This Tuesday, the presidential State of the Union Address rolls around yet again. Only four Januaries have passed since the President used a State of the Union Address to brand Iran, Iraq, and North Korea — the first two then bitter enemies, the third completely unrelated to either of them and on the other side of the planet — as a World-War-II-style “axis of evil.” It was the first great State of Disunion deception of the Bush administration’s regal reign of error. Only three Januaries ago came the second. The President stood before Congress and pronounced those sixteen little words on his bum’s rush to war with Iraq: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
How time flies. Now, thanks to the decision to terrify and manipulate Congress and the American people into this administration’s much desired, unprovoked invasion of Iraq (and everything that followed from it), almost two-thirds of that “axis of evil” — Iran and southern Iraq as well as the newly elected government in Baghdad’s Green Zone — have become something like an “axis” of two democratically elected, theocratic Shiite powers; while the third member of that putative axis is now a genuine, no-holds-barred nuclear “axis” of one. In the meantime, those sixteen words morphed into another kind of administration catastrophe — the Joseph Wilson op-ed on Saddam’s missing Niger uranium; the conspiracy inside the administration to smear Wilson; the outing of his CIA agent/wife, Valerie Plame; the coming into being of the Plame case; and the appointment of a dogged prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, as Special Counsel to investigate an administration which prided itself on controlling everything in its path but couldn’t, in the end, control the career officials in the Justice Department who managed to make the appointment. Now, sixteen words, so many secret meetings, leaks, smears, lies, obfuscations, obstructions, baroque press briefings, and plots later, Fitzgerald works doggedly in the wings, the bureaucracy’s avenging angel in its war with this administration. Having lopped off the Vice President’s good right arm, I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Fitzgerald seems to be preparing to take out the President’s “brain,” Karl Rove and then check the landscape for other candidates.
Now, here we are, at the President’s fifth State of the Union Address. Last year, of course, he brought forward his — lucky for us all — DOA social security overhaul. “Fixing” social security was what he called it, but putting in the fix on that classic safety-net program might better have caught the spirit of the moment — or, if you want to get the full picture, just imagine the hurricane Katrina rescue effort applied to the world of retirement. This year, Richard W. Stevenson of the New York Times writes, the President will focus on health care (hold your hats), spending restraint (every speech needs a laugh line), illegal immigration, and “the nation’s international economic competitiveness” (okay, two laugh lines).
You have to wonder: Which sixteen words will it be this time? Will it be National Security Agency spying assurances (“As I stand here right now, I can tell the American people the program’s legal, it’s designed to protect civil liberties…”), the Abramoff denials (“I’ve had my picture taken with a lot of people…”), the complete-victory-in-Iraq pronouncements, or more bogus reassurances to the elderly and sickly in our society? It’s your guess — and while you’re considering the matter, I have another urge. As I think back on this administration’s record, on this country (call me “homeland,” Bill Bailey), and on this planet in its edgy state of disunion, I’d like to tote things up for a moment.
You know how every couple of months the New York Times produces that not particularly inspiring Iraq scorecard (thanks to the Brookings Institution) — how much electricity available 2003, 2004, 2005; how many Iraqi “security personnel” stood up; how much crude oil produced; how many insurgent attacks or suicide bombings? Well, I’ve had the urge lately to produce an equivalent Bush administration scorecard. You know, the trillion dollar invasion, occupation, and war; the multimultibillion dollar hurricane; the $67 going on $130 barrel of crude oil; the war on terror that somehow has managed not to pick up Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Zarqawi, or the anthrax killer; that ever thinning “green line” of a Bushed and broken Army; our busted government; those every-child-left-behind educational “reforms”; the Medicare prescription drug plan that couldn’t shoot straight; the liberated-from-terror country that now produces not just enough opium but enough heroin to inject us all, and so on and so forth.
It really doesn’t matter what the crisis is. The response these days is predictably the same. You have thirteen men stranded in a mine disaster in West Virginia? Think of it as the Katrina rescue operation gone underground. Rescue teams were once mandated to be located at mines. Under this President, they can be up to two hours away. As it happens, the team heading for the Sago mine took a mere six hours to get itself together and arrive, while the trapped miners wrote their goodbye notes and all but one slowly died. No surprise there. After all, in recent years the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has been FEMAted, and heck-of-a-job-Brownie-ized. Then again, what hasn’t?
You want a working federal government for tomorrow’s crisis in your neck of the woods? Where have you been these last years? Or maybe you’ve already had your crisis and you’re waiting for the federal government to pitch in. Remember how, when it came to Iraq, the Bush administration constantly cited our rebuilding efforts in Germany and Japan after World War II (not to say in all of Europe via the Marshall plan)? Well, “reconstruction” turns out to have another meaning these days. It means funds down the tubes or into friendly pockets in Iraq or here. Our reconstruction program has essentially deconstructed Iraq, and when it comes to New Orleans or the ravaged parts of Mississippi, the power of prayer better prove effective indeed for Bush and friends because there are only four months to go until hurricane season begins and it remains reconstruction nada-time on our southwest coast.
Even the right-wing experts agree. Ronald D. Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, offered this observation on disaster housing policy in the area: “It just doesn’t seem to be well organized… Things in some respects have gotten more confused than they were a couple weeks after the storm.” As Oklahoma’s Republican Senator Tom Coburn pointed out, when it came to post-storm clean-up efforts, “The worst fears of many policymakers are being realized… Bureaucratic delays have caused the recovery effort to be appallingly slow and inefficient.” Heck of a job, Brownies all!
Whatever the term might be for having a knack for being incapable of governing, the record thus far indicates that the Bush administration has a corner on the market, both at home and, when it comes to ruling as a global superpower, abroad. What its top officials are, however, intensely capable of — so much so that some critics have claimed this to be their intent — is sowing chaos everywhere. They arrive, guns literally (or metaphorically) blazing; bring in their cronies, corporate buddies, and former lobbyists for various industries or institutions about to be overseen; seed confusion; strip mine the neighborhood; dump tons of money into “security” that only generates more insecurity; create — whether inside Baghdad’s Green Zone or at their dream agency, the Department of Homeland Security — the bureaucracies from hell; and then more or less abandon ship. And you don’t have to be an Iraqi to notice this phenomenon, either.
Take the administration’s drug plan for seniors (so confusing that no one can make heads or tails of it) — think of it as Katrina in a drug store. It’s only “benefit” seems to be that now you can’t get your meds on time or at a reasonable cost. As Jyoti Thottam of Time magazine summed it up, “Republicans realize that after Katrina, they cannot risk another crisis in which the government appears to be abandoning its most vulnerable citizens. Some are already making that connection. Aniela Toscano, 56, a New Yorker living in a shelter, has run up $885 in credit-card debt thanks to a brand-new bill for drugs and is worried that she can no longer afford her seizure medication. ‘What happened in New Orleans?’ she says. ‘They let those people die. Why not us?’”
Another — seemingly opposite — phenomenon is wedded to the administration’s sowing of chaos. Any time the chaos factor kicks in and an ever more imperial government works ever less well, mobilizing itself ever more inefficiently, generating yet more confusion and suffering, it turns out to be yet another opportunity for George, Dick, and their advisers to gather in ever more power, creating yet more of the trappings of an unfettered, “commander-in-chief” presidency. Of course, the model for all this — itself caused in part by administration inattention, inefficiency, and general incompetence — was the assaults of September 11, 2001. The administration promptly leapt on the 9/11 tiger and rode it for all it was worth, rode it through the USA PATRIOT Act, through the creation of Guantanamo, through the institution of secret spying programs on Americans, through invasion, war, and occupation in Iraq, through kidnappings, torture, and secret CIA prisons worldwide, through data mining and illegal detention. It was, you might say (with a bow to Iraq) the Ur-crisis of our times. But other crises followed a similar pattern. New Orleans, for instance, brought on plans to increase the role of the Pentagon’s new U.S. Northern Command (Northcom) in civilian life. Each crisis and disaster only sucked further power, further prerogatives, into the developing cult of the imperial presidency.
“His aides portray Mr. Bush as undaunted by the plague of setbacks last year that loosened his grip on his party and drove down his poll numbers,” wrote Richard W. Stevenson on the front page of the New York Times. But let’s not think of it that way — as just one year’s “plague of setbacks” (not in the very week of the Hamas-ific triumph of democracy in Palestine, the very month that a largely Shiite theocratic government will again be taking up the reins of… well, can you call it power?… in Baghdad). This administration is now guaranteed to have a very special relationship to “setbacks.” No crisis — a new round of fierce storms, an upsurge of guerrilla attacks in Iraq, a “nuclear” confrontation with Iran, a terrorist attack in the United States, the arrival of the avian flu on our shores or [fill in your crisis of choice] — is likely to prove anything but a roiling disaster without end in a universe of Brownies, and yet each is likely to present Bush’s people, especially his well-armed Veep, with but another chance to grab more power for the presidency. This disconnect between the garnering of potentially staggering powers to rule without restraint and the incapacity to use them for the well-being of just about anyone on the planet (other than a few friends and cronies) is now a major part of our domestic landscape.
Meanwhile, abroad, the Bush administration remains the 8,000 pound gorilla in the global living room — and a crazed gorilla at that. Think of Kong before Peter Jackson turned him into a moonstruck softie. Back in the days of Vietnam, when things were so totally different (except, of course, for an endless war, massive illegal spying on Americans, presidential smearing and lies, prosecutors banging on White House doors, and the word “impeachment” somewhere in the ether), our imperial President of the moment, Richard M. Nixon, proposed a novel way to end his war — not that it worked, of course. He put it this way to his aide Bob Haldeman (as related in Haldeman’s memoirs, The Ends of Power):
“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communists. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and [North Vietnamese leader] Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
So here’s a difference between the two eras. We now have a President who wouldn’t think of propounding a Madman Theory of the presidency, but whom much of the world considers a madman, capable of doing just about any mad thing that crosses his imperial mind. He still has his finger on that same nuclear button (which his administration has been working hard to upgrade); and thanks to the Pentagon of former Nixon staffer Donald Rumsfeld, he even has an operational “global strike force” empowered to launch an attack “preemptively” against hostile countries developing weapons of mass destruction anywhere on Earth “in half a day or less,” using conventional or nuclear weapons. So the “nuclear option” remains open to Bush and while, to the sane-minded, it might seem like an inconceivable one to exercise — so was the invasion of Iraq. Against every bit of sane advice (even from his own father’s top advisers), he’s already committed an act of global madness in Iraq and followed it up by sowing chaos in the greater Middle East — with a guarantee of so much more to come. Now, he’s implicitly threatening Iran, even though an attack on that country would drive global energy prices through the roof.
So the world deals with the Bush administration and the U.S. exactly as though it were indeed that 8,000 pound Kong out there in the street smashing elevated subways and tossing cars about at will. The leaders of other states tiptoe around the U.S. in part out of fear that George and pals could, in honor of the State of Disunion 2006 or 2007, drop another sixteen words of seasoning into their already boiling-over stew pot and burn everyone in sight. They tiptoe less from straightforward military fears — after all a relatively low-level guerrilla war in Iraq has stopped the exceedingly high-tech U.S. military dead in its tracks — than from fear of what the administration might do economically just by, say, launching that insane strike on Iran, the very hint of which might drive crude oil prices toward the $100 a barrel barrier, and possibly wreck the global economy.
In the short run, for instance, China’s leaders have probably been pouring into the streets of the Forbidden City every morning these last years to dance, sing, and thank nameless gods that Bush administration policy in Iraq has so far trumped any China-as-super-enemy policy possibilities. But they also have to be painfully aware that their country’s prosperity is based on an expanding bubble economy based largely on export to the United States, and so any mad choice by this President could take them down too. They certainly know that. The Europeans certainly know it as well. The question is: Does George? Does Dick? Does Don? Does Condi?
Behind this lies an odd thought: Do you remember that period in 2002-03 when the neocons and their various supporters and clustering pundits were proclaiming us quite literally the New Rome and speaking of a Pax Americana that would last forever and a day? Neocon writers and thinkers like Robert Kaplan were, in fact, intent on describing a world of growing anarchy on the global peripheries, a jungle world of failed states that needed an imperial power like… well, us… for order. That, of course, was before the Bush administration managed so brilliantly to bring a jungle world of chaos and anarchy to Iraq and so to the very heart of the heartlands of the global energy system — and, stunned by the results, they all fell imperially, resoundingly silent on the subject.
So I’ve been wondering in their stead, what sort of empire are we? Empires are usually settled and ruled areas, not — except at their peripheries — jungle worlds. But what exactly does our imperial presidency, with all its power, rule over? If, say, the Congo or Afghanistan is a failed state, are we a failed empire of some sort? Do we rule anything?
Yes, our military planners continue to put on the drawing boards staggering new kinds of high-tech imperial weapons of domination: electromagnetic rail guns for as early as 2010, the new FB-22 fighter bomber by 2015, and the B-3 Long Range Strike Platform in the years after 2030, to mention only three. Yes, our ever-shifting military bases — our military “footprint,” as the Pentagon likes to call it in the singular, invoking an image of a Kong-like creature so large that only one foot at a time can fit on the planet — is stamped on this globe from Okinawa and Kyrgyzstan to Qatar, Morocco, and Great Britain. Our gunboats patrol the oceans and, soon enough, an array of space weaponry like those wonderfully nicknamed “Rods from God” may indeed be circling the weaponized heavens asserting “full spectrum dominance” over the planet. But despite our military posture, are we an empire at all — or are we just Kong wild about that town? I don’t know that I have the answer, but I thought I’d raise the question for us to think about as the President offers his next set of James-Frey-like Disunion fictions on Tuesday night without a stern Oprah in sight.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), where this article first appeared, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.