The wave — and make no mistake, it’s a global one — has just crashed on our shores, soaking our imperial masters. It’s a sight for sore eyes.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an election like midterm 2006. After all, it’s a truism of our politics that Americans are almost never driven to the polls by foreign-policy issues, no less by a single one that dominates everything else, no less by a catastrophic war (and the presidential approval ratings that go with it). This strange phenomenon has been building since the moment, in May 2003, that George W. Bush stood under that White-House-prepared “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared “major combat operations have ended.”
That “Top Gun” stunt — when a cocky President helped pilot an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto a carrier deck and emerged into the golden glow of “magic hour light” (as his handlers then called it) — was meant to give him the necessary victory photos to launch his 2004 presidential reelection campaign. As it turned out, that moment was but the first “milestone” on the path to Iraqi, and finally electoral, hell. Within mere months, those photos would prove useless for anyone but liberal bloggers. By now, they seem like artifacts from another age. On the way to the present “precipice” (or are we already over the edge?), there have been other memorable “milestones” — from the President’s July 2003 petulant “bring ‘em on” taunt to Iraq’s then forming insurgency to the Vice President’s June 2005 “last throes” gaffe. All such statements have, by now, turned to dust in American mouths.
In the context of the history of great imperial powers, how remarkably quickly this has happened. An American President, ruling the last superpower on this or any other planet, and his party have been driven willy-nilly into global and domestic retreat a mere three-plus years after launching the invasion of their dreams, the one that was meant to start them on the path to controlling the planet — and by one of the more ragtag minority rebellions imaginable. I’m speaking here, of course, of the Sunni insurgency in
The Fall of the New
But let’s back up a moment. After such an election, a bit of history, however quick and potted, is in order — in this case of the post-Cold War era of
A mighty country, soon to be termed a “hyperpower,” straddling the globe alone and without obvious enemies — that should have been a formula for declaring victory (as many Cold Warriors promptly did) and acting accordingly (which none of them did). It should have been the moment for the Long Peace.
But in an enemy-less world, there was a small problem called the Pentagon (and the vast military-industrial complex that had grown up around it). So, while the peace-dividend-that-never-was vanished in the post-Cold-War morning fog, some new, prefab enemies did make their appearances with startling speed. They essentially had to.
These new dangers to our country were termed “rogue states,” an obvious step or two down from a single Evil Empire. They were, in fact, so relatively weak militarily that you needed to pile them up into a conceptual heap to get an enemy that would keep an empire and its global network of bases in military restocking mode. Not too many years down the line, the Bush administration would indeed pile three of them up in just this way into the gloriously labeled “axis of evil”; this was that old Evil Empire rejiggered for midget powers (or alternatively the Axis powers of World War II shrunk to Mini-Me standards).
Back in 1990, Saddam Hussein, our former ally in a Persian Gulf struggle with
Not so long after, in 1992, under the aegis of then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, a small group of unknown Defense Department staffers — Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis Libby, and Zalmay Khalilzad — unveiled a new draft Defense Planning Guidance, a document for developing military strategy and planning Pentagon budgets. It was the first such since the Cold War ended and, leaked to the New York Times, it was denounced as an extremist vision and buried. As the website Right Web describes it, the document “called for massive increases in defense spending, the assertion of lone superpower status, the prevention of the emergence of any regional competitors, the use of preventive — or preemptive — force, and the idea of forsaking multilateralism if it didn’t suit U.S. interests.”
Sound familiar? No wonder. It was the very imperial program for eternal American dominance and endless war against the planet’s rogue states that George W. Bush’s administration would officially adopt. By then, Wolfowitz was the number two man at the Pentagon; Libby, the Vice President’s good right hand; and Khalilzad was the new, post-invasion
In a post-9/11 atmosphere of belligerent fear, their program went mainstream. Having been attacked not by a rogue state but by a squad of 19 terrorists pledging allegiance to a stateless terrorist organization, we were “at war” with evil itself. By 2002, the administration had conducted a “successful” war in
Dazzled beyond any reasonable imperial sense by the power to dominant that they believed American military superiority gave them, top Bush administration officials essentially proclaimed the U.S. an empire by fiat, a superduperpower the likes of which the world had never seen. In their infamous 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (essentially the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document recycled), they swore that we would remain so forever and feed the Pentagon so much money that it would be bulked up into the distant future to suppress any potential superpower or bloc of powers that might emerge.
They insisted that we would go our own way, strike whomever we pleased, torture anyone we wished, and jail without recourse anyone we cared to sweep up or kidnap anywhere on Earth. The rest of the world could either approve or be damned, but it would be full speed ahead for us. Their acolytes in right-wing think tanks and lobbying outfits around
In the meantime, domestically, Karl Rove and his pals were working to ensure that the Republican Party would be dominant against all challengers for a generation or more. This was to be a domestic version of “full spectrum dominance.” The two — the global Pax Americana and the Party’s Pax Republicana seemed joined at the hip back then, each reinforcing the unilateral, don’t-tread-on-me, I’ll-do-anything-I-wish dominance of the other. It was Rovian Abramoffism at home and Cheney-izing Wolfowitzism abroad.
How deeply they misunderstood the nature of power in our world, and how thoroughly they miscalculated the limited nature of the power of the New Rome! If you want to take the measure of how far we’ve come since then, consider the spectacle of this last election season. Take Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Like the President, deep into this September he was still excoriating the Democrats not just for their positions on the Iraq War, but for their “surrender” policies in the war on terror. As he put it in a PBS interview with Jim Lehrer on September 14th:
“I’d say, ‘Wake up, Harry Reid. Wake up, Harry Reid…’ I think that [the president] has got it right, that we’re not going to do what Harry Reid wants to do, and that is surrender, to wave a white flag, to cut and run at a time when we’re being threatened… as we all saw just three or four weeks ago, in a plot from Britain that was going to send 10 airplanes over here.”
He then characterized the Democratic Party as a group “who basically belittle in many ways this war on terror, who do want to wave this white flag and surrender.”
By late October, however, according to Washington Post reporters Peter Slevin and Michael Powell, Frist had fully grasped that the global and domestic programs of dominance no longer were working together. So he offered the following succinct advice — a flip-flop of the first order — to congressional candidates: “The challenge is to get Americans to focus on pocketbook issues, and not on the
Just another “milestone” on the path to… well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
After September 11, 2001, the President and his advisors were determined to run an invasion of, and war against,
Extremity on Display
So, just past the midterm election mark of 2006, what’s left of the New Rome? You could say that George W. Bush’s dark success story has involved bringing his version of the
We now have our own killing fields in
The administration went after the right to torture or treat captives any way its agents pleased in places not open to any kind of oversight remarkably quickly after the September 11th attacks. By late 2001, Donald Rumsfeld’s office was instructing agents in the field in
What administration officials grasped, I believe, is this: If you could manage to get the right to legally employ extreme (and normally repugnant) acts of torture, then you would have in your possession the right to do anything. Think of the urge to abuse as the initial extreme expression of this administration’s secret obsession with the creation of a “wartime” commander-in-chief presidency which would leave Congress and the courts in the dust.
If you want to measure where this has taken Bush officialdom in five years, consider their latest legal defensive measure. According to the Washington Post, the administration has just gone to court to declare American “alternative interrogation techniques” — which simply means “torture” — as “among the nation’s most sensitive national security secrets.” It is trying to get a federal judge to bar “terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons” from even revealing to their own lawyers details about what was done to them by American interrogators. In other words, torture is now to be put in the secrecy vault like a national treasure. Next thing you know, we’ll be sending it to the Smithsonian.
Reflected in this desperate maneuver, you can catch a glimpse of an administration driven to the extremity of going to courts it despised — and thought it had cut out of the process of foreign imperial governance — simply to bury its own extreme misdeeds. You can feel the fear of the docket (and perhaps of history) in such a stance.
Another example of the extremity into which this administration has driven itself and the rest of us lies in an editorial published in the four main (officially private) military magazines, the Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times, and Marine Corps Times, on the very eve of the midterm elections. It called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation just after the President had given him his vote of confidence once again. Realistically speaking, this can only be seen as an extreme military intervention in the American electoral process.
In so many ways, the American Constitutional system has been shredded and this — whether we are to be an outlaw empire (and a failing one at that) — is what Americans were voting about this last Tuesday (though it was called “
The history of recent American politics at the polls might be seen this way: Not so long after he declared the successful completion of his Iraqi dreams, George W. Bush found himself, to the surprise of his top advisors and supporters, hounded by
The next summer, two storms hit the endlessly vacationing President in Crawford, Texas — Hurricanes Cindy and Katrina. Cindy Sheehan tore away the bloodless look of casualty-lessness in
Imagine where that “capital” will be by 2008. Our President has been wedded to his war of choice in a way unimaginable since Lyndon Baines Johnson quit the presidential race after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Based on what’s happened so far, there’s every reason to believe that, in 2008, he will still be wedded to it (as would potential Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain) and his approval ratings may be bouncing in the 20%-30% range by then.
So what part of the 2001 dream team and its “vision” of the world are we left with? To answer this, you first have to realize that yesterday’s electoral “wave” of repudiation is hardly an American phenomenon. It’s global and, if anything, we were way late into the water. All you have to do is look at the latest polling figures (which are but extensions of previous, similar polls) to see that wave in country after country. The most recent international survey of opinion — in
As hectorer-in-chief, George W. Bush has, hands down, used the word “must” more than any combination of presidents in our history. Only recently, he repeatedly told the North Koreans that they must not develop (and then test) nuclear weapons; he told the Iranians that they must halt their nuclear program; and his minions told the Nicaraguans that they must not vote for former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The results: The North Koreans tested a weapon; the Iranians went right on enriching uranium; and the Nicaraguans, poverty-stricken and threatened with nothing short of economic ruin if their democratic vote went into the wrong column, simply ignored him.
All these decisions were based on assessments of the limits of power that had been revealed by the desperate acts of a failing empire stretched to its military and economic limits. If these are the “rogue” parts of the global wave, all you have to do is look at Russia’s reassertion of interest and power in its old energy-rich Central Asian bailiwick (much coveted by the Bush administration); or the expansion of Chinese economic power in Southeast Asia and energy power in Africa to see other aspects of the global wave of reassessment under way.
In fact, the global part of the election was long over by November 7, 2006. For vast majorities abroad, the vision of the
Here, briefly, are five “benchmark” questions to ask when considering the possibilities of the final two years of the Bush administration’s wrecking-ball regime:
Is an Attack on
Are the Democrats a Party? If Rovian plans for a Republican Party ensconced in
Will We Be Ruled by the Facts on the Ground? In certain ways, it may hardly matter what happens to which party. By now — and this perhaps represents another kind of triumph for the Bush administration — the facts on the ground are so powerful that it would be hard for any party to know where to begin. Will we, for instance, ever be without a second Defense Department, the so-called Department of Homeland Security, now that a burgeoning $59 billion a year private “security” industry with all its interests and its herd of lobbyists in
What Will Happen When the Commander-in-Chief Presidency and the Unitary Executive Theory Meets What’s Left of the Republic? The answer on this one is relatively uncomplicated and less than three months away from being in our faces; it’s the Mother of All Constitutional Crises. But writing that now, and living with the reality then, are two quite different things. So when the new Congress arrives in January, buckle your seatbelts and wait for the first requests for oversight information from some investigative committee; wait for the first subpoenas to meet Cheney’s men in some dark hallway. Wait for this crew to feel the “shackles” and react. Wait for this to hit the courts — even a Supreme Court that, despite the President’s best efforts, is probably still at least one justice short when it comes to unitary-executive-theory supporters. I wouldn’t even want to offer a prediction on this one. But a year down the line, anything is possible.
So we’ve finally had our plebiscite, however covert, on the failing Outlaw Empire of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But what about their autocratic inclinations at home. How will that play out?
Will it be: All hail, Caesar, we who are about to dive back into prime-time programming.
Or will it be: All the political hail is about to pelt our junior caesars as we dive back into prime-time programming? Stay tuned.
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, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.