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This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
Lewis Gould, in the Wash Post (April 18, 2004):
There comes a moment in almost every presidency when an unpleasant bit of reality intrudes upon the happy routine of striking media poses, harvesting reelection money and rubbing the egos of political allies. It's a moment when the unique burdens of the Oval Office begin to weigh upon its occupant more heavily than before, when a sense of impending tragedy threatens to overwhelm any countervailing assumption of divine, or even just plain political, purpose.
President Bush appeared to be having one of those moments during his news conference last Tuesday night. With the situation in Iraq in seeming chaos and the roots of the nation's vulnerability to terrorism under a microscope on Capitol Hill before the 9/11 commission, the president's third televised prime-time news conference offered a rare chance for reporters to ask about the substantive policy choices that the nation faces. Bush provided exhortation and a reiteration of his goals rather than a roadmap for how he intends to deal with the present crisis. The holder of the bully pulpit delivered a familiar sermon when a diagnosis of a national malady and prescription for a cure was needed.
The fault for this outcome did not lie entirely with the president. Rather, the nature of the office itself and what it has become are partly the problem. Over the past 50 years, the institution of the presidency has evolved into a mixture of celebrity and continuous campaigning. Substantive policy has receded in significance; presidents are judged on how they perform before the media, whether they win a second term and what their approval ratings are. In this context, mastery of staged events and the capacity to please the public are what matter most.
During their first three years in the White House, Bush and his advisers proved to be superb practitioners of these arts and experts at staging moments that conveyed an aura of decisive leadership. Whether standing atop the World Trade Center wreckage with a bullhorn or landing on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit, Bush fulfilled the symbolic expectations of the office with practiced skill. He has been equally adept at continuous campaigning, as his record fundraising totals and success in boosting Republicans in the 2002 congressional elections attest. As long as the presidency operated within this context, Bush enjoyed high ratings and widespread popularity.
But, of course, the presidency is not just about glitz and the trappings of
show business. At bottom, it is about policy, substantive issues and demanding
choices. Eventually the rigors of the White House expose a president's areas
of vulnerability. Early on, Bush had proclaimed with pride that he did not do
nuance. He and his aides cultivated his reputation as a big-picture man who
left it to subordinates to handle details and the nitty-gritty of policies.
Now he faces a public that wants to know not simply that he wants to stay the
course, but the nitty-gritty as well: how he plans to do it, how long it will
take, how he defines a less-than-perfect success....
Jonathan M. Hansen, author of The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920, is writing a book about the history of Guantánamo Bay; in the NYT (April 20, 2004):
... The history of how the United States came to possess Guantánamo Bay illuminates a question in the Supreme Court case to be argued today about whether American courts have jurisdiction over challenges to the detention of hundreds of foreign nationals there: who is sovereign at Guantánamo Bay, the United States or Cuba? If the Supreme Court rules that Cuba is sovereign, the detainees will have no recourse in United States courts.
The legal arguments in the case involve technical distinctions between sovereignty, jurisdiction and control. The historical record is plainer: Cuba has never been sovereign at Guantánamo Bay. Not only was Guantánamo Spanish territory when the United States seized it in 1898, but the ensuing lease between Cuba and the United States formalizing American occupation was completed amid a climate of coercion. To understand that coercion, it is necessary to return to a moment more than a century ago when the United States intervened in the Cuban war of independence against Spain.
The American forces that first occupied Guantánamo in June 1898 were late arrivals in a colonial struggle already three years old. The American victory over Spain was all but assured by then thanks to the skill and determination of the Cuban revolutionaries.
But history is written by the victors, and by midsummer 1898 the Cubans' role in the Spanish defeat was already being written off. Cuba's war of independence had become a mere"insurrection," its leaders notorious for their lawlessness and caprice. The Spanish-American diplomacy that concluded the war formalized the disregard: neither the armistice of August 1898 nor the Treaty of Paris signed that December allowed for any Cuban participation. The year 1898 drew to a close with the American flag fluttering over Havana and Guantánamo Bay firmly in the grip of a United States military government.
Congress had pledged America to Cuban independence, which raised the problem of how to secure United States political and economic interests in Cuba after the provisional American government departed. Congress resolved this problem in 1901 by passing the Platt Amendment, which curtailed Cuba's right to conduct its own foreign and fiscal policy, granted America the right to intervene at will in Cuban affairs, and compelled Cuba to"sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points, to be agreed upon by the president of the United States."
In the face of American pressure and despite the mounting opposition of Cuban citizens, the Cuban Constitutional Convention ratified the Platt Amendment in June 1901. Thus the American occupation of Guantánamo received Cuba's official sanction.
Subsequent treaties in 1903 and 1934 between the United States and Cuba confirmed American supremacy at Guantánamo. But the insistence in these documents of Cuba's"ultimate sovereignty" over the bay did not change the facts on the ground. Moreover, a clause in the 1934 treaty requires both signatories to agree to any termination of the lease....
Mark LeVine, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the co-editor, with Pilar Perez and Viggo Mortensen, of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation (Perceval Press, 2003) and author of the forthcoming Why They Don't Hate Us: Islam and the World in the Age of Globalization (Oneworld Publications, 2004); in www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute (April 22, 2004):
The voice on the other end of the phone was as sweet and reassuring as I remembered from our brief time together in Baghdad. It belonged to an Italian peace activist who has spent much of the last year in Iraq working with a group of European and Iraqi comrades to monitor and resist the U.S. occupation of the country. Now she was being forced to leave. The intensifying violence in central and southern Iraq has turned even foreign peace activists into targets, despite the fact that some of them were risking their lives ferrying the wounded and medical supplies between Baghdad, Falluja, and other cities.
What struck me upon hearing Francesca's voice -- the names in this story have been changed -- were her first words upon recognizing me:"Ah, Mark, è un casinoi," she said, her voice filled with sadness tinged with desperation. In Italian, this phrase usually means something like"it's crazy" or"it's overwhelming." (Mothers of young children use it a lot when you ask them how they're doing.) But it has a darker meaning when said by an Italian in Baghdad these days. There, it means something closer to"total chaos and violence," while also evoking images of the prostitution and perversion that accompany the wholesale breakdown of a social order.
With the burst of intense violence of the last few weeks the world press has decided that Iraq is descending into chaos. In fact, the descent has been longer and steeper than most people imagine. The last night of my trip to Iraq, I had dinner with Francesca, along with other Italian, French, and Filipino activists who for a year have been resisting the occupation as best they could -- by building bridges with Iraqis on the grass-roots level, risking their lives to find out the myriad ugly truths about the occupation, and bringing that information to the international public. The increase in chaos was palpable during my almost two weeks there in the latter half of March, with suicide bombings (including the big one at the Jebal Lubnan Hotel that blew out the first three stories' worth of its windows), not to speak of the nightly missile/RPG strikes and battles with U.S. troops on the city's streets.
Even as the situation turned worse the activists I knew, along with Iraqi staff members of the organization Occupation Watch (www.occupationwatch.org), and a group of American journalists and activists with whom I traveled to Iraq's capital felt free to spend an evening out at Baghdad's best Chinese restaurant discussing the current situation and future prospects for Iraq from a far more hopeful perspective than, only a few weeks later, seems imaginable. In fact, the very act of having Iraqi and international activists talking, working, eating and sometimes living together was itself an example of an alternative to imperial occupation or indiscriminately violent resistance.
Most of us believed that the situation"would get worse before it gets better," as a French activist put it, and few of the internationals thought bringing in more foreigners made much sense for the near future, even though none of them had ever felt targeted for being foreigners. (A few weeks ago the insurgents still discriminated between people working for and against the occupation.) But they still felt there was a lot of important work to be done: Francesca discussed building ties to local communities by passing out flyers explaining the work of her organization, Bridge to Baghdad, on issues like Iraqis detained indefinitely without charge, civilian casualties, and the decrepit state of the country's hospitals. Several of the Iraqis present talked about the need to dig deep into the nuts and bolts of the occupation, into the problems of the Draft Constitution, and the everyday violence plaguing the country.
The strategies then being considered by grass-roots activists across the political spectrum in Iraq reminded me of the anarchistic tactics recently favored by the global peace and justice movement. And it seemed to raise a possibility: If violence-related chaos could slow down the"reconstruction" of the country, even forcing the Americans and British to consider abandoning their allies on the Interim Governing Council, could a very different kind of anarchy and grass-roots activism challenge the larger order being imposed by the United States in Iraq?
Today, the answer seems to be a resounding, no, and not just because of the chaos a growing insurgency encourages. When it comes to creating chaos, no one can compete with the boys at the Pentagon and in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad. Which brings me back to Francesca's words on the phone. What struck me instantly was that"casino," when used negatively in Italian to describe life in Baghdad, had a similar meaning to the common Russian word for chaos,"bardok." Used throughout the former Soviet Union to describe the situation since the end of communism, it too conjured up images of extreme chaos, and of brothels and prostitution. Both uses distill into a single word what the violence of"globalization," or as it's called in Iraq"privatization," does to those on the receiving end of the enterprise.
Chaos and the Fading Prospects of Peace and Democracy
Indeed, it's the continuous chaos of everyday life that makes it so hard for Iraqis to tell friend from foe, that leads to peace activists being kidnapped, that makes it impossible for progressive-minded Islamic religious figures to offer protection to my friends who've been risking their lives in Iraq the past year. Chaos even makes it harder to do the digging necessary to understand just what the"Coalition" is up to.
Chaos means the four to six hours without electricity in Baghdad out of each twenty-four, including during that dinner of ours. It means having to travel with a satellite phone, a regular Iraqi cell phone ("Iraqnafone"), and a special CPA phone with a 914 (Westchester, NY) area code just to stay in touch with people. Even then, most of the time you can't call one type of phone from the others. It also means desperately under-equipped hospitals, bullet-ridden ambulances, and millions of dollars earmarked for school rehabilitation siphoned into the pockets of U.S. contractors and their Iraqi middlemen.
It's hard to assess how much of the chaos now evident in Iraq is just the product of war and occupation generally; how much is the product of Bush administration ill-planning, arrogance, and pure stupidity; and how much has been planned, or at least welcomed, by elements in the administration. Most Iraqis opt, almost automatically, for option C. As one Iraqi military psychiatrist who worked closely with the CPA and the American military at the start of the occupation argued,"They can't be that incompetent. It has to be at least partly deliberate." What convinced him beyond all else was the CPA's refusal to allow the collection of data for a program he had developed to track levels of post-traumatic stress disorder in Iraqi children since the occupation -- this after they had already funded the study, sent in an American doctor to help implement it, and even put the computers in place to begin collecting the data. He still has no idea how many children suffer from such disorders, but in his words,"It could be millions, and how can we build a stable society with such trauma?"
If it's true that at least some of the chaos in Iraq has, to one degree or another, been consciously let loose on the land, the broadest reason is obvious. As Ali (an Iraqi friend who worked for the UN before a suicide bombing drove that organization out of the country) explained,"One thing is clear; it is impossible to build a peaceful alternative to the occupation when the chaos reaches its current levels." As late one night he and another friend, Hassan, both now working for an international NGO as translators and drivers, plied me with Arak, the national drink of Iraq, they recounted life under, and after, Saddam Hussein. Hassan explained how, having escaped a death sentence personally signed by Saddam, he'd become a Buddhist and lived for a time in Thailand and the Philippines. Yet, as we spoke of peace, Ali and Hassan drilled me on how to disassemble and reassemble one of the three AK-47s in their 200 square-foot apartment. (If I were Iraqi, they laughed, I'd have been court-martialed for being so inept.)
I'm far from a gun enthusiast, but as they pointed out,"In Iraq, you never know when you'll have to use your Kalashnikov." And these guys are committed peace activists. What's sad is that while months ago Hassan had forsworn traveling with a weapon, after the fighting in Falluja broke out he emailed me that he now had no choice but to keep one with him at all times and was preparing to"fight" if the American incursions didn't end soon. What chance does peace have when peace activists are armed and feel the urge, even the necessity, to use their weapons?
Clearly, as long as the violence continues at anything near present levels, the chance of building a truly democratic, progressive alternative to the status quo is nil. Indeed, perhaps the worst thing about the chaos ruling Iraq, along with the insecurity it brings, is that it denies civil society the possibility of promoting any alternatives to collaboration with or violent religious opposition to the occupation.
Watching a similar dynamic at work for over a decade in the Occupied Territories, I had grown ever more frustrated with Palestinian society for not being able to build a nonviolent means of resisting an occupation that only digs in deeper in response to the violent resistance it breeds. But seeing the dynamic evolve before my eyes in Iraq has given me a better understanding of why it's so difficult for Palestinians, or Iraqis, to build such a movement. What Colgate University Professor Nancy Ries calls the"planned chaos" of an occupation, coupled with the economic"structural adjustment" that is a euphemism for the harsh imposition of a market economy controlled by corporate giants on"socialist" systems, steamrolls over any attempts at resistance through the kinds of tactics favored by Gandhi or Martin Luther King.
Multiple Levels of Chaos and Incompetence
The question is: How much of the chaos is deliberate and how much due to arrogance, incompetence, and stupidity? There would seem to be at least three circles of chaos involved in the occupation of Iraq. I don't know official Washington well enough to determine exactly who fits into which category, but it's likely that President Bush and some of his senior military planners and top political advisors fall into the first circle of offenders – the arrogant, incompetent, and just plain stupid.
Whoever comprises this group, they are certainly responsible for the lack of coherent post-occupation planning and the innumerable political and cultural miscues of the American administration in Iraq, which are now much commented upon in the press. It is this group, both politically and militarily, that can be considered"that incompetent," as a leading scholar of Iraq described them to me.
However, there are two other groups within the American governmental system who are definitely not that incompetent: the radical right-wing ideologues in the White House and the Pentagon and their corporate sponsors. And they make up the final two circles of chaos-creators in Iraq. The two groups, not at all distinct, are embodied in the personage of former Defense Secretary and former Halliburton CEO Vice President Dick Cheney. On the more directly political level, neocon officials and their media allies such as Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Richard Armitrage, Michael Ledeen, George Will, Daniel Pipes and other stalwarts neither expected the occupation of Iraq to be a" cakewalk," nor cared if it spread chaos to other countries, as long as it furthered their aim to reconfigure the political map of the region.
In fact, for years key American governmental figures and the leaders of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have understood that U.S.-led globalization was going to necessitate -- and generate -- violence throughout the Third World and in the Middle East specifically. Already in the early 1990s, hawkish scholars were writing of"the new cold war" that was taking shape there as Islamic nationalism confronted the region's secular states. In 2000, a U.S. Strategic Space Command document,"Vision 2020," admitted that globalization was producing a zero-sum game of winners and losers and that on such a planet Americans needed to be prepared to do whatever it might take to"win." Several years before that, the World Bank had reported that the Middle East would likely require a"shakedown period" to adapt to the new global economic order coming out of Washington.
For the ideologues in the Bush Administration a shakedown wasn't enough, and so Iraq, a country already thoroughly weakened, militarily and economically, by years of war and sanctions, was targeted for a shock-down -- and in March of 2003, we got"shock and awe." If we take seriously the statements and writings of Ledeen, Perle, Frum, Feith and Wolfowitz, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was supposed to create a domino effect that would weaken local states (or in their polite phrasing,"democratize" them), open their economies to"international" -- as in Iraq, to the neocons, this largely meant American -- capital ("establish market economies"), and at the same time lead to a much needed"reformation" or"modernization" of Islam (which meant putting in power"Muslims" who would feel at home in the Republican Party in Washington or the Likud Party in Israel). Of course, to accomplish such a"revolution," force would be a necessity, lots of it, continuously applied. This -- itself obviously a chaos-creator -- was not seen by them as a bad thing. As Michael Ledeen has typically argued the U.S., as"the most revolutionary force on earth," naturally engages in the kind of" creative destruction" that has been the hallmark of imperialism, capitalism, and modernity for almost half a millennium -- and neither Ledeen, nor any of his fellow neocons, thought this would occur without causing much chagrin in the Muslim world as well as the Third World at large. And it mattered to them not a whit.
Such a policy-line had two things going for it: the fear of such a machinery of chaos and massive violence heading one's way can often compel local leaders to fall into line and pressure rebels to stop fighting (as has happened in Falluja and Najaf); but if it doesn't, the resulting chaos and violence can in turn be used to further the program. At home, as we've seen, such chaos and the acts that go with it only inflame Americans, convincing many that what's happening there is anything but our fault, and that the only option -- as even Senator John Kerry now argues -- is to"stay the course," whatever that is. As a potential side benefit, generating such chaos and misery also means that any fall off in the same, any move toward political or economic normalcy, however modest, can be touted as proof of the"success" for the U.S. sponsored"reconstruction" of the country.
Whatever the degree of chaos neocons in the Pentagon, the vice president's office, and elsewhere in this administration were ready to accept in their future Iraq and in the region generally, only on entering the third circle of chaos can one envision the full benefits of a world in which lawlessness and violence are the essence of the open market. In such a world of what might be called"sponsored chaos," giant corporate entities and their hangers-on, including the booming"security" firms they employ, stand to make tens, even hundreds of billions of dollars off Iraq and a globalized war on terrorism, no matter the levels of ongoing carnage.
It is perhaps hard for Americans to understand their occupation of Iraq in the context of globalization; but Iraq today is clearly the epicenter of such a trend, a place in which chaos is king and the revenues flow back to the corporate"homeland" like water from a tap. Here, as a start, military force was used to seize control of the world's most important commodity, oil. While corporate prospectors allied with the U.S. scavenged the country in mammoth SUVs filled with downsized former soldiers turned high-priced security guards for any opportunity to profit from Iraq's misery, inside Baghdad's massively fortified Green Zone, where the CPA rules over a non-country, their counterparts drafted regulations for"privatizing" everything from health care to prisons and for delivering them into the same corporate hands.
You only have to spend a few hours in the no-less fortified Baghdad Airport checking out the new colonial bureaucrats and Bible Belt contractors passing through to get a sense of how such a world operates. Aside from gazing at a departure/arrivals boards with"delayed" notifications from who knows how many years ago, the most interesting way to pass the time is to chat with them. At least when I was there, most of the two dozen or so white men (and a few women) I spoke with or on whose conversations I eavesdropped were from the South or Midwest. All were clearly in Iraq for one thing -- money -- and happy to say so. Some were on quick trips to Basra or Kirkuk scouting out contracts; others had crisscrossed the country for the previous months or year intent on such tasks as training bomb-sniffing dogs for the Army. There were contract employees of USAID, workers for the privately run RTI International -- making $100,000 per year with hazard pay for jobs that would pay less than half that at home -- and assorted contractors looking to milk some of the billions of dollars in congressionally-mandated reconstruction aid. As a group, they were a reminder that the chaos of war and occupation provides wonderful opportunities for corporations and individuals to make levels of profits, unchecked by the laws and regulations that hamper profitability in peacetime and are usually unrealizable under normal circumstances. But -- and this is the other side of chaos, even for those who profit from it -- all of those departing were relieved or happy to be leaving, even though a number of them planned to return.
There is, needless to say, nothing new about war profiteering. But there is something new about the way it's being done in Iraq. In the post-Cold War era, global corporations and the government elites with whom they work have great incentives to sponsor global chaos and the violence it generates. This gives"opening markets" a new meaning in our age. We know from the experience, for instance, of post-Soviet Kazakhstan or even of Russia itself, how political and social chaos lead to the formation of competing networks of criminal gangs and exceedingly corruptible political parties, filled with potential dynastic families and their friends, all competing for resources and power in the decidedly one-sided contest that is the globalized market economy.
Algeria and its grisly civil war serves as a particularly stark example of how situations of violence and the profitability of widespread chaos can feed off each other to the advantage of all sides in a conflict. Indeed, Algeria's civil war had its roots in good measure in a series of desperately destructive, chaos-producing structural adjustment"reforms" imposed on the country in the late 1980s by the World Bank and the IMF. During the civil war both the state and private groups, including the armed terrorist organizations, made lots of money through the privatization process we call globalization. More important, a semi-secret"political-mafia power" (as Le Monde recently described it) evolved that now rivals the previous political and formerly dominant military establishments.
Once you have mafias coming into being, chaos only advances further, being, at least for a time, the cheapest, easiest, and for those not dying or being impoverished by it, most profitable way to go. If the present chaos and violence continues in Iraq, there is little doubt that a similar scenario will evolve there too. In fact, my friend Ali described the local situation in Shi'a towns like Najaf and Nasriyya in terms troublingly similar to the grim descriptions coming out of Algeria in the 1990s:"Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi's Army are little more than mercenaries who were lost with no jobs in streets of Iraq. I've watched them steal the government properties in order to make money to support their revolt. The Iraqi police are totally afraid of them; they stood looking on the without thinking to take any action. Some others took the advantage of this chaos to loot what ever they could, even the people's properties."
How to Tell the Difference Between Chaos and Incompetence
What's important to bear in mind here is that the U.S. can increase such chaos not just through genuine incompetence but through purposeful incompetence -- and it's normally impossible for an outsider to tell which is which. I could, for instance, feel the impact of purposeful incompetence in the conversation I had with an Iraqi architect who worked in Falluja. Having experienced the frustration of dealing with the bureaucrats inside the Green Zone and the corrupt Iraqis who increasingly surround them, he explained to me that"no honest Iraqi contractor will touch the CPA." In the early months of the occupation, he had tried to offer his help to the CPA, but despite a public pretense of accountability -- of giving all comers a chance to profit from the rebuilding of the country -- his bids, though lower than those of foreign bidders, were either ignored or someone would show up weeks later offering to help him" cement a deal" only after thousands of dollars passed under the table.
The officials of the CPA, however, were never intent on"rebuilding" Iraq in the normal sense -- not with Iraqis anyway. What they were intent on was cracking what was left of the Iraqi economy open and handing its spoils to crony capitalists and giant corporate entities allied to them. And this is why we can't simply assume, as one recent newspaper article put it, that the hemorrhaging of billions of dollars in Iraq is"yet more proof of the administration's inadequate preparation for the war, and its failure to fathom what awaited it in Iraq." Such a view misunderstands why, for example, Pentagon Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and other senior administration officials dismissed pre-war warnings that the civil rebuilding of Iraq would cost between $60 billion and $150 billion. They certainly didn't do so because they thought it could be done cheaper.
In fact the $100 billion-plus the U.S. is slated to spend by the end of next year on infrastructure and civilian expenses -- we can only guess how much of that will go directly and indirectly to Halliburton and Bechtel and not to Iraqis -- along with the fraud, bribery, theft and waste that are literally written into budgets under the heading of"special clauses," when combined with the $250 billion in military-related costs (all those depleted uranium bullets and high-tech napalm aren't cheap) plunked down for the invasion and military occupation, together constitute a major reason why we went to war in the first place. Looked at from a certain perspective, all of this falls under the category of planned or sponsored chaos.
Just consider the profits of the major arms, energy, and heavy engineering companies today versus three years ago. Some have more than doubled their profits, as has their share of the total profits of the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones companies; and no one with a car today can remain oblivious to the relationship between Middle Eastern chaos and higher oil prices, which naturally mean higher profits for the major oil companies. Of course, officials like Wolfowitz weren't going to tell the American people what Iraq was really going to cost them, at least not beforehand. But it's hard to imagine Cheney and his friends in the military-petroindustrial complex didn't know better, especially when it's a given that reconstruction contracts handed out to companies like Halliburton have profits built into them regardless of cost over-runs.
I should admit that one of my travel companions who knows Washington doesn't agree with level of importance I've given to sponsored chaos. For her, more than profits and chaos, Cheney and Co. are about"about projecting US dominance. It's all geostrategy." But since when have imperial dominance and imperial profits been separable? And it's just too hard to stick with a simple explanation of"incompetence" when it comes to Iraq. As she admits,"Maybe incompetent is the wrong word. Ideological is more like it."
Even then, you haven't quite captured the strange combination of planned and actual incompetence that is now Iraq. As I flew out of Baghdad, I struck up a conversation with a woman who works for USAID"reforming" Iraqi hospitals. I was a bit emotional leaving the country in such a state of visible disintegration, so I leaned into her immediately with questions about why hospitals which I had visited still have almost no supplies of drugs or equipment, and aren't even allowed to send mortality reports or other negative statistics -- of which there are now reams -- to the"health" ministry. Taken aback, she replied that the doctors I had interviewed simply"don't know what they're talking about. We're trying to decentralize the system and make it more efficient." I felt a twinge of guilt for being so argumentative; perhaps we just weren't talking about the same hospitals. So I asked her if she'd ever visited an Iraqi hospital. Visibly surprised that I would even ask such a question, she answered with a simple,"No."
It was clear that she basically spent her days ensconced in an office in the Green Zone, totally cut off from the chaos she had a small hand in creating, pushing paper, transferring millions of dollars here and there, and undoubtedly writing reports about how"efficient" U.S. reforms are and how Iraqis are being readied to reassume control of one of the most underfunded ministries in the Government. Since most Americans of the civilian part of the occupation rarely mix with or spend significant amounts of time with Iraqis outside their security bubble, they, like her, have little idea of the realities on the ground. This is, in fact, almost a necessary qualification for the planning they're engaged in. Otherwise, they would have to quit their jobs or do them very differently. This is how chaos and privatization thrive on ignorance -- but an ignorance structurally and purposefully set up and embedded in the landscape. Maybe my companion on that plane thought she was doing a good job. Who knows? Who cares? Either way, ignorance, chaos, privatization, planning, and various kinds of sponsored chaos seem to be in perfect synergy in Iraq.
And this is why I suspect that the very categories within which most of us outside the world of this administration and its corporate allies think may not even provide us with the language necessary to describe accurately what's actually taking place. In some sense, the chaos-managers in the Pentagon and their corporate cousins know well enough what they're doing in Iraq and what impact their version of sponsored chaos is having. A society so brutalized by twenty years of Saddam Hussein and constant war, oppression, and corruption, one where even seventy year-old Ayatollahs want their picture taken with Kalashnikovs, all play into the hands of the occupation profiteers. Because of this situation, as my friend Ali explained,"The idea of building a coherent positive resistance cannot fit for the Iraqi mentality. They can easily be driven to any fight and will hand the mess over to the Americans by giving them an excuse to stay here. The Iraqi intellectuals are doing nothing: they are more worried about their chairs [that is, their possessions and social position] than the country or the people."
We can perhaps be a bit more charitable, as the very Iraqis who have the training, skills and desire to rebuild their country -- the engineers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals -- are, like the architect I talked with, either ignored by the CPA's contractors in favor of more corrupt colleagues, or themselves targets of assassination just by virtue of the fact they might be imagined as cooperating with the Americans. Either way, with local intellectuals in hiding or dead, and international activists now leaving, it's no surprise that Iraqis feel very much alone and have little in the way of a positive, forward-thinking leadership. What, after all, does it say about the prospects for Iraq when Ayatollah Sistani, the"most important figure in the country," hasn't left his house in a decade?
Break it, Buy it, Fix it?
By now many people have heard that before the U.S. invasion, according to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, Secretary of State Powell informed President Bush about his"Pottery Barn" theory of international politics --"you break it, you own it." Of course, breaking something is the easy part; and if the goal of at least part of the US establishment (at least in the short-term) is indeed chaos, then"owning" Iraq does not necessarily mean that our political and corporate elites feel compelled to fix it, however much they insist it's their heartfelt dream. They might, in the end, prefer that it be left broken -- possibly into three pieces -- an impotent and wrecked country.
From this perspective, the Iraqi situation is hardly unique. In the bardok of Kazakhstan and the rest of the former USSR, for instance, the Western-promoted"shock therapy" of the early 1990s impoverished whole populations but successfully brought their resources (oil, gold, forest products, labor, intellectual capital) onto the global market in a major way. And just as in Russia, sexual exploitation as both imagery and reality is not far from the surface of the growing chaos in Iraq. During the last year increasing numbers of Iranians have been bringing in women and setting up bordellos in parts of the country so that Shi'i Iraqi men could obtain"temporary marriages" in order to have sex with what are clearly prostitutes (a practice, while sanctioned in Shi'i Islam and widespread in Iran, that was frowned upon in Iraq before the occupation).
Whoever is responsible, in the casino of post-occupation Iraq, bardok, it seems, is thriving in every way possible. It will take a lot of money, blood, and good will to change this dynamic any time soon. In the meantime, chaos by its nature is never anybody's assured property. As the Bush administration is learning even now, the operative phrase is: Be careful what you wish for.
Murray Polner, author of No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran, in Newsday (March 16, 2004):
As we approach the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and the coming spring nationwide demonstrations, not to mention the coming Republican convention in New York City, there is growing apprehension among civil libertarians and ordinary Americans that the FBI is once again dredging up its infamous J. Edgar Hoover legacy of spying on political dissenters who are exercising their constitutional rights.
Last October the FBI notified local police agencies to keep close tabs on people and groups opposed to the war and occupation of Iraq. Since it is obvious that the Bush administration loves playing the 9/11 card for political purposes, it is no surprise that efforts are being made to squelch as much domestic dissension as it can.
We've been through this wave of repression before in the 20th century with calamitous results, when government snoopers developed a vast spying apparatus during the '20s, McCarthyite '50s, and the '60s, '70s and '80s against nonviolent dissenters who dared challenge the wisdom of U.S. foreign policies. And though the FBI (and others in the government) deny they are hindering free speech or assembly - declaring that they are only concerned with deterring potential criminals and terrorists - their October memorandum nevertheless asked some 17,000 local and state police agencies to keep a very close eye on anti-war demonstrations and report allegedly suspicious activity to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The risk now is that the"war against terrorism" has given policing agents on all levels greater latitude to play ideological sentry. In Chicago, for example, the Sun-Times reported in February that undercover cops have been spying on different groups, including the American Friends Service Committee. Political espionage has occurred in Denver, Colorado Springs, Austin, Fresno, Atlanta and probably many other places.
In New York City in February 2003, tens of thousands of anti-war marchers were forced into holding pens, assaulted with pepper sprays and many of the arrested compelled by the police to reveal their political leanings and histories of earlier protests. And in Hernando County, Fla., peaceful anti-war pickets carrying signs were put under surveillance and their personal lives investigated, which led the St. Petersburg Times to properly characterize the police response as"intolerance for political dissent."
Take Jeanne Pahls, a fourth- grade teacher in Albuquerque, N.M., one of the founders of a local anti-war group, Stop the War Machine . In March 2003, before the invasion, members of the group organized a demonstration. When they noticed a white pickup cab being used to videotape the affair, she complained to the police and was told by a detective that it belonged to its criminal investigations unit.
Herb Keinon, in the Jerusalem Post (March 18, 2004):
Fifteen years after his controversial end-of-history thesis celebrated liberalism's victory over communism, political thinker Francis Fukuyama probes terror's challenge to the world.
Many and varied are the critics of US policy in Iraq - both of Washington's decision to go to war, and the way the US has handled matters since "victory" was declared.
What makes Francis Fukuyama's criticism of the US policy different - a policy heavily influenced in the Pentagon and White House by such neo-conservatives as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Lewis Libby, John Bolton and Elliott Abrams - is that Fukuyama is a fellow "neocon." Punch Fukuyama's name into Google on the Web, and you will find him variously described as "the vanguard of the neoconservative intellectuals," the "neoconservative philosopher," the "neoconservative superstar" a "neoconservative big-wig" and the "neoconservative guru."
Fukuyama made an enormous splash as the Iron Curtain was tottering in the summer of 1989 when he published a highly influential 15-page article entitled "The End of History?" in the neoconservative journal, The National Interest. He wrote the article while he was a deputy director of the US State Department's Policy Planning staff....
"One reason I was skeptical of the entire Iraq project," Fukuyama said this week in conversation with The Jerusalem Post, "is that if you look at the record of American nation building, it doesn't give you a lot of confidence that you would be able to negotiate this thing all that well."
Presently a professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University whose newest book entitled State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century is due out shortly, Fukayama was in Israel this week delivering a number of lectures on the 15th anniversary of the publication of his seminal article.
Fukuyama said that of the US's 18 efforts at nation building, starting with the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, only three were unqualified successes - Japan, Germany and South Korea.
And in each of the successful cases, the US kept troops in those countries for two generations.
"If you look at other cases where American forces got out in five years or less, there is not a single instance - most of which were in Latin America and the Caribbean - where you left behind anything that could be described as a self-sufficient state."
In other words, Fukuyama said, if America is to succeed in Iraq, it is going to have to stay there for 15 to 20 years, or somehow get the international community involved in order to give the US presence there greater legitimacy.
Legitimacy, which he defined neatly as the "perceived justice of a set of arrangements," will be necessary for the project to work. The Bush administration realized the importance of legitimacy, and is trying to create it by putting an Iraqi face on the occupation.
The problem, he believes, is that in the rush to do this, the US is setting up wildly optimistic deadlines for the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis when the conditions are not yet fully ripe. This, he believes, is a recipe for failure.
One of the big questions looming over Iraq is whether the American public has the stomach for a long, drawn out, expensive presence, and whether regional or domestic Iraqi politics will allow for such a protracted occupation.
"I think the probability of both of these is kind of low," Fukuyama said, "which is the calculation that made me not so enthusiastic in the first place." Regarding the question of whether the US public will be willing to "slug it out" in Iraq, Fukuyama said this is a long-term problem, not an immediate one....
Rumsfeld, Fukuyama asserted, is "in no way, shape or form a neo-conservative." Indeed, Fukuyama said, Rumsfeld was behind the Bush campaign policy in 2000 against active military intervention and nation building - ideas turned on their head by September 11. Rumsfeld, Fukuyama asserted, was interested in deposing Saddam quickly, and moving out quickly. As a result, he did not work with the State Department or US allies to develop an effective nation-building strategy....
Is the emergence of Islamic radicalism not a threat to Western liberal democracies, much as communism and fascism once were?
"Looked at broadly, the struggle is actually not a clash of civilizations," Fukuyama said. "The threat represented by radical Islam, although very serious as a short-term threat, is not of the scope we faced during the Cold War."
The most menacing aspect of Marxism-Leninism was not that it was embodied in powerful states with nuclear weapons and huge armies, Fukuyama said, but that it was an idea that was "in some way appealing to people in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Paris, France.
Radical Islam does not appeal to anyone who is not Muslim to begin with; it is not making a lot of converts in Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow or places like that." Even within the Muslim world, Fukuyama said, it is not a reflection of Islam per se, but a radical movement that borrows a lot from Western modernity.
Tom Engelhardt, in www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute (April 11, 2004):
Does anyone recall the arguments of worried critics of the impending invasion of Iraq early last spring? There was a fear – not realized (until this week) of block by block urban warfare in the streets of Baghdad. Iraq's capital was to be an enormous trap Saddam Hussein had readied to spring on American troops. Casualties would be high; fighting would be bitter. It would be an urban "quagmire."
Of course, no such thing happened. As the Americans approached, much of Saddam's army, including elite units of the Republican Guard, possibly responding to promises that soldiers and officers alike would be respected and used in a new Iraq, simply evaporated. After a bloody firefight, the capital was "liberated"; the dictator disappeared; and Donald Rumsfeld back in the Pentagon was left chortling about the stupidity and timidity of his critics.
Now, on the year anniversary of that moment, the Marines find themselves fighting block by block through the streets of Fallujah; parts of Baghdad are up in arms; and cities in the south of the country are in the chaotic hands of the Mahdi Army and its supporters. One year later, that is, our troops in Iraq are living out the nightmares of the war critics -- and Saddam Hussein can't even be blamed, nor can the usual outside agitators (whether al-Qaedan or Iranian). In this case, the Bush administration can largely blame itself.
The Greeks would have known what to call this result of overweening pride and arrogance -- hubris -- though our War President doesn't quite qualify as a tragic figure. Certainly, our neocon viceroy in Baghdad L. Paul Bremer had barely landed before, with the certainty that's a Bush administration trait, he disbanded the Iraqi military, putting maybe 400,000 men, mostly still armed, on the street with no jobs, nothing to do, and families or themselves to feed. But Father knew best. It was our military in its permanent bases which was to ensure Iraq's "safety" for an indefinitely prolonged future.
As the Toronto Sun's Eric Margolis comments in his latest column, Bush's Boy Blunder:
"Any junior imperialist knows the first thing you do when you conquer someone's country is to buy the loyalty of its existing armed forces, government and police. Otherwise you will have armies of angry, unemployed potential rebels roaming the streets -- Iraq today being Exhibit A."
Indeed, but the neocons of this administration didn't think of themselves as junior anythings. They thought of themselves as global dominators. They were confirmed in the belief that they could do anything by the speed with which their dreams seemed to come to life last April and the evident impotence of the rest of the world to stop them.
From the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War, they had taken only one lesson: That, as the last Great Power standing at what seemed like the end of hundreds of years of multi-power struggles, of history itself, and with a lead in the technology of applied deadly force that left the military budgets of any conceivable alliance of powers in the dust, they were free to do their damnedest. This was what they meant by freedom -- ours to impose our will on them (name and location to be supplied later). They also came to believe that, for the globe's only hyperpower, military power or the threat of it was the same as power itself; that only a kind of weakness, an imperial wimpiness in the years of Bush I and Clinton I and II, had prevented our ultimate success. Just to be sure, they picked out the weakest looking of their conceivable enemies – Iraq (not Iran or North Korea) -- and whacked it good. And won in no time at all. Mission accomplished.
Only this sort of thinking could explain the blunt openness with which they acted to secure an Iraq to their liking -- a country disarmed, helpless, run by men chosen by them (this was called "democracy"), economically privatized, and opened utterly to a set of corporate entities known to support them back in Washington. (Has anybody noticed, by the way, that no significant "reconstruction" contracts have been doled out even to our closest allies, only subcontracting crumbs; that the greatest "export" of the British – who turn out to be our Gurkhas – to Iraq seems to be mercenaries for hire?)
A year later, all this has, of course, turned nightmarish for them. A year later, whether they like it or not, care to acknowledge it or not, are in denial about it or not, they will have to come to grips somehow with what Martin Wollacott of the Guardian calls "the essential meagerness of the military instrument." (Now it is America that desperately needs rescuing) And it seems they will have to do so in the streets of Iraq.
If you want to check out the train of ham-handed mistakes that led to this moment, read the latest from Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, U.S. Targeted Fiery Cleric In Risky Move. And here's how Robert Fisk of the Independent sizes up the present "military" situation (The War's One Simple Truth):
"So the marines smashed their way into Fallujah, killing more than 200 Iraqis, including women and children, while using tanks fire and helicopter gunships against gunmen in the Baghdad slums of Sadr City. It took a day or two to understand what new self-delusion had taken over the US military command. They were not facing a country-wide insurgency. They were liberating the Iraqis all over again! So, of course, this will mean a few more ‘major military operations'. Sadr goes on the wanted list for a murder after an arrest warrant that no one told us about when it was mysteriously issued months ago--supposedly by an Iraqi judge--and General Mark Kimmitt, General Sanchez's number two, told us confidently that Sadr's militia will be ‘destroyed'…
"And with each new collapse, we are told of new hope. Yesterday, General Sanchez was still talking about his ‘total confidence' in his troops who were ‘clear in their purpose,' how they were making ‘progress' in Fallujah and how--these are his actual words, ‘a new dawn is approaching.'
"Which is exactly what US commanders were saying exactly a year ago today--when US troops drove into the Iraqi capital and when Washington boasted of victory against the Beast of Baghdad."
And here's what Juan Cole, whose Informed Comment website is simply a must at the moment, sums up our stated decision to take in or take out the young radical Islamist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces ):
"Al-Hayat reports that US Viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, rejects such negotiations [between Muqtada and members of the Governing Council], saying that Muqtada faces three possibilities: He can surrender, he can be arrested by US troops, or he can be killed resisting that arrest. I'd just suggest to Jerry that he be careful what he wishes for. Muqtada's family has been standing up to that kind of bullying talk for decades, when it issued from the Baath, and they are not the surrendering kind. If the US arrests Muqtada, it can only do so by desecrating among the most sacred shrines in Islam. If you want to see waves of attacks on American interests from Beirut to Tehran and from Kabul to Manama, just go ahead. And once the US has Muqtada, that will simply provoke daily demonstrations in all the southern cities demanding his release. If the US kills Muqtada, his followers will likely go underground and wage a long-term guerrilla war against the US, of the sort Mr. Bremer has failed to put down in the Sunni Arab areas after a year of trying. My advice to him (not that he is good at taking advice) is, if [Council member Nadeer] Chaderji can get him a deal, to take it. Bremer will be back in Washington on July 1, but the Iraqis and the US troops and all the rest of us will have to live with the results of his failed policies and his arrogant obstinacy for the next decade."
And here's a question nobody's bothering to ask: What exactly happens once we take Fallujah, or Kut, or Najaf, or Karbala? Excuse my Vietnam analogies, but won't these just be another set of Hamburger Hills? We don't really have enough troops to garrison the country, so if we stay in Fallujah, there will simply be another place we can't be. If we leave, on the other hand, what we leave behind is not a city, but a thoroughly inflamed, resistant, and ever more embittered and oppositional populace. Like the Hamburger Hills of Vietnam, we don't actually want Fallujah, or Kut, or Kufa, or for that matter the holy city of Najaf. There's nothing there of value to us. What we want is to stop a mindset for which tanks, gunships, and Apache helicopters are blunt instruments indeed. This is the nature of -– dare I name the obvious -- national liberation struggles once they begin against occupiers in our resistant world.
Under the pressure of recent events, as has been true over and over since 9/11, journalists, analysts and pundits are reaching for historical analogies that might help us grasp or even domesticate the rush of events. Certainly, the dominant one here in the last week has been the Vietnam War (pro or con). It's an experience lodged deep in the American brain and so it's not hard to think of those urban areas of Iraq as the "jungles" of Indochina or even of the desert as a "quagmire." Our Secretary of State Colin Powell, for instance, appeared this week to state definitively that Iraq ''is not a swamp that is going to devour us.'' Okay, so he couldn't bring himself to say "quagmire." The point was made. Perhaps the most on-the-mark Vietnam analogy was made by Marilyn Young, historian of our Vietnam wars, who, even before Baghdad was taken, spoke of the developing Iraq experience as "Vietnam on crack cocaine".
Among the more intriguing comparisons this week, though, were several to France's Algerian experience and Israel's Lebanese experience. James Bennet, possibly the best of the New York Times Middle Eastern reporters (and a vivid writer), had a piece on the Lebanon analogy, The Parallels of Wars Past, in which he wrote in part:
"At a grander level, a level of global strategy and even myth-making, Iraq has echoes of Vietnam, which was presented by the White House as a test of American resolve against a rising international menace, Communism. But in terms of specific, stated objectives for the application of military force, Iraq looks more like [Israel's] Lebanon.
"In Vietnam the Americans had a clear if shaky client, the South Vietnamese government, and an enemy, North Vietnam, with a strong political structure. In Lebanon the Israelis, like the Americans in Iraq, plunged into a vacuum -- or more precisely into a maelstrom of political and religious rivalries."
And, of course, Israel's man in Lebanon in the early 1980s was none other than Ariel Sharon, whose recent actions in the occupied territories have been carefully studied and imitated by the Bush administration. The most striking formulation of this I've seen was in a column by Gideon Samet in the Israeli paper Ha'aretz. (The Sharonizing of America):
"If anyone took the time to interest himself in the troubles of others, he encountered an ironic spectacle: the Americans have supplanted us in the headlines. Their air force carried out targeted assassinations, letting the chips of civilian casualties fly where they may as they lop off the arm of terror. In a confusion of historic images, the Iraqi quagmire was dipped into the Lebanese quicksand with a touch of Vietnam jungle… [T]he peak of the coordination between [Israel and the United States] is the current situation, in which for the last few years we have been witnessing a kind of Israelization -- or Sharonization -- of America: in its attitude toward the threats of terrorism, America is talking and behaving in Iraq like the last of the hawks on the Israeli General Staff. Instead of giving Jerusalem an example of political daring, Washington has become a huge version of the Israeli army's ‘we'll show them' approach. Sharon's visit there next week will look almost like the hosting of the aged mentor by his slightly maladroit disciple."
And in the coming weeks as we launch our "offensive" to retake urban Iraq, we're bound to see more of the same.
Let me now offer my own homely analogy, quite divorced from history. Imagine the present situation as a kind of home-gardening experiment on a colossal scale. The Bush administration planted the seeds and in Iraq the crop has just come up. Yes, we went in talking about "liberation" and "democracy," but our acts were those of dominators, and the men who undertook them from Bush and Cheney to Rumsfeld and Bremer were extremists determined to bend Iraqis and then the larger world to their will. Not surprisingly, they planted mutant seeds and got, I'm sorry to say, the crops they deserved. Iraq is now Bush's garden, filled with terror and insurrection, kidnapping, insecurity, and extreme acts and oppressive thoughts of every sort. Our gardeners are about to reenter those lands and harvest the weed-infested soil using instruments of deadly destruction. We already know the long-term results. It might have been different....
From CJAD (Feb. 22, 2004):
Historian Jack Granatstein spreads the blame widely in answering the title question of his new book: Who Killed the Canadian Military?
Two generations of politicians and a complacent electorate have left the Canadian Forces a decrepit, dispirited group and it will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild them, Granatstein writes. His slim, 245-page, self-described polemic, lays out an indictment of years of neglect and misunderstanding.
Unlike many critics, who tend to focus much of the blame for military decay on Pierre Trudeau and his successors as prime minister, Granatstein, as a historian might be expected to do, reaches much farther back. He goes all the way to John Diefenbaker and then castigates each successive prime minister.
"We're dealing with a succession of catastrophes here, beginning in about 1960 and rolling through to the present," he said in an interview.
"The point of my book is to say you get what you pay for," he said. "The real problem is the political leaders . . . and the real problem is the people of Canada keep electing those bozos to office.
"If we want a real military we have to elect governments that will give it to us."
Granatstein, a retired historian, author of more than 60 books, former head of the Canadian War Museum and a one-time military officer, says politicians have succeeded in bamboozling Canadians about peacekeeping.
Canadians love blue-beret peacekeeping, he writes, but fail to recognize that traditional UN peacekeeping has been transformed into dangerous peacemaking in places such as Afghanistan.
"Canadians do not realize that the major reason the Canadian Forces have proven themselves capable of peacekeeping is that the nation trains its men and women for war."
He also says many Canadians have fooled themselves into thinking that a reputation as a tolerant, generous, even-handed country will protect them in a dangerous world. It won't.
The book runs through a list of prime ministers, from Diefenbaker to Jean Chretien, assigning each a share of the blame for allowing the military to decay with dwindling budgets and falling manpower levels.
He admits that under Trudeau, the Forces got new tanks, warships and fighter-bomber aircraft. But in general, he said, things got worse.
"The overall decline in equipment under Trudeau was catastrophic. The budgets sagged. Yes, there were big programs, but everything else rotted away."
The era of Brian Mulroney brought new hope to the military, but those hopes were dashed because the prime minister talked better than he acted.
"Mulroney sounded as if he would have done a lot better and the sense of betrayal was that much sharper."
Tom Engelhardt, in the www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute (Feb. 20, 2004):
Let's remember, when we do our historical multiplication tables, that everything happening now began somewhere, some time. Take the construction and engineering company Kellogg, Brown & Root, now serving (and feeding) our troops in Iraq in so many overpriced ways . It was founded as Brown & Root in Texas in 1919; sponsored the political career of, and was then sponsored in its search for government contracts by Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson; after being swallowed up by Halliburton, a burgeoning oil-services firm, in 1962, it followed vice president, then president LBJ into Vietnam where it was deeply involved in constructing"infrastructure" - bases and the like - for the U.S. military. As Jane Mayer reminds us in her recent New Yorker article on Halliburton and its former CEO, our present vice president, in those rebellious and sardonic days Brown & Root was known to many American soldiers by the familiar nickname,"Burn and Loot."
And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut might say. And so it continues to go, as KBR, still part of Halliburton, supports the American effort in Iraq to the tune of multi-billions in support of another vice president with an even closer relationship to the company. What pet names our soldiers in Iraq have bestowed on KBR this time around I don't know, nor do I know who built the"infrastructure" for our first great offshore imperial venture, our annexation and conquest of the Philippines over a century ago, though Filipino columnist Renato Redentor Constantino might well.
The war in Vietnam we're re-imagining and arguing over in this presidential season is but a pale shadow of the grisly event itself, and our no less grisly military years in the Philippines, which paved the way for Vietnam, are long gone from American memory, though, as Constantino wants to remind us below, they shouldn't be.
And yet it would be incorrect to say that no one remembers this ancient history. Perhaps it's just that the wrong people remember it the wrong way. Take the following recent remarks by former general and would-be viceroy of Iraq Jay Garner , who was quickly replaced by L. Paul Bremer in the early days of our Iraqi debacle:
"'I think one of the most important things we can do right now is start getting basing rights' in both northern and southern Iraq, Garner said, adding that such bases could provide large areas for military training. 'I think we'd want to keep at least a brigade in the north, a self-sustaining brigade, which is larger than a regular brigade,' he added.
"Noting how establishing U.S. naval bases in the Philippines in the early 1900s allowed the United States to maintain a 'great presence in the Pacific,' Garner said, 'To me that's what Iraq is for the next few decades. We ought to have something there ... that gives us great presence in the Middle East. I think that's going to be necessary.'"
Back in the years between the conquest of the Philippines and the war in Vietnam, the Pacific was sometimes spoken of here as"America's lake" and in the World War II years there was even a tin-pan alley tune with the pop title,"To be specific, it's our Pacific." Somehow,"America's desert" doesn't have quite the same ring to it, and I don't think the title,"To be specific, they're our oil reserves" would fly.
David Brooks, in the NYT (Feb. 17, 2004):
Between 1940 and 1968, the American people trusted the Democratic Party in times of war. But Vietnam shattered that trust. So if we're going to talk about Vietnam during this campaign, as I guess we are, let's not talk about how many days George Bush served in the National Guard, or how many rows John Kerry sat from Jane Fonda at a protest rally. Let's talk about the meaning of the Vietnam War, and what lessons each party has drawn from that disaster.
The Democrats Americans trusted, from Harry Truman to John Kennedy, lived in the shadow of World War II. They'd learned the lessons of Munich and appeasement. They saw America engaged in a titanic struggle against tyranny and believed in using military means for idealistic ends. They also had immense confidence in themselves and in their ability to use power to spread freedom.
Their confidence took them into Vietnam and into the quagmire. There were two conflicting lessons that could be drawn from that experience. Scoop Jackson Democrats saw Vietnam as a bungled battle in what was nonetheless a noble anti-Communist war. Most of these people ended up as Republicans.
But most Democrats and John Kerry was very much a part of this group saw Vietnam as a refutation of the cold war mentality. These liberals saw the bungling and the lies as symptoms of a deep sickness in the military-industrial complex. So we got movies like "Dr. Strangelove" and "M*A*S*H," which treated military life as insane.
These Democrats saw Vietnam as an indictment of a Manichaean good vs. evil worldview, of an overweening arrogance that led hawks into parts of the world they didn't understand. Most of all, they saw it as an indictment of American nationalism, the belief that America was culturally superior and should venture around the globe defeating tyranny.
Hence Democratic foreign policy in the 1970's was isolationist at worst, modest at best. Democrats eschewed flag-waving and moralistic language about the Soviets. Jimmy Carter talked about root causes like hunger and poverty. For many liberals, as Charles Krauthammer recently said, "cold warrior" was an epithet.
These liberals were horrified when a group of former Democrats, led by Ronald Reagan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, led a hawk resurgence. The Reaganites believed in American exceptionalism, saw themselves as the heirs to Truman and Kennedy, and sought to confront and defeat the evil empire. The Democratic establishment again, with Kerry playing a crucial role recoiled from such language, and opposed the Reagan arms buildup.
Most Americans decided that Reagan was right about the world, and that the Democrats were naïve.
But the end of the cold war put an end to that debate. And as the Balkans crisis deepened, the Democrats shifted. Suddenly Democrats were boldly committing troops around the globe, without even bothering to ask the U.N. The Vietnam syndrome seemed to be over. Democrats seemed set to re-emerge as a confident, tough-minded and hawkish party, ready to use force and reassert America's exceptional world role.
Now, in the midst of the war against Islamic totalitarianism, the crucial question is this: Is the Democratic Party truly set to reclaim the legacy of Truman and Kennedy, or is it still living in the shadow of Vietnam?
Grant biographer Jean Edward Smith, in the NYT (Feb. 13, 2004):
In pulling out of the Democratic presidential race, Gen. Wesley Clark ended what was once a promising quest to join the long line of men who converted battlefield prominence into political victory. The military is one of the traditional springboards to the White House: 12 former generals have been president, six of them career military men (only lawyers have done better). Yet no general has ascended to the Oval Office for half a century.
So is the demise of the Clark campaign another sign that in the urban, affluent, white-collar America of today the armed forces no longer hold enough respect to sell their best and brightest to the electorate? Probably not. Wesley Clark was never an heir to the tradition of Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant. Rather, his military career and personality fit neatly into a different military category: generals who became political also-rans.
First, consider the qualities of the six career generals who won the White House. They were national icons swept into office on a tide of popular enthusiasm. George Washington was a unanimous choice of the Electoral College. Andrew Jackson, victor at New Orleans, led the crusade for democratic reform. William Henry Harrison won enduring fame at the Battle of Tippecanoe, as did Zachary Taylor at Buena Vista. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower led citizen armies to victory in the two greatest wars the nation has faced. In each case, the office sought the man, not vice versa.
Yet, surprisingly, these men shared a gift for managing men quietly. Their warm personalities cast a glow over their subordinates. They took their jobs seriously, but not themselves. Eisenhower, Taylor and Grant were ordinary men who did extraordinary jobs. They commanded unobtrusively, did not posture for the press or pronounce on matters of public policy. All were highly intelligent but resisted putting their intelligence on display. Their military dispatches were crisply written in unadorned English. And if given orders they disagreed with, they complied without complaint.
Taylor,"Old Rough and Ready," rarely wore a uniform. Grant was most at ease in the blouse of a private soldier. The Ike jacket of World War II was designed for comfort, not ceremony. All three identified with the citizen-soldiers they led, and each was adored by the armies they commanded. They worked easily with their superiors and their skill at human relations transferred readily from war to politics.
By contrast, famous generals who lost the presidency — including Winfield Scott, John C. Frémont, George McClellan, Winfield Scott Hancock, Leonard Wood and Douglas MacArthur — ran to prove themselves right. All had clashed with their civilian superiors, and their campaigns imploded for the same reasons that led to those clashes: assertions of intellectual superiority, moral certitude and the lack of a common touch. They were men who made a point of standing apart. They possessed messianic confidence in the correctness of every position they adopted, and had difficulty adjusting to views contrary to their own. To put it simply: they took themselves very seriously.
Temperament tells the difference. The also-rans were singular achievers. MacArthur finished first in his class at West Point, McClellan second. MacArthur and Leonard Wood won the Medal of Honor. Frémont mapped the Oregon Trail. Scott, a major general at 27, was the Army's general in chief for two decades. (Only Hancock seems in temperament more like those who won the presidency — thus it is not surprising that he came closest to getting the job, losing to James A. Garfield by 7,000 votes in 1880.)
Each of the also-rans shared the distinction of having been relieved of his command or placed on the shelf by higher authority. Winfield Scott, after capturing Mexico City and subduing the Mexican army, was summarily relieved by President James Polk in 1848; he suffered a crushing electoral defeat at the hands of Franklin Pierce four years later. Frémont was not only relieved of his command, but court-martialed and convicted for insubordination and mutiny in 1848 (Polk granted him clemency). He became the Republican nominee for president in 1856, losing to James Buchanan.
Juan Cole, writing on his blog (Feb. 2, 2004):
Matthew Yglesias, a philosopher who runs a very interesting web site , cited my piece on 2/2/04 about Muqtada al-Sadr's objecting vehemently (and, characteristically, vulgarly) to Iraq selling electricity to Israel. Matt then quoted my last sentence "Most Shiite clerics view Israel negatively because of its treatment of the Palestinians, fellow Muslims" and objected to it.
Yglesias asks," How reasonable is that, really ?" And goes on to ask several more questions.
I am going to reply to his points, even though quite frankly I consider it a waste of my time to do so, not because Matt doesn't deserve it (he is bright and thoughtful and dialoguing with him would always be worthwhile) but because the Arab-Israeli stuff is a Black Hole that sucks up time and energy with no obvious positive result, ever. I once compared having anything to do with it to"tangling with the Church of Scientology while living through someone else's nasty divorce." The problem is that everything one says about it is dissected to death until it doesn't mean anything anymore. And, most people in public life have frankly been intimidated into just being quiet about it (including every single sitting member of the US Congress, not one of which ever criticizes any action of the Sharon government (and survives the next election); this is an incredible degree of political intimidation).
We historians mostly do not believe that nations are natural or inevitable or"right." In this we differ from most of our contemporaries, and have done since at least Renan (who rightly remarked that when a historian studies a nation he must first betray it). Nationalists do not like us to question their pieties, especially their essentialism and attempt to justify the nation as always necessary and always right.
Zionist Revisionists, who are the most illiberal arm of Zionist nationalism, are relentless in attempting to impose their rhetorical vision on everyone who speaks about the subject, and if that fails, then to marginalize and demean them as bigots or terrorists or something. When you are in the Middle East, the Arab nationalists are just as annoying and even more ruthless, but the latter have little leverage in the US. In contrast, the heirs of Jabotinsky are ubiquitous and often powerful over here. They are, like all ideologues, intellectually dishonest. (One typical ploy is to insist that one cannot criticize Israel without also criticizing all 189 other countries in the world, which, of course, would guarantee that the critics didn't end up having much time to criticize Israel. I call this the"189 Case Studies Fallacy." This sort of trick is an obvious logical error. The proposition,"Action A, Committed by Country B against C, contravenes International Law," can be a valid proposition even if one did not repeat it for all other countries for which it is true. And in some respects, in any case, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza is unique in the contemporary world.)
So, on to Matt and the electricity boycott and the reasons for its proposal. If Matt wants to know whether the grounds mentioned are reasonable ones upon which Shiite clerics might object to selling electricity to Israel, he will have to ask them and analyze their arguments. I haven't claimed that it is reasonable, only that it is so.
If he means to say that my statement of causality is not reasonable, then he has to offer another explanation for which most Shiite clerics (both Arabs and Iranians, by the way) support a boycott of Israel.
He asks, "Doesn't it seem that someone concerned primarily with disliking governments that mistreat Muslims would be able to split its outrage more equitably against Israel, to be sure, but also also Russia, against India, against Uzbekistan. "
I'm sorry to say that this is just ignorance on Matt's part. Activist Muslims do speak out against and denounce Russia's treatment of its Muslims in Chechnya, India's its, and Uzbekistan's its."Shuravi" or the Soviet Union was a constant bugabear in the sermons of Shiite clerics throughout the Cold War. Many al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-related fighters cut their teeth in Chechnya and Kashmir. My lord, you barely hear anything from Pakistani Islamists but what a big threat Hindu fundamentalist India is. But Matt's question here is another instance, it seems to me, of the"189 Case Studies Fallacy."
To be fair, I think there is something special about the case of Israel and the Palestinians in the minds of activist Muslims, and that is the question of occupation and settler colonialism. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not citizens of Israel. And yet they have spent most of the period since 1967 under Israeli military rule, their lives shaped by Israeli policy. When the Israeli government plunks down a new settlement in the West Bank and gives it the wherewithal to dig a deep well, it lowers the water level in the aquifer underneath the Palestinian village and causes its wells to go dry, and hurts the agriculture of the pre-existing Palestinian village. When the Israelis criss-cross the West Bank with Israeli-controlled roads that Palestinians cannot cross except at checkpoints, they turn a half-hour journey to a traditional market into an all-day ordeal. They delay women rushing to the hospital to have a baby, sometimes causing tragedies.
Occupation is especially objectionable because it contravenes the basic principle of self-determination.
The United States has conquered Iraq, fair and square. By Israeli logic, the United States would be within its rights to send American colonists in the millions to Basra to settle it. Let's say 1.3 million Americans would kick Iraqis out of their apartments and just move in. Let the Iraqis go to Baghdad. They're all Iraqis, aren't they? Why would it matter where they live in Iraq? The Iraqis invaded Iran and Kuwait and kicked people out of their homes, so surely, an American imperialist could argue, the Iraqis can't complain if now the same thing is done to them. Iraqi terrorists have threatened the US and killed US troops. The US, it would be argued, needs a permanent colony in Iraq to safeguard its interests into the future.
I think virtually everyone in the contemporary world would find such a project morally monstrous. And yet, it is hard for me to see the difference between such a project and what the Likud is doing in the West Bank.
The case of the Muslims in Chechnya is different. They were conquered in the nineteenth century and have been Russian citizens for a long time. Many of them now want independence, but they have what Anthony Smith would call a sub-nationalism, of Russian citizens seeking to form a nation on primordial claims. Kashmiris are also Indian citizens, and polls show that few of them want to be Pakistani citizens. Some want independence. Again, this is a sub-nationalism (analogous to that of the Scots in the UK).
The Palestinians are not Israeli citizens. Few Israelis want to claim them as Israeli citizens. And yet they are under Israeli military control, their lands and resources being expropriated by a foreign power. Theirs is not a subnationalism seeking to escape Israeli nationalism. It is the nationalism of an occupied people seeking self-determination. (Actually about a third of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have given up on Palestinian nationalism ever amounting to anything and say they'd accept Israeli citizenship if offered; of course, it won't be offered. But this is really remarkable, and doesn't sound like people who want to destroy Israel. Perhaps a plurality has met the enemy and decided it might as well be us.)
So, anyway, there is no analogy to the Chechens, the Kashmiris and the Uzbeks.
If you can find me a country in the modern world that is occupying another people to whom it has no intention of granting full citizenship but which it also won't let go, that would be the analogy to Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. I can't think of any such situation. I don't think such a situation has existed since the colonial era. I think it is essentially a racist situation, and that failure to recognize the injustice here causes racist thinking in the West.
After all, if only"some mistreatment" of Palestinians is going on, of an unremarkable nature precisely analogous to other political situations that do not cause such ire, then one can conclude that the Muslims (and it is not just Arabs) are being completely unreasonable.
Maybe they are just nervous, excitable people. (That is how the 19th century French racist imperialists explained the unreasonable revolts in Algeria against enlightened French rule there. The Semites, the French Aryans sagely proclaimed, are just a high strung, irrational race).
Or maybe they are just unreasonable bigots who hate all Jews for no reason, the imperialist could argue. After all, why else would they object to seeing their fellow Muslims expropriated and oppressed?
Any time, in a political argument, one side resorts to essentialism and ontology, you are in the presence of propaganda. Human beings are all exactly the same. They all laugh, smile, and have the same emotions. Their cultures have different rules for the games they play, but the games are all recognizable. How one gets honor differs, the quest for honor does not. An entire people (and let's just be honest and say"race"--even though there is no such thing, most people think in these terms) is not characterized by any essential attribute such as"evil" or"violent" or"fanatical," etc. Individuals and groups within the people can commit deeds that are evil, violent or fanatical. When one departs from the deeds of a specific group into speaking of the vices of a whole race or a people, one is descending to demonization and engaging in pure propaganda.
"This proposal [electricity boycott], for example, like many anti-Israel initiatives from the Arab world, doesn't really seem well-calculated to make Palestinians any better off."
Boycotts of one's political enemies are common in the world, and seldom make anyone better off. The US boycott of Cuba, on behalf of trying to free the people of Cuba from the grip of Communism, definitely does not make the Cuban people better off. I am against most boycotts, and have written against boycotting Israel. But Matt's charge is invidious.
"Certainly the '67 war wasn't a boon to Palestinian well-being or self-determination."
I don't know what this has to do with anything. the 1967 war was not instigated by the Palestinians nor for them. Apparently Nasser was convinced by bad Soviet intelligence that Israel was about to attack Damascus. His best divisions were bogged down in Yemen, so he was in a weak position, and he rattled sabers hard as a bluff. Israeli hardliners like Moshe Dayan were alarmed and felt Israel had no choice but to launch a preemptive strike, calling the bluff. (It was a lot like the recent Iraq war in being something of an intelligence SNAFU on both sides). The Palestinians and their fate were not the issue for any of the major players in that war, and only became so afterwards.
"The recent Saudi peace proposal, to take another example, links the un-occupation of the West Bank, clearly a legitimate human rights concern, to the un-occupation of the Golan Heights, which is a fairly parochial strategic concern of Syria's. If the Saudis were really primarily concerned with helping Palestinians they would make diplomatic recognition dependent on that and that alone. "
What the Saudis proposed was complete and full recognition of and diplomatic relations with Israel by the Arab League and all its members in return for Israeli withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967. This is an unprecedented offer from the Saudi government (and from the Arab League) and should have been greeted with optimism and joy. Because the Sharon government intends to keep so much of the lands Israel took by military force, quite in violation of the UN Charter and international law, Sharon pissed all over the Saudi offer. Sharon thereby guaranteed continued political tension in the Middle East, tension that produces terrorism that may well come over here and bite Americans in the ass.
And, this situation is then blamed by Fox Cable News on . . . Saudi Arabia!
(By the way, the Saudis are in the majority Wahhabis and have a low opinion of Shiites and their clerics, so we are by now very far afield from Muqtada al-Sadr.)
"More broadly, they (and other local states) might even want to consider (as might the US vis-a-vis a number of countries) that a policy of engagement might serve that end better than a policy of de jure war by eliminating concern among moderate Israelis that a Palestinians state is merely a stalking horse for the goal of destroying Israel a goal that, one would do well to remember, was the avowed policy of the Arab world for most of Israel's existence."
Much of the Arab world has a formal peace treaty with Israel (including Egypt, the largest Arab country and Jordan, Israel's closest neighbor). Turkey, a Muslim country, is a close ally of Israel. The countries with which tension is highest are those where Israel until recently occupied their territory (Lebanon) or still does (Syria, the Palestinian Authority). One could hardly expect them to make peace wholeheartedly while that wound to national pride still stands. Sharon's occupation of Lebanon, by the way, was a naked act of aggression that backfired badly, and contributed to the invention of Hizbullah and of suicide bombings as a tactic.
The countries that have not recognized Israel are typically small and weak and can't do it any real harm, much less destroy it. Israel has several hundred nuclear warheads, an air force that can fly more missions than the US air force in the same period of time, and a well-equipped, highly trained, high-tech army that has repeatedly made mincemeat of its much more numerous foes. This idea that Israel, the big kid on the block, is in danger of being destroyed by a puny little backward country like Syria is frankly weird. The Israelis can have Damascus for lunch any day of the week, every week of the year.
The only political force that has managed to kill an Israeli prime minister (Yitzhak Rabin) in recent years is ultra-Orthodox Israeli extremism. And that is a threat to us all, not in its own right but in the backlashes its policies against the Palestinians create.
David Greenberg, writing in the LAT (Jan. 23, 2004):
Early in Richard M. Nixon's 1968 campaign for president, his speechwriter, Raymond K. Price, was among those charged with a delicate task: Review Nixon's disastrous "last press conference" speech of Nov. 7, 1962, and figure out how to handle it in the upcoming race.
Nixon had delivered that rambling address after losing his bid to unseat Pat Brown as governor of California. Surprising reporters by venturing down from his hotel room the morning after his defeat, Nixon sneered at "all the members of the press [who] are so delighted that I have lost" and chided them for biased coverage. He concluded, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference and it will be one in which I have welcomed the opportunity to test wits with you."
Combined with his failed 1960 presidential bid, the 1962 loss and the emotional speech especially its signature phrase were seen as consigning the former vice president to oblivion. Five nights later, ABC aired a special titled "The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon." But when Price and others screened the dreaded speech years later, they found that it didn't seem so bad.
Nixon's remarks were indeed raw and spontaneous, especially for a man given to controlling his public image tightly. The barbs at the press displayed an unmistakable hostility.
But the candidate neither shouted nor raged. His manner was far more restrained than printed accounts or public memory suggested. He even conceded: "I've given as good as I've taken."
In short, in its many retellings, the "last press conference," though reflective of some real bitterness, was magnified into a debacle more damning than it had to be.
This story comes to mind after watching the Washington punditocracy indulge in a giddy round of derision at Howard Dean's expense. The former Vermont governor and onetime front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination was judged to have lost his moorings during his concession speech following his disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses Monday night.
Like Nixon's press conference, however, Dean's speech has grown increasingly bizarre and more damaging to his campaign in the echo chamber of news media chatter. What began as some people's opinion swelled into the unanimous verdict of the news media. Yet like Nixon, Dean could easily come back and in a matter of weeks, not years.
When I first saw the snippets of Dean's Monday night speech, they struck me as little more than the fiery rallying cry of an exhausted, hoarse campaigner trying to keep disappointment from sapping his troops. His final grunt did sound sort of odd, but juxtaposed against Dean's other comments that night, which were subdued and conciliatory, his overall reaction seemed reasonable.
Within 24 hours, however, a consensus among the news commentators had congealed that Dean had lost it. Cable news replayed the offending speech fragments over and over Tuesday. Pundits tittered and shook their heads over Dean's eruption of "anger" a quality of Dean's they had always overstated and overrated anyway.
Ultimately, television pumped this nonstory so full of life that many newspapers felt obliged to run another round of articles about it Wednesday and even Thursday. Dean was described as a "rabid dog" and "borderline psychotic" by analysts. Soon the conventional-wisdom buzz was not that Dean's third-place showing would doom him but that his grunts and howls would.
In this respect, Dean's experience also recalls that of another presidential aspirant Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie. In the 1972 New Hampshire primary, Muskie, the Democratic front-runner, was facing false and scurrilous attacks in the conservative Manchester Union Leader.
At one campaign stop, Muskie responding emotionally to the paper's publisher, William Loeb appeared to tear up ever so slightly. Television aired the clip and newspapers played it up on the front page creating a story line that a weeping Muskie lacked the fortitude to lead. Although he still won the New Hampshire primary, his rival George McGovern gained the momentum and the good press. After a poor showing in Florida, Muskie dropped out.
Later, some correspondents admitted that they had botched the Muskie story. Even the teardrops they thought they saw, the Washington Post's David Broder wrote, might well have been melting snow. Yet the story had been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite the soul-searching that often follows from a journalistic failure like the Muskie incident, the media rarely learn from their mistakes. Now Dean is paying the price for the self-satisfied cockiness of the Washington elites that he so often decries. What had been a relatively innocuous, if slightly goofy, speech has metamorphosed into a real threat to his prospects, as late-night comedians drill home the image of a deranged Dean. Perhaps the propensity toward hysteria and overheated rhetoric belongs to the media, not to Dean.
In the end, Dean's resilience, or lack of it, will probably determine his fate. In 1972, Muskie ruefully concluded that given his temperament, he wasn't the right man for a polarized America that year. In contrast, within days of his "last press conference," Nixon was plotting his political future.
David Kennedy, writing in the Christian Science Monitor (Jan. 20, 2004):
History is a stern judge, and stingy, too. As Ronald Reagan once observed (quoting Clare Booth Luce), "no matter how exalted or great a man may be, history will have time to give him no more than one sentence. George Washington - he founded our country. Abraham Lincoln - he freed the slaves and preserved the Union . Winston Churchill - he saved Europe ."
What will George W. Bush's single sentence be?
The answer is scarcely obvious. History often shows little respect for the most cherished opinions of contemporaries. Washington , to be sure, was first in the hearts of his countrymen and still sits near the top in most historians' presidential rankings. But Abraham Lincoln, while mocked in his day as an inept rube, and so divisive a figure that his election triggered a civil war, is now all but unanimously acknowledged as the greatest American president. Churchill's colleagues long thought him a dangerously errant dreamer, and British voters in 1945 unceremoniously turfed him out of No.10 Downing Street as a thank-you for winning World War II - but he is today universally regarded as one of the towering world-historical figures of the 20th century.
Examples abound of history's nasty habit of undoing real-time opinions: Herbert Hoover, a famed humanitarian huzzahed into the White House in 1929 as the most competent man of his era, but ever after loathed (not altogether justifiably) as a heartless bungler in the face of the Great Depression; Harry Truman, scorned as a pipsqueak so befuddled that "to err is Truman" became a common taunt, but later elevated to the higher levels of the presidential pantheon as the original architect of America's ultimate victory in the cold war. Such examples warn of the perils of predicting history's final judgments, especially before all the facts are in.
Yet the urge to anticipate history's verdict is nearly irresistible. And the history that President Bush has already made provides some basis for at least a provisional assessment.
Begin with Bush's exceptional life path. How did a fun-loving party animal and amiable but unremarkable governor bulk himself up to become a heavyweight presidential contender? How did a pampered scion of Northeastern citadels of privilege like Andover , Yale, and Harvard successfully repackage himself as an earthy Texas populist? How did such a famously inarticulate man so magnificently find the words to bind up the nation's wounds after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 ? All these wondrous transformations suggest that Bush's biographers may well adopt a story line reminiscent of Shakespeare: the morphing of callow Prince Hal into the legendary monarch, Henry V.
Just as the mutations in Bush's personality will pose a challenge to his biographers, so will transformation be a theme that future historians may well put at the center of their appraisals of his presidency.
Bush ran for office as a conciliator, but has governed as a polarizer. (He even threatens to divide his own house, catering to his conservative base on social issues like abortion and gay marriage while outraging the traditional right with big-spending programs like prescription-drug coverage.) He heads the party traditionally associated with strict fiscal discipline, but (like Ronald Reagan), has persuaded a Republican Congress to pass budgets that hemorrhage red ink.
The history books yet to be written may find a pattern amid those apparent inconsistencies. It is a pattern discoverable in the preceding two centuries of the nation's political experience. Students of history - including Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist and a voracious consumer of history books - have for more than 30 years been expecting a fundamental electoral realignment that would award long-term dominance to the Republican party. The curiously rhythmic cycles of American political history suggest that such a transition is long overdue.
A dawn of Republican ascendancy?
Historians identify four "key" elections that turned on unusually impassioned political confrontations, deeply disrupting and redirecting the political loyalties of large numbers of voters. All four produced seismic shifts in the American political landscape, defining the salient issues for a long generation thereafter: westward expansion, slavery, and abolition following Andrew Jackson's election in 1828; civil war, reconstruction, and rapid industrialization after Abraham Lincoln's in 1860; immigration and economic regulation after William McKinley's in 1896; the welfare state and internationalism after Franklin Roosevelt's in 1932. Intriguingly, each of those political eras had a life span of about 3-1/2 decades.
Those precedents inspired political commentator Kevin Phillips to predict in 1968 that Richard Nixon's election would be the segue to the next, Republican-dominated, phase in this uncannily regular cycle. The uproar of the Watergate scandals aborted that development, the theory goes, permitting the anomalies of the Carter interlude and the Clinton "interregnum."
Mr. Rove and others now believe that the long-thwarted arrival of a durable Republican ascendancy is at last imminent, and that Bush's historic mission is to make it happen.
In that view, dividing the house by exploiting hot-button social issues is a political virtue, not a vice. Deficits, in turn, are simply the necessary cost of securing a permanently reduced tax base and thereby taming the monster of big government. Reagan initiated this strategy, and Bush appears to be perfecting it. History may therefore identify a shrewdly calculated and notably disciplined method in the seeming fiscal recklessness of the Bush domestic agenda.
A transformation of foreign policy
In the realm of foreign policy, extrapolating from historical precedent is more difficult. The world at large is not only bigger and wilder than America , but its history is much less continuous than America 's alone. And while presidents might prefer to concentrate on domestic priorities, it is a truism that international problems will nevertheless unerringly find them. Bill Clinton made "the economy, stupid," the centerpiece of his 1992 campaign, but issues arising in Somalia , Bosnia , Kosovo , North Korea , and the Middle East inevitably found him. On Sept. 11, 2001 , catastrophic terrorism spectacularly found Bush.
That event had no antecedent, but it has already had enormous consequences. Bush's response to the 9/11 attacks has defined his presidency, and will almost surely constitute his core story in the history books.
Transformation is again the dominant motif. His speech to the nation on Sept. 20, 2001 , conferred upon him an aura of legitimacy that had eluded him since his formal inaugural address nine months earlier. And the events of 9/11 also wrought an epiphany that has transfigured the very premises of American foreign policy.
Bush campaigned against the policy of nation-building, but has audaciously committed to rebuilding not one but two notoriously intractable nations, Afghanistan and Iraq . Candidate Bush had called for America to be a "humble nation," but President Bush has become a globally derided emblem of American arrogance.
Most dramatically, he and his closest advisers, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, have undergone the policy equivalent of a born-again religious conversion. Lifelong realists all, habitually wary of open-ended commitments, critical of rhetorically seductive but impractical goals, and openly contemptuous of the role of idealism in foreign policy, they have embraced an agenda so utopian as to make Woodrow Wilson look like a hard-bitten cynic. They seek nothing less than remaking Iraq in the Western image, thereby changing the political equation of the entire Middle East and beyond. The ultimate goal is not simply to make the world safe for democracy, but to make the entire world democratic.
As the 2002 Bush National Security Strategy document puts it: "We must make use of every tool in our arsenal," to promote in "every corner of the world," the "single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise," and to those ends "the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."
To call those goals bold does not do them even minimal justice. The first President Bush often invoked the virtue of prudence. But Bush No. 43 is a plunger. He has placed a huge bet on the political payoff from his social and economic policies, and he is playing for the highest imaginable stakes in the international arena.
So what will be George W. Bush's one sentence in the history books? That he succeeded in rendering big government a timid relic of its former self, in the process consolidating an enduring Republican hegemony? Or that he bankrupted the country in the name of an outmoded laissez-faire ideology, while once again scotching the dream of long-term Republican rule? That he earned the gratitude of people everywhere for putting the entire planet on the path to achieving "freedom, democracy, and free enterprise," or that he committed the fatal sin of hubris and put the United States on the road to enfeeblement and isolation?
Though history is indeed a stern judge, its verdicts are rarely final. Few historical reputations are uncontested, and disagreement about Bush's presidency will persist as long as memory lasts. As Mark Twain once said, it's difference of opinion that makes for a good horse race. Historians understand the sentiment.
Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in the WSJ about the Democratic Party's opportunity to portray itself as strong on national defense if the voters reject Dean's anti-war position (Jan. 21, 2004):
Historically, the Democrats have been America's war party. Bob Dole got into trouble during his 1976 vice presidential campaign when he denounced World War I and World War II, along with Vietnam and Korea, as "Democrat Wars," but most of America's foreign wars began with Democrats in the White House: add the Mexican War, the Cold War and the War of 1812 to the Democrats' count. Republicans, even including the Federalist and Whig predecessors to the GOP, could only claim the Spanish American War and the Gulf War before the War on Terror and George W. Bush.
"Vote for a Republican," people used to say, "and you get a Depression. Vote for a Democrat, and you get a war."
Most of the Democrats' wars were, to use what is becoming a popular phrase today, "wars of choice." The War of 1812 was, strictly speaking, unnecessary; unbeknownst to Congress, Britain had already revoked the Orders in Council before war was declared. In the Mexican War, James Knox Polk sent U.S. forces into disputed territory well before exhausting all diplomatic avenues. More recently, the Vietnamese and Korean conflicts were, if not quite wars of choice, wars whose primary purpose was not to safeguard either the territory or the citizens of the U.S., but its broad strategic interests. U.S. interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were also wars of choice; the United States faced no direct military threat as a result of Serbian madness and misrule. The Cold War was preventative; the Soviet Union did not pose an imminent threat to the U.S. in 1947. Of all the wars of all the Democrats, only the two world wars were clearly wars of necessity -- and some historians argue that a more even handed policy by President Wilson could have kept the U.S. out of World War I as well.
In the 19th century, idealistic and pacifist war critics were found mostly among Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans. Republican Senators like George Norris and William Borah continued the tradition -- as did the Republican Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin who voted against both World War I and World War II. As progressives gradually moved into the Democratic Party through the New Deal period, the Democratic Party became the natural host for America's partisans of protest. Franklin Roosevelt's former Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace led his Progressive Party out of the Democrats to punish Harry Truman for initiating the Cold War. During the Vietnam War, Democratic senators like William Fulbright and Eugene McCarthy led the opposition.
Had a Democrat been president on Sept. 11, 2001, a combination of political calculation and personal conviction would have almost certainly pushed the administration toward a vigorous prosecution of the war -- just as both the Truman and Carter administrations were caught up in confrontations with the Soviet Union. Many of the Democrats who served the Clinton administration were instinctive hawks. Madeleine Albright is one of the most passionate anti-totalitarians in American life and has always called herself a child of Munich rather than a child of Vietnam. Richard Holbrooke has the talent and the toughness to play the role of a latter day Dean Acheson.
In any case, a strong Democratic president in the White House, backed by the kinds of public majorities that have backed the Bush administration's prosecution of the war, would have been able to tame and control the party's antiwar wing and -- whatever the protest on the Kucinich-Nader fringe -- put the Democrats solidly in the center of public opinion on the war. This is the strategy towards which both President and Senator Clinton seem to be heaving the party, but until the Iowa voters spoke Monday night, it was not clear whether this push would succeed. With Iowa voters signaling that opposition to the war is not their main priority, the moderates seem firmly in the saddle.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing in the LAT (Jan. 21, 2004):
The president of the United States, wrote Henry Adams, the most brilliant of American historians, "resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek."
The Constitution awards presidents the helm, but creative presidents must possess and communicate the direction in which they propose to take the country. The port they seek is what the first President Bush dismissively called "the vision thing."
Let us interview another president on this point. Franklin D. Roosevelt was by common consent one of the great presidents of the United States. The presidency, FDR said, "is not merely an administrative office. That's the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is predominantly a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified." In other words, they were possessed by their visions.
So, FDR continued, Washington personified the idea of federal union. Jefferson typified the theory of democracy, which Jackson reaffirmed. Lincoln, by condemning slavery and secession, put two great principles of government forever beyond question. Cleveland embodied rugged honesty in a corrupt age. Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson were both moral leaders using the presidency as a pulpit. "Without leadership alert and sensitive to change," FDR wrote, "we are bogged up or lose our way,"
But a vision per se is not necessarily a good thing. Adolf Hitler had a vision. Josef Stalin had a vision. Especially when visions harden into dogmatic ideologies, they become inhuman, cruel and dangerous. Bush the elder was generally held to have a vision deficit, but that's not the same as having a defective vision. Bush the elder was a moderate as president, and he did not harm the republic.
Bush the younger is another matter. In his State of the Union address, he presented a medley of visions. Is it reasonable to suppose that the son feels that his father committed two fatal errors, which he is determined not to repeat? One might be the folly of alienating the ideological right. The other the absence of a vision.
Born again, Bush the younger has a messianic tinge about him. He thinks big and wants to make his mark on history. Four hours of interviews left Bob Woodward with the impression, as he wrote in "Bush at War," that "the president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's master plan."
His grand vision told Bush that American troops invading Iraq would be hailed as liberators, not hated as occupiers, and that the transformation of Iraq under American sponsorship into a Jeffersonian democracy would have a domino effect in democratizing the entire Islamic world.
That dream has waned, and so has the vision that lies behind it. It turns out that the president's vision-free father had a much more accurate forecast of what an American war against Iraq would bring. Bush the elder wrote, defending (with Gen. Brent Scowcroft) his decision not to advance to Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War, "Trying to eliminate Saddam would have incurred incalculable human and political costs . Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land."
The United States is today an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. In a couple of years, Bush the younger has succeeded in turning the international wave of sympathy that engulfed the U.S. after 9/11 into worldwide dislike, distrust and even hatred. With his Iraq vision collapsing around him, Bush is trying to dump his self-created mess on the United Nations, heretofore an object of contempt in his administration. And he is trying out a new vision the moon and Mars.
In this respect he is following the example of President Kennedy, who sought to repair American self-confidence after the Bay of Pigs by proposing to send men to the moon and return them safely to Earth "before this decade is out." A difference is that the preventive war against Iraq was an essential part of the Bush vision, but the Bay of Pigs was not part of the JFK vision. It was a CIA vision inherited from the Eisenhower administration.
I was appalled by Bush's preventive war against Iraq, as I was appalled in the Kennedy White House by the Bay of Pigs. And as I applauded JFK's vision of landing men on the moon, so I applaud Bush's vision of landing men on Mars.
It has been almost a third of a century since human beings took a step on the moon rather as if no intrepid mariner had bothered after 1492 to follow up on Christopher Columbus. Yet 500 years from now (if humans have not blown up the planet), the 20th century will be remembered, if at all, as the century in which man began the exploration of space.
Some visions are intelligent and benign. Other visions are stupid and malevolent. "Where there is no vision the people perish," the Good Book says. Where there is a defective vision, people perish too. In a democracy, it is up to the people themselves to make the fateful choice.
Gore Vidal, writing in the London Independent (Jan. 18, 2004):
It is often hard to explain to foreigners what an American presidential election is actually about. We cling to a two-party system in the same way that imperial Rome clung to the republican notion of two consuls as figurehead - to mark off, if nothing else, the years that they held office conjointly. They reigned ceremonially but were not makers of the political weather. Our two official parties have, at times, dedicated themselves to various issues, usually brought to their attention by a new president with a powerful popular mandate - hence the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, which gave, if nothing else, hope to a nation sunk in economic depression.
Later, as he himself folksily put it, "Dr New Deal has been replaced by Dr Win the War". Dr Win the War, whether he calls himself Republican or Democrat, is still providing - in theory - employment and all sorts of other good things for a people who did not emerge from the Depression until 1940, when Roosevelt began a military build-up. Sixty-four years later, like a maddened sorcerer's apprentice, he continues to churn out ever more expensive weapons built by an ever-shrinking workforce.
Since the US media are controlled by that corporate America which provides us with political candidates, an informed electorate is not possible. What the media do well is not analyse, or even inform, but personalise a series of evil enemies, who accumulate weapons of mass destruction (as we constantly do) to annihilate us in the night out of sheer meanness.
How, then, will a people grown accustomed to being lied to about serious matters behave during an actual presidential election, in which billions of dollars have been raised to give us a generally false view of the state of our - their? - union. Right off, half the electorate will not vote for president. Those who do vote sometimes exhibit unanticipated trends. In all the recent polls (easily, alas, rigged by the way the questions are posed) the conquest of Iraq is more and more regarded as an expensive mistake: the $ 87bn (pounds 48bn) that the President has now asked for to repair that country and which Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joyously knocked down in order - it now appears - for his colleague, vice-president Dick Cheney's company Halliburton to rebuild. Americans in general seem to have got the point of the exercise.
Alan Krueger, Princeton economist, writing in the NYT (Jan. 8, 2004):
''THIS administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.'' With those words, Lyndon B. Johnson began the war on poverty 40 years ago today, in his first State of the Union address.
To fight poverty, Congress started Head Start, Job Corps, Medicare and Medicaid programs, and increased the generosity of other programs, including Social Security and Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Here are some of the main results and lessons from this ''40 Years War'' on poverty.
Progress has been uneven, with some clear early successes followed by backsliding and then another period of progress, which has so far stalled under the Bush administration. The official poverty rate fell from 19.5 percent in 1963 to 11.1 percent in 1973. Since 1973 it has remained stubbornly stable, rising in the 1970's and 1980's and falling in the 1990's. By 2000, the poverty rate returned to 11.3 percent; last year, it inched up to 12.1 percent.
The trend is not the same for all groups. For the aged, the poverty rate fell from close to 30 percent in 1963 to 16.3 percent in 1973, then to 10.4 percent in 2002. The share of children in poverty fell from 23.1 to 14.4 percent in the first decade of the war on poverty, but increased to 16.7 percent over the next three decades. For blacks, the rate fell from more than 40 percent before the war on poverty to 31 percent in 1973, and was 24 percent in 2002, still disturbingly high but much lower than it had been....
Immigration also matters. Immigrants have a higher poverty rate, and the gap has been growing. Additionally, the rate of immigration has increased. As a consequence, the percentage of all those in poverty who are immigrants increased from 10 percent in 1979 to 20 percent in 1998....
Antipoverty policy has evolved as political winds shifted and as social science knowledge advanced. Bill Clinton ran on a platform to ''make work pay'' and ''end welfare as we know it'' -- and managed to do both. Although it is tempting to conclude that the United States became less generous to the poor in the 1990's, the story is more complicated. Even as time limits restricted welfare participation, more benefits became available for those who work. Increases in the minimum wage and the earned-income tax credit, and legislation requiring states to provide Medicaid to children in poor families even if they went off public assistance, all increased the value of work. The decline in poverty in the 1990's was a result of more than a strong economy, although the boom certainly helped and its effect was probably amplified by these policy changes.
Rick Perlstein, in the Village Voice (Jan. 14-20, 2004):
George Bush is selling out Iraq. Gone are his hard-liners' dreams of setting up a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic republic, a light unto the Middle Eastern nations. The decision makers in the administration now realize these goals are unreachable. So they've set a new goal: to end the occupation by July 1, whether that occupation has accomplished anything valuable and lasting or not. Just declare victory and go home. The tyranny of Saddam Hussein will be over. But a new tyranny will likely take its place: the tyranny of civil war, as rival factions rush into the void. Such is the mess this president seems willing to leave behind in order to save his campaign....
Once again, as so often in these last few months, an analogy is Vietnam. And, as so often in the last three years, the analogous president is Nixon.
The war was already very unpopular, its prospects none too promising, when Nixon became president in 1969. It had only gotten worse by 1971, when Nixon began thinking hard about re-election. As with Bush recently, his approval rating in the middle of that year was around 50 percent; without at least appearing to quell the bloodshed, he couldn't get re-elected. But failurea North Vietnamese takeovercould only be held off by continuing to kill. And failure would render Nixon the first American president to lose a war.
The solution he hit upon was to change the definition of "failure," to move the goal line.
The word victory was banned from all White House discussion, in favor of the bland substitute "peace with honor"repeated more and more mellifluously, with each passing month systematically emptied of actual meaning. By late 1971, the phrase signified nothing more than an absence of U.S. troops on the ground and the freeing of American prisoners of war. "Following the President's lead," Nixon's shrewdest historian, Jonathan Schell, has written, "people began to speak as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped four hundred Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them."
Secretly, and behind the back of the South Vietnamese government, Nixon's emissary, Henry Kissinger, negotiated a face-saving exit with the enemy, one that let the enemy keep troops in South Vietnamguaranteeing South Vietnamese collapse. Publicly we proclaimed the fiction that our allies were strong enough to get along without us. Actually, Nixon and Kissinger knew they could only hold on long enough for the American people to forget about them. On October 26, 1972, Henry Kissinger announced that negotiations had succeeded, that "peace is at hand." On November 7, Richard Nixon won his 49 states against the Democrat, George McGovern. A weary nation had proved perfectly willing to acquiesce in a political swindle. Nixon had moved the goalpost to the 50-yard line, then awarded himself a touchdown....
Once again a war has gone wrong, and the denouement still must be leveraged for maximum political advantageor at least to minimum disadvantage. A scary story must be capped off with a happy ending. And for that reason, the Bush administration must make sure certain things are forgotten: namely, the aims it said we were going to war for in the first place. George Bush must keep on moving the goal line, as he has ever since this war's beginning.
President Bush's Social Security proposal looks to be dead in the water--and a good thing, too. The plan was half-baked and fiscally irresponsible. The American public took one look and realized it provided neither personal nor national financial security. Even many Republican congressmen didn't buy it. So much for the president's post-election political capital.
For their part, the Democrats are quietly exultant. Their Nancy Reagan-inspired strategy--"Just say no!"--has helped stymie the president. It looks like a classic victory for the political opposition.
Yet, as Bob Dylan wisely observed in "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "[N]egativity don't pull you through." Sure, it may work as a short-term political strategy. But, in the long term, it won't save the United States from the very real fiscal crisis it faces. Just because the president's proposal deserved to be junked doesn't mean there isn't a fiscal problem that urgently needs addressing.
Consider what happens if we allow the status quo to continue: Either (a) government deficits reach an intolerable size in the eyes of financial markets, forcing a sudden collapse of the system via spiraling interest rates; (b) the proportion of income that has to be taken from the young (i.e., people who enter the workforce in the years ahead) and given to the old (those who have retired) rises to a point at which the young have to use literally all of their after-tax savings to purchase government bonds and, thus, are unable to accumulate physical capital; or (c) the United States becomes so dependent on foreign capital to finance investment and consumption that the U.S. capital stock becomes foreign-owned and all income from capital flows abroad.
Unless they believe in the Leninist principle--"the worse, the better"-- Democrats need to come up with a better strategy than just waiting for one of these things to happen to Republicans. Instead of being relentlessly negative, Democrats need to recognize the magnitude of the problem we face and come up with some credible solutions of their own, sooner rather than later. What we have in mind is a new New Deal--a combination of fundamental Social Security reform, health care reform, and tax reform. A new New Deal could help Democrats win the voters they failed to persuade last November. It could also help a Democratic administration deal with our country's immense demographic and fiscal problems.
[Sir Lawrence Freedman is professor of war studies at King's College, London. His"Official History of the Falklands Campaign" is published by Routledge.]
Conspiracy theories are age-old, but the form they now take in democratic states owes much to the Watergate scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. Its extraordinary potency as a modern myth was recently re-emphasised when the confirmation that Mark Felt of the FBI was the"deep throat" who steered reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to the senior levels of the administration received front page attention round the world.
Out of Watergate came the ready belief that governments will compound any crime by attempting to cover it up. Linked to this was the assumption that the secrets governments seek most to protect are about the conduct of wars. The Watergate saga began with the Nixon administration's paranoia about leaks; that paranoia led to the formation of the notorious"plumber's unit", which sought to staunch them. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, one of the authors of the Defense Department's secret history of the Vietnam war which came to be known as the Pentagon papers, passed a copy to The New York Times. The plumbers tried to find damaging files on Ellsberg by breaking into his psychiatrist's office. The revelations in the Pentagon papers had already encouraged scepticism about official rationales for wars: it was shocking to realise, out of the jumble of memos and the dry prose of official historians, how much the policy-makers had lost their moral compass. They had not only talked themselves and their country into war but also persisted with it long after they had realised its calamitous character.
Vietnam and Watergate together eroded trust in politicians and encouraged the assumption that things were never quite what they seemed. Behind the extravagant claims with which controversial policies were wrapped, the expectation had to be of a hidden truth that was harsh and unpleasant.
The attraction and stubborn existence of conspiracy theories came to my mind when I was writing the official history of the Falklands war. The first question I was always asked was about the"real story" behind the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano on May 2 1982. A reminder of the range of the conspiracy theories that grew up around this incident came in May when Andrew George of Shrewsbury was jailed for the 1984 murder of 78-year-old Hilda Murrell. George, who was 16 at the time, had sexually assaulted and stabbed Murrell repeatedly, leaving her to die in woods. It was apparent to police at the time that this was a particularly obnoxious case of local crime; yet a strident body of campaigners became convinced that Murrell was really the victim of the secret state.
She had been a vigorous anti-nuclear activist - and thus one theory linked her death with inquiries over the Sizewell B nuclear reactor. By far the most popular theory, however - given wings by the then Labour MP, Tam Dalyell - was that the murder was linked to her nephew, a naval officer named Robert Green, who had played a minor role during the Falklands campaign. Dalyell made connections with his grand theme of the time - Margaret Thatcher had ordered that the Belgrano be sunk to prevent peace breaking out in the Falklands."I am informed," he told the Commons,"that the intruders were not after money, not after nuclear information, but were checking to see if there were any Belgrano-related documents of Commander Green in the home of his aunt." Such allegations had no foundations, but coming from a senior MP, they had to be investigated, thus wasting weeks of police time and leading to television documentaries, books, stage plays, parliamentary debates and endless columns of newsprint.
This was the nastiest, but not the only, conspiracy theory that gained currency during the Belgrano controversy. The government's reluctance to enter into any detailed discussions of the events of May 2 helped feed them, which meant that the information gap was filled with speculation and rumour. Because the log book of HMS Conqueror, the submarine that sank the Belgrano, could not be found, it was assumed that it had been deliberately withheld because it contained embarrassing information. In one episode, wholly implausible and alcohol-encouraged boasts about shredding this log made by a lowly MoD official led to tabloid articles and parliamentary questions. Claims of a cover-up gained force when the civil servant Clive Ponting - infuriated by ministers' stonewalling - leaked material (which did not actually support the conspiracy theory) to Dalyell. He ended up facing a charge under the Official Secrets Act, of which he was acquitted.
The Belgrano offered a model for conspiracy theorists. The model requires the belief that the official line is a cover story, that evidence to disprove it exists but is being deliberately withheld, that what happens is always what is intended, and what is known now was known then. Dalyell appeared to have worked backwards from the perceived effect of the attack - which was the collapse of a peace initiative - and alleged that this is what Thatcher sought to achieve. By claiming that British intelligence was so professional that it could intercept, decode and distribute the relevant Argentine signals virtually immediately, it could be alleged that the government must have known that the Belgrano had been ordered to sail away from the task force and so did not pose an urgent threat, even though (as is now confirmed) the admirals in command believed that it did.
Certainly, the government's initial account of the episode contained material inaccuracies (on when the cruiser had first been detected and the direction in which it was travelling at the time) and no corrections were volunteered. There was a general problem after the Falklands war that no attempt was made to correct a number of inaccurate impressions until new information obliged the government to do so. This included not only the details of the Belgrano incident, but also such matters as the performance of air defence missiles and the loss of British personnel to friendly fire. Thus, as contrary evidence seeped out on the Belgrano, credence was given to assertions that a deeper and rather sinister truth was being hidden:" conspiracy" flourished on confusion.
It is one of the ironies of the 2003 Iraq war that Tony Blair's attempt to guard against the presumption of conspiracy, by sharing the assessments upon which he based decisions, backfired because the information was so flawed. The failure to find stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) led to the charge that the US and UK governments went to war on false pretences, exaggerating flimsy intelligence to scare people into believing that Iraq was a threat to national security when their real interests lay elsewhere, in oil or perhaps just George W. Bush's personal grudges. Attempts to prove this charge have dominated national debate on Iraq....