Klar zur Landung, Amsterdam 3 June 2002
On the train from Schiphol a Dutch woman about my own age, just returned from Syria, says quietly, emphatically that »Zionism is a terrible thing«. What we have learned since September 11 is that fundamentalism, that letter-of-the-law tribal bludgeon, is indeed terrible. Not just primitive, intellectually retarded, and small-minded, but actively vicious. Zionism certainly fills the prescription. So does the New Zion fundamentalism of God-and-country Christianity, the usual item in the land of the free. And so, of course, does radical Islam, including the Wahabi brand sustained by the Saud dynasty in the homeland of Mecca and Mohamed. Leave these utopians alone and they will kill each other, then kill you. The war we should be fighting pits liberal pluralism against fundamentalism sacred and secular. And it must be a war, not a truce, because for the fundamentalists there are no half-way houses. In their minds, we are either with them or against them. We must subscribe to the law of the tribe, they tell us, or perish fighting it.
So I assent to what she says. But what she means is something more, something to do with US foreign policy in the Middle East. »Our leaders don’t understand«, she continues. In the city where Anne Frank was concealed, then betrayed by her fellow citizens, this reasonable voice takes aim at the singular iniquity of Israel. Forget about the little princes of Arabia and the fantastically corrupt dynasts of Syria and Iraq. On the Berlin Express, which I momentarily consider taking to the end of the line, what’s wrong with things this morning boils down to Zionism. We have landed in Europe, sure enough. Yet her views are not unlike my own; I might have said something like this, without at all meaning to endorse the enemies of the Zionists. She’s an enlightened modern moralist whose dislike of fundamentalism is visceral. The Zionist settlements on the West Bank – their own land, and nobody else’s - are atrocities waiting to happen. Messianic Zionism is certainly neo-colonial. Preserving Judaism in this atavistic way means keeping the faith with a literal reading of occult scriptural sources, one that assures Jews ascendence in this region and among mankind. It represents the interests of a certain community, an exclusive idea of polity. This is what Palestinians mean when they equate Zionism with racism. They are not wrong in putting it this way, but they are partial. The whole truth would involve Arabs recognizing Jews as their near relations. Demonizing Israel means polarizing Palestine beyond the possibility of a political settlement.
Israel is hardly a unique imposition in world history. For thirty-five years, since the Six Day War, which I followed on a truck radio from San Francisco, this internecine contention has absorbed our attention to the detriment of other regions, other conflicts perhaps more worthy of concern. The wretched Horn of Africa, across the Arabian Peninsula from Palestine, comes to mind. The self-importance of Ariel Sharon is a mirror-image of the narcissism of Yassir Arafat, whose Palestine Liberation Organization is now little more than a street gang. Nothing in the world matters besides their mutual pain, or so these types would insist. When have Sharon or Arafat done anything for the pain of Africa, apart from arming them for more of the same? Israel admits African Jews to citizenship, it is true, on the basis of religious affiliation. Zionism of this kind is only the other side of Palestinians’ tireless promotion of the self-interest of their leaders. When criticized as cynical, undemocratic schemers, they deflect it by referring to their unique suffering. What do they think of the suffering of the Bohemian and Moravian Germans who were loaded on to cattle cars in 1945 and shipped back to a mother country they had never seen? Or of the Chechen natives exiled from their homeland by Stalin? Does Poland come up on their screen? Many groups were dispossessed after 1945, and their rearrangements continue. A comprehensive reform of the outcomes would mean fighting another world war. Shall we liberate Chechnya from the Russian infidel, while we’re at it? This is what the PLO appears to have in mind.
No doubt the Zionists are behind all this trouble. After all, Jews were responsible for the unfortunate events of 9/11; just ask the Wahabi mullahs, and the Saudi information minister who speaks for them. Ask Al Jazeera, playing to its audience’s prejudices. Against the background of such bald agit-prop, it is impossible to take the Arab apologists seriously. The truth is that the Palestinians have done well out of their authentic pain, eliciting moral and material proportionate to the offense they have suffered. What they want now is vindication; they want to drive the Jews into the sea. The politics of the PLO was always based on this promise. When they unleashed an intifada to this end they brought the monstrous Sharon to power; they are going to have him for a long time to come. These are enemy twins caught up in a tiresome round of mutual recrimination. In many ways they deserve each other.
No wonder George W. Bush, the candidate, had wanted to withdraw US commitments from this biblical plague of a region. His party was no friend of Israel, historically or culturally; his father was regarded as the enemy by the Israel lobby. It was the Democrats whose candidate for president was reviled by political progressives for cultivating the Jewish vote. It was such political utopians who put Bush in office by voting for Ralph Nader, a nostalgic fixture of the 60s, and incidentally of Lebanese-American origin. Bush’s conservative orientation belies the widespread cant about oil as the real goal of the war. Parroting Tariq Aziz’s self-serving line about an oil war dumbs us down to the vulgar Marxist level. Dissidents like Nader have fallen for the oil cant, leaving Saddam Hussein, who seized and burned the oil fields of Kuwait, open to pronounce himself the arch-rival of the Great Satan, Eater of Oil. Thus do the politically correct align themselves, wittingly or otherwise, with the politically impossible.
The Middle East has been described as a bad neighborhood. Fundamentalists of every stripe would like for us to regard modern history as a footnote to its agony. Without Israel to blame, ancient internecine conflicts here would have pitched Palestinians against their Arab cousins instead of against the Zionist devils. Palestinians have few real friends in the Arab world because of their cosmopolitan past and relative openness to modernity. Those who idealize a tolerant, multi-ethnic Palestine, like the courageous American Palestinian, Professor Edward Said, are indulging in utopian nostalgia. The tribalism of this neighborhood will not produce a stable multi-ethnic polity any time soon. It will produce a re-run of Berlin in the 1930s.
So Israel is here to stay, even if it bears responsibility for the current blood-letting through its deeply political intransigence on the Zionist settlements in the West Bank. It remains a modern state wedded to a pack of medieval zealots. In this respect as in others, it is not so different from its principal international sponsor. The Jews will not be driven into the sea, as Arafat has always promised the Arab street. But the price of this colonial settlement is going to be high. and not only for Israel. Whose fault is it all? Israel is an imposition of European colonial history, rather as Iraq is. Americans who know a little of the story are outraged by having to pick up the check for this outcome. But few care to know. The reflexive anti-Semitism of Old Europe provided the occasion for the realization of this messianic dream. It lives on in the uncritical adoration of the PLO by the French neo-colonialists, among others. Blaming these problems on the US and its Israel lobby, as such apologists always do, is pure political theater.
Hotel New York, Rotterdam 6. 6. 2002
At dinner with old connections at a conference here, Brian comes to the defense of Robert Fisk, Middle Eastern correspondent for The Independent of London, a progressive newspaper that I have read from its first issue in 1986. It was Fisk who cried »massacre« of Israeli incursions into the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank, overplaying his hand based on information supplied by interested parties. He is relentlessly negative about US bombing in Afghanistan; this is his virtue for me, since US media are uncritically supportive of retaliation for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I wonder about the long-term effect of bombing on local populations. But as the caves, the usual targets, are unpopulated except by Taliban and Qaida fighters, a pathetic pack of holier-than-thou recreants, the humanitarian problem matters less than usual. Wreaking havoc in this way seems to me an expense of spirit in a waste of shame, but I do understand the need to address this appalling lot of fundamentalist zealots with massive force. This is what they are able to understand.
Brian elicits our sympathy for the Palestinian population in Jenin, assuming that we will tow the politically correct line, British version: whatever is regrettable in the Middle East, it is the Zionists’ fault. He has been living in the UK for too long; he echoes the Arab street. This is Robert Fisk’s journalistic beat, his angle of incidence. The truth about the ›massacre‹ at Jenin appears to be more complex, as usual in this part of the world. Israeli forces fired rockets into the refugee camp at Jenin in pursuit of insurgent parties hidden among the civilian population, and holed up in a church. Then they pursued them door to door. Civilian casualties are a part of the calculation of these liberation fighters. When the carnage they invite is accomplished, they cry wolf. Investigations into what happened at Jenin and elsewhere are continuing, but it is already clear that this tactic produced catastrophe. The blame game is on and the Jews are the usual suspects. It is all part of a coordinated program of provocations, and it is working well.
At dinner with us is an elderly American professor whom Brian and I both know well. His grandparents survived pogroms of a century past in a village 60 km. south of Minsk. They made their way to Montreal, starting better lives in a new world. While spending a year in Kiev recently, this man took the trouble to return to this dismal town and run down what information he could about his family’s fate. There was more to learn than he wanted to hear. All of his relations were killed here, dozens of them, one at a time, and the memories of how the ritualistic killing was done remain fresh in the local mind. He alone is left to tell the tale, like Ishmael. Brian apparently considers this story beside the point of Palestinians at Jenin. He falls silent.
It is not beside the point. Jew-baiting is alive and well in the precincts of Mecca, and not only there. It has become respectable again in the west, as it was in the 1930s. Here it usually takes the form of infatuation with Arafat and Arab nationalism, as if combating Zionism by driving the Jews into the sea were a solution to anything. The experience of European Jewry seems strangely remote on the continent that gave us the death camps. It is sitting right in front of us but we cannot see it despite the proliferation of Holocaust memoirs. As Eva Hoffmann, herself a refugee from Gomulka’s anti-Semitic Polish regime, notices in a review article on this literature, it has become an industry. But the effect has not been to recall us to the horror of that terrible time, so near yet so far away. It has been nearly the opposite. The more we hear of the Holocaust, the more commonplace it seems to become – a family saga of bad blood and revenge without remorse.
A young German at the conference refers to the endless reruns of World War II on the History Channel as »what we want to watch on tv«. This is certainly true in the US, where ›the war‹ means that war. It is never out of sight on television here, where it plays 24/7 in creaky vehicles like Casablanca. Flip to the History Channel and Uncle Bob is driving the Hun out of the Ardennes. None of this bears much resemblance to history, of course, but nobody really cares. What does our obsessional figuration of ›the war‹ count for if we are only returning nostalgically to the scene of the crime? Is history really justified as television? W. G. Sebald’s writing about the fire-bombing of German cities, widely circulated here in The New Yorker in advance of its publication as The Natural History of Destruction, exposes such pitiful reductions of history for the frauds they are, showing what critical literature is capable of in the hands of historically informed moral intelligence. Only such intelligent application to the awful record of ›the war‹ can spare us from the dim-witted spectacles of Hollywood historiography. But Sebald is already gone, and in his absence history is reverting to the spectator sport that it was before modern warfare made civilians into willing participants in mechanical extermination.
Unterwegs, Yorkshire UK, July 2002
Another Atlantic crossing. Outside Middlesborough, on a train to Durham, I sit down next to a British soldier in uniform. He is very young, and just back from Jordan where, he tells me, he was involved in advanced planning for an invasion of Iraq. The intentions of the Bush administration were never in doubt, but this brings it home for the first time. Before it had seemed remote. Who knew that the battle would be enlisted through Jordanian territory? Palestinian Arabs, as the Jordanians mostly are, will thus pave the route to Baghdad.
The boy’s reserved manner, relic of a more parochial England, haunts me. Some of my ancestors left Yorkshire in 1634 to start a new life in the wild colonies. The young soldier bears a family resemblance to some of my cousins. One had his eardrums blown out in Vietnam and never recovered his balance. Would I send my young daughter, here with me on the train, to fight in Iraq? I would not. If George W. Bush believes that a full-scale attack on Iraq is a holy mission, he should ask his daughters to enlist in the military and lead the charge. If they do not wish to defend freedom as he defines it, he should not drive the children of others to do his dirty work for him. What kind of freedom obliges us to fight wars we do not believe in?
This is the litmus test of commitment to war: would you sacrifice your own child? Anything more abstract – ethnic or national or religious allegiance – must be regarded as suspect, given recent history. There has been talk of generational hypocrisy in the US media, with 60s types confessing that they can support wars fought by other men’s sons. The Selective Service, obliging each male to pull his term of two years in the Army or some other branch of the military, went down with Vietnam. The sons of the prosperous middle class went to Canada, and to court, to avoid fighting this neo-colonial jungle war. Law still requires that every male register on his eighteenth birthday, but the military draft drawn from this pool was suspended, and it is unlikely to be revived. Conservatives still think of the military as a masculine organization, and of course in the higher ranks and also in the front line it remains such, as it was in Afghanistan. But the end of the privilege of gender means that girls must be liable for service, too. They will have to fight if they expect to enjoy the freedom that they now take for granted. Some now do.
But what freedom? ›Vote Freedom First‹ is how the bumper sticker on a service truck parked in my drive today puts it. The flag decal of the American Rifle Association is there too. So is a Republican bumper sticker. The men who drive the truck are not political types, but they listen to Rush Limbaugh’s patriotic cant on the radio while they work. Freedom to them means freedom to work when and where they please, and then go hunting. The frontier does not seem far away; there’s nothing between here and the North Pole but barbed wire. The ringing words of the old hymn, Free at Last, intoned in the voice of The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., evangelical culture hero, are true to the condition. They are celebrated not only by African Americans but by almost everybody. Freedom’s cry is real, however unconvincing it may sound in the sophomoric tones of an accidental president. It would be hard to talk about the limitations of so vast a conception of freedom with the working types in my house this evening. Their experience of freedom to bear fire-arms is convincing to them, and denying its validity in the manner of the Marxists simply reinforces their sense that they have a natural right to discharge them.
Freedom of this unlimited kind must include the freedom to say no. I would not have sent Anna off to die for the sovereignty of Kuwait or Kosovo despite the egregious abuses involved in both arenas. These were not her battles to fight, not her freedom to fight for. The intervening years do not convince me, nor many of those who served in the Gulf War, apparently, that their health was worth the expense. Why were these their jobs? Tribal Kuwait was of course an oil fix. But Germany was closer and more exposed by Saddam’s oil field grab, France more implicated in the Balkans than the US had ever been. French insistence on US involvement there now looks like a case of bringing in the Yanks to do what they are unable to do for themselves – as usual. Fighting these battles has not saved the show, and the hostility of the Arab street after September 11 suggests that it made no impression on public opinion in the region. Public support for Osama, on the other hand, made a huge impression in the US, where the Arab street from Jerusalem to Cairo is now widely regarded as hysterical.
The appeal to freedom is true to the American mind. But in the voice of a crusading president, it rings hollow. What does he know about freedom? It’s all about money, something he also knows nothing about, to judge from the failures of his administration to address the very real economic crisis on the home front. The silver spoon in his mouth is a sign of something. So is his public hostility to US reporters who speak languages he cannot understand - foreign languages, they are called here. His own tongue is the language of a freedom he can invoke but cannot defend effectively because he does not understand its real limitations.
Guilty as Sin, Lansing, Michigan, November 2002
Back in the industrial heartland I call home, an old man, his face twisted, spits out the words »He’s guilty as sin.« I overhear it at a café just before the congressional elections; he is referring to one of the candidates. This is the vocabulary of American politics. The contempt is formulaic because the other party is always guilty as sin – of sex, of money, of poor health like the hapless Senator Eagleton, chucked off the presidential ticket as running mate of Senator McGovern thirty years ago for »mental problems.« Such things happen all the time in the land of the free. A local Democratic candidate lost a primary election recently when her opponent’s father abused his position of power in an insurance company to circulate rumors about her care by a psychologist. It is not only the Republicans who cry »guilty as sin.« But this twisted face, full of the despair of the Calvinist, deeply uncomfortable in his own skin, blaming it always on others, is surely Republican. It is left over from Bill Clinton’s ordeal by back-door gossip, his trial by CNN. Politics always poses large moral questions, but the language of morality here is poisoned at the well. Religion in America is profoundly self-interested – a self-help strategy more than a creed, and political a priori. Bill Clinton’s egoism is a typical expression of his evangelical Christianity, though it was usually blamed on his impoverished childhood. His pursuit of the war in Kosovo, which enjoyed wide public support, looked to a Serbian graduate student of mine like an act of deeply personal vindication, on his part and that of his Secretary of State.
Democratic presidents often do this. Recent memoirs of Lyndon Johnson make it clear that he went along with the Pentagon on Vietnam in the crucial year of 1964 because he was concerned about being portrayed as soft on communism in the presidential election that autumn. Vindication of this kind is inherently defensive and always pursued from some high moral ground, which in the US means what passes in one way or another for Christian. In Kosovo, where vital US interests were certainly not at stake, the case for intervention seemed contrived, despite the death camps and summary executions of the Milosevic regime. Serbia is after all Europe; an assassination here in 1914 ignited the ruinous war that swept the continent, drawing US soldiers including my own grandfather to put an end to it. Why should this have been treated as an American problem? On moral grounds applying only to US citizens, apparently.
My grandfather didn’t buy it. He resented being drafted off his Harley-Davidson to fight for the freedom of France. He was not Catholic, nor even European, but Scots-Irish Celtic fringe, like many frontiersmen – a refugee from the wars of religion and all that. He told me as a child that he was grateful for the advent of nuclear weapons because they meant that the masters of war in Paris, London, and Berlin would be exposed to the same dangers that they had so carelessly put young men of his generation in the way of. Nothing short of concern for their own skins could make them sensitive to the real cost of war, which he saw first-hand in France in 1918. You did not have to be a pacifist to know that »Onward, Christian Soldiers« meant bloody murder in the service of the state church, for the benefit of the moneyed class that owned the pews. The fall of France to Kaiser Bill, as he called the witless Wilhelm II, did not concern him. Why should it have? It might have saved many lives, after all. The humanitarian case can always be made both ways, as it is by both sides in connection with the impending war in Iraq. The appeal to humanity has been emptied of real moral content by being appealed to on all occasions in this way. Does anybody really believe in generic mankind any more? Only for reasons of state.
Letter from Houston, 14 February 2003
On the day that Hans Blix and Mohamed El-Baradei are scheduled to deliver reports on Iraq that will make or break the momentum of war, I am en route with my daughter from Detroit to Houston. These are not wonderful places, but they are full of the local character of working cities everywhere. This is an America that tourists do not see. Detroit manufactures the cars, Houston refines the oil. I think of it as the hydrocarbon circuit. I’ve been trying to find a comfortable seat at the racetrack as long as I can remember. Most of the traffic heads south, where it’s warm. I went north in 1968, and return on family occasions.
The UN Security Council is playing live on the liquid-display television screen high up in the glassy new airport terminal in Detroit. People are milling around, reading the morning papers, anything but watching the show. Joschka Fischer calls the round table to order; the leader of the loyal opposition to war in Iraq, he is an unfamiliar face in the US media. Hans Blix’s second report on UN Resolution 1441 authorizing inspections is short and to the point. Many proscribed weapons and items as he calls them in English remain unaccounted for. Iraq has missed one last opportunity, as he puts it, to provide details on their presumed production of anthrax, the nerve agent VX, and Al Samud II missiles with a range exceeding 150 km. There is scant evidence of precursors of chemical and biological weapons. Maybe it’s persistent reports in the US media about the rocket tubes imported by the Iraqi regime – for peaceful purposes, they claim – but Blix’s report sounds like the end of the road.
As the weekend of protest comes on, France and its ad hoc coalition of the unwilling profess to hear a mixed message here. The television in the hotel room covers these world-wide protests as the main event. They are more extensive than the US administration had apparently expected, and George W. Bush feels obliged to dismiss them publicly as irrelevant to his decision process. This might matter more if his decision had not already been taken. Everybody appears to sense this, and it gives the demonstrations the look of a belated happening, a hopeless cause.
I am feeling no nostalgia for the 1960s as I watch. It was a terrible time in Houston for dissenters from the Vietnam adventure. I recall being harassed in a shop one day by a stout lady in Bermuda shorts and golf cleats, for no reason I could see – I was wearing no anti-war buttons, only jeans and my own hair. The female gargoyle is a fixture of the southern culture of this place, and the muse of the Republican Party of George W. Bush. She goes along with the home boys so vividly displayed by V. S. Naipaul in A Turn in the South. As in New Orleans, three hundred miles east along the Gulf Coast, eating is the main event here, deep mama comfort. Apart from the gargoyles in golf cleats, Houstonians are generally courteous, except on the highways, where they shoot each other with handguns. A great many of them voted against Bush in the 2000 election, when the Texas landslide that he expected as the sitting governor of the state did not come to pass. Not everyone was fooled by the swagger. There is a terrific local take on Pseudo-Texans on Magellan’s Log (texaschapbookpress.com), the best satirical site in the state, kept by an erstwhile Germanist of a decidedly contrarian stripe.
The Bushes moved to Texas in the 1950s to get in on the oil boom. George the Father was eventually elected US Representative for Houston; George the Son returned from the east coast in 1968, where he had been born (in New Haven) and educated (at Yale, also in New Haven), though ›educated‹ in this case does not mean ausgebildet. Like Helmut Schmidt and also Gerhard Schröder, he learned on the job. This is not a reading man, something he joked about during the presidential campaign. The contrast with his opponent, Vice-President Gore, was pronounced, though Gore is not exactly an intellectual. The electorate does not like professors, or educated folks with an attitude. There is no US word for ›ausgebildet‹, and if there were it would be a term of contempt. In the Democratic Party presidential primary, another professorial type, Senator Bradley of New Jersey, showed himself to be too thoughtful for the Democrats. So the incumbent president understands something about the position, as it mirrors the American public’s deeply Philistine self-assurance.
Houston’s boomtown allure of that period was a product in part of money flowing into the local economy from the spoils of Vietnam. Brown & Root, the construction conglomerate based here, contracted to build air bases in Vietnam; this was assumed to be an emolument of the Johnson administration, which had already brought NASA’s mission control to Houston. Real money was at stake. But Johnson announced early in 1968 that he would not run for re-election, and even in Texas, disillusion with his neo-colonial war was growing. The privileged children of Republican money were finding ways to avoid military service, and George the Son was only doing what others did in seeking a way out. This was accomplished through a commission in the Texas Air National Guard, a reserve unit with nothing much to do with the war, or anything else, apparently. His father the U.S. Representative was the mastermind of this turn, a very revealing one for a man who would go on to head the Central Intelligence Agency and become President. It did not work against his son in the 2000 election despite Vice-President Gore’s record of service as a uniformed reporter in Vietnam.
The Republicans only hold such stunts against their rivals. Their own duplicities never count. In the wake of the hung election results in Florida in November, 2000, George the Son, still Governor of Texas, flew around the country in private jets provided by his friends at Enron, the Houston corporation operated by his largest campaign contributors. Enron would soon be revealed as a financial house of cards on a scale unprecedented in the history of corporate capitalism. The new President deplored it all, of course, but his Houston connections run deep, and his cabinet consists mostly of oil industry types and their public-sector servants like his Secretary of Education, formerly with the Houston Public Schools. Any way you calculate it, this is the Administration from Houston, meaning from Big Oil. The Iraq Oil War, as Robert Fisk and others are portraying it already, is a caricature that is hard to refute.
Houston is something more than an American Rotterdam. »The future is Texas,« screams the headline in the New Year 2003 issue of The Economist. »If you want to see where America is heading, start by studying Texas« (29). »America on steroids« (30) is how this free-market weekly from Britain, read by the European establishment as well as US free-marketeers, characterizes the place. Yet Texas is not one, it is at least five, and the incumbent president is a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee on hydrocarbon steroids more than he is the rancher that he pretends to be for political purposes. A relation of mine owned a ranch not far from George the Son’s spread in Crawford. At the end of his life, when I visited him there, he did not pronounce the name of his neighbor down the road heading west. Out of embarrassment, no doubt, at what had become of his own rough frontier politics. A native of Spur, in the west of the state, and a writer and publisher by profession, he was escaping Houston and its mephitic air, the oil refineries and chemical plants, the endless traffic, congestion and noise creeping up the freeway and into the piny woods where he lived. This is the future, according to The Economist. It is the future as envisioned by oilmen for whom this is home. Think Caracas or Bogotá, not Rotterdam.
Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Houston 15 February
In response to the international wave of protest, George the Son proclaims his independence from public opinion. »Size of protest - it’s like deciding, well, I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group.« He is trying to make a political distinction, patronizing the Clinton administration, which conducted constant polling and organized groups of citizens to sample public attitudes. Yet Bush’s own political guru, Karl Rove, made him president by reading and responding astutely to vox populi. Bush appeals to Texans by getting down with them, as though he were a home boy too. This gets them where they are weak, in their ›Don’t Mess With Texas‹ republicanism. The bumper sticker inscribed with these eloquent words speaks volumes, as stickers so often do in the land of the free, where sound-bites are the currency of popular political expression. This one epitomizes a sort of bantam-rooster hostility to anything un-Texan, so characteristic of the incumbent president. It is not a threat so much as a joke – aggressive but nice. Sort of.
A letter to a local newspaper complains that »now we have the leader of the most powerful nation on earth responding like Richard the Lion-Hearted. I knew we shouldn’t have elected an Episcopalian. His true loyalties lie in Canterbury.« The ecclesiastical reference is to the Anglican confession in the US. On this day Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the politically active South African Anglican, is very loudly and publicly protesting the drums of war. Canterbury is up in arms against it, and so is the National Council of Churches. The Pope has been against war all along. Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church, has been trying to bring his million-or-so congregants around to implacable opposition. They are the party of money, readers of The Wall Street Journal, and his battle is being conducted in its pages. Griswold is in bad color among his Anglican colleagues for US militarism. He would like to feel comfortable when he travels abroad, he writes. He is plumbing the depths of Anglican theology.
But Christianity never stood in the way of the Crusades, even where, as in the case of Aeneas Silvius, writing as Pope Pius II in 1461, some effort was made to avoid adventures by inviting Mohammed II to accept ›a drop of water‹ – Christian baptism – as the price of peace. The church’s moral authority in matters of war is undermined by its long history of collusion with unsavory secular authority. The Houston correspondent’s reference to Richard the Lion-Hearted shows that in the public imagination the church stands behind the sort of crusading we are involved with in Iraq. Franklin Roosevelt was Episcopalian, and so was his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, who led the charge in the Spanish-American War to prove himself a man. And so too was George H. W. Bush; his son sees himself as Roosevelt the Roughrider reincarnated. All were Americans first, not presiding bishops. This is the confession of secular power sanctified by incense.
The biblical resonance of war between the Tigris and Euphrates is not lost on the current lot of church types, who are beginning to see scriptural prophecy coming true. The Southern Baptists rule the roost in Houston, and they are leading the charge. Their membership is black and white, rich and poor; they are influential in local and state politics. Jimmy Carter, the only president in living memory whose Christianity really informed his policy, puts a face to this confessional stripe. He is publicly against the war on three measures of practical morality. It is not only inadvisable, he thinks, it is unprincipled. He endorses the National Council of Churches position, and wonders about prophetically-inspired endorsements of war. This is the true voice of Christian moral sentiment. Like Archbishop Tutu’s, it is instantly recognizable in its attention to human suffering and its care to transcend politics as usual. Fidel Castro welcomed Carter’s election in 1976, telling Le Nouvel Observateur in an interview that it was possible to take him seriously as a partner for peace. This did not help Carter’s standing among the party men who run the show in Washington. He was satirized by political cartoonists as a sissy in his dealings with the Iranian fundamentalist who took and held US hostages, assuring the election of Ronald Reagan and the ascendency of a policy that has now produced this biblical war. Islamic fundamentalists have picked this fight; they will have to endure the consequences.
All over but the shooting, 28 February 2003
By the end of the month the game is up. The protests have not abated, but Hans Blix has tilted decisively toward the Bush/Blair position by finding Iraq dilatory and evasive about its weapons of mass destruction. Joschka Fischer responds that the Iraqi decision to begin destroying its Al Samud II missiles on March 1, per UN demand, represents progress. What he does not add is that this progress is a product of the relentless hectoring of Bush and company. Nothing less makes the slightest difference to the butcher of Baghdad. Fischer stands very much within the orbit of western policy in this way, as he did during the first Gulf War. Gulf II is a carrot and stick operation, with Fischer feeding the Middle Eastern donkey on one end while Bush is beating its backside. If only the obstinate animal would move, the war would be unnecessary. Or so the Europeans appear to be hoping. But their hope is expressed as hostility to anything resembling a show of force.
The logic of war has been untracked. But in fact it was untracked a long time ago, and all parties know it, from the passive-aggressive Hussein to the idealist Fischer, the best man in the room. Bush’s re-election in 2004 depends on a speedy victory. This can be accomplished only by a spring-time invasion, with the whole nasty business out of the mind of the US electorate, short on attention, in time for the coronation to take place. So they are angling for position in the post-Hussein Middle East. The delaying tactics of le Président de la République would mean a summer war; as a political animal, he know this will not happen. Appearing to take the diplomatic high road is a way of positioning himself in the good graces of his traditional allies in the region. Some of them are not unwilling to see US and UK forces dispose of Saddam, but of course they cannot say so for fear of inflaming the Arab street. They will be appeased by France’s appearance of obsequious attendance on their national pride. These are the very rulers who ought to have been willing to influence Saddam’s tyranny, but of course they were unable to do so, for reasons of state. These regimes are nearly as autocratic, tyrannous and corrupt as his. But more politic, as their French connection shows.
Cheese-eating surrender monkeys is how the US street now thinks of the French, our old friends of freedom. The phrase is from The Simpsons, a Fox Network television cartoon serial much in vogue among literate adults. The new Archbishop of Canterbury declares this show »one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility and virtue.« The confluence of ecclesiastical wisdom and street smarts on the matter is interesting, indicative of something. The sense, humility, and virtue of ecclesiastical Anglo-Saxony are at odds with the surrender monkeys, heirs of les lumières. Yet both parties forthrightly condemn this war on principle. What principle would that be? It is hard to discern common cause in the many principled objections to this war. Mostly they are pragmatic, a matter of national and economic self-interest. Moral outrage is dressed up in the garb of some principle or another wherever you turn. This much the opponents of war do have in common.
André Glucksmann, a reliably contrarian Left Banker, has just gone public with principled reservations about French policy in the matter of Iraq. This is a relief, as the spectacle of the illustrious gauche française making common cause with the most corrupt head of state in Europe invited suspicion. Could it be true what they say about the French? Mais non. Here comes Glucksmann to remind us of the virtues of thinking. He casts his objections to Chirac’s policy in terms of ›five cardinal sins‹. His ironic theology turns on the ›moral scandal‹ of the coalition of the unwilling. Since when do France, Russia, and Germany constitute a ›moral axis‹? This alliance of convenience, ›non-nyet-nein‹ as it’s being called, is all too evidently opportunistic. If international law does not apply to genocide in Chechnya, why does it apply all of a sudden in the case of Iraq? These are emperors without benefit of decent clothing. Their outrage at US policy amounts to an endorsement of Saddam’s rule of terror, which they deplore pro forma while selling the tyrant his arms. Glucksmann concludes that »Paris and Berlin are living on a cloud. That does not mean American strategists are infallible or that we have to hand them a blank check« (France’s five cardinal sins over Iraq, IHT online, 22 February 2003). Here is a surrender monkey who sees through hypocrisy. The reputation of French intelligence is safe in his hands.
A bill in the US House of Representatives changes the name of French fries on the menu in their in-house restaurant to Freedom fries. This blunt gesture is worthy of the distinction of the august body charged by the US Constitution with responsibility for declarations of war. Their deliberations on the matter last September avoided unseemly discussion on the way to authorizing the president to do as he pleased. Democrats, in particular, were unwilling to make much of a show of resistance. They punted, in football lingo, rather than making a political stand that might have saved the show. The horizon of war has put them on the defensive, as it always does. But it is a fact that a Gore presidency would never have brought us to this pass.
Anti-French sentiment is not limited to the corridors of power. It extends into the really serious business of commerce, where two thousand online customers of fromage.com have jumped ship. The French cheesemonger, interviewed on the radio, says he understands, and does not blame them. It is a moment of clarity in transatlantic relations. Americans who travel think of France as a good place to eat. They don’t speak French and don’t want to, mostly. Their disregard of cultural difference is a Philistine way of patronizing their hosts. It is inevitable, even refreshing, that they should now turn away from Old Europe. Such a declaration of independence is an affront that the French cannot be expected to ignore. They are anti-American in response.
But in fact they always were, and they usually said so, to their credit. Many would have been comfortable under the aegis of a Third Reich. Beneath their patronage of jazz and the blues, they dislike the protestant ethic of work and gain. But Americans could care less what the French think; they hardly have time to dislike Europe. So anti-Americanism, about which a great deal of ink is being spilled, doesn’t matter much. This is a measure of the real divide across the North Atlantic. It is an ocean, not a pond. Europeans have always known this, but it suited their purposes in the twentieth century to ignore it. Now that an abyss has opened up, everyone can stop play-acting. At least the truth is a matter of public record, and we can respond accordingly.
For those who have looked to France and Germany for social democratic inspiration, it is a time of trial. Are we just cheese-eating surrender monkeys?
A Moment of Truth for the World, 17 March 2003
This histrionic moment has been in the cards from the start, and everybody knows it. The drama is pure theater, and this is a bad actor. But the ultimatum to Saddam to stand down or be driven out is a first in US history. We are declaring publicly ourselves an aggressor nation. This at least is momentous. George W. Bush is free at last. Free of the United Nations Security Council. Free of the framework of international law. Free of the ›non-nein-nyet‹ axis of chronic contrarians. Learning to work with the international community was always going to be too hard for a man gifted with such evangelical self-righteousness. The president’s performance is a classic moment of ex cathedra gun-slinging. He is preaching to the converted, his reliable fundamentalists. Early returns suggest that they are convinced. Their churches profess to deplore the use of the force, but there is real appetite for war among the Christian Coalition types who have his ear.
The next morning I run into Giovanna, a cantatrice from Bologna. She has lived here for thirty years and feels herself American enough to be apologetic about the war. We were cut out of the political process, she thinks, by their appeal to patriotism. But this did not do the trick in the 1960s. ›Love it or Leave it‹ was the fundamentalist anthem then, a bumper sticker sound-bite that will never go away. Binaries like this are the stuff of religious fanaticism: us and them, with us or against us. USA: Love It or Leave It appears in a local demo in support of the war today. But this patriotic turn is not widespread, even among such homespun folk. It is nothing like the period after 9/11, when US flags were flown everywhere, for the first time since Vietnam. Patriotism appears to have become a bit of an embarrassment to the Republicans, given the Bush/Cheney record of avoidance in Vietnam days. Their patriotism never involved their risking their own skins, or those of their children. That was for the little people.
But bashing Bush in this way is too easy, a slam dunk; it does not resemble thinking and will not produce change or even meaningful dialogue, which is the most we can hope for now. In the public mind, he is going to Baghdad to settle an old score. Saddam did not honor the terms of his unconditional surrender in 1991, and the United Nations cannot hold him to it because of French intransigence. Resolutions 678, 687, and 1441 authorized the use of force in the event of Iraqi non-compliance. But the French have made it clear that they will never permit it, reneging on Dominique de Villepin’s clear and distinct idea of the implications of 1441 in particular. What makes the Quai d’Orsay the final arbiter of such things? The party of Chirac is an accidental victor like Bush, produced by the meltdown of the French left. He is their man as Bush is ours. He was directly involved in selling Saddam, for many billions of francs, and to his own immense profit, the Osirak nuclear reactor which Israel destroyed in a preemptive strike decried by the same French left, among many others. Iraq’s debts mean that he is in their pocket, Saddam’s brother in arms. Manus manum lavat.
Against this background, I am obliged to recognize that the behavior of the international community, as it is being called, would have driven Bill Clinton to similar measures, though more effective diplomacy would have kept matters from coming to shooting. Clinton supports the war, under the circumstances, and so does the Senator from New York, his wife. They are the liberal establishment, and their party is in disarray as usual; it will take losses both ways for its qualified support of Gulf II. There is nowhere to hide from the rising conviction that this is a serious political mistake, as Vladimir Putin is calling the invasion avant la lettre.
Driving in town, I see a veteran marching down the road with a US flag and an old dog named Chester. The two are a pitiful sight, a couple of strays. I stop to take a picture and ask what he’s doing parading up and down. It did not start yesterday; he has been at it for thirteen years. A Vietnam veteran with nowhere to go, he is a figure of the fate of old soldiers, like his miserable beagle. His flag decals are antiques, like his patriotism, used up by history.
Operation Iraqi Freedom 20 March 2003
The battle is enlisted with a salvo fired into a private compound in Baghdad, at the end of the 48 hour grace period conferred on the Saddamites by George W. Bush. Some unknown party deep in the Iraqi establishment has phoned in the location of the first family and its entourage. Missiles are dispatched, destroying a private home southeastern Baghdad, and there is some question about Saddam’s survival. The attack is a surprise, coming as it does well in advance of the show of force widely advertised by an administration not known for sharing information about anything. So all bets are off. The war may be over before it is enlisted. Or the psychological war we have heard so much about may be the main event.
We are all glued to televisions and the web now, trying to find out what is happening half way around the world. There is an information surplus, but also a delay of a couple of days in what comes to our eyes and ears. This information delay, which is widely felt, produces a sort of vacuum in our conversations. The sun comes out for an hour; spring is just starting in the north country. Students are subdued – this is their first war, and they don’t feel like talking about it. When they do they are mostly skeptical about the whole business of conducting war in remote parts, though there is support for US troops. This duplicity is observed everywhere. We are against the war because it is glaring evidence of US hegemony in a world that does not like negotiating with a single superpower. Americans do not enjoy being despised for their power, which most of them, in fact, do not feel they dispose of. They dislike bloodshed. The expense of war is damnable. But they want the boys to succeed, to dump Saddam, to finish the job, to leave us all alone.
Is this just plain hypocrisy? A poll released today shows that 34% of the US public feels some fear of terrorist repercussions; 65% feel none. They are feeling it in Houston, though, where they know they are the belly of the monster. There are sure to be consequences. Nobody up north seems very concerned about them. Yet the mood is somber, like the weather, and beneath the surface there is concern about everything else – the failing economy, management of the university. To me this suggests gnawing anxiety, a low-grade war-fever of a kind I recognize from the Vietnam era so long ago. They are taking it in their nervous system instead of dealing with it as politics. In trying to initiate dialogue with students I realize that they would like to talk through the issues, but do not know how to deal with differences of opinion. These they take personally. One student reports that she was accosted in a WC in Toronto and told by a Canadian girl that the US was making a terrible mistake with the war. She did not know how to respond, though she was herself against the war.
There have been constant demonstrations against the war here. They involve not only students but workers, military veterans, members of the Michigan legislature based in Lansing. Counter-demonstrations by supporters of the Bush policy have been feeble by comparison. This is Democratic Party heartland, and Bush’s war is as unpopular here as his father’s was. Faculty are encouraged to bring it up in their classes, to teach students how to think about these things. Some who have done so have received anonymous death threats. A student of mine reports that during last night’s evening class the lecturer began by asking »›so is anybody for this war?«‹ In the current climate, such a coercive line is apt to be counter-productive. Political Correctness, child of the Rainbow Coalition forged by the Rev. Jesse Jackson among others, has become a political embarrassment through its failure to be political instead of merely dogmatic. What’s left of the left is trying to rise to the occasion, but it is hamstrung by its long alienation from the very people it needs to be talking to. In the event, it is successful in turning out protestors, but not very successful at winning over the politically uninformed.
Shock & Awe 21 March 2003
The name of this hubristic operation has a hollow ring. The association of ›shock‹ with Simmel and Benjamin on the metropolitan subject, and of ›awe‹ with the sublime of philosophical aesthetics, makes war sound like modernist theory. The linear effect produced by the precision bombing of Baghdad were apparently designed for reporters lodged on the other side of the Tigris, with the television audience in mind. It is all about spectators and spectacle, how the thing is seen. This is the basis of psychological warfare: winning is in the eye of the beholder. From a distance, ›shock & awe‹ looks like a light show, the stage of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco’s summer of love. Call it cool war.
But of course it is not cool in the streets of Baghdad. There is much commentary on the light civilian casualties. These laser-guided strikes are different from the bombing of Hamburg or Dresden, where 97 per cent of bombs missed their targets, we are told. That involved deliberately punishing civilians; this involves deliberately sparing them while destroying the urban fabric that supports them. If this sounds a distinction without a difference, consider the eye of the beholder. Creative destruction is the operative concept. The phrase is often used to describe the processes of capitalist wealth-formation. ›Destruction‹ in this context is supposed to be good despite the pain, a little like the sublime, at least from the spectator’s point of view.
Is the bombing of Baghdad sublime? The destruction of the second tower of the World Trade Center, orchestrated to capture a world-wide audience of live viewers attracted by the destruction of the first tower a few minutes earlier, has been described in these terms. Truly shocking it certainly was, and perhaps awesome in the old sense of awful, inspiring awe. The bombing of Baghdad is shocking but hardly awesome. Unless you are the CNN commentator who has to translate the living experience for televisions viewers five thousand miles away. For him, the exhaustion of the sublime is an aesthetic problem.
Calling it ›shock & awe‹ gives away the game. Without the element of surprise, we can hardly be expected to feel shock at such a distance. We have been expecting this, and when it happens it looks a little theoretic, like a disaster movie. We have to remind ourselves that real lives are at stake. It is all very different from Gulf I, when the sight of bombs landing on Baghdad, broadcast live by night, was shocking and even a little awesome.
War Junkies 23 March 2003
For domestic spectators, the war is supposed to be addictive. How else to account for the wall-to-wall media coverage, with divisions of retired generals doing running commentary on every day’s events? The drama of commencement is a sort of overture, even if the sneak previews of shock and awe take something off the effect. The anticipated bombardment of Baghdad was a ruse. Instead, it is Blitzkrieg up the gut of Iraq from the Persian Gulf. With extended firefights from Umm Qasr to Basra, the war is off to a rough start. The specter of a prolonged engagement brings Vietnam back into the story. There is some gnashing of teeth about it in the media, and a good deal of Schadenfreude on the part of the European contrarians.
How to watch the war? CNN is broadcasting it 24/7, cashing in on the reputation it made during Gulf I for live coverage. But the other television networks have caught up in the mean time, and MSNBC, a cable news outlet affiliated with Microsoft, is providing constant coverage as well. The war has been corporatized; you expect them to be selling t-shirts showing Bill Gates smiling in camouflage. Instead, the tense faces of Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour register the stresses of the moment. They show how we are supposed to respond. But the rise of the web means that information circulates through other channels than it did in 1991. There is intense interest in the problems of representing warfare, and a constant drumbeat of political backlash at the way the story is being constructed. This is postmodern war, fought psychologically for media consumption. The correspondents are the combatants who count. They are embedded in active military units by Defense Department design, and they are dying with them. Their dispatches are colored by the special stresses of aggressive battle.
Al Jazeera, the new kid on the media block, turns out to be the story behind the story. For the Arab world is seeing a quite different war, through lenses that focus on the people of Iraq caught between two armies. Playing to its audience’s sympathies for victims of war, Al Jazeera features scenes of bloody mayhem that are entirely missing from domestic media sources. Outrage over the way this invasion is depicted as naked aggression becomes a staple of home-front network coverage. Attacking the Arab take on the war is now a part of the job for the domestic media, a patriotic demonstration of allegiance. This is the wave of the future for a media establishment that trades on human tragedy as its source of public authority and private profit. Without innocent victims, there would be nothing left for them but congressmen with dirty linen – what Wolf Blitzer was covering, in fact, before 9/11 saved him from banality. Al Jazeera provides such reporters with an offshore target, an itch to scratch their outrage over. But as events develop, footage from Al Jazeera is cut into domestic broadcasts every day. It is their back yard, after all, and their sources are often the best available. With a captive audience of some 24 million, they are the wave of the future. CNN is already beginning to seem yesterday’s news, and this is itself an event.
As the war begins, the annual Academy Award extravaganza is running in prime time on network television. The show goes on; Hollywood is a factory town, and this is business as usual. Michael Moore, the Michigan native who shot Bowling for Columbine, a trenchant film about the US gun culture, wins an Oscar just in time to ventilate his own outrage in public. Before the audience of his peers which voted him the award for best independent feature, he bellows for shame of the US invasion. This too is a defining moment, coming as it does as the war is getting underway, before a large national audience. Reactions to his Pavarotti voice and figuriccia are surprisingly mixed. Dustin Hoffman is captured by the television cameras making a wryly dismissive face. Once Moore is off-stage, the Master of Ceremonies makes a lame joke about him being stuffed into a limousine trunk by men in dark suits. It is a joke with a point; the war is serious business, and the media are keeping a straight face. The course of events having been decided by the authorities, protest is definitely unwelcome, even in Hollywood, home of pinko socialist fellow-travelers.
For spectators looking for a more complex picture of what’s happening on the front, the web provides a refuge. The Independent is particularly astute in adopting a line sympathetic to the Iraqi people from within the UK, a very reluctant aggressor nation. Robert Fisk is quickly gang-pressed into the party line. But Saddam really is a monster, and the case against Tony Blair’s cause is a vote for the continuance of Baathist atrocities, from genocide of Kurds by poison gas to mass executions of Shiite dissenters. There is no middle way; Saddam has made sure of that, confident in his ability to manipulate the UN Security Council through France and Russia. He will live or die by the logic of the binary, and so will those in the western media for whom the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Fisk negotiates this unforgiving divide with impassioned stories of civilian casualties, castigating the failure of US policy to win the hearts and minds of the region. At least Saddam lives there, or so Fisk would lead us to understand, for he has no alternative to offer to the status quo. His dogged opposition seems contrived to encourage the policy of the Bush administration by default. In Fisk’s binary world, such non-intervention translates into support for Saddam.
Elsewhere on the web, independent sources abound. But who knows what to believe? Blogs are something new, private websites kept by interested parties, some of them within Iraq. One diarist records the opening shots of the war, registering the terror that must have been felt all over the city. This brings the spectacle down to street level. He writes in English of the agony of the civilian population under fire, but confirms the precision of targeted missile strikes. It is a relief to learn that the claims of General Franks are not merely apologetic. He isn’t Bomber Harris doing Leipzig, a kind of atrocity the US public would not tolerate, given its doubts about going into Iraq in the first place. Nobody wants blood on their hands. But short of that, anything goes, including terror in Baghdad, so long as we do not have to go through it ourselves. It is this terror that comes through the blogs based there. But there are open doubts about the identity of the blogger. Is he putting out propaganda? And if so, for whom? Such scepticism is addressed on one site in these terms: if you do not believe me, stop reading. In the end, the private experience comes to seem beside the point of the demonstration being mounted on the ground. This is geopolitics and tout le reste n’est que la littérature.
Just Following Orders 24 March
A retired career military officer on PBS this morning urges support for US troops at war. This is the progressive channel; he is personally opposed to the war but is concerned about the hypocrisy involved in sending these men and women to do the dirty work while we sit safely at a distance deploring the mayhem they wreak on the long-suffering people of Iraq. We owe them our support, he argues with quiet force, even if we think the war is ill-advised.
Here at last is public recognition of the difficulty of protesting against a war that the soldiers did not start, and which many of them do not want. The case of the US staff sergeant who grenaded his own men while they were sleeping in tents recalls the fragging, so-called, of officers by their own foot-soldiers at the end of the Vietnam debacle. Media reports of protest against the war over the weekend by US military veterans confirms that this is a war nobody really wants. There are concurrent reports of deep unrest at the CIA, in the Pentagon, and at the State Department. Intelligence officers have been told to fabricate evidence of Iraqi complicity with Qaida operatives, and to exaggerate claims of Saddam’s weapons production. The president has gone public with such claims, flying in the face of scant evident. Forged documents are involved, apparently. This is war by hypothesis, and there is mutiny in the ranks of the professionals. Three resignations of career officers at State are perhaps less surprising, given the tradition of sympathy with the Arab cause there.
Five US soldiers captured outside Nasiriya yesterday are displayed on Al Jazeera. One of them replies to the question of why he is in Iraq by saying »because I was told to come here«. This is too formulaic to mean much, but it is not without significance. The looks of this hapless lot are suggestive of the new faces of front-line soldiering: a black female alongside an Hispanic youth, among others. This is their job, the work they can find. Devil take the hindmost, and blame the losers for the consequences. If there are atrocities, it will be their fault. The economic view turns them into an abject lumpenproletariat, pitiful rather than heroic, cogs in the wheel of a military machine. But media publicity glorifies them as individuals whose destinies are bound up with patriotic allegiance to their country. The disparity is glaring - an ideological fissure, indicative of something wrong at the heart of the matter. There is genuine national feeling in the land of the free, but complexity at every turn. All men may be created equal, in the immortal formula of our Declaration of Independence, but some are more than equal than others, and it is a fact that the Bushes, Cheneys, and Rumsfelds do not fight in such hypothetical wars as this one.
Bush Knew 1 April 2003
A friend living in San Francisco writes – »The War. I have been to two big demonstrations, which is amazing since I am basically an agoraphobe. My cynicism about the administration’s motives for this war is so much more immense and dark than the emotions that fueled our opposition to the Viet Nam war. When Bush was installed through a judicial coup, he clearly had no agenda beyond enriching his cronies and paying off his debts to the far right. People were starting to sense this when 9/11 came along. Although I don’t go that far, I understand why people stencil Bush Knew (about 9/11) on the streets of San Francisco. This terrible event was manna from heaven for him. He had stature (if you didn’t look too close) and a purpose. The glow faded and now they’re trying to re-ignite it by equating Iraq with Bin Laden and then invading. I don’t have to go on.«
Cultural paranoia is the name for this immense and dark fear arising from a sense of sinister forces, out of sight but never quite out of the mind of the politically alert citizen. Such fear was abroad in the second Nixon administration, when it appeared that he had consolidated power beyond being checked by other elements in government. He became a kind of lightning-rod for public apprehension. This is hardly a uniquely American phenomenon, but it is an index of things that it is stalking us again. Latent Destinies, Patrick O’Donnell’s suggestive book on the circulation of malignant paranoia in US narrative from the Kennedy assassination to the postmodern novel, bears mention in this connection. We are given to these suspicions of conspiracy. Foucault’s attacks on the institutions of the modern state, from the prison of surveillance to the asylum and the clinic, are very much in this spirit. ›La grande peur‹, as he called it early on in his career, is the dark, hidden face of the empire of reason. Appeasing it is essential to the well-oiled operation of the machine of state.
What did Bush know, and when did he know it? How much of this war plan was scripted twenty years ago by Richard Perle? Only yesterday this Hobbesian type was obliged to stand down from an advisory position to the administration in order to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest. Is there really any difference between the purposes of a Halliburton and those of the American state? Fascism, it is well-known, involves the confluence of an all-powerful state and corporate interests. On his way out, President Eisenhower warned famously of dangers of the emerging Military-Industrial Complex, recognizing openly what we have come to know as the power of corporate capital in a republic that is far from a model democracy. Among individualists of the libertarian sort, government power was always felt to be the source of all evil. But the government has turned out to be the last refuge for a measure of democratic control over the means of production, distribution, and exchange. Public fear is now directed, accordingly, at Wall Street scheming, shaky initial public stock offerings, and the salaries of corporate executives. All are felt to be conspiring to undermine the economic foundations of the country. These are the real sources of gnawing anxiety about the future. Saddam hardly figures, by comparison.
Against this background, getting the public to accept that Iraq represents a real threat has been uphill work for the administration hawks, led by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. The public apprehensions that followed 9/11 had to be associated somehow with Saddam’s Iraq, and turned into an immediate threat. But once such contagious anxiety is out of the bottle, it is readily diverted into other channels. Paranoia is a volatile political substance; if they terrify their public, the terror is quite likely to be turned against them, as it is in ›Bush knew‹, the San Francisco line. The war is now going well enough now to make the Iraqi threat look like a paper tiger. Will the masters of war fall victim, their turn, to public anxiety about obscure corporate machinations?
Allah Akbar 4 April 2003
Saddam invokes Allah in his pronunciamenti to the Iraqi people in their time of trial. May Allah preserve us against this enemy, he prays. By now we are used to the forms of words, but they still sound amiss in the mouth of this secular Sunni tribal chieftain, notoriously at odds with Qaida and the fundamentalists in Iran. His politic conversion to Islam and his public display of piety are strangely reminiscent of George the Son. Both are speaking to the converted.
»Religion is behind it,« an Italian Catholic priest is said to have exclaimed, on hearing of the attacks of 9/11. Only religion could generate such hatred. The wars of religion were proverbial blood-baths, exercises in settling old scores. Now we know what that was all about. Religion was always binary: us against them. It was professedly the enemy of knowledge as we know it, of science. And of course it was always a hideout for the spirit of faction. Two thousand years into the Christian calendar, it remains very much our problem. Should we suppress the monasteries, turn out the monks, break up the icons, burn down the mosque? It’s been done. Religion will not go away just because it outrages the modern mind. In fact it provides the only real refuge from the modern mind. That is the secret of its survival. The bog priests are involved in a Gramscian war of position against modernity.
Because it is essentially binary, religion invites summary dismissal. If we are not one of them, we are infidels, enemies of the true faith. And they are it. How do we avoid going there? The logic of binaries, mother of dialectic, cannot be so readily circumvented. Binary thinking is endemic, perhaps hard-wired, like our cybernetic contraptions. The wars of religion we shall always have with us, therefore, in one form or another.
On this day US tanks parade into Baghdad, killing a couple thousand street fighters at the expense of a single tank and one soldier. The disproportion is stunning, even offensive. What sort of war is it in which Achilles takes out Hector without looking back to reflect on the kill? The Iraqi enemy does not have a face, nor even a corpse. Nobody is keeping count. He is more like a Super Mario Brother. This too is in the logic of the binary. How to respond to the provocation of the binary? Declare war on it: this is the wisdom of the US tribe. The history of the conquest of the frontier underwrites this move. If the native makes himself your enemy, smite him. But only after he declares you the Other. US policy has always been reactive in this way, adopting the antithetical role, placing the blame squarely on the back of the agent provocateur. But who is the invader of Iraq? In a dialectical reversal, we are now the instigating party. Something has changed, and the change is momentous.
›Blitzkrieg‹ is the order of the day. It is not only Iraqi foot-soldiers who are dodging fire. Nobody loves a loser. Staying on the winning side is essential for political continuance, in the Arab world as in the west. A professor of politics at Georgetown University in Washington DC comes on CNBC to explain that the most remarkable event of the war has been the quiescence of the Arab street. He is Arabic himself; the apologetic air is unmistakable. Demonstrations against the war in Egypt and elsewhere in the region have been suppressed by the authorities. But, he says, there have been no »incidents«, meaning uprisings or terrorist actions. The spin begins. The truth is that the Arab street was very visibly encouraged by early resistance to the coalition’s incursion into Basra. There were celebrations in the streets throughout the Middle East. Once again, as in 1991, when Arafat enlisted on the side of Saddam, the party of sentimental Arab nationalism is exposed as a pack of losers. And once again, in the wake of Arafat’s political rehabilitation by Bill Clinton, this party has come up empty-handed. Palestinian joy at news of the events of 9/11 has turned to ashes in the hands of the Arab street.
The Independent runs revisionist commentary over the by-line of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, an Anglo-Arabic journalist who has been hostile to the Prime Minister from the very outset: Bush is right: this is not a clash of civilisations (7 April 2003), the title reads. But that is all he is right about, on a morning when British forces are reported to have discovered a warehouse of truck-mounted missiles tipped with VX nerve gas, among other things. The façade of moral opprobrium is collapsing, and with it the binaries are being deconstructed. »The reality is that more non-Muslims than Muslims have protested against the war thus far,« she writes, meaning that it is not so much Islam that is the loser here as the universal Left. It is true that strenuous objections to the logic of the binary on the part of western progressives have produced a novel situation. A television interview with an Afghan father whose Taliban-affiliated son was killed by US forces on the ground there reinforces this point, an important one. He does not believe that the war is against Islam because there have been protests all over the world, he explains, and not only in Muslim populations, against US interventions of this kind.
The protesting has not been ineffectual, after all. It has undone the crusading binary of Christians versus Moslems by redistributing allegiance and affiliation. The crusade is no longer seen as against Islam, but against the wretched of the earth, as it appears on the ground to Chechens, Baathist national socialists, and fundamentalist Muslims excluded from effective moral agency and even meaning, according to Alibhai-Brown. But ›meaning‹ for political Islam is hegemony; the radicals have taught us that domination is ›the nature of Islam‹. Alibhai-Brown’s secular left turn against the old binaries is a predictable enough instant revision, while the Arab press continues to focus on the ›clash of civilizations,‹ the thesis of Samuel Huntington, the US historian and commentator. Muslims appear very committed to their religious understanding. They will withdraw into their ancient ritual habits, spurning the politics of modernity that Alibhai-Brown would like them to embrace, because it is absolutely alien to their traditions and culture. She is trying to find a way forward for progressive attitude in a world which has gone another way. The Eternal Left is left with Religion.
Letter from Austin, 9 April 2003
The sack of Baghdad is underway as I return to Texas with my daughter. This time it’s Austin, the state capital, where George the Son was Governor, 1994-2000, preparing for his occupancy of the family seat of power in Washington. It is said that his brother Jeb, now the Governor of Florida, is next. He was always considered the heir apparent. The incumbent is accidental in this way as well, ›l’idiot de la famille‹ turned unexpectedly successful. He is crowing publicly that Saddam »knows now that he meant what he said«. There is a note of personal vindication in this, as though he expected his mother to overhear him.
A family guest who had never set foot in Texas describes her first impressions of Austin. There are many taxidermists, she notices, and short-term storage facilities everywhere for people on the run. She is a native of Iran, the daughter of US diplomatic service officers; she spent seven years in East Africa as an adult with relief agencies. Her anthropological eye shows clearly in her take on the local condition. Austin lies somewhere between the Wild West and the New World Order, both of them restless and gun-happy. It is intensely provincial, a sort of Stuttgart set in limestone hills, and very prosperous. People come here from all parts of the US for the live music scene, the last whiff of the 1960s. The current t-shirt in town reads KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD. But it is not so much weird as intelligent, mostly because it is home to the University of Texas, the best in the south. In a state renowned for merely political intelligence, Austin’s cosmopolitan outlook is distinctive and attractive. Fifty years ago it was a hot, dusty country town. Today it is Silicon Valley South.
Attitudes to the war are split. NO WAR IN IRAQ reads a large sign on the side of a van in the Central Market parking lot. There have been large demos against the war from the start, but nothing is stirring this weekend. Letters to the local newspaper tell a different story, of broad public support for the US troops in Iraq. But the tone is mostly apologetic, as though everybody knew the war was an adventure and there was nothing left to say in defense of it. This attitude is widespread among traditional conservatives, to judge by what I heard from family in Austin. They don’t want to talk about it because they feel in their bones that aggressive war is impolitic. They do not wish to pay for being the world’s policeman, as they are in Iraq. They know that it will come out of their taxes, a theme that Democrats are sure to exploit in the presidential election next year, when John Kerry is expected to oppose Bush.
Kerry is an anti-war Vietnam veteran, a Kennedy-style Senator from Massachusetts. It is an interesting paradox that the real soldiers dislike the Iraq adventure, while their draft-dodging peers like Vice-President Cheney, who »had other things to do«, as he said when asked about his non-service in the military at that time, are furious warmongers. Traditional conservatives are more or less against any entanglements with the world outside the lower 48. They have their eye on the financial ball, and they do not see this war helping a badly sagging domestic economy. George the Son may thus end like his father, popular enough yet put out of office through mismanagement of the economy.
Why don’t these conservatives make common cause with the protesters? They wouldn’t dream of it; they would rather fall silent than join in the parade. The fault line in US politics now isolates the America First conservatives by associating them with the party of protest, which they loathe. Both are basically isolationist, fearing the consequences of war, though for different reasons. Together, these constituencies could vote the neo-conservatives out of office next year, but it will take a new model of Democrat to do the trick, and none is in sight. Günter Graß has been on television here blaming it all on the incumbent president, and looking forward to a less personal, more diplomatically able leader in the US. But traditional conservatives prefer war to Democratic presidencies. At bottom, their dislike of Clinton and Company is deeply personal. It has less to do with the politics than with the man and his aura. The cultural anomie of the Hollywood liberals makes them feel thick, like Gilda Radner Dana the KCa’s Church Lady in the Saturday Night Live skit. Their Christianity is largely conventional, a matter of cultivating a clientele of like-minded individuals. Protestant Christianity, with its ethic of getting on in life, was bound to come to this sort of free-for-all, and to aggressive war in the name of higher purpose. War is not only good for the national spirit, it is good for business – if the two can be distinguished at all.
It’s not the cost, it’s the upkeep 17 April 2003
Peter McPherson, president of the university from which I write, is hired to go to Baghdad to arrange for the new Iraqi currency. He is an old hand in the foreign policy arena, the former Director of the Agency for International Development (AID) in the Reagan administration.
After that, he was Vice-President for International Operations, Bank of America, San Francisco. McPherson is a connection of Vice-President Cheney and was supposed to have been Bush’s appointment to Secretary of Education. This is the face of technocratic power at work in US universities now: pragmatic rather than academic, building a New World Order without much reflection on the consequences of imposing freedom on societies whose history has not prepared individuals for the burdens of modern citizenship.
This morning, chalked on the entrance to an administration building on campus, are the words WE DON’T WANT WAR CRIMINALS RUNNING OUR UNIVERSITY. The neo-conservatives have effectively courted public opinion on the home front, but a sizable party of dissent remains unconvinced. Weapons of mass destruction have not been located, and doubts are growing about the real threat posed by whatever means Saddam’s regime may have disposed of. The legality of an aggressive war is no longer much discussed; it’s water under the bridge. But resistance will mount as the costs of a long occupation become apparent to US voters.
My liabilities as a commentator, against the background I have tried to sketch here, will have struck the alert transatlantic reader. I never thought this war was about oil, despite the oil business bias of the incumbent administration and its Houston connections. But perhaps I take for granted the power of petroleum in politics. The correlation of the price of Standard and Poor Index of 500 Stocks with the price of a barrel of crude oil is surprising, and significant. If oil from Iraq becomes plentiful, as the fall in prices during Gulf II suggests that it will, the effect on the stock market will help George II out with his election next year. The oil nexus makes great political commentary, and of course the background of both the president, a failed small-time oil man, and his vice-president, who was Chief Executive Officer of Halliburton Corporation in Dallas, points in this direction. This outfit has been in the thick of bidding on contracts for the post-war reconstruction of the industry in Iraq. The suggestion of insider trading is too much for the moral rectitude of the Bush cohort, so appearances are being managed. But it is clear that much money will be made out of the reconstruction of Iraqi infrastructure destroyed by British and US bombing. It will be made by Americans, mostly Republicans, friends of the Bush family.
But the oil men are themselves only the operatives of a neo-conservative cohort with roots in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. George the Son was deliberately selected by Republican leaders to represent the interests of this hawkish party to the voting public. The oil angle is real, but its policy scope is limited by the complex game of oil pricing being played by OPEC, designed to forestall the development of alternative fuels. Serious money is made both ways out of the status quo, and by the leaders involved with maintaining it. Without its oceanic oil reserves the Middle East would have been firmly planted on the remotest outskirts of modernity. Oil has disturbed the long sleep of the Arab world in ways that it is impossible not to regret. The dreaming spires of Moorish Seville and the great mosque of Cordoba are deeply evocative of a world of serene and harmonious proportion - a world I wish I could join. Moses Maimonides, apostle of reason in faith and tolerance in religion, lived and worked here until the Jews were driven out by Islamic fundamentalists. But that was long ago, and Riyadh is not Cordoba.
The projection of power, ›Shock‹ and ›Awe‹, is what Gulf II has been all about. »This was a war designed to change the nature of American foreign policy, military policy, and even the national character,« Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times as soon as the conclusion was in view. An adventure, in other words, conducted in the spirit of improving the world. In the wake of the ignominious collapse of the Baathist boot-boys, European foreboding about the consequences of going into Iraq sounded like resistance to change. Joschka Fischer sensed this, and began his rapprochement with the new masters of war in Washington as soon as the bombing commenced, conceding that US intentions were »absolutely non-imperialistic«. Such a proposition involved a tortuous translation of aggressive war into something more benign - a wish and a hope perhaps more than a settled conviction. It was reported only in passing in this country.
In retrospect, it appeared that those who argued Saddam could be contained were fooling themselves, or playing his game for other purposes. The Russians needed their money, some $8-12 billion worth, out of Saddam’s regime; this was the real source of their support for him, and everyone saw it behind Putin’s facade of adherence to international law. The French were using the occasion to play the Gaullist card of triangulation against US power. Chirac was forthright about this once he reneged on his promise to vote to enforce UN Resolution 1441. Here was the knife in the back that everyone recognized as the authentic note of the Quai d’Orsay. Germany’s reluctance to support enforcement of 1441 was complex, involving fears that exposure of their material contributions to Saddam’s regime would compromise their moral superiority, still smarting from the twentieth-century experience of war crime. But it was taken here in the US as a reasonable reluctance to be drawn into needless conflict, given the liabilities of the German record at war. Reasons of state were involved in each case, as they were in the US case for pressing Saddam on disarmament.
For years before the fall of the Berlin wall, Noam Chomsky was arguing that the real enemies of US power were not in the east bloc but in the west. The real war was for economic and cultural ascendency. These are two faces of the same development, as they were in the Spanish butchery of the natives of the Americas, the Mother of all Holocausts. Hollywood paves the way for Halliburton as the Church of Rome paved the way for the gold-diggers. The USSR was a pathetic fiction of an enemy, as Chomsky saw it years before the Berlin wall was turned into tourist trinkets. Look west to Britain, France, and Germany, then still basking in its Wirtschaftswunder, he urged. Look to Japan and Korea, and to the emerging economic powers, China and India. All represented threats to ascendent US interests. The USSR did not.
Whatever emerges in Iraq in the wake of Gulf II, the war has reinforced this battle for position in a new economic order of things. It has exposed the Western alliance as the cartel of convenience that it has become. The moralism of US policy as articulated by George W. Bush speaks to the condition of the forty per cent or so of Americans who self-identify as evangelical Christians. They represent a significant tranche of the electorate, and they vote, which is more than can be said of their progressive compatriots. Their sanctimonious puritanism strikes most of us as a dim-witted joke, but they take themselves very seriously, rather as the Taliban does, and their crusading is a shaping force in the evolution of US policy, both foreign and domestic. They oppose birth control at home and abroad. They see women as scripturally dedicated hand-maidens. They are anti-immigrant, anti-anything-foreign from culture to politics, militantly anti-Catholic. This Christian Coalition is the empire within. The very idea of its dictating US policy offends Europeans, and most educated Americans. We are not going to be dragged back to the inquisition by the likes of the Reverend Franklin Graham, who pronounces Islam a »very evil and very wicked religion.« This cretinous minister of hatred was last seen poised on the Iraqi border, awaiting the main chance to convert the Islamic infidel, in the service of his own salvation.
Religion and politics are two sides of the same social coin, and not only in the Bible Belt. Gulf II was a return volley in the new wars of religion much more than it was an oil war like its predecessor, Gulf I. Neo-conservatives made Iraqi intransigence on weapons of mass destruction the occasion to assert US power in a crusade against hostile elements of the Arab world. Here is where the fundamentalists played their card, through a president who understood their way of thinking and their political power. Reaction against their simplistic pieties has set in domestically as well as internationally. Fallout from Iraq will be an albatross around the neck of neo-conservatives for a generation to come. They have won the battle but only begun the war for Araby. As the price of dominion becomes clearer, it is quite likely that traditional reluctance to be drawn into conflict in remote parts will reassert itself among US voters. There is room here for the EU to stake its claim on the future of international relations. It is important for the children of Iraq and America, as well as of Europe, that it assert itself more effectively than it did under French leadership in this exemplary crisis of American hubris.