Five years after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the surrender at Appomattox was nine months in the past. Five years after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the “Great War” of 1914-1918 had been over for nearly a year. Five years after Pearl Harbor, the capitulation of the Axis forces belonged to history.
Five years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, no such victory, no historical closure has been achieved–far from it. Instead, most Americans and the corporate media that provide their mind food seem desperate to ignore two looming realities.
First, the admitted perpetrators of 9/11 remain scot-free, taunting the United States while unmistakably proclaiming their intent to mount further such attacks in the future.
Second, instead of apprehending those culprits, the Bush administration used the anger and concern the attacks generated–along with massive doses of lies and fraudulent “intelligence”–to launch a war against an uninvolved country. Called by one U.S. general “the greatest strategic blunder” in American history, this conflict has cost billions of dollars and countless thousands of lives (including almost as many Americans as died in 9/11). Now the administration threatens to hurl America into an even more criminal and catastrophic war against Iran.
Contemplating this perplexing anniversary has a personal edge for me. I was in New York at the time of the attack and experienced its surreal and unbearably sad aftermath in a neighborhood that was close enough to Ground Zero to remain sealed off for days afterward. Unable to return to the routine of reviewing movies, I wrote a series of columns for this paper in which I attempted to discuss aspects of the tragedy that I wasn’t seeing addressed elsewhere.
In the first of those columns (“Judgment Call,” Sept. 26, 2001, www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A16505), I wondered:
Is it possible that a wily bandit with a ragtag band of followers could topple the most powerful nation the world has ever known? Until a month ago, such a thing would have seemed ludicrous, absolutely absurd. Now it seems frighteningly possible. If you wonder how, consider what happens when the proverbial 97-pound weakling uses judo to defeat the 300-pound bully. The weakling’s only “strength” lies in turning the giant’s strength against him. So it is with Osama bin Laden. If we don’t cooperate with his strategies, if don’t we fall into his traps, his goose is cooked, his threat neutralized. But he has placed a large wager on our clumsiness, our bad habits and stupidity, our smug self-righteousness and deep ignorance of the world, and on the likelihood that we won’t wake up and look at ourselves before it’s too late.
Make no mistake, if our actions spark wars across the Islamic world, and/or a war between us and other countries, then he has won his wager….
As that apprehensive analysis suggests, since 9/11 we’ve been fighting not one but two wars (which, ironically enough, correspond to the Islamic terms “lesser and greater jihad”): one against our declared enemies in the outer world, the other against our own worst tendencies. And it’s because we’ve failed so thoroughly in the latter struggle that we’ve been bested so stunningly in the former, falling into every trap bin Laden has laid, handing him tactical advantages and recruiting incentives beyond his wildest imaginings.
In doing all this, we’ve allowed the government’s executive branch to stage innumerable assaults on our constitutional protections and freedoms; witnessed our legislative branch’s utter inability to challenge or alter a mendacious rush to war and its catastrophic consequences; and sacrificed the sympathy and support that most of the world felt for us in the days after 9/11, leaving America perhaps as despised and distrusted as it has ever been, a giant once considered essentially friendly and fair but now suspected of being ruthless, wildly hypocritical and a bit mad.
One thing that much of the educated world seems to understand better than most Americans is how these self-inflicted wounds happened. Sage observers had long maintained that America wasn’t likely ever to be overcome by external force, only by internal decay or subversion. And so it was: The United States finally fell victim to the blight of Ideology, which had left victims in the tens of millions as it ran rampant across Europe and Asia in the 20th century.
It was, in fact, an imported virus, and the story of its spread is now well-known if not widely acknowledged in the mainstream: how certain former New York Trotskyites of the ’30s merged right when the Old Left was challenged by the New in the ’60s, infiltrating the gin-and-tonic preserves of old-school conservative Republicans and, abetted by followers of the philosopher Leo Strauss, forming an ideological wedge that became increasingly powerful from the Reagan administration onward.
Many of these ambitious nouveau-rightists–or neoconservatives, as they came to be known–were allied with Israel’s rightists, and one result was that A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, a 1996 position paper written for Israeli hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu by Richard Perle and two other American neocons, became the intellectual basis for Rebuilding America’s Defenses, a 2000 white paper from the conservative Project for the New American Century.
In essence, the strategy outlined by these crucial documents envisioned “transforming” the Middle East by overthrowing any regime–beginning with Iraq’s–that appeared unfriendly to Israel. Of course, this had little to do with the kind of threat represented by bin Laden, but that didn’t matter to the neocons around Bush, who used the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for launching the war that Perle and his cohorts had long dreamed of.
This ideologically driven posture, which has largely governed American foreign policy for the last five years, owes much to its distant Trotskyite roots. It is millenarian and apocalyptic, avid to destroy the world in order to save it. It prescribes only war and more war, death and destruction spiraling ever upward until, presumably, a final orgasm of pandemic violence miraculously brings forth an era of “security.”
It is also deeply delusional, being based far more in fantasy than any geopolitical reality. Ignoring the Middle East’s history and cultures, it imagines “cakewalks” and populations so darned impressed with our “shock and awe” pyrotechnics that they welcome American soldiers “with flowers” and then establish a model democracy in order to ratify our chickenhawk president’s photo-op declaration of “mission accomplished.”
Needless to say, when such absurd pipe dreams collapse in bloodbaths and civil chaos, with American soldiers dying at every turn, the neocon true believer–a posse led by the malignant Dick Cheney–do not retreat toward the realism or rationality urged on them by U.S. generals, experts or diplomats the world over. Rather, they dig in their heels and gun for war, war, more war–as much war as their powerful, protected asses can order up.
Instead of making the United States (or Israel) safer, and a return to global normalcy conceivable, this strategy has had the singular effect of empowering violent extremists on every side–from governments in the United States, Israel and Iran, to Hamas and Hezbollah, to an incalculable number of jihadist cells from London to Lahore, Morocco to Malaysia.
Is there no peaceful approach to the Middle East’s frightful problems? Of course there is. Among others: In 2002, the Saudis put forward the King Fahd Plan, which offered Israel peace and normalized relations with all 22 Arab states in exchange for establishing a Palestinian state within 1967 borders. In the weeks since their recent debacle in Lebanon, Israeli policy makers have been looking anew at this plan and its prospect of creating a “new alignment” that would empower moderates across the region.
Yet many Israelis increasingly realize that the forces of moderation do not include George W. Bush, who seems, as one Jewish commentator acidly put it, “willing to fight to the last Israeli.” Indeed, by a staggering margin, Bush could be the most dangerously inept foreign-policy president in U.S. history. Along with trashing the traditional U.S. role of “honest broker” in the Middle East, he’s made the essential keystone of his policy refusing to talk to opponents like Syria and Iran.
As a way of dealing with the world, “refusing to talk” arguably qualifies as a clinical definition of insanity. Talking might let in the light, might connect everyone to reality, might solve problems. What’s threatened by talking? Only a monomaniacal desire to remain in a delusional state where one’s fantasies determine reality, and war is the only policy option.
If Americans were given a choice, no doubt they would vote for the sane course of working toward peace and using diplomacy to solve political problems. But there’s the rub. At present, our democracy–the very one advertised by Bush as a panacea for the world’s ills–doesn’t work as intended, so there is no real choice.
The War Party (as astute conservative and liberal commentators have learned to call it) is the overarching force that not only governs Democrat and Republican agendas, but also, thanks to the concentration of media power in this country, determines the highly malleable sense of reality that connects most Americans to the outside world.
In July, a Harris Poll revealed that 50 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction–up from 36 percent last year. “I’m flabbergasted,” said media critic Michael Massey, who studies such surveys. “This finding just has to cause despair among those of us who hope for an informed public able to draw reasonable conclusions based on evidence.”
Given a public mind increasingly “independent of reality” (in the understatement of another commentator), it’s hard to imagine that the Americans will suddenly wake up and see our current conflict in the Middle East for what it, in fact, is: the last anti-colonialist war, one we’re destined to lose as long as we go on thinking it can be won with bombs.
Next stop: an unprovoked nuclear attack on Iran, which, on top of being a moral calamity for the United States, could spark the collapse of the West’s economies and lead us into a regional firestorm that would make the present Iraq disaster seem a Sunday in the park. Despite Seymour Hersh’s scrupulous reporting on the Cheney team’s methodical build-up to this unconscionable assault, I still have friends who scoff at the possibility that such a thing could really happen. Their reason: “It would be insane.”
So it would. And that’s why the period leading up to the 2008 election will be the most perilous in U.S. history. Whether it’s Hillary and McCain or other non-choices, every candidate will be posturing to see who can talk toughest, hit hardest, push the button first–if Bush doesn’t beat them to it. War fever will fill the air. And Osama’s master plan, with us as its chief executors, will be that much closer to its final realization.
In America, terror goes both ways