presented both familiar and novel themes in his attempt to explain his adventures abroad. On the more familiar side, is the US government’s rhetoric detailing its use of force to command obedience from those insolent enough to question America. One can be sure that only good motivates the Bush Administration. This tradition extends back to America’s original sin: the ethnic cleansing of America’s indigenous people.
To take just one example haters, killers, and duelers, such as Andrew Jackson, president of the United States when the Cherokee were removed, never failed to remind the public that it was being done for the Indians own well being. This was necessary because most people are good and genuinely wish their government to act in accordance with their values. Since the Atlantic-World Revolutions launched by American, France, and Haiti beginning in 1776, people have expected the state to reflect their concerns. Given this, Jackson would assert:
“It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants,” Jackson declared in his first inaugural address in 1829.
The Cherokee presented an interesting dilemma. It was declared, with a sigh, that most Indians would be removed due merely to the inexorable forces of progress. But, the Cherokee were farmers, developed a written language with a vibrant press, and were even slave-owning plantation owners-in other words, from the perspective of the day, “civilized.” However, the Cherokee had too much fertile land for cultivating cotton, and then in 1830 gold was discovered on their remaining territory in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They had to go once again.
I used to teach where the Cherokee lived. Some of my students’ families received 600 acre grants of Cherokee land. My university’s administration building steeple where I once taught is sheathed in that gold. The Cherokee were given $5 million dollars and marched off to what was referred to at the time, the “Great American Desert” of the West. Thousands died in transit in what became known as the Trail of Tears. In the ensuing decades more civilized forms of appropriation were discovered, and in the early 20th century oil was discovered in the “desert” that the Indians were deposited in. Now lawyers did the heavy lifting to ensure the wealth was transferred to its proper custodians. The pattern repeated itself with several other US adventures following Indian removal in the Caribbean and Pacific, but this is not the place to address these 200 episodes.
The next major innovation employed by the American government to convince its public of the need for war, was World War I. Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the platform of keeping America out of the dirty trench waters of war Europeans were bathing in since 1914. Wilson’s message followed the American tradition dating back to George Washington’s farewell address to stay out of European wars. Wilson, however, thought different than Washington. Yet, how to turn public opinion? The answer was with the new science of public opinion management. The new art of public relations was developed with campaigns to transform hated figures in America, such as the robber baron John Rockefeller, into avuncular figures bouncing children on his knee.
This new art/science was created by figures such as Edward Bernays-the double nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays introduced phrases such as “engineering consent.” Edward Bernays believed power did not derive from the people, but the people had to be given the illusion of such. Bernays used the analogy of his chauffer driver, who he called “Dumb Jack,” to describe why the levers of power must be in the hands of an enlightened class. It would not do to have the Dumb Jacks running the country. So, Woodrow Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Commission, to unleash a public relations onslaught on the American public to turn them to war. It succeeded just enough to keep Americans from rising up en masse against Wilson’s adventure. Among the admirers of Wilson’s propaganda effort were the Bolsheviks.
The next major challenge to forge consent for US policy was with the Cold War. President Harry Truman, but more accurately those such as his advisors James Byrnes and Henry Stimson, were convinced of the need to place the US on a permanent war-time footing. After WW II the US economy was strangled by the post-demobilization. Economists and manufacturers alike were convinced America would sink into a depression, such as existed before the war. This, combined with the US inheriting the global system abandoned by the weakened British and French, placed the US in a new role of world leadership. Moreover, US/Soviet relations soured after the war. The reasons were many-fold; from the US dropping A-Bombs at Secretary of State James Byrnes’ counsel to show the Soviets who was boss, to Stalin’s machinations in East/Central Europe. At any rate, detailed in National Security Council Document 68 was the need to frighten Americans into accepting the new conflict. The communist threat had to be magnified in order for Americans to back a permanent-war economy of the accompanying military-industrial complex of which President Dwight D. Eisenhower would declare a decade later in his departing address had gotten out of control.
It was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that led to panic in the halls of American power. The administration of George Bush (the elder) reacted with confusion to events. This then set the stage for our current environment. New justifications would have to be found for NATO and American military power. Moreover, while the elder crowd blindly groped for new organizing principles in the post-Cold War, an alternative elite faction that came to dominate George Bush’s (junior) government advanced a bold plan and a Project for a New American Century.
Let’s now deconstruct Bush’s November 11th address:
“Through the generations, they have humbled dictators and liberated continents and set a standard of courage and idealism for the entire world.”
This fails any test of credibility. From ethnic cleansing of the American Indians, to the suppression of the democratic independence movement of the Filipinos in 1898 under Emiliano Aguinaldo, to the ousting of the democratic leaders of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 to Jacabo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, and extending to a whole list of other democrats, the United States, for whatever motives, has often proven an enemy of democracy when its economic and related geopolitical interests trumped the former. In other contexts, however, such as West Europe in the Cold War, America vigorously supported left-leaning social democracies as a hedge against communism. In other words, the United States has alternatively supported democracies and dictators. The common thread linking them has been the elite interest of the American power structure at a given place and time. It, not surprisingly acts, in its interests, not on principle. Principle, however, made important by the US and French Revolutions, has been important for “engineering consent,” because the public expects its leaders to govern on their behalf, and thus politicians, such as George Bush, must steep their rhetoric in language of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”
In Bush’s revisionism America also claims victory for World War II. This too crumbles under inspection. Hitler, Time’s “man of the year” in 1938, was popular among many American and European elites. While he would not have been considered proper dinner company, it was thought he would invade the USSR and so bully for him. Rhapsodic eulogies could also be found in the American press and among the State Separtment for Benito Mussolini.
Joseph Stalin, during the war, was America’s ally. “Today we are at peace with Oceania, and we have always been.” But, after the Soviets proved too effective in dispatching the fascist threat, then “today we are at war with Oceania, and we always have been.” Two relatives of mine died fighting Hitler in the American army, but the victory against the Nazis belongs to the Soviets who faced close to 70% of the German forces, while the rest of the allies took on the remainder. The American propaganda apparatus could turn on a dime and transform the murderer of the entire original Bolshevik leadership who starved Russia’s peasants into submission from “Uncle Joe” into enemy # 1 after the war.
From WW II Bush goes on to tout his record for spending on American veterans-which is mixed at best-and then pulls like a wedding band breaking into familiar standards such as “Proud Mary,” delivers his support for an amendment banning flag desecration. No innovations here, but they do come later in the speech through conflating communism with Islamic fundamentalism. And, from this reference to the flag, he then segues to the gift that just keeps on giving: 9/11. Here, George Bush reminds us of the evil threat, of which it certainly is. But, a deft shift from its real causes is required to hook the public on the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) vision for the US in the world.
As President Bush reminded us in the shadow of 9/11, they “hate us because we are free.” Strangely, the Swedes and Swiss are not hated for similar reasons. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden has even cited the Swedes as left out of this fight for those too dim to see the real causes of the conflict.
But, as Bush relates:
“First, these extremists want to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East, because we stand for democracy and peace and stand in the way of their ambitions.”
Where does one begin on the US record here: 1) the US overthrow of the first democratically elected leader of Iran in 1953? 2) US sponsorship of Iran’s subsequent dictator the Shah of Iran? 3) US support for the corrupt House of Saud in Saudi Arabia? 4) continuing support for Israel even after it developed some 150 nuclear weapons, violates several UN resolutions on the Palestinians, and continuing settlement expansion in the West Bank? 5) American support for the Egyptian dictator Mubarak? 6) US sponsorship for several Pakistani dictators, including the current Musharaf? 7) cozy relations with Islam Karimov, until recently, in Uzbekistan? 8) support of Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s?
Bush then fully derails from the tracks of history altogether when he implores:
“And the civilized world knows very well that other fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, consumed whole nations in war and genocide before leaving the stage of history.”
The first of these figures, Hitler, had support from many quarters in the West. Stalin was America’s ally during the war. And, the US supported Pol Pot when the Vietnamese tried to remove this menace on their border. Indeed, this is entirely consistent with the enemies de jure. Just as with these previous figures, America’s new enemies, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden (both enemies of each other, incidentally, and of which the latter approached the House of Saud to launch a jihad against the former) were once supported by America.
We are at peace with Oceania and have always been at peaceâ€¦
Also, while this may be appear mere hairsplitting, of the above five “fanatics,” the label only fits three of them. Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein were both were cynics and opportunists of sorts rather than fanatical ideologues as were the others on his list. Although, Stalin, was a seminarian, and his quasi-fundamentalist crusading zeal was likely rooted in his religious formative years.
On the difficulty of vanquishing these foes, Bush explains:
“Defeating the militant network’s difficult because it thrives like a parasite on the suffering and frustration of others. The radicals exploit local conflicts to build a culture of victimization in which someone else is always to blame and violence is always the solution.”
At this point we see revealed the habit of projecting America’s own foibles on others. The enemy always seeks others to blame for its problems and always employs violence to achieve its goals. Given the US record of ethnically cleansing its own continent and engaging some 200 foreign interventions, the statement might ring true if Bush in a Maoist session of self-criticism were recording the faults of his own government.
Bush then contends:
“The radicals depend on front operations, such as corrupted charities which direct money to terrorist activity. They are strengthened by those who aggressively fund the spread of radical intolerant versions of Islam into unstable parts of the world. The militants are aided, as well, by elements of the Arab news media that incite hatred and anti-Semitism, that feed conspiracy theories and speak of a so-called American war on Islam, with seldom a worry about American action to protect Muslims in Afghanistan and Bosnia and Somalia and Kosovo and Kuwait and Iraq, or seldom a word about our generous assistance to Muslims recovering from national disasters in places like Indonesia and Pakistan.”
On financing, Bush rightly points to the importance of material support for these terrorist networks. Yet, typifying their denial of the real source of this money, is his placing blame on charities. Covert financing of terror has been made possible by the American deconstruction of Bretton Woods rules on capital flows. In that post-war order capital was leashed to national development strategies that fed industrialization while starving speculation. Since the US took the lead in de-regulating these capital movements in the service of its own multi-national corporations and Wall Street speculator class, over 95% of all capital flows are merely speculative, with even rejections by America of taxing these flows of hot money as proposed by Nobel laureate James Tobin.
In addition to this American introduced structural reason for the new ease of concealing capital movements for the ease of funding Al Qaeda is that the CIA trained the mujhadeen in shell company and money laundering techniques, including the business of corrupting charities to this end. This was done during the US support (almost creation of) the Mujhadeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Indeed, it should be remembered as then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski commented in a 1998 Le Figaro interview, that he instructed President Carter that by giving aid to the Afghani forces opposed to rule from Kabul in 1979 “â€¦this aid was going to induce a Soviet intervention. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into an Afghan trapâ€¦.” He later declared “that secret operation was an excellent idea.” Moreover, to President Carter he further argued “we now have the opportunity of giving the US its Vietnam War.” Not even reflecting on the untold misery this war caused in Afghanistan, the former National Security Advisor further asserted that this operation only cost was inconsequential, merely some “stirred up Moslems.” This racism and disregard for human life in the Middle East and Central Asia has caused blowback on the US. Ironically, Brzezinski is now one of the most effective critics of the Bush Administration policy, perhaps, admirably, upon reflection of his own hand in this mess.
On Bush’s point regarding the anti-Semitic and conspiratorial view on the street of many Muslims about America, this is unfortunately true. This is both a consequence of the wrecking ball the US has wielded in the region and a failure of Middle East intellectuals to correct. Although, on the latter, it must be remembered America has had a hand in eliminating left-wing intellectuals throughout the Middle East, not to mention globally. Rational dissent cannot come from this quarter because it was, literally, decapitated. It was originally thought that letting Muslims busy themselves in mosques was the best way to achieve stability. We are now experiencing the blowback from that strategy.
Bush further complains that these fundamentalists rarely recognize America’s role in past defense of them in Afghanistan and the Balkans. Yet, again, the first was part of a larger game in the Cold War and the second was part of America’s need to find a continued use for NATO in the post-Cold War and protect future pipeline routes through the Balkans. As with all powerful states, America acts in its interests. And, this is truly the greatest flaw in the fundamentalist analysis: assuming America is at war with Islam. America merely pursues its benefit. One day America is at peace with Oceania and always has beenâ€¦ As America and the world changes its interests will change and so too will its enemies and friends. The wild card, however, is democracy. American democracy is what sociologist William Robinson terms polyarchy. Polyarchy represents a small menu of choices acceptable to elites. This limited selection, though, is enough to present the illusion of variety. It is this model American elites have constructed at home and now export: “options” without alternatives. Or, as Margaret Thatcher once inveighed “there is no alternative.” Yet, embedded within this polyarchy, and indeed, what polyarchy attempts to suffocate, is democracy, which periodically erupts from the shackles placed on it. And it is this that periodically emerges to thwart power.
Bush then argues that Iraq is not the cause of the current difficulties:
“Some have also argued that extremists have been strengthened by our actions in Iraq, claiming that our presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001. (APPLAUSE) The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue. And it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse. The government of Russia did not support Operation Iraqi Freedom, and yet the militants killed more than 150 Russian school children in Beslan.”
Yes and no. First, he errs in saying the US was not in Iraq before September 11th. He ignores his father’s invasion and the airstrikes that continued throughout the 1990s right up to the most recent invasion. Then, there were the estimated 500k deaths of Iraqi children due to the UN sanctions, of which then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when interviewed, declared “it was worth it.”
He then cites the Beslan incident to show Iraq is not responsible for all terrorism. True enough. Russia, which has flattened Grozny and destroyed Chechnya, is certainly considered an enemy by these fundamentalists. But, note Bush fails to observe how Western nations, such as Sweden, that have left these people alone have not been targets. This elephant in the room is simply ignored. The common targets are imperial states that have wielded their economic and military might in the Islamic world.
Bush’s neocons, or should we say the neocons’ Bush, then pronounce:
“The murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals is the great challenge of our new century. Yet in many ways this fight resembles the struggle against communism in the last century.”
This transparent, if clumsy, attempt to salvage the current policy failure through linkage to communism will surely keep many intellectuals employed in ever new ways to connect two different movements. Unlike Islamic fundamentalists, communists were on the forefront of the women’s movement, struggles against racism, and promoting better conditions for labor when the really existing democracies still banned women from politics, institutionalized racism as policy, and used the bludgeon against insolent workers. The political gulf between communists and fundamentalists could not be wider. Indeed, it was just this gap the US exploited when supporting its allies extermination of communists and allying Islamic fundamentalists to that cause whenever possible. Bush’s intellectuals prove alchemists once again, making lies into truth and truth into lies.
We are at peace with Oceania and always have beenâ€¦ We are at war with Oceania and always have beenâ€¦Bush’s neocon intellectuals are closer to the mark on the issue of vanguards. They are dangerous, but not only those of America’s enemies, but the US vanguard itself.
“Like the ideology of communism, Islamic radicalism is elitist, led by a self-appointed vanguard that presumes to speak for the Muslim masses. Bin Laden says his own role is to tell Muslims, quote, “what is good for them and what is not.”
Bush and company represent a neoconservative coterie that often possessed Trotyskyist pasts. They have merely traded in one ideology for another, but maintaining their vanguardist confidence in their righteousness. While some of Bush’s minions have this background, others are merely like Bush himself, a simple Christian fundamentalist, and represent what the Pakistani intellectual Tariq Ali refers to as the “Clash of Fundamentalisms”: Christian and Islamic.
Bush then jumps to homeland defense:
“We are reorganizing our government to give this nation a broad and coordinated homeland defense. We are reforming our intelligence agencies for the incredibly difficult task of tracking enemy activity based on information that often comes in small fragments from widely scattered sources both here and abroad.”
Hurricane Katrina revealed the mendacity of this statement. The world’s richest nation is wholly unprepared to protect its own people in the simple way that impoverished Cuba did when struck by a similar forced hurricane in which they evacuated all and saw none die. The American Gulf’s security, unfortunately, was left in the hands of a political crony who brought the credential of managing an Arabian horse stable to the job, in addition, of course, to being an organizer and contributor to the GOP. The war on “terror” is almost entirely offensive. And even here, it fails. For Osama Bin Laden was allowed to escape while the US employed 9/11 to pursue its real agenda in Iraq.
Bush then asserts:
“we’re determined to deny the militant’s control of any nation which they would use as a home base and a launching pad for terror.”
While creating just that in Iraq, he declares we are preventing it. The dizzying heights of Orwellian logic employed here force us to suspend all sense of history and reality to accept his argument. Bush then boldly returns to WMD and area where one thinks he would flee given his total discrediting on this score.
He then declares victory in the war waged against terrorists in Iraq:
“Acting on tips from local citizens, our forces have recently launched airstrikes against terrorist safehouses in and around the towns of Ubaydi (ph) and Husaba (ph).”
One should have concern for those attacked here. They may be terrorists, but the reliance on “tips from local citizens” was precisely the Bush regime’s “source” that Saddam Hussein had WMD.
Bush then pulls out the familiar theme that our enemy is brutal (which it is) but that America is not:
“The terrorists are as brutal an enemy as we’ve ever faced, unconstrained by any notion of our common humanity or by the rules of warfare. No one should underestimate the difficulties ahead, nor should they overlook the advantages we bring to this fight.”
Bush is defending several dubious arguments here. One, implicitly, is that the brutality of our enemy forces us to torture prisoners at Guantanamo, Abu Graib, and at facilities in the former Soviet bloc. Two, that somehow we are civilized. From the use of Atomic weapons that melted skin off babies, to the use of C130 gunships spraying 6000 rounds of ammunition per minute on villages in Central America in the 1980s, to the use of phosphorous weapons that burn one from the inside out, the US knows a little something about brutality. The irony and outrage is that pressures for democratizing society and curbing excess come from civil society, which the Bush neocons wish to both fight on substance, but lay claim to their existence as proof of the neocons representing democracyâ€¦.
In the end, Bush, like the Stalinist vanguardists he inveighs against, airbrushes out of history inconvenient facts, re-writes history to suit his present, and seeks to impose a privatizing utopian system that has failed from Latin America to the former USSR leaving millions dying earlier than they otherwise would have, but with the right persons profiting handsomely in the process.
The Bushites cloak their imperial agenda in property rights, which they conflate with democracy. Incidentally, this was the same tactic used by the proslavery South on the cusp of the Civil War. Like Bush, they argued they merely represented the interests of those slavers under their nurturing guidance, and, like today, the proslavers defended their program on grounds of property rights. No doubt within both camps existed cynics and idealists, who together represented a dangerous synergy. That same dynamic is at work again today with the Bush administration’s privatization program for the Iraqi economy. In order to undertake their goals in Iraq, the Bush administration deigned to violate the truth to serve a greater good. This has been done before by American presidents Abraham Lincoln noted in 1848 as the Mexican-American War neared its conclusion: “Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion … and you allow him to make war at pleasureâ€¦You may say to him, ‘I see no probability ofâ€¦[them]â€¦ invading us,’ but he will say to you, ‘Be silent: I see it if you don’t.’”
The lesson was lost on the American Congress, who, duped again, supported LBJ in 1964 with the rigged story on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and suckered again, Congress bought the same line in 2003 on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Like a dark wizard invoking forces beyond their comprehension, we still know not yet the full consequences unleashed by these neocon adventures.
As Ulysses S. Grant commented on the outcome of the Mexican-War:
“The Southern rebellion [Civil War] was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
Following James Polk, the Young Americans expansion movement declared that we should expand now and handle the political incidentals later. Reminiscent of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt for a speedy victory and come what may attitude on the political details in Iraq, we find ourselves in treacherous waters. Just as after the Mexican-American War opened the door to the North/South conflict that became the Civil War we can only hope future conflicts in the Middle East will not be fueled by the Iraqi campaign.
Let’s hope we can exit Iraq, end unnecessary adventures abroad, unless directly threatened, and develop energy alternatives that liberate us from dependence on the Middle East and the compulsion to control it. If we fail, we will likely suffer more attacks and observe generations of politicians detail why we have always been at permanent peace, with friends de jure, or why under changed circumstances we have always been at war with the same.
Jeff Sommers is a professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College and visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. He publishes on US foreign relations, political economy, and global studies. He has held several Fulbrights and divides his time between the US and Baltic states.