Character

September 11, 2010

It was a beautiful, crisp fall day just like this one when my car topped the first span of the Pulaski Skyway and I saw the thick plume of black smoke stretching across New York Bay from the World Trade Center.

Lots of pundits talked about 9/11 as the day everything would change. As it turned out, not everything changed, but enough did. George W. Bush was transformed from an ethically and politically compromised pretend-president, tainted by a contemptible Supreme Court decision and slated for ejection after four years of looting, into a delusional world conqueror who led America into a moral cesspool of torture, lies, and manipulation. The day’s death toll was awful, but the most terrible consequence of  Osama bin Laden’s scheme was to give a free hand to an ugly cohort that never should have been allowed near the levers of power in the first place.

It’s been said that crisis doesn’t shape character, but it does reveal character. Click here to see the character of our mass-market media revealed. Click here to see the character of the political opportunists who still exploit the disaster revealed.

Not everything changed on 9/11, but some things did. America turned into something tainted in the eyes of the world, a nakedly predatory country tolerant of blatant lies and willing to give free rein to its worst impulses. For a lot of evil people, 9/11 was just another political day. They have yet to pay any kind of price for their manipulations and deceit. In fact, some of them are poised to get back into power. Osama bin Laden, wherever he’s hidden away these days, must be having himself a good laugh over that one.

Mission Accomplished

September 1, 2010

President Obama’s visit to Fort Bliss just before his speech on the withdrawal of most (not all) troops from Iraq was gracious and dignified. As this Grey Lady editorial notes, it was a welcome change from the behavior of the repulsive little creep who launched the war:

President George W. Bush tried to make Iraq an invisible, seemingly cost-free war. He refused to attend soldiers’ funerals and hid their returning coffins from the public. So it was fitting that Mr. Obama, who has improved veterans’ health care and made the Pentagon budget more rational, paid tribute to them.

Of course, before going on to state the obvious about this contemptible war, the Times has to pause and give the hippies a smack over Vietnam: “One of the few rays of light in the conflict has been the distance America has come since Vietnam, when blameless soldiers were scorned for decisions made by politicians.”

We hardly ever hear about the antiwar protestors who were shot, or beaten to a pulp by hard-hat rioters, or attacked by cops with batons and tear gas. But these yarns about hippies spitting on soldiers, like the fairy tales about Americans still being held prisoner by the evil Vietnamese, will always be with us. They are a peerless mechanism of control, to be used for corralling and isolating dissent, and control was what the Iraq invasion was all about. Not the control of Saddam Hussein — he was already penned in. The control of power in America.

Many fine, patriotic Americans opposed the Iraq invasion right from the start, and I salute them, now and always. Some opposed it out of pacifism. As for myself, I didn’t oppose the war out of pacifism: I opposed it because I can smell a rat. The stench of fraud and lies was thick in the air well before the “shock and awe” spectacle started, and it only increased over the months and years. But “support the troops” was the catch-all response to any criticism, and it worked. The public, scared stupid by 9/11, mostly went along with it. The Democrats who should have been the loyal opposition were cowed. The press, which should have been telling the truth about what was going on, failed (with some honorable exceptions) in this most important task. What an appalling show.

As a military operation, the invasion of Iraq was worse than a fiasco, but it was never a true military operation. There was no casus belli, no real threat to be expunged. I see no reason to doubt that the Iraq invasion was, from the start, a politically motivated spectacle meant to shore up the credibility of George W. Bush and give the Republican Party the whip hand in dealing with the Democrats. It certainly wasn’t meant to go on this long: I’m sure most of the war whores expected it to be done and dusted as quickly as the Nineties romp presided over by the president’s dad, only this time the political capital wouldn’t go to waste.

That’s not the way it turned out, of course, as is shown by the scorecard: some 4,400 Americans dead, another 35,000 wounded, and at least 100,000 Iraqis dead. But that “Mission Accomplished” banner turns out to have been quite correct. George W. Bush, whose presidency was made possible by only Supreme Court justices voting from the bench, got to play Caesar and win himself a second term in an office he didn’t deserve in the first place. The GOP got endless congressional clown shows with ink-stained fingers, and the freedom to turn the economies of the U.S. and Iraq into vast hog troughs of crony capitalism.

And none of the crooks who participated in this awe-inspiring scam has suffered for it. Bush, whose middle name should forever be “Waterboard,” will grow old with his millions. An entire administration that deserved to be led away in shackles for fouling  America’s good name and destroying its economy has not even been subjected to the mild inconvenience of a serious investigation.

Gracious and dignified behavior is not the proper response to what Bush and his cronies did to this country. They used America like a cheap hooker, and they got away with it. So give the hippies their due: they saw something was wrong, and they did something about it. For all the uglies, real or imagined, that might be laid at the feet of the Sixties protestors, they stood up and demanded answers to their questions. All this generation can do is avert its eyes, twiddle its  thumbs, and say “Let’s just move on, okay?”

Mission accomplished.

The Iraqi Prisoner

February 18, 2009

I’ve already noted how closely the actions of the Bush administration, and conservative fiscal policies in general, correspond to a venerable con game called the “Bust-out,” in which fraudsters pretending to take an interest in running a business use a down payment to gain access to the company’s credit lines and assets, then max out all the credit lines, sell off assets at fire sale prices, then clear out just before the deposit check bounces, leaving a bankrupted company hollowed out by unpayable debt.

Readings new stories of how U.S. contractors and military personnel appear to have siphoned off billions of dollars supposedly targeted for Iraq reconstruction projects, an even more venerable con game comes to mind: “The Spanish Prisoner,” in which the mark is induced to pay out large sums of money to secure the release of some unidentified prince being held overseas, in some vaguely defined location, with the understanding that the contribution will be returned tenfold when the grateful prisoner wins his freedom and showers his supporters with royal largesse. A variation of this con, known to police as “419 Fraud” or “Advance Fee Fraud,” has probably turned up in your e-mail – instead of liberating a prisoner, the pigeon is asked to help broker the release of a big pot of money in a West African bank. The target usually expects to get a phat return on the initial investment, but sometimes the con men are also milking the target’s idealism or charitable impulses. To get a picture of how it works, watch House of Games, David Mamet’s first and best film, in which the psychologist heroine is drawn into a long con with the promise of helping her patient get free of his gambling debts. (Though Mamet went on to make another film called The Spanish Prisoner, that con actually doesn’t figure in the plot, curiously enough.) Michael Caine’s character in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is also running a similar scam by convincing rich widows he’s a deposed prince trying to raise money for freedom fighters back home. 

The designation of Bush’s little Middle East killing spree as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was already a museum-quality specimen of Orwellian Newspeak when he rolled it out, but it becomes even more richly ironic when we consider how the American people were gulled into thinking that by throwing open their coffers to the Bush banditos, they could secure the liberation of the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator in a place many of them couldn’t have found on a map if they had a three-day head start. In return for pretending the whole thing was a John Wayne movie with extra sand on the sets, they would get cheap oil and a nice friendly regime that would recognize Israel and provide us with free military bases, along with the promised cascades of candy and flowers. Remember how we were told the whole thing would pay for itself once the good guys got their hands on all those oil wells? Those were the days, huh?       

Meanwhile, while Bush’s cronies went on looting with both hands here in the States, another team of con-men (maybe even some freelancers — who could tell, with so much money flying around?) tapped into the tsunami — one might even call it the surge — of unmonitored cash flowing into the country. In return, we got a taxpayer-funded training ground for aspiring Islamist terrorists, a pseudo-government composed of crooks, religious fanatics and terrorist sympathizers (kind of like the GOP, when you think about it) and a host of brand-new regional worries that will plague the world long after Bush has strutted off to that great gated community in the sky.  

The only upside I can see to any of this is that political science students attempting to grasp the nature of conservatism need no longer waste any more time studying Friedman, Oakeshott or any of the other great minds of wingerdom. They need only read the latest e-mails from Nigeria, and everything they need to know about conservatism will become crystal-clear.

Weekend Bookchat

February 7, 2009

mideast-1

Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble: America in the Middle East surveys the actions of eight presidencies — from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush — and finds an almost unbroken line of ineptitude, mendacity, bad faith and hubris, from the Suez Crisis to Bush’s lie-driven campaign in Iraq. Tyler draws on newly available archival material and offers some jaw-dropping anecdotes from the history of America’s role in keeping the Middle East ablaze. The sainted Henry Kissinger, who still enjoys a baffling reputation as a master politician and diplomat, comes off particularly badly:

. . . Henry Kissinger, entrusted with a message from Nixon to Brezhnev calling for joint superpower action to end the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and then proceed to a just settlement of the Palestinian question, simply decided, in mid-flight to Moscow, not to deliver it. Nixon’s message, Tyler writes, “threatened to undermine the record Kissinger was seeking to create; that he and Nixon had run the Soviets into the ground and they had protected Israel”. The truth was that the Russian leaders had reacted cautiously and moderately when war broke out, and that Nixon himself had a statesmanlike grasp of what was necessary. But a joint US-Russian initiative “would have thrust Kissinger into the thankless and perilous task of applying pressure on Israel”. So he simply dumped the message. He later encouraged Israel to violate the ceasefire that was supposed to end hostilities so that it could better its military position. With these acts of disobedience – acts which were also, as Tyler says, arguably unconstitutional – Kissinger closed off the possibility that the 1973 war could have been ended on terms which would have left Israel in a less powerful position, making it more amenable to an ensuing push for a settlement by the Americans and the Russians.

Tyler also demonstrates  the problems caused by the “special relationship” between America and Israel:

Tyler does not go quite as far as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, for whom the Israel lobby lies at the heart of American foreign policy; but he is nevertheless a keen critic of the special relationship between the United States and Israel. Indeed, what is perhaps most striking is the constant American appeasement in the face of Israeli aggression. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sitting here watching it on CNN!” Reagan yelled down the telephone to Menachem Begin in 1982, after the Israeli leader had reneged on a promise not to bombard Beirut. But in typical fashion, Reagan did nothing about it – a pattern that has been repeated, by and large, ever since.

Meanwhile, Tyler writes that Bill Clinton fumbleda one-in-a-lifetime chance to capitalize on  “a great convergence: the end of the cold war, the advent of Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership and the PLO’s decision to recognise the Jewish state.” By letting himself be manipulated by Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Clinton tried to force a settlement and had the whole thing blow up in his face. He then blamed Yassir Arafat and everyone except himself for the collapse.

The manifold failures and disasters of the Bush administration have left Barack Obama with one hell of a mess to clear up, but one can only hope he might find time to read Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble. He might not be able to improve the situation, but as Tyler makes clear, simply not making things worse will put him miles ahead of his predecessors.

* * * * *

How did so many public fixtures come to be named after Ronald Reagan? How did so many people come to believe that this dozing fantasist, whose administration was a carnival of corruption and who presided over embarrassing military failures ,  single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union, reduced the size of governmentand revived the American economy through tax cuts and positive thinking?

Why, the  way just about everything else beloved of conservatives, from crackpot economic theories to fake bestsellers, comes into being: a small group of dedicated crusaders with access to wingbucks lobbied for them round-the-clock, then created the illusion they had come about through overwhelming public demand. Will Bunch, in his new book  Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future, chronicles the rise of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project in 1997, and argues that its rewriting of history (a creation of a fantasy version of a president whose legacy is, at best, highly debatable) is a hindrance to the present and fitire of America

* * * * *

The memoirs of a renowned editor give us a glimpse of a vanishing era in American publishing — and an amusing look at how a neocon blowhard got wild-man lessons from Norman Mailer. A cultural history of Americans and their automobiles.

Zbig Fun

December 31, 2008

Let’s start the last day of 2008 with a bit of lowdown fun as former national security Zbigniew Brzezinski smacks around winger hack Joe Scarborough during a talk about the ongoing horror in the Middle East. Brzezinski, a courtly and diplomatic man, tries to school Scarborough in a gentlemanly fashion, but finally gets tired of the hack’s blowhard spinning and says, “You know, you have such a stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on that it’s almost embarrassing to listen to you.” Scarborough’s petulant response is worth noting as well.

Nobody Likes Dubya

December 30, 2008

But it’s not his fault! He just couldn’t change the tone in Washington because of that darned recount business.

Of course it had nothing to do with him acting as though he’d won in a landslide, then proceeding to lie us into a war, let a city drown and generally screw things up.

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