by Jeff Sommers
www.zmag.org, February 4, 2006
Using American veterans as props, on November
11, 2005 President George Bush delivered a speech designed to
justify his foreign policy failures since 9/11. Throughout his
talk he intoned his audience to recognize the goodness of American
foreign policy and the inherent democratic character of the United
States. Bush increasingly appears somewhat like a frustrated Lyndon
Baines Johnson who could not quite understand why "all"
Americans did not recognize their prosperity during the democratic
upheavals of the 1960s, and with some embarrassment declared to
the public "I'm not saying have you ever had it so good,
but have you?" Yet, President Bush, unlike LBJ shows no such
humility in asserting the democratic quality of US foreign policy.
Like an American abroad who can't seem to communicate with the
natives when they don't get the message, his answer is merely
to turn up the volume and repeat the message as a tautology: US
policy is democratic because America is free. One suspects that
if there was more truth to the assertion it would not have to
be repeated so frequently, but merely be understood.
But, let's inspect his administration's
latest attempt to persuade us of his case. In some ways his address
presented both familiar and novel themes in his attempt to explain
his adventures abroad. On the more familiar side, is the US government's
rhetoric detailing its use of force to command obedience from
those insolent enough to question America. One can be sure that
only good motivates the Bush Administration. This tradition extends
back to America's original sin: the ethnic cleansing of America's
To take just one example haters, killers,
and duelers, such as Andrew Jackson, president of the United States
when the Cherokee were removed, never failed to remind the public
that it was being done for the Indians own well being. This was
necessary because most people are good and genuinely wish their
government to act in accordance with their values. Since the Atlantic-World
Revolutions launched by American, France, and Haiti beginning
in 1776, people have expected the state to reflect their concerns.
Given this, Jackson would assert:
"It will be my sincere and constant
desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a
just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate
attention to their rights and their wants," Jackson declared
in his first inaugural address in 1829.
The Cherokee presented an interesting
dilemma. It was declared, with a sigh, that most Indians would
be removed due merely to the inexorable forces of progress. But,
the Cherokee were farmers, developed a written language with a
vibrant press, and were even slave-owning plantation owners-in
other words, from the perspective of the day, "civilized."
However, the Cherokee had too much fertile land for cultivating
cotton, and then in 1830 gold was discovered on their remaining
territory in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They had to go once again.
I used to teach where the Cherokee lived.
Some of my students' families received 600 acre grants of Cherokee
land. My university's administration building steeple where I
once taught is sheathed in that gold. The Cherokee were given
$5 million dollars and marched off to what was referred to at
the time, the "Great American Desert" of the West. Thousands
died in transit in what became known as the Trail of Tears. In
the ensuing decades more civilized forms of appropriation were
discovered, and in the early 20th century oil was discovered in
the "desert" that the Indians were deposited in. Now
lawyers did the heavy lifting to ensure the wealth was transferred
to its proper custodians. The pattern repeated itself with several
other US adventures following Indian removal in the Caribbean
and Pacific, but this is not the place to address these 200 episodes.
The next major innovation employed by
the American government to convince its public of the need for
war, was World War I. Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916
on the platform of keeping America out of the dirty trench waters
of war Europeans were bathing in since 1914. Wilson's message
followed the American tradition dating back to George Washington's
farewell address to stay out of European wars. Wilson, however,
thought different than Washington. Yet, how to turn public opinion?
The answer was with the new science of public opinion management.
The new art of public relations was developed with campaigns to
transform hated figures in America, such as the robber baron John
Rockefeller, into avuncular figures bouncing children on his knee.
This new art/science was created by figures
such as Edward Bernays-the double nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays
introduced phrases such as "engineering consent." Edward
Bernays believed power did not derive from the people, but the
people had to be given the illusion of such. Bernays used the
analogy of his chauffer driver, who he called "Dumb Jack,"
to describe why the levers of power must be in the hands of an
enlightened class. It would not do to have the Dumb Jacks running
the country. So, Woodrow Wilson formed the Committee on Public
Information, also known as the Creel Commission, to unleash a
public relations onslaught on the American public to turn them
to war. It succeeded just enough to keep Americans from rising
up en masse against Wilson's adventure. Among the admirers of
Wilson's propaganda effort were the Bolsheviks.
The next major challenge to forge consent
for US policy was with the Cold War. President Harry Truman, but
more accurately those such as his advisors James Byrnes and Henry
Stimson, were convinced of the need to place the US on a permanent
war-time footing. After WW II the US economy was strangled by
the post-demobilization. Economists and manufacturers alike were
convinced America would sink into a depression, such as existed
before the war. This, combined with the US inheriting the global
system abandoned by the weakened British and French, placed the
US in a new role of world leadership. Moreover, US/Soviet relations
soured after the war. The reasons were many-fold; from the US
dropping A-Bombs at Secretary of State James Byrnes' counsel to
show the Soviets who was boss, to Stalin's machinations in East/Central
Europe. At any rate, detailed in National Security Council Document
68 was the need to frighten Americans into accepting the new conflict.
The communist threat had to be magnified in order for Americans
to back a permanent-war economy of the accompanying military-industrial
complex of which President Dwight D. Eisenhower would declare
a decade later in his departing address had gotten out of control.
It was the collapse of the Soviet Union
in 1991 that led to panic in the halls of American power. The
administration of George Bush (the elder) reacted with confusion
to events. This then set the stage for our current environment.
New justifications would have to be found for NATO and American
military power. Moreover, while the elder crowd blindly groped
for new organizing principles in the post-Cold War, an alternative
elite faction that came to dominate George Bush's (junior) government
advanced a bold plan and a Project for a New American Century.
Let's now deconstruct Bush's November
"Through the generations, they have
humbled dictators and liberated continents and set a standard
of courage and idealism for the entire world."
This fails any test of credibility. From
ethnic cleansing of the American Indians, to the suppression of
the democratic independence movement of the Filipinos in 1898
under Emiliano Aguinaldo, to the ousting of the democratic leaders
of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 to Jacabo Arbenz in Guatemala
in 1954, and extending to a whole list of other democrats, the
United States, for whatever motives, has often proven an enemy
of democracy when its economic and related geopolitical interests
trumped the former. In other contexts, however, such as West Europe
in the Cold War, America vigorously supported left-leaning social
democracies as a hedge against communism. In other words, the
United States has alternatively supported democracies and dictators.
The common thread linking them has been the elite interest of
the American power structure at a given place and time. It, not
surprisingly acts, in its interests, not on principle. Principle,
however, made important by the US and French Revolutions, has
been important for "engineering consent," because the
public expects its leaders to govern on their behalf, and thus
politicians, such as George Bush, must steep their rhetoric in
language of "liberty, equality, and fraternity."
In Bush's revisionism America also claims
victory for World War II. This too crumbles under inspection.
Hitler, Time's "man of the year" in 1938, was popular
among many American and European elites. While he would not have
been considered proper dinner company, it was thought he would
invade the USSR and so bully for him. Rhapsodic eulogies could
also be found in the American press and among the State Separtment
for Benito Mussolini.
Joseph Stalin, during the war, was America's
ally. "Today we are at peace with Oceania, and we have always
been." But, after the Soviets proved too effective in dispatching
the fascist threat, then "today we are at war with Oceania,
and we always have been." Two relatives of mine died fighting
Hitler in the American army, but the victory against the Nazis
belongs to the Soviets who faced close to 70% of the German forces,
while the rest of the allies took on the remainder. The American
propaganda apparatus could turn on a dime and transform the murderer
of the entire original Bolshevik leadership who starved Russia's
peasants into submission from "Uncle Joe" into enemy
# 1 after the war.
From WW II Bush goes on to tout his record
for spending on American veterans-which is mixed at best-and then
pulls like a wedding band breaking into familiar standards such
as "Proud Mary," delivers his support for an amendment
banning flag desecration. No innovations here, but they do come
later in the speech through conflating communism with Islamic
fundamentalism. And, from this reference to the flag, he then
segues to the gift that just keeps on giving: 9/11. Here, George
Bush reminds us of the evil threat, of which it certainly is.
But, a deft shift from its real causes is required to hook the
public on the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) vision
for the US in the world.
As President Bush reminded us in the shadow
of 9/11, they "hate us because we are free." Strangely,
the Swedes and Swiss are not hated for similar reasons. Indeed,
Osama Bin Laden has even cited the Swedes as left out of this
fight for those too dim to see the real causes of the conflict.
But, as Bush relates:
"First, these extremists want to
end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East,
because we stand for democracy and peace and stand in the way
of their ambitions."
Where does one begin on the US record
here: 1) the US overthrow of the first democratically elected
leader of Iran in 1953? 2) US sponsorship of Iran's subsequent
dictator the Shah of Iran? 3) US support for the corrupt House
of Saud in Saudi Arabia? 4) continuing support for Israel even
after it developed some 150 nuclear weapons, violates several
UN resolutions on the Palestinians, and continuing settlement
expansion in the West Bank? 5) American support for the Egyptian
dictator Mubarak? 6) US sponsorship for several Pakistani dictators,
including the current Musharaf? 7) cozy relations with Islam Karimov,
until recently, in Uzbekistan? 8) support of Saddam Hussein throughout
Bush then fully derails from the tracks
of history altogether when he implores:
"And the civilized world knows very
well that other fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to
Pol Pot, consumed whole nations in war and genocide before leaving
the stage of history."
The first of these figures, Hitler, had
support from many quarters in the West. Stalin was America's ally
during the war. And, the US supported Pol Pot when the Vietnamese
tried to remove this menace on their border. Indeed, this is entirely
consistent with the enemies de jure. Just as with these previous
figures, America's new enemies, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden
(both enemies of each other, incidentally, and of which the latter
approached the House of Saud to launch a jihad against the former)
were once supported by America.
We are at peace with Oceania and have
always been at peace
Also, while this may be appear mere hairsplitting,
of the above five "fanatics," the label only fits three
of them. Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein were both were cynics
and opportunists of sorts rather than fanatical ideologues as
were the others on his list. Although, Stalin, was a seminarian,
and his quasi-fundamentalist crusading zeal was likely rooted
in his religious formative years.
On the difficulty of vanquishing these
foes, Bush explains:
"Defeating the militant network's
difficult because it thrives like a parasite on the suffering
and frustration of others. The radicals exploit local conflicts
to build a culture of victimization in which someone else is always
to blame and violence is always the solution."
At this point we see revealed the habit
of projecting America's own foibles on others. The enemy always
seeks others to blame for its problems and always employs violence
to achieve its goals. Given the US record of ethnically cleansing
its own continent and engaging some 200 foreign interventions,
the statement might ring true if Bush in a Maoist session of self-criticism
were recording the faults of his own government.
Bush then contends:
"The radicals depend on front operations,
such as corrupted charities which direct money to terrorist activity.
They are strengthened by those who aggressively fund the spread
of radical intolerant versions of Islam into unstable parts of
the world. The militants are aided, as well, by elements of the
Arab news media that incite hatred and anti-Semitism, that feed
conspiracy theories and speak of a so-called American war on Islam,
with seldom a worry about American action to protect Muslims in
Afghanistan and Bosnia and Somalia and Kosovo and Kuwait and Iraq,
or seldom a word about our generous assistance to Muslims recovering
from national disasters in places like Indonesia and Pakistan."
On financing, Bush rightly points to the
importance of material support for these terrorist networks. Yet,
typifying their denial of the real source of this money, is his
placing blame on charities. Covert financing of terror has been
made possible by the American deconstruction of Bretton Woods
rules on capital flows. In that post-war order capital was leashed
to national development strategies that fed industrialization
while starving speculation. Since the US took the lead in de-regulating
these capital movements in the service of its own multi-national
corporations and Wall Street speculator class, over 95% of all
capital flows are merely speculative, with even rejections by
America of taxing these flows of hot money as proposed by Nobel
laureate James Tobin.
In addition to this American introduced
structural reason for the new ease of concealing capital movements
for the ease of funding Al Qaeda is that the CIA trained the mujhadeen
in shell company and money laundering techniques, including the
business of corrupting charities to this end. This was done during
the US support (almost creation of) the Mujhadeen to fight the
Soviets in Afghanistan. Indeed, it should be remembered as then
National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski commented in a 1998
Le Figaro interview, that he instructed President Carter that
by giving aid to the Afghani forces opposed to rule from Kabul
in 1979 "this aid was going to induce a Soviet intervention.
It had the effect of drawing the Russians into an Afghan trap."
He later declared "that secret operation was an excellent
idea." Moreover, to President Carter he further argued "we
now have the opportunity of giving the US its Vietnam War."
Not even reflecting on the untold misery this war caused in Afghanistan,
the former National Security Advisor further asserted that this
operation only cost was inconsequential, merely some "stirred
up Moslems." This racism and disregard for human life in
the Middle East and Central Asia has caused blowback on the US.
Ironically, Brzezinski is now one of the most effective critics
of the Bush Administration policy, perhaps, admirably, upon reflection
of his own hand in this mess.
On Bush's point regarding the anti-Semitic
and conspiratorial view on the street of many Muslims about America,
this is unfortunately true. This is both a consequence of the
wrecking ball the US has wielded in the region and a failure of
Middle East intellectuals to correct. Although, on the latter,
it must be remembered America has had a hand in eliminating left-wing
intellectuals throughout the Middle East, not to mention globally.
Rational dissent cannot come from this quarter because it was,
literally, decapitated. It was originally thought that letting
Muslims busy themselves in mosques was the best way to achieve
stability. We are now experiencing the blowback from that strategy.
Bush further complains that these fundamentalists
rarely recognize America's role in past defense of them in Afghanistan
and the Balkans. Yet, again, the first was part of a larger game
in the Cold War and the second was part of America's need to find
a continued use for NATO in the post-Cold War and protect future
pipeline routes through the Balkans. As with all powerful states,
America acts in its interests. And, this is truly the greatest
flaw in the fundamentalist analysis: assuming America is at war
with Islam. America merely pursues its benefit. One day America
is at peace with Oceania and always has been As America and the
world changes its interests will change and so too will its enemies
and friends. The wild card, however, is democracy. American democracy
is what sociologist William Robinson terms polyarchy. Polyarchy
represents a small menu of choices acceptable to elites. This
limited selection, though, is enough to present the illusion of
variety. It is this model American elites have constructed at
home and now export: "options" without alternatives.
Or, as Margaret Thatcher once inveighed "there is no alternative."
Yet, embedded within this polyarchy, and indeed, what polyarchy
attempts to suffocate, is democracy, which periodically erupts
from the shackles placed on it. And it is this that periodically
emerges to thwart power.
Bush then argues that Iraq is not the
cause of the current difficulties:
"Some have also argued that extremists
have been strengthened by our actions in Iraq, claiming that our
presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage
of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September
the 11th, 2001. (APPLAUSE) The hatred of the radicals existed
before Iraq was an issue. And it will exist after Iraq is no longer
an excuse. The government of Russia did not support Operation
Iraqi Freedom, and yet the militants killed more than 150 Russian
school children in Beslan."
Yes and no. First, he errs in saying the
US was not in Iraq before September 11th. He ignores his father's
invasion and the airstrikes that continued throughout the 1990s
right up to the most recent invasion. Then, there were the estimated
500k deaths of Iraqi children due to the UN sanctions, of which
then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when interviewed,
declared "it was worth it."
He then cites the Beslan incident to show
Iraq is not responsible for all terrorism. True enough. Russia,
which has flattened Grozny and destroyed Chechnya, is certainly
considered an enemy by these fundamentalists. But, note Bush fails
to observe how Western nations, such as Sweden, that have left
these people alone have not been targets. This elephant in the
room is simply ignored. The common targets are imperial states
that have wielded their economic and military might in the Islamic
Bush's neocons, or should we say the neocons'
Bush, then pronounce:
"The murderous ideology of the Islamic
radicals is the great challenge of our new century. Yet in many
ways this fight resembles the struggle against communism in the
This transparent, if clumsy, attempt to
salvage the current policy failure through linkage to communism
will surely keep many intellectuals employed in ever new ways
to connect two different movements. Unlike Islamic fundamentalists,
communists were on the forefront of the women's movement, struggles
against racism, and promoting better conditions for labor when
the really existing democracies still banned women from politics,
institutionalized racism as policy, and used the bludgeon against
insolent workers. The political gulf between communists and fundamentalists
could not be wider. Indeed, it was just this gap the US exploited
when supporting its allies extermination of communists and allying
Islamic fundamentalists to that cause whenever possible. Bush's
intellectuals prove alchemists once again, making lies into truth
and truth into lies.
We are at peace with Oceania and always
have been We are at war with Oceania and always have beenBush's
neocon intellectuals are closer to the mark on the issue of vanguards.
They are dangerous, but not only those of America's enemies, but
the US vanguard itself.
"Like the ideology of communism,
Islamic radicalism is elitist, led by a self-appointed vanguard
that presumes to speak for the Muslim masses. Bin Laden says his
own role is to tell Muslims, quote, "what is good for them
and what is not."
Bush and company represent a neoconservative
coterie that often possessed Trotyskyist pasts. They have merely
traded in one ideology for another, but maintaining their vanguardist
confidence in their righteousness. While some of Bush's minions
have this background, others are merely like Bush himself, a simple
Christian fundamentalist, and represent what the Pakistani intellectual
Tariq Ali refers to as the "Clash of Fundamentalisms":
Christian and Islamic.
Bush then jumps to homeland defense:
"We are reorganizing our government
to give this nation a broad and coordinated homeland defense.
We are reforming our intelligence agencies for the incredibly
difficult task of tracking enemy activity based on information
that often comes in small fragments from widely scattered sources
both here and abroad."
Hurricane Katrina revealed the mendacity
of this statement. The world's richest nation is wholly unprepared
to protect its own people in the simple way that impoverished
Cuba did when struck by a similar forced hurricane in which they
evacuated all and saw none die. The American Gulf's security,
unfortunately, was left in the hands of a political crony who
brought the credential of managing an Arabian horse stable to
the job, in addition, of course, to being an organizer and contributor
to the GOP. The war on "terror" is almost entirely offensive.
And even here, it fails. For Osama Bin Laden was allowed to escape
while the US employed 9/11 to pursue its real agenda in Iraq.
Bush then asserts:
"we're determined to deny the militant's
control of any nation which they would use as a home base and
a launching pad for terror."
While creating just that in Iraq, he declares
we are preventing it. The dizzying heights of Orwellian logic
employed here force us to suspend all sense of history and reality
to accept his argument. Bush then boldly returns to WMD and area
where one thinks he would flee given his total discrediting on
He then declares victory in the war waged
against terrorists in Iraq:
"Acting on tips from local citizens,
our forces have recently launched airstrikes against terrorist
safehouses in and around the towns of Ubaydi (ph) and Husaba (ph)."
One should have concern for those attacked
here. They may be terrorists, but the reliance on "tips from
local citizens" was precisely the Bush regime's "source"
that Saddam Hussein had WMD.
Bush then pulls out the familiar theme
that our enemy is brutal (which it is) but that America is not:
"The terrorists are as brutal an
enemy as we've ever faced, unconstrained by any notion of our
common humanity or by the rules of warfare. No one should underestimate
the difficulties ahead, nor should they overlook the advantages
we bring to this fight."
Bush is defending several dubious arguments
here. One, implicitly, is that the brutality of our enemy forces
us to torture prisoners at Guantanamo, Abu Graib, and at facilities
in the former Soviet bloc. Two, that somehow we are civilized.
From the use of Atomic weapons that melted skin off babies, to
the use of C130 gunships spraying 6000 rounds of ammunition per
minute on villages in Central America in the 1980s, to the use
of phosphorous weapons that burn one from the inside out, the
US knows a little something about brutality. The irony and outrage
is that pressures for democratizing society and curbing excess
come from civil society, which the Bush neocons wish to both fight
on substance, but lay claim to their existence as proof of the
neocons representing democracy.
In the end, Bush, like the Stalinist vanguardists
he inveighs against, airbrushes out of history inconvenient facts,
re-writes history to suit his present, and seeks to impose a privatizing
utopian system that has failed from Latin America to the former
USSR leaving millions dying earlier than they otherwise would
have, but with the right persons profiting handsomely in the process.
The Bushites cloak their imperial agenda
in property rights, which they conflate with democracy. Incidentally,
this was the same tactic used by the proslavery South on the cusp
of the Civil War. Like Bush, they argued they merely represented
the interests of those slavers under their nurturing guidance,
and, like today, the proslavers defended their program on grounds
of property rights. No doubt within both camps existed cynics
and idealists, who together represented a dangerous synergy. That
same dynamic is at work again today with the Bush administration's
privatization program for the Iraqi economy. In order to undertake
their goals in Iraq, the Bush administration deigned to violate
the truth to serve a greater good. This has been done before by
American presidents Abraham Lincoln noted in 1848 as the Mexican-American
War neared its conclusion: "Allow the president to invade
a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel
an invasion ... and you allow him to make war at pleasureYou may
say to him, 'I see no probability of[them] invading us,' but he
will say to you, 'Be silent: I see it if you don't.'"
The lesson was lost on the American Congress,
who, duped again, supported LBJ in 1964 with the rigged story
on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and suckered again, Congress
bought the same line in 2003 on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
Like a dark wizard invoking forces beyond their comprehension,
we still know not yet the full consequences unleashed by these
As Ulysses S. Grant commented on the outcome
of the Mexican-War:
"The Southern rebellion [Civil War]
was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals,
are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in
the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times."
Following James Polk, the Young Americans
expansion movement declared that we should expand now and handle
the political incidentals later. Reminiscent of Bush's "Mission
Accomplished" stunt for a speedy victory and come what may
attitude on the political details in Iraq, we find ourselves in
treacherous waters. Just as after the Mexican-American War opened
the door to the North/South conflict that became the Civil War
we can only hope future conflicts in the Middle East will not
be fueled by the Iraqi campaign.
Let's hope we can exit Iraq, end unnecessary
adventures abroad, unless directly threatened, and develop energy
alternatives that liberate us from dependence on the Middle East
and the compulsion to control it. If we fail, we will likely suffer
more attacks and observe generations of politicians detail why
we have always been at permanent peace, with friends de jure,
or why under changed circumstances we have always been at war
with the same.
Jeff Sommers is a professor of history
at Raritan Valley Community College and visiting professor at
the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. He publishes on US
foreign relations, political economy, and global studies. He has
held several Fulbrights and divides his time between the US and
National Security Agency (NSA) page