Bring Him On

Quote of the day: George Bush to British journalists, “I travel in somewhat of a bubble.” (Caren Bohan, “Bush to Keep Distance from Protests on London Trip,” Reuters, Nov. 16, 2003)


Who can even remember — it might as well have been the Neolithic age — the moment when Bill Clinton exuberantly walked the streets of London high-fiving passers-by near Trafalgar Square (where demonstrators on Thursday are planning to pull down a 20-foot high statue of our own Uncurious George)? Only a few years have passed and yet we’ve all disappeared down some rabbit hole.


As I write this, Air Force One is descending on London‘s Heathrow Airport and the President readying himself to step out and be greeted by Prince Charles, but that description hardly catches the moment. “He” will arrive with his imperial court and a veritable army of protectors, advisers, jesters, and spinners. Bush, in fact, no longer moves anywhere in anything less than an imperial processional. Like some juggernaut, it literally transforms the landscape in his path, turning his surroundings either into a series of Potemkin villages or into a completely sterile environment. His passages through the world are little less than those of a planetary ruler — though in Roman imperial terms, his reign seems closer to Nero’s (without the patronage of the arts) than to Augustus’s.


If his advisers had had their way they undoubtedly would have landed a stream of C-130 transports at Heathrow carrying the Army Corps of Engineers and done everything but divert the Thames to “protect” our man in London.


In the planning for this four-day visit, you can catch in a nutshell so many aspects of Bush rule (or of the Cheney Regency, if you care to think of it that way). An invitation for the trip was evidently requested from Tony Blair almost two years ago when this administration felt in control of a world it was confident of remaking in its own image or simply crushing. Then Bush’s foreign policy men (and lone woman) were proud of being on message, “disciplined,” “secretive,” close-mouthed, in control of the media, and arrogantly sure of themselves in a faith-based sort of way, as well as confident of a reelection victory in 2004.


With a presidential stay chez the Queen and a presidential address to Parliament, as well as photo-ops of George standing firmly beside Blair, the First Ally, this was to be a photo-op of a trip meant to impress the American electorate. It was to be the foreign equivalent of that “mission accomplished” landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. In fact, you could probably date the period of administration control (and spin control) from the planning of this visit, or perhaps simply from a few days after the September 11th attacks, to a couple of weeks after the aircraft carrier drop-by. That flyboy-pinup moment was hardly half a year ago, but doesn’t it seem like a lifetime away?


Now, Bush’s men find themselves approaching this state visit to England in a fashion hardly different from the way they’re approaching Iraq. Flustered and in a state of visible panic, driven by fear, they’re trying to sort out “withdrawal” strategies. When people first started referring to Bush, Cheney et. al. as “chickenhawks” — because of the way they managed to absent themselves not just from the military but from the whole Vietnam era — I thought it a bit much. But I’ve come to believe that there’s something deeply accurate about the term, for there’s a darker, more shameful line that can be drawn from September 11, 2001 to November 18, 2003.


At the moment of the 2001 attacks, the administration reacted with panic, fear, and flight. The President, then in Florida, quite literally took to the air and headed west, not north, while the vice-president went to earth. (Rumsfeld seems to have been the only one, after the attack on the Pentagon, who exhibited a modicum of bravery and coolness under fire.) Put another way, in the face of an unexpected and unplanned horror, in the face, that is, of an instant loss of control, key figures in the administration essentially turned tail and fled. This moment was covered up afterwards (largely by a great deal of compensatory macho posturing and aggressive rhetoric).


Now, facing an increasingly hostile world where little is working out as planned and a Middle East policy on which they’ve banked much that’s in freefall, they again are in a panic. Given the prospect of large-scale demonstrations and hostile politicians in a reasonably friendly land, as well as a photo-op-less trip abroad, they are exhibiting many hauntingly familiar characteristics — a striking mix of fear and something like paranoia over the president’s protection, along with imperial arrogance and blindness to the needs or desires of others.

I found nothing more striking than the administration’s sudden decision to cancel an already scheduled presidential address to Parliament (an obvious response to Tony Blair’s July address to a joint session of Congress). Here’s how the British tabloid the Mirror reported this while describing a visit that will place London “under virtual siege” (“Bush pulls out of speech to Parliament,” Nov. 17):


“George Bush was last night branded chicken for scrapping his speech to Parliament because he feared being heckled by anti-war MPs. The US president planned to give a joint address to the Commons and Lords during his state visit to Britain…The only speech Mr Bush, who will stay with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, is now due to give will be to an ‘invited audience’ at the Banqueting House in Whitehall… Previous world leaders, including Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Francois Mitterand, have all given speeches to the Lords and the Commons while visiting Britain… But earlier this year, Bush was embarrassed when he was heckled by MPs in Australia.”


Now imagine this for a minute. The man who taunted the Iraqi armed opposition with the phrase “bring ‘em on” and his advisers were made anxious enough by a couple of politician-protestors during a speech to the Australian Parliament (from which, for the first time in history, the public had been locked out) that they backed down on a speech to the British Parliament. What would the President do, after all, if Labor back-benchers heckled him or walked out? Melt? Was this cowardice? Political fear? You name it. But it’s craven.


And in some ways that was the least of it. The Bush people, calling this privately “the trip from hell,” (Guardian, Nov. 17) pushed for a level of protection that speaks of depths of fear almost unmentionable in a world where everyone is exposed to certain levels of danger much of the time. Even the Queen was evidently displeased when it was suggested that Buckingham Palace might be turned into Buckingham Vault. According to the Australian newspaper the Age (“Palace limits US security changes,” Nov. 17):


“The Queen was not amused at proposed safeguards for George Bush’s visit, reports Tim Walker in London. Queen Elizabeth has rejected a request from President George Bush’s security advisers to bolster Buckingham Palace‘s structural defences against a terrorist attack during his state visit to Britain this week.


“Senior courtiers said that the Queen was not willing to countenance bomb and airborne assault proofing that would have involved substantial alterations to her London home… The Americans fear that al-Qaeda terrorists are planning an attack when the President and his wife, Laura, stay for three nights in the ground-floor Belgian Suite at the Palace.


“One courtier said: ‘They wanted blast and bullet-proofed windows and curtains and some strengthening to the walls of the President’s suite and other rooms at the Palace where he would be spending time. The President’s security men seem obsessed with the idea of an airborne attack on the Palace…


“The Queen has also limited the number of American security staff who will stay at the Palace. ‘Her Majesty’s view throughout was that since there are going to be 5000 British police officers involved in the security operation for the President, it’s not unreasonable to expect her guests to have some faith in their abilities,’ the courtier said.”


Blast-proof windows against an “airborne assault”? I’m not especially psychologically-inclined when it comes to international affairs, but I think you’d need a team of full-time psychiatrists and psychologists to plumb the mental make up of this administration right now. We may be talking close to deranged here.


After all, Fortress Buckingham was, it turns out, only the tip of the protection iceberg. Martin Bright of the British Observer reported Sunday (“‘Shoot-to-kill’ demand by US,” Nov. 16):


“Home Secretary David Blunkett has refused to grant diplomatic immunity to armed American special agents and snipers travelling to Britain as part of President Bush’s entourage this week. In the case of the accidental shooting of a protester, the Americans in Bush’s protection squad will face justice in a British court as would any other visitor, the Home Office has confirmed.”


Now imagine this for a moment. Our men in Washington essentially demanded extraterritoriality for our snipers from our British “partner.” Of course, this is something the United States has long been used to in various “allied” countries that have made up our Asian “defense” perimeter and it’s similar to what this administration has been demanding of nations globally in relation to the International Criminal Court — impunity and immunity for acts committed by our soldiers (or in this case Secret Service agents) in another land. The British said no. In a nation like the Philippines, a “no” of this sort would probably not have been possible. But embedded in this small “request” is a sign of a deep-seated administration urge to reduce the whole world to second-class status in relation to America.


And the Bush men were offering little to Blair in return. Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian report, for instance (“US and UK officials dread presidential trip,” Nov. 17):


“Attempts by the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, to win special treatment for nine Britons detained without charge at Guantanamo Bay have met stern resistance from the Pentagon…. The US administration, in private, is not a source of comfort either. The view is that Mr Blair has already taken ‘a lot of crap’ from the British public and will have to take some more. He will just have to get through it, a US official said.”


No wonder there will be no high-fiving in the streets of London on this visit.


A few of the other rejected requests included:


“[T]he closure of the Tube [subway] network, the use of US air force planes and helicopters and the shipping in of battlefield weaponry to use against rioters. In return, the British authorities agreed to numerous concessions, including the creation of a ‘sterile zone’ around the President with a series of road closures in central London and a security cordon keeping the public away from his cavalcade…


“The Americans had also wanted to travel with a piece of military hardware called a ‘mini-gun’, which usually forms part of the mobile armoury in the presidential cavalcade. It is fired from a tank and can kill dozens of people. One manufacturer’s description reads: ‘Due to the small calibre of the round, the mini-gun can be used practically anywhere. This is especially helpful during peacekeeping deployments.’”


What the Brits apparently didn’t grasp was that this weapon would have been available only for therapeutic use — in case one of the American guards, facing crowds of demonstrators, freaked out and imagined himself in Falluja.


Matt Bivens, in his Nation magazine blog The Daily Outrage, summed all this up in the following fashion:


“Consider some of the perfectly reasonable-sounding requests the British have gone all French about:


“The White House felt the need to ask that the hundreds of heavily-armed American security agents on hand be promised that, should they have to gun down a protester or any other British citizen, they will enjoy immunity from prosecution. And the Brits said no! The nerve! After all, if, say, the Chinese prime minister were to visit Washington, and if his hundreds of armed security guards asked for blanket immunity should they have to Tiananmen Square the DuPont Circle — why of course we’d say yes!”


Nonetheless, even without the plane-proof windows, the extra snipers with immunity and the Apache helicopters, protection for the President will be staggering. The British Independent reports (Nov. 18):


“One in nine police officers in England and Wales will be protecting George Bush on his state visit to Britain, which begins today. Ten thousand more police officers have been drafted in amid rising concerns about the threat from terrorists and the scale of anti-war demonstrations. That brings to 16,000 the number of policemen and women who will be deployed during the four-day trip. The bill will run to at least £7m, and the British taxpayer will pay for it.”


And remind me again, all this was for what? If you want to clear the above out of your brain, I recommend a little dose of humor from Tim Dowling of the Guardian (Nov. 18, 2003) who has come up with an alternative schedule for the President which involves deserting Buckingham Palace for the better-guarded digs of Madonna. Humor. Now there’s a danger. I don’t doubt the President’s men considered importing some mini-weapon to use should humor be unsheathed anywhere inside London‘s “sterile zone” during the occupation…. Oops, sorry, the state visit.



[Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing, writes Tomdispatch.com -- a weblog of the Nation Institute offering a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion -- where this article first appeared.]


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