If you lock down the world, in all sorts of strange ways you shut yourself down as well and then, the next thing you know, you find yourself ambushed by life that has somehow escaped the notice of your intelligence people, or in the course of being sent up the line has been transformed into something scarcely recognizable. And let's not forget that the people bringing you the "intelligence" have their own agendas, their own interests, their own struggles out there in their own set of gated communities.
The Bush impulse to shut down the world, I suspect, combines many urges at once. Certainly, there's the urge to stamp an imperial imprint of power on the world, and allied to it, the urge to control. The desire to cut off information, to rule in silence and secrecy, must undoubtedly have allures all its own. And then there's also simple fear (a feeling not much written about since our President and his administration quite literally took flight on September 11, 2001). Underneath the "bring 'em on" mentality -- frightening in itself -- seems to lie an urge, when "they" actually come "on," to flee. Have you noticed how quickly all that "we-won't/can't/mustn't-cut-and-run" language cropped up -- and in administration mouths no less, even if projected onto others? Such warnings preceded the first significant mainstream calls for any kind of withdrawal from Iraq.
Only this week, L. Paul Bremer, who has reportedly "grown deeply pessimistic about his job in Iraq," snubbed visiting ally, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, a foreign leader who has put his own reputation on the line by sending significant numbers of troops to Iraq. Their meeting in Baghdad was cancelled so that Bremer, who may soon enough go back to selling counter-terror strategies on the free market if rumors prove true, could rush back to Washington in what looked distinctly like panic bordering on flight.
As we live in a hideously over-determined world, god knows what other urges go into the urge to shut the world down, lock it up, and throw away the key. What can be said, however, is that the Bush administration has shown a remarkable across-the board consistency in its lock-down acts.
Take the upcoming Bush visit to London. American presidential trips abroad increasingly remind me of the vast, completely ritualized dynastic processionals by which ancient emperors and potentates once crossed their domains and those of their satraps. Our President's processionals are enormous moving bubbles (even when he visits alien places closer to home like the Big Apple) that shut cities, close down institutions, turn off life itself. Essentially, when the President moves abroad, like some vast turtle, he carries his shell with him.
In Australia, for the first time in its history, Parliament was shut down to the public so that the President could "address" Australians. Now, the President is set to visit his closest companion Tony Blair and stand side by side with the British royal family in an increasingly angry, alienated world. Large demonstrations are threatened. According to the British press (Patrick Sawer, Yard fury over Bush visit, Evening Standard):
"White House security demands covering President George Bush's controversial state visit to Britain have provoked a serious row with Scotland Yard. American officials want a virtual three-day shutdown of central London in a bid to foil disruption of the visit by anti-war protestors. They are demanding that police ban all marches and seal off the city centre.
"But senior Yard officers say the powers requested by US security chiefs would be unprecedented on British soil. While the Met wants to prevent violence, it is sensitive to accusations of trying to curtail legitimate protest. Secrecy surrounds [the president's] itinerary during the trip. He will stay at Buckingham Palace and his staff want The Mall, Whitehall and part of the City closed. Besides provoking a civil liberties backlash, the Met fears such a move would cause traffic chaos and incur huge loss of business across the capital."
Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian had a wry, insightful piece on the question of who issued that invitation to Bush to make a full-scale state visit at such an unpropitious moment for Blair (not to speak of the Royal Family, embroiled in their own local guerrilla war). As no one will fess up, Freedland offers an imperial answer to his own question -- the young emperor needed the trip and so imposed it on his closest satrap (So who did invite him?):
"No, there is only one beneficiary of this visit and it is the Bush White House. With an election campaign looming, they are anxious to deflect the accusation that Bush is isolated. They want to show he has allies and friends around the world and few play better in the US than Tony Blair, whose American ratings put his home numbers in the shade..
"One Republican source, close to the White House, has a theory as to why the Queen is such an important catch for the image makers.'Look, Americans don't know shit. They're not going to recognise the prime minister of the Philippines. The only foreign leaders they could pick out are the Queen of England and the Pope - and we've already got those pictures.' With the Pontiff in the can, the Queen is the co-star the president needs. It seems incredible that the White House could breezily decide to use Britain as a backdrop for a glorified ad campaign -- and be granted its wish."
By the way, the comment of the "Republican source" also indicates the kind of contempt you can develop for your own subjects while inside that mountain redoubt.
But let's return to the matter of shutting down -- and not just unnecessarily vibrant city centers either. All over our government, ever since 9/11, mechanisms for requesting information have been limited or sources of it have been silenced or closed down. Anything that might pass for a "sunshine" policy has been put in shadow. This has become a governmental way of life of which -- naturally enough -- only isolated examples have reached us. For instance, major governmental reports on the environment were edited so that all crucial information on global warming was elided, while accurate information about the dangers of environmental pollution at Ground Zero in New York City was removed from EPA releases at the behest of the White House and replaced with reassuring lies.
Now, the online publication of the Canadian Association of University Teachers reports that the U.S. Treasury Department has made a remarkable little decision of its own. It has declared that the act of editing a scientific paper from a place like Iran or Cuba can fall under the category of trading with the enemy (New U.S. Treasury Department Rules Cast Chill Over Scientific Publishing):
"Engineers are warning that rules issued by the U.S. Treasury Department this month could restrict the free exchange of scientific information. The Bush administration says the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, with more than 350,000 members worldwide, must stop editing scholarly papers submitted by researchers living in countries under a U.S. trade embargo, or apply for a special license to do so.
"On Oct. 1 the Treasury Department informed the Institute that editing a research paper is equivalent to providing a service to authors and therefore violates U.S. trade restrictions that prevent U.S.-based organizations from doing business with countries such as Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Sudan. The IEEE must now apply for a special license to edit papers from researchers in trade embargoed nations."
Editing -- your typical traitorous activity. That sends a little chill down the back of this particular editor. And, as it happens, the IEEE has responded by halting its editing of such papers, and so assumedly, their publication in its journals and has blocked as well the ability of engineers in countries like Iran to view its journals online. I think for this we should coin a new saying, admittedly not as rhythmic as the old one but to the point: "The pen is more illegal than the sword."
An act like this, tiny as it is -- but symbolic of many other acts of closure -- should bring certain historical memories to mind. In the old Soviet Union, where the free flow of information was considered dangerous to state and party, even Xeroxing was a controlled activity. We used to denounce them for this sort of mindset; now it's being incorporated into the American way of life under the rubric of the "war against terrorism." Even during the coldest days of the Cold War, certain human-to-human ties were preserved across boundaries. But today, to suit the men in the mountain, flows of information, and so human ties of all sorts, are to be cut everywhere -- within between the White House and Congress, between the government and its citizens, between our citizens and those of other countries where peaceable outside support might in fact be the most welcome. All that is to cross borders -- at least in the dreams of the men in Washington -- are armies, Special Forces units, predator drones, or missiles. As in Iraq, democracy is to be brought to the world not by engineering societies but on the high-tech equivalent of bayonet points.
Or take another kind of small-scale, under-the-radar-screen shutdown: The new Homeland Security Department has recently acted on "intelligence" of "credible threats" -- the sort of information, I don't doubt, that led to those fear-inducing, color-coded alerts that themselves led to exactly nothing at all and (in case you hadn't noticed) seem to have mysteriously subsided for a while. The Department has "announced the temporary suspension of two programs that allowed certain international air passengers to travel through U. S. airports for brief stopovers or to change planes on their way to other countries without first obtaining visas. They were known as the Transit Without Visa program and the International-to-International transit program."
Pointing out that all the 9/11 attackers had perfectly valid visas, Gabriel Gasave writes of this little shutdown at the Independent Institute website (Imposing transit visas: Just another low-flying idea):
"[T]he new transit measures could end up harming domestic airlines even more. According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), during the past 14 months more than 300,000 foreign passengers were transited through U.S. airports by the six biggest U.S. airlines under the two programs currently suspended, representing revenues of more than $130 million."
So now they'll be changing planes in other countries, angry and inconvenienced, and will we really be safer? Will we actually be more secure? All these small acts, that cut flow, restrict passage, break contact, each ostensibly aimed at the dangers of terrorism, add up to an attempted system-wide lock-down. I know I started off with the image of gated communities, but by the time you're done with such processes, the operative image could be closer to that of inmates in some vast prison.
Of course, we already know that this administration has specialized in the locking down of the free flow of justice itself in a series of disappearing acts at home and abroad that can't help but once again bring to mind, even if still on a terribly modest scale, our former superpower enemy. There's Guantanamo, a little gulag of the first order, into which the government has dropped prisoners picked up wherever, without charges, without access to lawyers, without access to the world, without a chance to defend themselves, without even those vaunted military tribunals, or the protection of the Geneva code, without, in fact, anything. (And you know perfectly well that, as on death row, there will have been "mistakes," even by this government's definition of a mistake.) That the Supreme Court decided, for whatever reasons, to hear a Guantanamo case indicates, I think, how unnerving the Bush secrecy offensive and its black-hole version of justice has proved even to a conservative and largely cowed court.
The impulse simply to shut people or even branches of government up or down now seems endemic. In Iraq -- the country to which we are supposedly bringing democracy -- there is now another black hole. Just yesterday, a reader pointed out the following sentence in a Washington Post account of Bremer's sudden return to Washington:
"While [Lt. Gen. Ricardo] Sanchez reported no definitive evidence of the al Qaeda link [to the Iraqi guerillas], he said military authorities have detained about 5,000 people for questioning on that issue."
Imagine that. 5,000 people detained on a possible al Qaeda link alone, not 5,000 in total in Iraq but evidently just on this one possible charge. Detained where and under what conditions? When you include Iraqis hauled in for questioning in various round-ups and held, how many Iraqis in all is the U.S. government holding and in what kind of silence? With how many angry relatives waiting for them outside? Here's a Vietnam word I haven't seen or heard yet: "pacification." How many Iraqis will have to be put away in various local Guantanamos in the attempt to pacify that country?
"Tell them that we will see them in Baghdad"
The first sentence of Guardian columnist George Monbiot's latest piece (see below) sums up the mentality of this administration beautifully: "Those who would take us to war must first shut down the public imagination." The column itself focuses on a story broken by ABC News and seemingly at the same moment by James Risen of the New York Times and almost instantly everywhere else, indicating that Saddam Hussein tried to offer the Bush administration a backchannel deal to avoid war, more or less promising everything the administration could have wanted, including monitored elections within two years -- and was kissed off by "the CIA" with the phrase, "Tell them that we will see them in Baghdad."
But we still await the inside story of this startling "story," which distinctly needs some attending to. It looks itself very much like the product of intra-bureaucratic struggles inside gated Washington, struggles in which various administration hawks may be trying to pin the war -- in the event of catastrophe - on the CIA. Certainly, since the summer, there have been those in this administration who have tried to pin much on CIA director George Tenet. He has, however, proved quite unwilling to walk the plank and too dangerous simply to toss overboard to the sharks. Yesterday, it seems -- and here I'm only guessing -- that the CIA struck back. A "new top-secret intelligence report" from the CIA was leaked which "warns that Iraqis are losing faith in U.S.-led occupation forces, a development that is increasing support for the resistance, officials said Wednesday."
"CIA officials refused to confirm the existence of the report," writes Pauline Jelinek of the Associated Press, but somehow the report managed to come to light from somewhere within the bowels of the Agency and make its way to many high-level desks and almost immediately into the hands of reporters, provenance unknown, "amid high-level meetings here on the situation in Iraq. Two other senior U.S. officials said the report paints a worrisome picture of the political and security situation there.
"It suggests spiraling violence and a lack of confidence in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council may be bringing efforts to a turning point, sending more Iraqis over to the side of insurgents fighting occupation troops, said two officials speaking on condition of anonymity."
Ah, anonymity. Go figure. However accurate its gloomy prognostications may be, could you have had a worse report broken at a worse moment? I think that one can safely say at this point, "To be continued."
Jim Lobe of Inter Press news service, in fact, reports an increasing barrage of attacks on the administration, especially Rumsfeld's Pentagon, from the right (Rumsfeld takes more friendly fire):
"In a two-page lead editorial Monday, the Weekly Standard newspaper accused the defense chief, its former hero, for essentially subverting the express wishes of the commander-in-chief. 'The president wants to win, and the Pentagon wants to get out,' wrote Executive Editor William Kristol and Contributing Editor Robert Kagan in their piece called Exit Strategy or Victory Strategy?"
In the meantime, Scott Ritter, the former UN arms inspector, who was essentially laughed out of this country for claiming in the pre-war months that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction had almost certainly been destroyed, now returns with a chilling view of the Iraqi resistance, the sort of thing that this administration might be advised to pay attention to. He recalls that "improvised explosive devices," those IEDs blowing up at the sides of roads all over central Iraq, were part of the basic training of Saddam's military back when he was traveling the country as an inspector in the early 1990s; that, in fact, all the "foreign" tactics now being used were actually being taught in Iraq then -- and he speculates that the Iraqi resistance is all too homegrown.
We declared victory back in April. The only problem was that they may not have declared defeat. Ritter's is a remarkable piece, horrifying on Saddam's regime, chilling on what the Bush people have gotten themselves into. It should be read in toto. Here's just a passage (Defining the Resistance in Iraq - It's not Foreign and It's Well Prepared, Christian Science Monitor):
"Far from representing the tactics of desperate foreign terrorists, IED attacks in Iraq can be traced to the very organizations most loyal to Saddam Hussein. M-21 wasn't the only unit trained in IEDs. During an inspection of the Iraqi Intelligence Service's training academy in Baghdad in April 1997, I saw classrooms for training all Iraqi covert agents in the black art of making and using IEDs. My notes recall tables piled with mockups of mines and grenades disguised in dolls, stuffed animals, and food containers - and classrooms for training in making car bombs and recruiting proxy agents for using explosives."
It's a bit frightening to think just how far over their heads Bush's hawks may be. The Vietnam image, quagmire, has held sway. It implies a slow sinking process, but we may be watching a drowning here.
And the Iraqi guerrillas are playing their own shut-down game, preying on the very isolation the Bush administration once opted for, that doctrine of full spectrum dominance of one. Only yesterday, at Nasiriyah deep in Shiite Iraq, until recently considered one of that country's calmest spots, at least 18 Italian police and soldiers were murdered in a car bombing (along with a number of Iraqis). These acts -- like the attacks on the UN and the Red Cross -- are clearly meant to cut the administration off from all and sundry, and reaction in Italy indicates that in the long run this might just happen.
The attack itself may well not have been committed by Shiites, but something seems to be stirring in southern Iraq as well. The sober Juan Cole at his "Informed Consent" website posted an entry headlined, US rule in Iraq collapsing? He writes in part:
"Although the military situation is not ideal, the level of attacks on US troops is not a military challenge yet. I suspect that this frantic anxiety is mainly political, and is fueled in part by Karl Rove's realization that if Iraq is still in the headlines next summer, it will sink Bush's presidency
"Rove thus needs to move Iraq off the front page. By leaving Bremer in charge of the country, the Bush administration created a 51st state as far as the US press was concerned, and they covered it the same way they do New York. Moreover, this 51st state had a lot of newsworthy things going on in it, like daily attacks on US troops. Of course, the danger is that the US will fob rule of the country off on a failed state and the whole thing will blow up in the face of the Bush administration
And here's a striking passage on fighting outside the Sunni Triangle - written before the Italian bombing:
"I am suspicious of the number of daily attacks given out by the US spokesmen in Iraq. I see lots of reports in the Arab press of attacks in the south of the country, on Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and other troops, and wonder if they are even being counted. For some reason the attackers in the south appear to be very poor shots, and seem mostly to miss the target, failing to inflict any real damage. (Presumably they were low-level Shiite conscripts and did not get good military training, unlike the Sunnis further north). But the attacks in the South are ongoing, and sometimes they succeed (a Polish officer died and 6 Ukrainians were wounded last Friday). I suspect that the threshold for defining an "attack" in the publicly announced statistics may be raised artificially high, and lots of things we civilians would consider an "attack" are not being reported because they were clumsily executed.
"So it simply is not true, as President George W. Bush alleged Tuesday, that "The violence is focused in 200 square miles known as the Baathist Triangle, the home area to Saddam Hussein and most of his associates." First of all, the Sunni areas bounded by Fallujah, Baghdad and Tikrit are several thousand square miles, as the WP noted. But second, the attacks occur in Kirkuk, Mosul, Karbala, Basra and elsewhere in the country, as well."
Iraq: positive views
Not to be unfair here, I thought I might mention quite different and far more optimistic views of the situation in Iraq from two recent visitors. Nicholas Goldberg, the op-ed editor for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a piece on that paper's Opinion page last Sunday, Place the Fate of Iraq Above U.S. Politics, comparing his own grim memories of Saddam's Iraq in its last years with what he ran into just the other week. What makes the article particularly interesting is that it also is a report on a journalistic trip -- a "propaganda mission" -- organized by the administration as part of its attempt to get around the "filter" of the Washington media. ("On our first day, we met L. Paul Bremer III, who directs the American occupation of Iraq from one of Hussein's old palaces. He held out his hand, smiled and said, 'Welcome to free Iraq.'") The administration's message, Goldberg tells us, as one of the few journalistic Democrats on the trip, was pounded in "relentlessly." But in his free time, he nonetheless felt he had indeed seen a better Iraq.
"At the end of a couple of days on the tour - and after several days on my own in Baghdad and Tikrit - I was persuaded that the administration's case has a good deal of merit. There's no question that people in Baghdad are freer. There's no denying that most people are happy to see the end of a terrifying, violent, criminal dictatorship. And it is probably true that the deaths of a couple of hundred soldiers out of a fighting force of 139,000 coalition troops is not enough to cripple our effort."
Yahia Said, without benefit of government spin trips, returned to Iraq recently and, at the openDemocracy website describes his first days there after 25 years in exile during which he "started to revise assumptions formed under the influence of western news coverage dedicated almost exclusively to the reporting of violence." (Eight days in Iraq):
"I could not believe my ears. 'I apologise for the inconvenience,' said the Iraqi policeman as he finished searching our car. We were at the checkpoint in front of the Alhamra hotel in Baghdad.
"Over the past week I had grown accustomed to 'the rediscovered humanity', as another policeman put it, of Iraq's law enforcers. But this was too much. With its policemen behaving like this, it is little wonder that Iraq is being perceived as a threat by its neighbours. Any visitor from most other Arab countries, where an encounter with the police is considered lucky if it is limited to verbal abuse, may be so shocked by this treatment as to return home bent on regime change."
But read even these pieces to their ends and you get a somewhat more familiar picture. As Goldberg writes, for instance: "Altercations between [U.S.] soldiers and Iraqis are a daily occurrence, and relations are fraying. 'They raid our homes in a barbaric, animalistic way, blasting down the doors with explosives and kicking in the gates,' said Mohammed Hashem, a 35-year-old Sunni Muslim who works at a mosque in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adamiya. 'Now, the American soldiers are hated by all parts of the community.'"
I think it's reasonable to say that in a complex land like Iraq, after the collapse of a brutal regime, you should be able to come up with varying portraits of what's happening. What these pieces do indicate, it seems to me, is that, had the Americans arrived in Iraq not as an occupying force but as a genuinely liberatory one, determined to put the Iraqis at the center of their own experience, we could be dealing with a very different situation. But that's distinctly not the case.
As Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd member of the Governing Council, said in response to reports of Bush administration frustration with the U.S-appointed body (Christian Science Monitor),"This is supposed to be a partnership based on equality, but when Americans want to find solution for their problems, they do it in any way that suits them."
The administration has compared the present occupation to the post-World War II occupations of Japan and Germany again and again and again. But it has to be said that the deepest difference between this one and those is that the Americans who entered Japan and Germany were, at least in part, not soldiers but New Dealers in uniform and they -- not all of them, of course -- had a deep faith in the power of a democratic people, once unleashed, to do great things. This certainly animated the occupation of Japan as anyone who reads John Dower's Pulitzer-prize winning history of the occupation, Embracing Defeat, knows. As it happens, this administration entered Iraq with only a deep faith in itself -- everyone else, not thoroughly subordinated, was sidelined: Iraqis, allies, the French, the Germans, the Russians, the UN, the Democrats, the State Department.
Now, against their own better instincts, they're trying to play catch-up and landing in places where, a month or two or three or four or five or six ago they might have had some success. But now? It looks like pure panic to me. You know there must be panic in the ranks when the government claims to be considering a "French" solution to its problems (Robin Wright and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Alternatives to Iraq Council Eyed, Washington Post):
"The United States is even considering a French proposal, earlier rejected, to create an interim Iraqi leadership that would emulate the Afghanistan model, according to U.S. and French officials. During the debate before the new United Nations resolution on postwar Iraq was passed Oct. 17, France and other Security Council members had proposed holding a national conference -- like the Afghan loya jirga -- to select a provisional government that would have the rights of sovereignty."
Updating Vietnam lingo: A contest
It's always good to see the nimble use of language and to note that our officialdom and media are not simply helplessly stuck in the quagmire of the now four-decades old language of the Vietnam era. Admittedly, listening to NBC TV news last night, I heard their White House correspondent refer to "an urgent battle for hearts and minds in Iraq," which rang a familiar bell or two. And then there was General Sanchez in Baghdad, according to New York Times reporter John Burns (General Vows to Intensify U.S. Response to Attackers), denying that Iraq is "Vietnam" -- "there's no way you can make the comparison to the quagmire of Vietnam, when you look at the progress that's being made, when you look at the lack of popular support for the previous regime." But even he couldn't help speaking of an American determination to "'win the hearts and minds' of 25 million Iraqis with reconstruction programs."
On the nimbler side, however, in a Washington Post piece on administration frustration with the Iraqi Governing Council, a "well placed U.S. official" in Baghdad was quoted as saying that we want to "stay the course, only faster." Now, there's some cleverly updated lingo for you! Stay on that same old "course," just put the pedal to the metal. So here's my newest contest, I'm offering a grand prize (or at least one no less grand than the prizes the site has previously offered) for sightings of Vietnam linguistic updates.
On CBS TV news tonight, one of the correspondents referred to the debate in Washington over what to do with the Governing Council as -- and you increasingly hear this phrase these days -- a "mid-course correction." And I thought, there's that darn "course" again. I wonder what would happen to our descriptions if we suddenly decided, as Pentagon non-planning for the occupation of Iraq clearly indicated, that there was no course to begin with?
By the way, I'm including below an interesting piece written for an Australian paper by historian Gabriel Kolko on various ways in which the Vietnam analogy still does apply -- to us, not to the Iraqis -- exactly because we learned next to nothing from that war. I'm also including James Carroll's latest Boston Globe column, written for Veteran's Day (Remembrance Day in Canada) in which he comments that in the post-cold war world:
"The now enemy-less Pentagon insisted on maintaining forever the 'hedge' of its nuclear arsenal, and the White House, especially under George W. Bush, replaced the dream of an international order based on diplomatic agreement with the idea of a Pax Americana based on 'full spectrum dominance.'
"On Remembrance Day, look at what has been forgotten. Washington's view of the world, replicating imperial Prussia's of 100 years ago, treats the main epiphany of the 20th century as if it did not happen. As if no lessons were learned in the trenches of Flanders, the fires of Dresden and Tokyo, the fallout of Hiroshima, the countless peasant wars which threw back the great powers, the genocides which sacrificed whole peoples to ferocious versions of the truth."
A lesson-less vision of "full spectrum dominance" is but another kind of shutting down, another attempt to close the great global gate.
Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be found throughout the week at TomDispatch, a web log of The Nation Institute.
Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be found throughout the week at TomDispatch, a web log of The Nation Institute.