Imperial Folly:

Quote of the half-century: Senator J. William Fulbright, 1966: “Power has a way of undermining judgment, of planting delusions of grandeur in the minds of otherwise sensible people and otherwise sensible nations.


Quote of the day: “‘We have children, we have families and we need to live,’ said Yusuf, sitting with the others [in an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps squad] on a stack of railroad ties, as a brisk wind blew over them. ‘We don’t love the Americans, but we need the money. It’s very difficult, but there’s no alternative.’”


Quote of the day (2):‘Their destiny will be the same as it was in Vietnam,’ Wathban [a neighbor of the corpsman above] said. ‘The Americans left their allies there and they were killed. I think the same will happen here.’” (Anthony Shadid, “Iraqi Security Forces Torn Between Loyalties,” the Washington Post, 11/25)


The ritualistic presidential trips abroad of this administration were all flipped on their head yesterday when the President visited “Iraq” (or at least the beleaguered American version of it at Baghdad International Airport). Previously on his imperial peregrinations, he had imposed his “bubble” world on whole cities — from Manila to Sydney to London — shutting them down and buttoning them up, emptying them of anything like normal life as he passed through their streets and institutions untouched. Yesterday, on his two-hour turn-about at Baghdad International, he shut himself down, slipping out of his house in an unmarked car, sending out such complex and heavily preplanned disinformation that he reputedly fooled his own parents, who arrived at the Crawford ranch for a Thanksgiving meal with their missing son. He then rode a blacked-out Air Force One into Baghdad International, shut down the airport till he left, and was gone in the twinkling of an eye.


Phil Reeves of the British Independent commented in an aptly titled piece, “The turkey has landed,” (Nov. 28):


“The administration will be hoping that the video images will help erase memories of a not dissimilar staged event on 1 May in which the President landed on an American aircraft carrier to announce that the war in Iraq had been won. As the violence has worsened, that day has come to haunt the White House. This time, wearing a US army jacket, he told the troops that America ‘stands solidly’ behind them, and to whoops of approval that the US military was doing a ‘fantastic job.’”


I have no doubt – based on watching TV last night – that this political coup de theater will briefly pump up support here for the President (or at least that ephemeral category of presidential existence, his “job approval rating”), but since the stealth visit was phantasmagoric and changed nothing in Iraq — as opposed to “Iraq” — I’m ready to make a small wager of my own. Some months down the line these triumphant propaganda photos, meant to replace “Mission Accomplished,” will look no better than the strutting-the-flight-deck ones do now, and will be no less useful to the other side in the presidential race. (Keep these photos Democrats!) It was perhaps typical of the event that Bush strode out from behind some curtains on the introduction of L. Paul Bremer, saying, “I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere,” but evidently never ate a bite.


His rallying speech to the troops was surprisingly retread-Vietnam in tone — all that talk about them “testing our will,” us not “retreating” (“we will prevail”), not “running” (“They hope we will run”) and especially that classic Vietnam line, “You are defeating the terrorists [it would, of course, have been "communists" back then] here in Iraq, so that we don’t have to face them in our own country.”


It would be interesting to see what Lyndon Johnson said on his surprise visit to Cam Ranh Bay back in October 1966. I’ll bet some of the lines and phrases would have been almost exact duplicates. (Johnson, after all, used to talk about fighting the communists in Vietnam rather than on the beaches of San Diego.) LBJ broke off an Asian tour to fly in and out of the giant base at Cam Ranh Bay which, like Baghdad International, was a little fortified version of America and he, too, spent just 2 ½ hours in country.


I don’t know whether there were any of “our” Vietnamese present when Johnson arrived, but there were evidently members of our appointed Iraqi Governing Council locked in with the troops when Bush appeared because the President mentioned them and commented that he was “pleased you are joining us on our nation’s great holiday. It’s a chance to give thanks to the Almighty for the many blessings we receive.” (I doubt he was referring to Allah.)


And then, he assured the troops, just before boarding his stealth jet back to Crawford, “We will stay until the job is done.” They, of course, will have to stay. Need I say more, except that such words are soon likely to feel sour indeed. There are, after all, other realities creeping up on this administration. Just a few days ago, for instance, the widow of a soldier slain in Iraq refused to join other relatives of those who had died at a Fort Carson (Colorado) meeting with the President ). “I have a lot of harsh feelings for the president right now,” [Johnna] Loia told The Pueblo Chieftain. “I contemplated going, but right now I think I’d find it hard to be respectful… I would want to know why he decided to go to Iraq and why he felt that the war was justified… In my eyes, I don’t feel it was justified at all.” (AP, Nov. 25)


Actually, this “unmarked,” “blacked out” visit to Baghdad tells us a great deal — none of it particularly good news for them — about where the Bush administration is today as well as about where the arrogance of power can lead mighty nations. After all, this administration is filled with men who imagined the President’s first entry into Baghdad as a truly triumphal event. (Remember those flowers that were to be strewn in the victor’s path?). If you want to check out the fullness of their fantasy, don’t miss Juan Cole’s “Informed Consent” website.


Another problem for the administration: In our world, propaganda can’t just be confined to your own side. The President may get a bump in the polls here, but the very nature of his trip, his inability to visit Iraq rather than “Iraq,” his stealth journey, and so on can only be a form of aid and comfort to the enemy. His trip can’t but be a sign to them of their own success to date. The problem for George Bush is that it’s not as easy to black out the parts of the world you don’t want to know about as it is to black out an airplane. As the Independent pointed out in the piece quoted above:


“News of the visit only broke in the US after Air Force One had taken off from Baghdad and was on its way home. And no sooner was the visit made public in Baghdad, than the city was shaken by the sounds of conflict repeated loud explosions, gunfire and ambulance sirens.”


And, of course, another American died from a roadside bomb this morning.


The folly that lurks in imperial arrogance is that it naturally walls you off from other realities, even in a sense from the existence of other places beyond your particular vision of them. This has taken a particularly striking form in Iraq, a country we invaded so blithely convinced of our power to rule over events anywhere on this planet that we hardly bothered about specific Iraqis. It wasn’t just the lack of translators who could speak Arabic among the occupation forces, or of specialists in the region (they were left behind because they were associated with the reviled State Department when the Pentagon was riding high), or the junking of all the State Department’s prewar planning for the occupation (same reason), but also our inability even to imagine that individual Iraqis had wills that might successfully oppose ours.


Who woulda thunk it: Iraqis actually live in Iraq with ideas of their own about how their world should be shaped. The imperial imagination, even when it soars, is still a distinctly limited creature.


The president certainly spoke of the “will” (“those who attack our coalition forces and kill innocent Iraqis are testing our will”), but he didn’t have Iraqi wills in mind. So it’s interesting to discover that the whole occupation enterprise has unexpectedly run up against the will of a single Iraqi, Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. To see how the attempt to mold an Iraq to our imperial will ran aground on the will of an unseen other, check out a Nov. 26 Washington Post piece, “How Cleric Trumped U.S. Plan for Iraq,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in which a Governing Council member says succinctly, “The Americans were in denial.” Put more imperially, “‘[Bremer] didn’t want a Shiite cleric dictating the terms of Iraq‘s political future,’ one U.S. official with knowledge of the process said.” The piece begins:


“The unraveling of the Bush administration’s script for political transition in Iraq began with a fatwa. The religious edict, handed down in June by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq‘s most influential Shiite Muslim cleric, called for general elections to select the drafters of a new constitution. He dismissed U.S. plans to appoint the authors as “fundamentally unacceptable.”


“His pronouncement, underestimated at first by the Bush administration, doomed an elaborate transition plan crafted by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer that would have kept Iraq under occupation until a constitution was written, according to American and Iraqi officials involved in the process.”


Or, if you want to find out just what a complex process it is to shape wills to our own desires, consider the revealing piece in the same paper by Anthony Shadid (cited above) on our attempt to create civil defense and police forces that will take some of the load of the occupation off our military shoulders.


Back in October 1966, when Lyndon Johnson was visiting Cam Ranh Bay, there was another establishment voice abroad in the land and it was oppositional — that of Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. His words were powerful then and remain no less so now. A former close ally of the president, he wrote a book against the Vietnam War, published in 1966, with the title The Arrogance of Power in which he considered the “folly of empire.” He grasped what we were and where we were going 37 years ago.


Fourteen months ago, Jim Lobe, who writes for Inter Press News Service and whose reporting, to my mind, is consistently the best to come out of Washington on the ins and outs of the Bush administration, chose some of those words and published them at Tompaine.com (also on ZNet). The Fulbright passages read then as if they had been written the previous night. Another 14 months up the line (and with excerpts tacked on from a speech the senator gave on the “Price of Empire” the following year), they prove even more apt, the evergreen of evergreens. Most of them on the lures of and folly of imperial ambitions could have been written as our President was landing at Baghdad International.


In addition, you might check out Boston Globe columnist James Carroll’s latest, “Of Thanks and Mercy,” 11/23. (“Yet Americans know that there are empty places at Thanksgiving tables this week, and the end of Ramadan for untold Muslim families in two nations is equally a time of grief. And for what? Last week, George W. Bush and Tony Blair offered justifications for their war – ‘democracy’ — that had nothing to do with justifications offered last March – ‘prevention.’ Are we not supposed to notice that? And what of months from now, when the purpose of democracy, too, will have failed and faded? What then? We went to war for the fun of it?”)


Unfortunately, while Lobe’s pieces are regularly published around the world, they have been hard to find here. It’s a case of too-good-to-be-published in the mainstream, I’m afraid. Fortunately, the libertarian site antiwar.com, with the best eye(s) around for the latest in global news, is now publishing Lobe almost daily. His particular expertise is the world of and history of the neocons of this administration and his invaluable writings on them are archived. If you want to check out an example of his recent work, read Foreign Policy Realists Rally where he considers whether the unilateralist hawks are losing clout in the administration (yes, they are), whether this is a permanent change or an election-year adjustment (open to question), and what the appointment of Robert Blackwill to preside over Iraq policy-making in Washington may mean:


“The recent announcement that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which is officially controlled by Rumsfeld, is doubling the number of foreign-service officers to 110 – most of them from the State Department’s Near East bureau – marks a major defeat for the Pentagon’s neo-cons, who had vetoed virtually all of the State Department’s Arabists for top CPA positions before the occupation due to suspicions that they were too pro-Sunni or elite-oriented.


“Worse, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer appears to be working directly with Blackwill in the White House, effectively circumventing Rumsfeld and his neo-conservative aides.”


As Lobe pointed out to me in a phone call last week, what makes Senator Fulbright’s opposition to the Vietnam War so striking today is that he had been the floor manager of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. He was, in other words, the man who ran the “debate” and guided Lyndon Johnson’s equivalent of a declaration of war through. Unlike Sen. Kerry and a number of our other Democratic candidates for president, who are still bobbing and weaving over their war resolution votes, Fulbright later forthrightly stood up and said flat out that he had been wrong — badly mistaken in his actions and deeply misled.


If you compare Fulbright with his modern day equivalent, another Southern Senator with a checkered past (the man I call “the last Roman Senator”), Robert Byrd of West Virginia, you can sense how much deeper in the imperial muck we are today. Byrd and his magisterial speeches have been thoroughly marginalized, and I still await the appearance of a book by him from a major publisher denouncing Bush imperial policies.


[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.]


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