Beyond Democratic Constraint?
It is hard to avoid the chilling conclusion that the corporate plutocrats and arch-imperialists in and around the Bush administration do not think they are required to speak or act with even moderate respect for the political intelligence and/or relevance of the citizenry. They believe that basic rules of evidence and democracy, which require justifications and debate rather than simply edicts from policymakers, offer little if any constraint on their actions and pronouncements. They think they have achieved something like the status of Big Brother in George Orwellâ€™s 1984. Big Brother never had to make real sense to his population, which was in no position to respond to the absurdity of his nonsensical pronouncements â€“ War is Peace, Love is Hate, etc. â€“ or to his constant manipulation of history to fit the current party line.
How else to explain the veritable flood of preposterous pronouncements and contradictory policies flowing with regularity out of the Bush administration?:
- The claim that it is in the interest of the American people to enact massive tax cuts for the rich that will do nothing to stimulate a sluggish wealth-top-heavy economy and will combine with massive â€œdefenseâ€ expenditures to deepen the federal deficit and undercut desperately needed social expenditures.
- The claim that jetliner attacks carried out with box-cutters illustrates the need to spend untold billions on a fantastic and unworkable high-tech missile defense shield.
- The claim of the existence of a global â€œAxis of Evilâ€ comprising Iraq, Iran and North Korea, three states with little basis (beyond common demonization by Uncle Sam) for mutual alliance and considerable difference and enmity between them.
- The truly fantastic claim that the Iraqi regime is a threat to send unmanned airplanes carrying chemical and biological weapons to the US.
- The claim to be seriously concerned about the human rights of Iraqi and other world citizens while the White House aggressively supports governments that inflict massive terror on subject and occupied peoples, including Columbia, Israel, Turkey, China and many others.
- The claim to be concerned for â€œdemocracyâ€ and â€œfreedomâ€ around the world while deepening relationships with numerous authoritarian states in the name of the War on Terrorism and using 9-11 as a pretext to roll back cherished civil liberties at home.
- The claim to champion democracy while openly embracing the short lived oligarchic coup conducted last April against the popular elected and constitutional Chavez government of Venezuela â€“ a state too friendly to the poor for the White House tastes.
- The claim to be grievously offended by the use of â€œspecial preferencesâ€ (race-based affirmative action at the University of Michigan) in college admissions even while Bush refuses to criticize the aristocratic legacy system that provided the only possible basis for his admission to Yale.
The list of Bush absurdities along these lines goes on and on.
Spinning Divergent Responses to â€œEvil Axisâ€ Others
Perhaps the most relevant Big Lie currently rolling out of the White House spin factory relates to the nature and objectives of the Iraqi government. Here we have the neo-Stalinist North Korean regime of Kim Jung Il announcing its determination to significantly expand an already existing stock of nuclear weapons. A million North Korean troops have been placed on alert, ready to do battle with jackbooted enemies from what North Korean state television calls â€œthe citadels of imperialism.â€ And here we have Iraq, still reeling from the first Persian Gulf â€œwarâ€ (a one-sided assault by world historyâ€™s most powerful military state) and a subsequent decade of deadly US-led sanctions. The second nation poses no serious military threat to its own neighbors, much less the West. United Nations inspectors under Bushâ€™s sneering glare are hard pressed to find significant evidence that significant â€œweapons of mass destructionâ€ are being manufactured and/or stored in the land of Saddam Hussein. They are reduced to reporting the discovery of empty containers, hardly a refutation of former chief UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, a former American military intelligence officer, who insists that Iraq has been effectively disarmed.
Bushâ€™s response to the first threat is to put it on the back burner, promising diplomacy and negotiation, oiled by reassuring words that America does not seek to attack or invade. The White House response to the second situation is a full front-burner preparation of its awesome air-, land-, sea- and space-based military machine for another bloody assault on Iraq, followed by occupation and â€œreconstruction.â€
How does the Bush administration explain such divergent responses to â€œEvil Axisâ€ perfidy, especially when the threat posed by North Korea would appear to be so much greater? Kim Jong Il, the Bush administration tells us, is a â€œrational actor,â€ subject to constraint and deterrence. He can be argued with and persuaded. He is possessed of common sense and realism, a special instinct for survival and a sense of limits.
But Saddam, the White House insists, is no such animal. He is hopelessly reckless, driven and brutal. He simply cannot be deterred from acting on his bizarre and sinister determination to use weapons of mass destruction. If we let a lunatic like Saddam get nuclear weapons, the argument runs, it is certain that he will use them against us and our allies, either directly or by â€œhanding them offâ€ to al Qaeda or some other like-minded group. The likelihood that such an action would lead to his total annihilation is irrelevant, we are told. The failure to launch a preemptive war against this madman, we are instructed, will be written in mushroom clouds over our cities.
The proof, the White House argues, for this judgement is found in the record of Saddamâ€™s thoroughly irrational, even â€œinsaneâ€ past behavior. That historical record includes his attacks on Iran (1980) and Kuwait (1990), resulting in millions of Iraqi deaths, and the use of chemical weapons against â€œhis own peopleâ€ (the Kurds of northern Iraq) and Iranian soldiers.
The Real Saddam: Sinister, Yes; Suicidal, No
Itâ€™s a transparently manipulative and false historical argument whose primary purpose is to frighten the American people into war. A related goal is to divert the citizenry from the terrible shortcomings of domestic White House policies that exacerbate the growing social and economic insecurity of the population while distributing wealth and power upward.
The historical facts are clear. When Saddam started a war with Iran in 1980, he did so because that nation faced a very real and serious threat from a zealous revolutionary nation (Iran) that was aggressively pursuing hegemony throughout the Middle East. He fought a strictly limited war seeking a large protective swath of expanded border territory. He never pursued the conquest of Iran or the overthrow of its revolutionary leader Ayatolla Khomeni. His war was fought with the reasonable and realized expectation that other nations, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and France, would offer considerable financial, diplomatic and technical support to stem the spread of Iranâ€™s Islamic revolution.
When Saddam invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, his goals were far from reckless. He sought, after years of fruitless diplomacy, to punish Kuwait for its refusal to write-off debts incurred in a war that arguably protected that nationâ€™s oil fields from Iranian conquest. He was also responding in arguably rational, Machiavellian ways to Kuwaitâ€™s insistence on deflating world oil prices, reducing Iraqi profits, by producing beyond OPEC quotas. When he invaded, he weighed his options carefully, concluding that he had definite reason to expect US approval, thanks to a now famous communication from Bush Iâ€™s Ambassador to Iraq – April Glaspie. â€œWe have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts,â€ Glaspie told Hussein, â€œlike your border disagreement with Kuwait.â€ Glaspieâ€™s State Department had earlier told Saddam that it had â€œno special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.â€
Saddam proceeded, in short, on the assumption of a â€œgreen lightâ€ from Bush I. His invasion of Kuwait cannot be reasonably seen as proof of his non-deterrable nature since the US never attempted deterrence.
When the US responded with a devastating air campaign, Saddam communicated his willingness to retreat prior to the launching of a US ground war. But Bush I refused this option, unacceptably insisting that Saddam leave his military hardware behind in Kuwait. This impossible demand set the stage for an American massacre of Iraqi troops that is curiously deleted from the official record of â€œpathologicalâ€ atrocities in the Middle East.
During the Persian Gulf â€œwar,â€ which he curiously survived (contrary to White House doctrine on his â€œsuicidalâ€ nature), Hussein never used chemical or biological weapons against Israel, Saudi Arabia or the coalition forces that were pounding his military. He knew that using weapons of mass destruction would lead to his annihilation by the US. Hussein was also deterred by US troop mobilizations from efforts to change the inspection regime in 1994.
What about Saddamâ€™s use of chemical weapons against â€œhis own peopleâ€ (if thatâ€™s what we really want to call the minority Kurdish population he has long terrorized) and Iranian soldiers during the 1980s? Those actions certainly indicate Saddamâ€™s undeniable savagery, but they are not proof of his reckless and suicidal immunity to deterrence for two reasons. First, the people targeted were in no position to respond in kind. Second, Saddam gassed Kurds and Iranians with the support and assistance of the one country that happened and happens to possess the worldâ€™s largest stockpile of deterrent weapons chemical, nuclear and biological. That would be the United States. During the 1980s, in fact, the US assisted Saddamâ€™s biological weapons program by providing him with American strains of anthrax, West Nile virus and botulinal toxin.
As for the nuclear threat allegedly posed by Saddam, there is no reason to think that he is willing to invite a devastating nuclear assault on Iraq and perhaps most significantly (for him) himself â€“ the certain result of starting a nuclear war in the region. Also preposterous is the notion that Saddam would â€œhandoffâ€ nuclear weapons to historical blood enemies in al Qaeda or other extremist Islamic terror networks. The Bush administrationâ€™s abject failure to prove that Iraq is cooperating with al Qaeda is hardly surprising to any serious student of Middle Eastern politics.
The Homegrown Threat to Liberal Democracy
One does not have to be a radical critic of American imperialism to see through the transparent Orwellian absurdity of the White Houseâ€™s line about the Iraqi regimeâ€™s non-deterrability. Even Thomas L. Friedman, the openly imperialist and Arab-baiting foreign policy columnist of the New York Times correctly noted today that Saddam is â€œa twisted dictator who is deterrable through conventional meansâ€ and â€œloves life more than he hates us.â€ More substantively, the counter-argument to Bushâ€™s claims of Saddamâ€™s reckless non-deterrability can be found in a recent article by two leading mainstream academics in the establishment journal Foreign Policy (John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, â€œAn Unnecessary War,â€ FP, January-February 2003). It can also be found, in greater detail, in Carl Kaysen et al, War With Iraq: Costs, Consequences and Alternatives (December 2002), produced by no less of a â€œrespectableâ€ organization than the Committee on International Security Studies of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Whatâ€™s missing in these very useful mainstream pieces is a broader framework in which to place and thereby understand the nature of the White Houseâ€™s deception. For that, we must consider the balance of global petro-capitalist relations that provide the basis for Americaâ€™s provocative presence in the Middle East in the first place. We should also consider the numerous domestic failures from which White House wishes to divert popular attention in the industrial worldâ€™s most unequal and incarceration-addicted nation â€“ the â€œworldâ€™s most prosperous state,â€ where more than 45 million people lack basic health insurance.
Also recommended is an essay titled â€œThe Orwell Diversionâ€ (1986), written by the late Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey and included in his 1997 book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty. In that essay and elsewhere, Carey argued that the most relevant long-term threat to liberal democracy has never come from the state totalitarians of the Stalinist left or the fascist right. It comes instead from the homegrown, big business-connected â€œRespectable Rightâ€ that arose within the liberal-democratic societies of the West (chiefly the US) largely to protect concentrated corporate power against its natural homeland antagonist – the popular democratic tradition.
More then fifteen years after Careyâ€™s essay, the Soviet Union has joined Nazi Germany in historyâ€™s proverbial dustbin and the last classic 1984-style regime (if such a thing has ever existed) bangs its little nuclear drum for global food assistance in North Korea. Meanwhile, a homegrown version of Big Brother stalks the corridors of domestic and imperial power in Washington D.C., wearing the uniform of the Respectable Right. He is deeply enabled by a corporate communications and entertainment empire that combines Huxley with Orwell to muddy the waters of popular perception in ways that modern red- and brown-fascist state-totalitarians could only dream about. He is ineluctably if perhaps unconsciously drawn to the wisdom of Orwellâ€™s chilling axiom: â€œWho controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.â€
Paul Street ([email protected] ) is a political essayist and social policy critic in Chicago, Illinois.