Triumph of Lunacy

The public in the United States doesn’t like what is going on and fully 81 percent feel that the country is moving in the wrong direction. But there doesn’t seem to be much the public can do about it. It was widely felt that the 2006 election was a vote against the Iraq war, but the victorious Democrats failed to make any significant moves toward stopping the war or even halting, let alone reversing, Bush’s attacks on constitutional government, and they have left the lame duck and discredited Decider in charge with a steady flow of additional funds to escalate the Iraq war. 

Even more spectacular, Bush-Cheney seem headed toward a war against Iran, and the Democrats, while making a few chiding remarks, have actually given Bush-Cheney a quasi-legal basis for attacking Iran, with Pelosi removing from an Iraq War-funding bill a clause requiring Bush to obtain congressional sanction before starting a war on Iran, and the Democrats in the Senate voting unanimously for the Kyle-Lieberman bill declaring the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a segment of the Iranian army, a “terrorist organization.” There are many other indications of a possible U.S. attack on Iran in the next few months by the lame duck administration—the removal of Admiral William Fallon from head of Central Command and replacement by Bush lap-dog David Petraeus; the recent Petraeus-Crocker stress on Iran’s alleged involvement in the Iraq war; the further bolstering of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf; open warnings that military attack is one option under consideration (Ann Scott Tyson, “U.S. Weighing Readiness for Military Action Against Iran,” Washington Post, April 26, 2008); congressional funding of more “bunker-busting” bombs and extra bombers to carry them—all without serious Democratic Party response or media and “international community” concern and counter-action. UN chief Ban Ki-Moon is very upset about China’s repressive actions in Tibet, but says nothing about the possibility of yet another “supreme international crime” against Iran, the form of action that was the main focus of the UN Charter under which Ki-Moon supposedly operates. 

Other difficulties abound. The wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue and grow with the United States and NATO determined to impose their version of “stability” on those distant lands. The Israelis continue to expand settlements and mercilessly grind down the Gaza strip population, with unremitting U.S. and “international community” support. The Western powers (mainly the United States, Britain, France, and Israel) all work toward improving their nuclear arms and only very selectively support the Non-Proliferatiion Treaty, accommodating the U.S. moves toward war with Iran; and weapons budgets and arms sales continue to grow. The economic growth of China and India and the move to ethanol-based fuel have helped push up the price of oil and food, threatening a major food shortage crisis across the globe. Income inequality continues to advance within and between countries under the regime of neoliberalism (i.e., advanced class warfare). No important steps have been taken to meet the challenge of global warming and, in fact, the coal industry and coal-fueled power plants are expanding in China and elsewhere. Finally, the debt- and speculation-based growth in the United States has produced a financial and economic crisis there and beyond that is not yet resolved, and the failure to add any new regulations to constrain the financial casino market bodes ill for future stability. 

It may be argued, however, that there is great hope in the discrediting of the Bush-Cheney administration and its prospective replacement by a Democratic administration in 2009. This hope may be mistaken or at least seriously exaggerated. It fails to recognize that the problems and threats are based on structural facts that the election results won’t alter and that are actually discernible in the election process itself. One fact is the power of U.S. militarism, centered in the military-industrial complex (MIC), including the Pentagon, the vast army of contractors (47,000 prime contractors, over 100,000 subcontractors, in one recent estimate), its support base in the rest of the business and financial community, and the MIC employees—but extending to the closely related pro-Israel lobby, the Christian right, and the right wing and much of the “liberal” media. Furthermore, the steadily increasing concentration of business, media, income, and wealth has helped normalize a growing inequality and made any “populist” moves difficult to carry out given their unacceptability to the dominant power elite. This centralization of wealth and power has helped further plutocratize the election process, with any competitive candidate up to his or her ears in financial obligation to power elements that want a big military budget and wars and who will oppose any serious reversal of the Bush upward redistribution program.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have not proposed cuts in the military budget or a scaling down of foreign bases or any major redistribution program and it is evident that neither is prepared to fight hard against the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies on health care reform. Neither is putting any weight on building up the labor movement as an oppositional base. Recall that Bill Clinton was going to “put people first,” but quickly bowed down to the bond market and then to the “free trade” lobby. He and Gore did literally nothing progressive on the environmental front. Under their rule the prison population soared and so did the stock market bubble (and inequality). When Bush carried out his early attacks on the labor movement—ending restrictions on awarding government contracts to anti-union firms, prohibiting airline industry strikes, limiting use of union dues to support political candidates, etc.—the Democrats did not respond.

The structural obstacles to pro-people change in a plutocracy with a concentrated and anti-populist media are formidable. If either Obama or Clinton get elected they would have to spend a lot of energy and political capital assuring the establishment (bond market, major donors, MIC, corporate media) that they are not too progressive. Major moves to “put people first” would require an awful lot of grass-roots organization and pressure that would be hard to put together after the success in just getting a Democrat elected. It will also have to overcome the drag of the “blue dog” and other conservative elements in the Democratic Party that have long made it difficult for that Party to act with unity and make any progressive advance. 

Can the Democrats even win the next presidential election? This is surely far from certain, with the Democrats in a costly primary contest, and John McCain already benefiting from the now institutionalized media bias in favor of Republican and right-wing candidates (see Eric Boehlert, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, 2006; David Brock and Paul Waldman, Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, 2008; FAIR, “Media Hold McCain, Obama, to Different Standards,” Media Advisory, March 14, 2008). 

The ability of the Swift Boat Veterans to damage the political prospects of Vietnam War veteran John Kerry in 2004, with crucial media help, while any criticism of George W. Bush’s record as a Vietnam War evader and National Guard deserter was effectively buried by that same media, is frightening testimony to the ability of the right-wing media joint venture to keep government in the hands of the war-and-inequality party. Hillary Clinton and Obama should provide even better demonization targets than John Kerry for the joint venturers. 

We have left the world of MAD—Mutually Assured Destruction—and entered the world of beyond MAD, of Bush-Cheney and the five high-level NATO military officers who recently put up a manifesto stressing the need to redeem a first strike nuclear option to prevent nuclear war. Nuclear war has become more practicable, in part, because with the Soviet Union gone it has become possible to think of using nuclear weapons without the possibility of massive nuclear retaliation. If the United States or Israel uses nuclear arms against Iran, nuclear-weaponless Iran cannot retaliate in kind. There may be further nasty and dangerous repercussions, but perhaps less frightening than a return nuclear strike. 

But nuclear warfare has also become more likely because of U.S. militarization, projection of power, actual warfare spread across the globe—under the cover of an alleged “war on terror”—and deliberate fear-mongering. The “clash of civilizations” is essentially a war of the United States and its allies against the Third World, with 9/11 providing the desired “Pearl Harbor” that justified the new crusade. This has helped reduce moral barriers to barbarism: to mass killing, pain infliction, and devastation on the growing ranks of “enemies.” Continuous warfare, daily reports of killings and torture, and fear- mongering, have hardened as well as frightened people, making them more easily adjusted to formerly beyond-the-pale modes of killing. The incredible stream of propaganda about an Iranian nuclear weapons threat to countries that actually possess large nuclear weapons arsenals has fed the hysteria and caused even “liberal” hack politicians to proclaim that we must keep “all options” open and that if nuclear-weaponless Iran should some day drop a nuclear bomb on Israel we would “obliterate” Iran—a stupid and gratuitous feeding of the spirit of violence encouraging the resort to nuclear weapons by those that have them.

The termination of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era of U.S. triumphalism and a belief on the part of U.S. elites that they could project power and reshape the world in accord with U.S. interests without major resistance. One feature of this perspective was the view that Russia could be ignored as a power with legitimate geopolitical interests—that it would or should follow U.S. dictates or that it could be easily coerced into compliance. This was supported in the Yeltsin years by the fact that he was compliant, virtually a U.S. agent from within. He was celebrated here as a “reformer” because, with U.S. advice and pressure, he destroyed the good as well as bad in the prior system, shock-therapied Russia into economic and social collapse, sponsored a highly concentrated oligarchic economic system based on theft, eliminated Parliamentary government, and established the basis for a new authoritarianism. (For a good account, Stephen Cohen, Failed Crusade, 2000, Part 1). 

Yeltsin’s chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, halted the “reforms,” increased the government’s role in the economy, limited somewhat the power of the oligarchs, and gradually abandoned the Yeltsin policy of compliance and subservience to U.S. policy demands. This resulted in large part because of a series of hostile acts toward Russia which suggested that rather than being regarded as a U.S. “partner,” Russia was on the list of potential “regime change” targets. These included aggressive U.S. encirclement of Russia with new military bases on Russia’s borders, encouragement of “regime change” in Georgia and the Ukraine, and the expansion of NATO into the Baltic states and Eastern Europe, in violation of a pledge to Gorbachev to refrain from any such threatening actions at the time the Soviet Union agreed to allow East Germany to join the West. 

The United States also bullied Russia in its bombing war against Serbia in 1999 and more recently in removing Kosovo from Serbia, against Russia’s strong opposition. The United States has also been improving its nuclear arsenal, now spending over $6 billion a year on renovating and improving its nuclear weaponry (more than the yearly average spent during the Cold War), and has officially incorporated nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare as part of standard war planning operations, providing “credible military options” in dealing with potential targets, with Russia named as one such target in the Pentagon’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. 

In this context that the United States has proposed putting anti-missile interceptors in Poland and Czechoslovakia, allegedly as protection against possible nuclear missile strikes by nuclear-weaponless Iran. Vladimir Putin has strongly objected to this plan as posing a national security threat to Russia. Given the context of hostile U.S. actions, the idiocy of the notion that Iran poses a nuclear missile threat to Poland or Czechoslavakia (or the U.S.) and the fact that such missiles near the Russian border could facilitate a U.S. first-strike on Russia—a country named as a potential target in 2002—Putin’s objections are entirely credible and rational. 

But in the age of a triumphant lunacy, Putin is seen as engaged in “shrill posturing” and “diverting attention from his own own thuggery at home” (NYT), although the Times does acknowledge that the plans to which Putin objects are a bit misguided and foolish, in good part because the missiles are not yet proven workable. But it is amusing to see how thoroughly the New York Times contributes to this lunacy. For one thing, Putin is now called a “dictator, “who “has so emasculated the democratic institutions that evolved in the 1990s that it is apparent he has little confidence in his people” (“Exit, Russian Democracy,” Nov. 27, 2007). It is true that Russia’s democratic institutions are in bad shape, but they devolved into this condition under the “reformer” Yeltsin, to whom the Times gave steady accolades, even as he destroyed the conditions for a real democracy and pushed his majority into poverty. But he did this with policies pleasing to the United States, a counter-revolution from above done without consulting or showing the slightest “confidence in his people” or concern for their welfare. Serve the U.S. and you are a “reformer,” whereas if you fail to cooperate with this country there is a new concern over “democracy.” 

The Times does not acknowledge that the placement of missiles in Poland and Czechoslavakia constitutes any kind of threat to Russia. The editors state “we don’t buy Moscow’s crocodile tears about how a handful of interceptors pose a threat to Russia’s huge arsenal” (“The Poles Get Cold Feet,” Dec. 30, 2007). The editors of course don’t ask why the United States got so upset at the Russian missiles in Cuba in the early 1960s that could hardly threaten the U.S.’s huge arsenal nor do they ask how the U.S. would respond today to a Russian placement of a “handful of interceptors” in Venezuela. It also never occurs to them that an initial placement of missiles might be enlarged in the future. 

The editors also never directly challenge the claim that the missiles in Poland and Czechoslavakia would be aimed at an Iran threat. This is a triple lunacy as Iran doesn’t have any nuclear weapons and won’t for a long time, if ever; and if it did there would be no reason for Iran to aim them at Poland or Czechoslavakia. Aiming them at Israel or the United States, except as a desperation defensive action, would be suicidal. But the Times cannot admit this because both the U.S. war-makers and Israel have declared the nuclear-weaponless Iran an existential threat that has no right of self-defense, and a good propaganda organ like the New York Times must go along with this demonization and claimed threat. This calls for not challenging, even supporting, convenient lunacies and, in a great tradition, thereby contributing to the march toward the next U.S.-Israeli aggression. 


Edward S. Herman, professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School, U-Penn, has written extensively on economics, political economy, and the media.