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Escaping the Maelstrom


By Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor,
The Crisis Papers

May 18, 2004

"Don't despair, things will get worse before they get worse, then they will get even worse, and then they'll start to get better." I wrote that in late-2002, and I'm still not certain today where we are on that political continuum. But my gut tells me, and there is even some evidence to back up that feeling, that -- finally! -- we may be heading into the last stretch:

Conservatives are starting, in public, to raise serious questions about Bush&Co.'s competency, and even about the Administration's underlying extremist policies. When Speaker Hastert made remarks critical of the White House crew to his colleagues at a closed GOP caucus the other day, loud cheers and applause broke out from the assembled conservative members of the House. Thomas Friedman, the influential, pro-war New York Times columnist, has come down hard on the Bush Administration as bumbling ideologues. Military officers are speaking out about the wisdom of current U.S. Iraq policy. Insider books by Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke, Bob Woodward, John W. Dean, Kevin Phillips and others have delivered crushing blows to the Bush Administration's picture of itself as competent and trustworthy. Bush's ratings are sliding consistently downward in the polls, as the American public is indicating more and more that they think the mismanaged war in Iraq isn't worth it. Rumsfeld and his closest aides, unmasked as the harsh interrogation policy's true authors, may be leaving their positions shortly, and evidence of Bush/Cheney's role in the scandal may be coming soon. In short, we appear to be heading toward the end of a long night's journey into day.

But that darkness can seem overwhelming. Don't know about you, but for me the political events of the past several weeks have been a kind of nightmare experience. It's like we're in a vortex of violence and cruelty, a maelstrom where our leaders' mendacity and bungling behavior drag us down in a terrible, dangerous swirl.

These may be the final death rattles of a reckless policy and of a corrupt and incompetent administration, but whatever they are, these Bush&Co. flailings threaten to take us all down with them. (And we always need to remember that cornered, wounded beasts are the most dangerous; who knows what raving, roving schemes are being hatched?)

The worst part about all this for me, emotionally speaking, is that I feel I've been here before. More than 30 years ago, my generation was battling another crooked, lying administration locked in a quagmire of an illegal, immoral war. Our leaders told us we had to go to war there because if we didn't stop the Commies in Vietnam, all of Asia would fall to the Reds and we'd have to fight them eventually on our shores.


American leaders simply refused to believe their eyes, that the Vietnamese were more nationalists than world-domination communists, and that they'd been struggling with invaders for centuries and always managed to kick them out. We were merely the newest occupiers on the block, after the French were defeated, and the Vietnamese would get rid of us, too. It might take them decades, but they had the patience and will, and we didn't. And they were fighting for their land, after all, and we weren't. The U.S. could have left early (McNamara knew in 1967 that America couldn't win that war), but instead America poured money and human treasure down that rathole for seven more years, and millions more died.

And here we are again, having rushed into a war of choice because some chickenhawk zealots had a policy they were desperate to try out -- "changing the world," as Bush called it, by forcing democracy at the barrel of a gun, and, not incidentally, gaining control of the Middle East's enormous energy supplies of oil and gas. Now, facing the reality and strength of Iraqi nationalist resistance, we are flailing again. Because, as in Vietnam, the war policy was flawed to begin with -- based on lies and misassumptions -- and mismanaged at every turn by a bumbling Administration; the result is an unwinnable war, one about which the Administration is conflicted as to whether to continue or to extricate itself. Thousands are dying and being maimed, and this will continue until the U.S. leaves.

The neo-conservative ideologues -- led by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their ilk -- took the country into this unnecessary war through lies and deceptions, telling us that unless we invaded Iraq, we'd be attacked by a supposed Saddam/Osama nexus with horrible weapons of mass destruction. Later, Bush was forced to confirm that there was no such nexus -- that Saddam had no connection to 9/11 -- but, by then, we were knee deep in a desert version of the big muddy, fighting what was mostly a nationalist revolt against our occupying presence. (The insurgency may have started out as violence from former Ba'athists, but the bumbling occupation policies and the harshness of the U.S. occupiers helped push many ordinary Iraqis into armed resistance.)

The world turns, and, if you're not careful, you wind up in pretty much the same troubling place. Then it was Nixon's constantly expanding war against "the Communists"; now it's a permanent war against "the terrorists." In both cases, the Administration justifies all its legal and illegal actions in the name of the "ists" we're fighting, who are seen as leading a worldwide movement, and ignores the strength of nationalism in the affected countries. Read this editorial that I penned for the alternative journal Northwest Passage almost 34 years ago to the day (May 18, 1970). Change just a few words, and the same could be written right now:


"Nixon is a good representative of a nation hoist on its own petard. On the one hand, he knows that we must get the hell out of Southeast Asia before we get so bogged down that the current $100 billion expenditure for the Vietnam War will look like peanuts, and the internal structure of the U.S. will become totally chaotic as its social institutions fester and explode in violent pus. On the other hand, however, Nixon is a captive of all the rabid 'anti-communist' rhetoric of the past 30 years which says that the U.S. must help fight these dirty reds whenever and wherever they rear their ugly heads. Not only is this policy foolishly simplistic, but it simply is impossible of fulfillment in this day and age. Yet so much of a psychological hold does it have on the American mentality that Nixon can slide us further into Cambodia, Laos...and God knows where else without an instant and total revolt on the part of the citizenry.

>>"Perhaps the Nationalist-Communists will take over in Vietnam, and maybe even elsewhere in Asia, but that will be no major calamity; the United States will not disappear as a world power, neither will it be stormed by the 'Yellow Peril.' The only sane course is to get out, now, immediately, today -- before it's impossible to do so..."

How little we learn. The war in Iraq, nearly everyone agrees, is also a disaster heading toward a catastrophe. But maybe that shouldn't surprise us. Bush&Co. seem to have a reverse-Midas effect. Whatever they touch seems to backfire on the U.S. In Iraq, their policy is wrong-headed not because the great bulk of U.S. soldiers aren't brave and heroic and good people, but because the war policy was wrong from the get-go, destined to fail; that's what happens when zealotry trumps realism.

And so one scandal follows another, one failure tops another, one bit of outrageous behavior or policy comes right on the heels of another. History suggests that the Bush&Co. policy-makers should have been toast by now, but somehow they're still standing, still brazenly lying, still appointing extremist judges, still giving away the store to polluting industries, still planning more invasions and regime-changes, etc. If it had been Clinton doing these things, the GOP would have had him back in the impeachment dock in a minute

Bush&Co. are like the inflatable punching figure, which, no matter how many hits it takes, no matter how many times you bang it to the ground, no matter how many self-inflicted wounds it receives, still pops back up. We need to remember the Dracula story; garlic and crosses and so on only can take you so far. If you want to get rid of the beast, shine some daylight on it and then make sure you drive a stake through its heart.

It's up to us ordinary citizens, and to whatever Democratic leaders (and, may we hope, mainstream journalists?) have the moxie to step out and take on the fight. Working together, we can ensure that streams of bright sunlight pour into the darkest scandals of this Administration -- the war lies, the torture/interrogation policy, the felonious outing of a covert CIA agent, the 9/11 pre-knowledge coverup, Cheney's secret energy panel, etc. etc. -- and then finish them off with impeachment or a landslide defeat in November.


Because they run such a closed, incurious shop, Bush&Co. exemplify the garbage in/garbage out manner of policy-making. Bush doesn't read newspapers; doing so might confuse him, since, he tells us proudly, he makes up his mind from his "gut," and from information supplied him by Cheney and the White House staff. Had Bush opened himself to hearing other opinions, he would have learned that most of the world believed he was heading into a bear-trap in Iraq: his long-time allies were telling him not to invade, tens of millions of us ordinary citizens were out in the streets warning him not to invade, friendly Arab leaders were telling him not to go into Iraq. Even Colin Powell warned him, privately, that "if you break it, you own it."

But the neo-cons were riding high in those days, providing Bush with easy explanations for the difficult job ahead -- folks like Cheney (whom Powell described as in a rabid "fever," irrationally "fixated" on unleashing war against Iraq) and Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld and so on. Acting on ivory-tower theories they'd developed as founding members of The Project for The New American Century, they didn't have to work hard to convince Bush to start the "shock & awe" process. He was raring to go. And there was no other superpower to get in our way.

The Bush world, after all, is a simple one. It's all black and white. We are the Good Guys, God is on our side, thus we know what is best for the world, we know who the bad guys are, we'll take 'em out. No shades of grey, no wondering about possible mistaken judgments, no thought about the law of unintended consequences, no pondering whether we might make our country less secure against terrorists by running amok in the world like a rampaging cowboy on a moralist bender.

Any wonder why officers and troops down the chain of command might feel they could get away with anything done to prisoners in their charge when the higher-ups and the highest-up divide the world up into such a convenient us-vs.-them paradigm? To such zealots, America represents "civilization," and those sandjockeys are lesser humans, practicing a gutter religion anyway. The Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, General Boykin, has preached his fundamentalist Christianity by insulting Islam openly; Bush originally called his campaign against Muslim terrorists a "crusade"; House Majority Leader Tom DeLay says only one belief-system, the Christian one, is the true way; Bush permits Christian evangelicals to mount massive conversion programs in Iraq; Bush supports Sharon in a never-ceasing, violent Israeli campaign against the Palestinians.

And we wonder why, even though we are the "Good Guys," Arabs in the Middle East and Muslims across the globe are just a tad bit suspicious of our motives.


No, Bush&Co. are on their way out, and it's not the Kerry forces, the liberals, who are doing them in. It's first their own excesses and arrogant misbehaviors that have created the climate of mistrust and doubt about their leadership. The conservatives behind the scenes see that clearly; they are appalled that the guys they selected to run the show are, in their astounding brutishness, revealing far too much too openly about the true policies lying behind the "compassionate conservative" facade. And, to make it even worse, the Bushies are incompetent in carrying out their vision, partly because they are dogmatists who have voluntarily blinded themselves to reason and evidence.

While it's probably too late for the GOP power-wielders to change horses now, less than six months away from Election Day, if the Bush campaign continues to stagger and bleed and looks even more hopeless going into the GOP Convention in the Fall, strange things could happen. Financial support could shift away from Bush -- who, in this scenario, would look like a bad investment as a sure loser. John McCain, or someone else who they believe could keep the Republicans in power and the economic goodies flowing, may look better.

But whoever or whatever, the Bush Administration, at least for the next six months, must seem to be ditching the neo-cons and their failing war. The whole idea of the firm June 30th deadline for the handover of "sovereignty" is based on Bush's election strategy: get Iraq and U.S. troop deaths and injuries off the political front page. Even if the kind of "sovereignty" being presented to the Iraqis is a major scam, and won't fool a single citizen on that country, it might well look like the real thing to convince a number of Americans to vote for Bush.

There's even a fall-back position. The Bush Administration will not allow itself to be seen -- never, ever -- as having made a mistake with its Iraq policy. And certainly it cannot allow itself to do anything that would look like they were "cutting and running" from the war. So, both Bremer and Powell are floating a trial balloon: If the interim government, whatever its composition, asks the U.S. forces to leave Iraq, the U.S. will leave. Thus, it can't be accused of "cutting and running" -- which charge would outrage its conservative base -- but merely acceding to the democratic request of a host government.

It's not clear if, on this issue, there is trench warfare inside the Bush Administration between the ideologue hawks and the less-strict "realists," or even whether this Powell-Bremer idea is a serious, sincere exit strategy for the whole, bleepin' Iraq mess.

It could be just a feint -- designed to fool the American electorate into believing that the U.S. will be leaving sometime early next year (notably, AFTER the November election is decided) -- because Powell and Bush know it is highly doubtful, given the crumbling security situation in Baghdad and the weakness of Iraqi police forces, that any Iraqi government would request the U.S. military leave precipitously. Besides, the Bushies may believe that the rules have been worked out that lock subsequent Iraqi governments into a whole host of military and corporate arrangements that benefit the U.S.

But what is to keep that hypothetical government from abrogating all such "agreements" and closing down the bases, claiming that they were accepted under duress from an occupying foreign power? One suspects that under international law, let alone moral principles, the Iraqis would have every right to do so. What would prevent them from renouncing this sellout? Threat of re-invasion by the U.S.? Not likely after this misadventure, added to the probable world opinion and support behind such an abrogation.

This is why the Bushistas are desperate to set up a puppet (or at least friendly, amenable) ruling authority, and why the viability of such an Iraqi government once the U.S. military leaves is approximately zero. It's a good bet that either (a) a pro-U.S. government will be set up and immediately overthrown, or (b) a popular government will declare null and void Bush's corrupt give-aways. The Busheviks know this, and thus realize that they are trapped. All that's left for them is to keep this a secret until November 3.

In short, Bush&Co. can't appear to lose the war in Iraq, even if they manage to extract the U.S troops from the overt military battle. The whole object of U.S. policy with regard to Iraq is aimed at the upcoming election in America; if it wins in November, Bush&Co. will have free rein to regroup and figure out a new plan for how to get its way in Iraq and to complete its alter-Araby project in the Middle East. So winning the election is the only goal right now for the Bushistas; everything else is secondary. Unless, of course, fighting off impeachment takes precedence.

Copyright 2004, by Bernard Weiner


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances