American nightmare

Bush's presidency has been a historic disaster. There's still time to rectify his Iraq blunder -- but first, he has to go.

Topics: George W. Bush, Terrorism, Iraq war, Middle East, 9/11

American nightmare

“The pure products of America go crazy,” wrote William Carlos Williams. The words could serve as a motto for the age of Bush. In years to come historians will likely judge the Bush presidency one of the worst in the history of the republic — an amalgam of arrogance, radicalism and folly so egregious it’s almost laughable. Abandoning common sense in foreign affairs, weakening the rule of law, handing the nation’s wealth over to the super-rich, and squandering the friendship and sympathy of the world in rigid pursuit of a chimerical dream of a world that cannot threaten us, the Bush presidency has betrayed the nation’s deepest principles, both liberal and conservative.

Alarmed and outraged, half of a bitterly divided nation protested, but it did so alone. Cowed by 9/11 and intimidated by a right-wing media machine that wielded the flag like a spear, Congress and the media, the institutions that should have checked Bush’s mad rush to war, abandoned their posts until it was too late. From its dubious beginning to its fear-mongering, vote-suppressing end (one hopes), the Bush era has been a perfect storm in which all the worst aspects of our national temper — insularity, empty swagger and ignorance — have come together.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the whole sorry chapter has been the collapse of national memory and accountability. One outrage follows the next with dreamlike regularity, lies about aluminum tubes to 9/11 revelations to Ahmed Chalabi to Joseph Wilson to cooked intel to Abu Ghraib to illegal detentions to lost explosives, and nothing ever happens, no one is ever punished, everything is for the best in the best of all possible six-gun-brandishing worlds. In an age of reality-TV war, where nothing is asked of Americans except that they rage and fear on color-coded command, the death of responsibility offers a happy ending to all — except for those killed in Iraq.

Yes, everything changed after Sept. 11: The country lost its mind. Heretical as it is to say, the terror attacks proved that it is possible to overreact — more specifically, to react foolishly — to an attack that left 3,000 dead. Bush launched America upon a rash and pointless war that is likely to go down in history as one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. The war achieved exactly what it was designed to prevent: It has strengthened radical Islam and increased the number of terrorists. The explosives debacle at Al-Qaqaa perfectly encapsulates this bitter irony: We invaded Iraq to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of terrorists, but the invasion put those weapons in their hands. In Greek tragedy, this is a classic punishment for hubris. In “The Twilight Zone,” it’s a favorite plot twist. The Bush presidency has been a tale out of Aeschylus, adapted by Rod Serling.



When Bush invaded Afghanistan, the world approved. That failed state, run by a brutal theocracy that harbored al-Qaida, was a legitimate state target in the so-called war on terror. But when Bush expanded that “war” to include Iraq, he proved himself to be not a warrior but a crusader — a zealot who dragged the nation on a weird, obsessive quest that combined political calculation, nationalist fervor and anti-Arab ideology. With tawdry mendacity, that crusade (Bush actually called it that before advisors pointed out that the word could have negative associations in the Middle East) was sold to the American people as a preemptive act of self-defense, as Congress rolled over and the media credulously passed on lies and half-truths from “senior government officials.” The administration and its mouthpieces in the media shamelessly exploited the fear, patriotism and anger stirred by the 9/11 terror attacks to stifle serious debate about the war, painting opponents as Neville Chamberlains who lacked the backbone to fight “evil.”

Launched against a regime that posed no more threat than a host of others around the world, the Iraq war represented a radically lower standard for what constitutes a just war. As Eugenia C. Kiesling, a historian at the U.S. Military Academy, has written, “The Iraq war … was caused largely by the U.S. demand for unrealistically absolute security. Not since the Romans has any polity justified preventive wars on the grounds that no military threat be permitted to exist.” It was a gratuitous war, a strategic aggression whose grandiose goals — democratizing the Middle East, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, defeating “terrorism” — were bizarrely disconnected from reality.

The results of that bungled war have been catastrophic. Yes, we removed a loathsome dictator, a feat worthy of celebration, but the mountain of Iraqi bodies we are piling up in the process is growing so high — a reliable study claims 100,000 civilians have been killed in the war — and the future of that tortured land so dark, that it is no longer clear whether the invasion will ultimately be morally justifiable. (In the context of a war now justified as a liberation, the administration’s refusal to count civilian Iraqi casualties is disgraceful.) Even if Iraq staggers its way through and manages to establish some form of democratic governance, the United States will not be seen as a liberator. Too much Iraqi blood has been shed.

In any case, assessing the morality of this war requires looking beyond the fate of the Iraqis — a fact overlooked by the liberal hawks, intoxicated by the rare sensation of playing John Wayne in a fight with the bad guys. A nation’s first responsibility is to its own citizens. The price for saving Iraq — if in fact we end up saving it and not destroying it — has been to greatly strengthen radical Islam around the world, end the lives of more than a thousand Americans, and make America, and the rest of the world, less safe. That is not a price worth paying.

And what of Bush’s Utopian dream of transforming the Middle East? Making war, it turns out, is a highly problematic way of bringing heaven to earth.

The Iraq blunder has endangered America not just because we have exponentially multiplied the number of Muslims and Arabs willing to take up the sword of jihad against us — and given them a convenient failed state to work with — but also because we have weakened our standing in the world. By declaring ourselves exempt from irritating encumbrances like the United Nations and the Geneva Convention, Bush has essentially embraced the law of the jungle. Might makes right: If the U.S. government says someone is an “enemy combatant,” whether or not there is any evidence to support that claim, then he is one, and he has no rights. If the secretary of defense and the administration’s top legal advisors decide it’s acceptable to use torture to break “terrorists,” we will. (If they turn out not to be terrorists, but common criminals or innocent civilians, too bad for them.) The widespread torture of Iraqi prisoners and the suspension of due process at Guantánamo are dual blots on our national honor that may take generations to remove.

Of all the shameful episodes that have marked the “war on terror,” one of the worst — and least protested — has been the administration’s tacit admission that they had no case, and never had a case, against most of the Guantánamo detainees. Once the Supreme Court ruled against the administration’s claim that it had the right to do whatever it wanted with the detainees, it quietly folded its hand and began preparing to release them. Thus ended the Salem witch trials, not with a bang but a whimper.

From its insistence on cutting taxes for the rich in the middle of a war to its ugly environmental record to its hostility to science to its corruption of the intelligence community to its stealth assault on abortion rights, the Bush presidency has been an unmitigated disaster. But the inescapable subject is Iraq. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was not only the defining event of his presidency, but a hinge in time — an event so momentous that history arranges itself around it.

The administration justified the war as a necessary strike against Islamic terrorism. Its mantra is “9/11 changed everything”: The horrific image of the twin towers falling is the Bush administration’s visceral trump card. If Bush regains the White House, it will be because he has succeeded in convincing enough Americans that, as he argued in the debates, the best way to defeat terrorism is to take the fight to “the terrorists,” and that he alone, not the vacillating Kerry, has the guts to do that.

In the eyes of Bush and his supporters, the “war on terror” requires simplicity, not complexity; courage, not brains; patriotism, not alliance-building. For them, 9/11/01 was really 9/1/39; the planes hitting the towers were the Nazis invading Poland. You don’t think about the meaning of the Panzers, you react to them, hard and ruthlessly, across the board. Anyone who dreams that there is any alternative to a fight to the finish is a woolly-headed idealist. The hatred of the terrorists for us is implacable, metaphysical, as unchangeable as that felt by the Muslims for the Crusaders. Any sign of weakness on our part encourages them in their single-minded pursuit of our destruction. The terrorists hope for a Kerry victory because he’s weak. They fear Bush because he will smash them in the mouth and keep smashing until they’re all dead.

In the aftermath of 9/11, this view of “the terrorists” (a group never clearly defined) dominated the public discourse. It was aggressively promulgated by the White House and assented to by Congress and the media, both liberal and conservative. To question it was to risk being denounced as an appeaser, even a fifth columnist. The belief that it represented mainstream American thinking was why wavering Democrats signed off on the resolution giving Bush the power to invade. And even now, after Iraq has become a bloody quagmire, this view is held by most Americans who support Bush.

There are powerful reasons for its popularity. It appeals to primordial instincts — self-preservation, anger, revenge, patriotism. It derives its power from a hypnotic and inescapable image, like a hideous Tarot card that turns up again and again: the apocalyptic vision of the towers collapsing. And there are elements of truth in its assessment of the enemy. There are indeed fanatical Islamists whose hatred of America, although it may have had political origins, has become essentially religious, i.e. absolute. They cannot be reasoned with; they must be fought.

But this analysis is profoundly and dangerously mistaken. It is based on a misreading of the Arab-Muslim world. In its high-minded guise it posits a reified Islam, monolithic in its theocratic piety, reflexively opposed to modernity and democracy. In its vulgar form it is historically ignorant and racist. And it is frequently, though not necessarily, associated with either a deep-seated pro-Israeli bias or a triumphalist belief in America’s mission civilisatrice, or both. In the case of the Bush administration, emphatically both.

Above all, it is a view that is driven by emotion, not thought — in fact, it’s positively hostile to thought. It reached its reductio ad absurdum in conservative columnist David Brooks’ Saturday column in the New York Times, in which he argued that Bush was a better choice to lead the “War on Terror” than Kerry because Bush really, really hated bin Laden — hated him so much, Brooks notes approvingly, that he was “consumed” by hatred. Brooks and his ilk would do well to go to more fights. Fighters consumed by hatred, who throw wild haymakers, are inevitably cut down by fighters who know how to box. Brooks and his hate-filled hero could take some lessons from Muhammad Ali.

The very phrase “war on terror” betrays the extremist ideology that has driven the Bush administration. This is not a war against al-Qaida, or against a specific group of terrorists: This is a war against terror. But “terror” is not an enemy; it is a tactic. What Bush is waging war on is not the tactic of terrorism, which as all students of military history know cannot be defeated, but evil itself — and not just any evil, but Arab-Muslim evil. The “war on terror” is really the “war on Arab-Muslim evil.” Bush is too discreet to call it that, but the more fervent of his supporters have no such problem: Neoconservative godfather Richard Perle and former Bush speechwriter David Frum titled their frightening book (in which, among other modest proposals, they advocate that Israel annex the West Bank and the United States invade Iran and Syria) “An End to Evil.”

For the Bush administration, there’s no evil like Arab-Muslim evil. It pays lip service to the junior-varsity version found in North Korea, but its heart isn’t in it. The Middle East is the bull’s-eye of evil. Bush persistently insisted that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were connected even though they had no relationship and loathed each other: They’re both evil, and they’re both Muslims. Ergo, they’re both equal representatives of Muslim evil, and both must be destroyed.

For obvious reasons, this view of the Middle East is profoundly informed by the Bush administration’s passionately and unprecedentedly pro-Israel stance, which Bush announced to a baffled National Security Council at his first meeting. (“Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things,” Bush said, explaining why he was going to let Sharon do whatever he wanted.) The Iraq war was not fought “for” Israel, although removing a threat to Israel’s existence and weakening the Palestinians were seen as important benefits. But the administration’s mind-set simply assumed that America’s interests and Israel’s are identical — an obviously false position that became much easier to sell to the American people after 9/11, and that was aided by the taboo against raising any criticism of Israel. Bush and his policymakers saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not as an asymmetrical war driven by issues but as a battle between Israeli good and Palestinian evil. And that moralistic, ahistorical assessment carried over into their views of the Arab and Muslim world, and clearly informed the decision to invade Iraq.

To this day, to raise the inconvenient fact that the Arab and Muslim world have legitimate historical grievances against the U.S. — even though no grievance, however great, could justify 9/11 — is to invite charges of appeasement, if not treason. Yet it is precisely a knowledge of history, and a lucid analysis of its consequences, that is called for now. We are dealing not just with one individual and his followers, but with a region and a deeply religious culture that has boiled over, and boiled over in such a horrific way that it is understandable that many Americans have followed Bush in seeing that region and that culture as evil, fanatical, and medieval. Osama bin Laden is surely all those things, and he and his followers must be captured or killed. But the larger Arab world, which shares his grievances, is not merely fanatical or medieval. It has real and just grievances, which we must try to understand and, if possible, ameliorate. The Iraq war has done precisely the opposite.

To be sure, the Arab world desperately needs to clean its own house. The 2003 Arab Human Development Report — a far more important document than any bin Laden video or disgusting, blasphemous snuff film hawked on the streets of Baghdad — points out that the region is economically backward, politically unfree, poorly educated, and repressive towards women. With commendable honesty, the 26 Arab scholars who authored the report refuse to blame the West — the region’s favorite whipping-boy — for these shortcomings. And these factors — and some perhaps having to do with Islam itself, a religion “programmed for victory,” as the scholar Malise Ruthven has noted — help to explain the virulence of Muslim rage.

But they don’t explain all of it. There are real, legitimate issues that have brought Arab and Muslim blood to a boil, and that explain why even pleasant taxi drivers and shopkeepers in Lebanon or Egypt, who denounce 9/11 as appalling and contrary to Islam, still say they understand it. Unfortunately, those issues cannot be honestly or fully raised in America’s political dialogue, because they all ultimately circle back to a single subject: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that subject is a third rail. No major American politician, and few journalists, dare touch it. It is the elephant in the room that everyone has to ignore.

This is not just a bizarre situation, it is a dangerous one. We are locked in a struggle whose stakes are incalculably high — not because any Arab or Muslim state could ever threaten us militarily, but because if we continue on the course we are now on, which is to essentially make the United States indistinguishable from Israel in Arab and Muslim eyes, we will end up living in their nightmare, a fortress nation surrounded by a sea of hatred. Which I’m sure is not a fate that any of my Israeli or Palestinian friends would wish on their worst enemy. This is our situation — and yet we cannot discuss the single issue that is most critical to resolving it.

Certain aberrations in a nation’s behavior can be explained only by ideological conviction. The ideology that inspired Bush’s bizarre Iraq adventure, indeed his entire “war on terror,” is a specific view of the Arab-Muslim world, one deeply informed by both an unreflective, stark, almost Biblical response to 9/11 and by an extreme pro-Israeli bias. It finds its scholarly expression in the work of Bernard Lewis, employs tactics that mirror those of the hard-line Revisionist Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky, and was put into practice by a peculiar group consisting of unreconstructed Cold Warriors, cynical political Machiavels, idealistic-unto-blindness liberals, hardcore supporters of Israel’s Likud Party and born-again Christians. Although few Middle East experts or academics subscribe to it, its bumper-sticker simplicity has made it easy to sell to an angry and uninformed public.

This view can be summarized thus: The Islamic world is enraged at America and the West not because of American foreign policy, namely, our complicity with Israel in its 37-year occupation of Palestinian land and our oil-driven coziness with various Arab despots (whose number once included none other than Saddam Hussein), but because of what Bernard Lewis called “a feeling of humiliation — a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization, of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors.” Muslims hate America because our very existence is a constant reminder to them that they have failed. Unable to deal constructively with their shortcomings, in large part because Islam has been historically antithetical to secular pursuits like science, the Muslim world turns on the West and seeks to lay it low. Nietzschean ressentiment smashed the airplanes into the twin towers.

What should America do, faced with an enemy whose only “grievance” is our very existence? (Or, to cite Bush’s dumbed-down, flag-waving version: “They hate our freedom.”) Here Lewis’ views dovetail with those of Vladimir Jabotinsky, pre-state leader of Revisionist Zionism and the intellectual father of Israel’s Likud Party. Jabotinsky believed that the only way to deal with the Arabs — whose nationalism he in fact respected — was with force. Jabotinsky famously advocated building an “Iron Wall” between Jews and Arabs. In similar fashion, Lewis argued that radical Muslims had come to regard the United States as a paper tiger and that only brute force would get their attention.

(Hesitant pro-war liberal Thomas L. Friedman, probably the most widely read American commentator on the Middle East in the world, made the same argument before the war, although he added that it was essential that the United States also nurture Arab moderates and broker a fair Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Friedman is bitterly disillusioned with the Bush administration, which does not explain why he ever had any illusions about it in the first place, or why he was willing to roll the dice on a war that stood a high chance of catastrophic failure even if America had done everything right.)

Not surprisingly, Lewis urged the United States to invade Iraq, where he said U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators. Also not surprisingly, Lewis’ views were extraordinarily influential with the Bush administration, which invited him to speak at the White House. The Wall Street Journal wrote that “the Lewis doctrine, in effect, had become U.S. policy.” As one of the world’s eminent scholars of Islam, he provided opinions that gave intellectual respectability to the Bush administration neoconservatives and Cold Warriors who pushed the Iraq war.

Like most grand theories, Lewis’ contains considerable truth. Arab-Muslim backwardness, coupled with religious fervor, can indeed lead to a sense of murderous humiliation. Religion plays a far larger role in civic life in Muslim countries than it does in the West (ironically, Bush is doing his best to reverse that trend), and under the right set of circumstances, passions that might have been channeled into secular pursuits can only find outlets in holy rage. The burning anger of Sayyid Qutb, the father of modern Islamism, derived from his pious horror at what he perceived as the decadence of 20th century America. (In addition to being outraged by America’s loose sexual mores and spiritual vacuity, he was also troubled by the attention that the residents of Greeley, Colo., paid to their lawns.) It was not just the Israeli-Palestinian crisis (and, he now says, the Israeli bombing of Beirut) but the presence of infidel American forces on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia, home of the Prophet, that pushed Osama bin Laden to order the 9/11 attacks. To deny that there is an element of the “clash of civilizations” — the term was originally coined by Lewis, not Samuel Huntington — in the confrontation between Islamists and America would be myopic.

But Lewis’ view is fatally flawed, because it radically underestimates the importance of history. His Islam is a medieval world preserved in amber, outside of time. In the dialectic between nature and nurture, it’s all nature, no nurture. Religion and “civilization” are absolute; the West’s long and sordid history of colonizing and exploiting the Middle East, and its responsibility for open wounds like the Palestinian tragedy, are downplayed. His optimism about the aftermath of the invasion was a logical consequence of these views.

Lewis’ message was what the Bush administration wanted to hear. And just as it has ignored critical voices on any of its policies — Bush and Karl Rove decided early on that a pose of Papal Infallibility worked best — it ignored the numerous dissenting voices that warned of trouble ahead.

One of the most eloquent of those voices was that of Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American scholar who wrote a valuable book titled “Resurrecting Empire” around the time of the invasion. Khalidi points out that the caricature of Islam as antithetical to democracy betrays historical ignorance of the many pioneering Middle Eastern experiments with democracy — which, he adds, were persistently undermined by Western powers.

He also reminds Americans that people in the Middle East have a long memory. The British rulers (who, like the Americans, claimed they just wanted to “liberate” the Iraqis) were able to put down an Iraqi revolt in the 1920s only by an intense aerial bombing of civilians. Iraqis have not forgotten this. Khalidi also pointed out the obvious fact that nationalism, a word banished from discussions of post-invasion Iraq because it didn’t fit the uplifting “liberation” paradigm, would be inspired by an invasion. In short, Khalidi’s argument is that it was historically naive for the United States, even assuming its intentions were pure, to discount the region’s painful, historically recent experience of Western “liberators” in judging how it would be greeted.

Some of the most influential pro-war voices also sounded alarms. Thomas Friedman, to his credit, warned U.S. policymakers that if they wanted to win the war, not just the battle, they would not only have to pour massive resources into rebuilding Iraq, they would also have to take an active, good-faith role in resolving the Palestine-Israel crisis. Kenneth Pollack, whose “Threatening Storm” was the least ideological and most convincing book advocating war (he has since apologized, saying — not completely convincingly — that he based his call to arms on “faulty intelligence”), hedged his pro-war arguments by warning that the postwar period would be more difficult than the war and that a massive U.S. troop presence would be needed for success.

But the Bush administration ignored all of those warnings. Drunk on ideology, it saw an opportunity to run the table — rearrange the Middle East to Israel’s advantage, remove a dangerous regional despot who they imagined threatened America, put the fear of God into the Saudis, Iranians and Syrians, open the spigots to Iraqi oil on favorable terms, create new American military bases in the Middle East, and in the mystical ways discussed above somehow scare terrorists into submission — all while assuring Bush’s reelection by picking up evangelical and Jewish votes and turning him into a war president, George of Baghdad. And so it launched the most momentous war in half a century based on bogus intelligence provided by a wily con man, with grossly inadequate troop levels, no postwar planning, and only one significant ally. We know the results.

If it was the Bush administration’s secret desire to turn America into Israel in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world, it has gone a long way to succeeding. A devastating recent poll shows a precipitous decline in America’s popularity in the Arab world: Even in moderate countries like Jordan and Morocco, Osama bin Laden is more popular than Bush, and majorities in both countries said suicide bombing against U.S. troops in Iraq was justifiable. The aerial bombardment of Fallujah last spring was not seen by the Arab world as a liberating blow against terrorists but as the American equivalent of Israeli strikes against Palestinian cities. The new U.S. use of targeted assassinations, a tactic employed by the Israelis but one we had always rejected before, has only strengthened the association.

Not surprisingly, jihad is on the rise. European Muslims are now making their way to Iraq to fight. And things seem likely to get worse. This is the Bush legacy, whether he wins or loses on Election Day.

The terrorists who hit America on Sept. 11 were filled with religious clarity. And in another perverse historical irony, they passed that clarity on to Bush. A floundering president suddenly found his mission, handed down by God. I am not, of course, equating the actions of Mohamed Atta with those of Bush. But there are reasons to be as suspicious of the president’s divine clarity as of the hijacker’s. By launching his own crusade against bin Laden’s, Bush allowed the fight to take place on the terrorist’s terms. It was not a wise idea.

If John Kerry is elected president, he will have to clean up a disastrous mess. The first question, of course, is what to do about Iraq. The likelihood that free, fair and general elections will take place as planned next year grows fainter by the day, which raises the question: At what point should the United States decide that its mere presence in the country is harming the Iraqi people and their future more than its absence? There is no way to answer that question. But it must be asked.

The second issue is the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which Bush has simply handed over to Ariel Sharon and his extremist counterparts on the Palestinian side. America’s eyes are understandably fixed on Iraq, but what happens in Ramallah and Jerusalem is just as important to America’s security as what happens in Ramadi. Indeed, the Iraq debacle, and the attendant rise in anti-American rage, has only made resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis more urgent. Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan could hold promise, but only if he is prevented from trading Gaza for the West Bank, effectively locking the Palestinians up in Bantustans — a policy that his top aide recently acknowledged, indeed bragged about. The precarious state of Yasser Arafat’s health also demands that America immediately act: Post-Arafat, the Palestinian leadership could degenerate into even worse anarchy than now threatens it. Without a real political plan, the two-state solution, already endangered, would become impossible. And that outcome would be disastrous for Israel, for the Palestinians, and for America.

It is still possible to rectify Bush’s mistakes. It is not too late to restore America’s standing in the world in general, and the Arab world in particular. But time is running out. And first of all, he must be removed from an office he has proven manifestly incompetent to hold. It is hard to believe, at this point, that even those who subscribe to Bush’s ideology could possibly vote for him.

A pious, foolish and poorly educated man, surrounded by zealots and knaves, dreamed of smiting the evildoers, but instead put a sword into their hands. He imagined that by invading a state in the heart of the Arab world, he would cut through the Gordian knot, but he entangled his army in writhing coils. He fantasized that an all-powerful America would stand atop a grateful world, but he made his nation despised everywhere, and particularly in the one region of the world where it is most important that we not be despised. This is the world Bush left us. We must make a new one.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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