Aboard the Good Ship USS State of Denial

In the final run-up to the election, we're still inside the American bubble, with the grimmer news happening offshore of American consciousness.

| Mon Oct. 18, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

"'I feel we're going to be here for years and years and years,' said Lance Cpl. Edward Elston, 22, of Hackettstown, N.J. ‘I don't think anything is going to get better; I think it's going to get a lot worse. It's going to be like a Palestinian-type deal. We're going to stop being a policing presence and then start being an occupying presence. . . . We're always going to be here. We're never going to leave.'" (From a member of a Marine platoon stationed in Iskandariyah, 30 miles southwest of Baghdad, whose regiment has taken almost 10% casualties, including 4 dead -- Steve Fainaru, For Marines, a Frustrating Fight, the Washington Post)

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That wasn't the week that was

So we've entered the final run to the November 2 election and, remarkably enough, we're still inside the American bubble, with much of the grimmer news of Bushworld largely happening offshore of American consciousness. On Sunday, for instance, accounts of the mistreatment of prisoners in our black hole of injustice in Guantanamo, Cuba, finally made the front page of my hometown paper, but only described as "harsh tactics" or "harsh and coercive treatment." You had to read deep into the piece (Broad Use of Harsh Tactics Is Described at Cuba Base) to find the word "torture," and then just in a quote from a Clinton-era senior State Department human rights official.

Similarly, if you read almost to the end of a Los Angeles Times report on 28 American soldiers (a number of whom ended up with the military intelligence unit at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq) implicated in the December 2002 torture and beating deaths of two Afghan prisoners, you found a description of American interrogation techniques in Afghanistan which, even in 2003, were said to include "repeated beatings, immersion in cold water, electric shocks and prisoners being hanged upside down and…" -- here's a special bit of horrific detail -- "…having their toenails torn off." The word "torture" was naturally never mentioned and the "spate of detainee abuse cases" in Afghanistan was, according to unnamed "Army officials" (who would want to be named saying this?), mainly attributed to a "shortage of trained intelligence officials and interrogators." (Oh, and, by the way, that was Abu what? Abu where?)

What are we to make of a world where reality cannot be called by its many names? What are we to make of a world in which terrible things can be done by our representatives in our names, but we -- the American public -- are considered too fragile to have those things called what they are, or often even told to us directly on the front pages of our papers? It's true, of course, that if you're a news junkie with time on your hands, somewhere on-line or in a news account printed someplace in this country, you'll be able to find much of what you should know about the ways in which our world is at present misfiring. But for most Americans this is not an option and so the gap between how they see the world and how others see it (and us) is -- like that old "credibility gap" of Vietnam days -- yawning ever wider.

On Friday, for instance, the price of a barrel of crude oil hit $55 for the first time and I don't think the news made it off the business pages. (On the TV news, the price of oil is treated like the Dow Jones Average, as just another fluctuating figure to be mentioned in passing.) Prices at the gas pump have risen more slowly in recent months than prices at the source, undoubtedly tamping down reaction to the issue here -- and that's just one of those pre-election facts that you can make of what you wish, but don't expect it to last after November second. And oil -- ain't it strange -- wasn't even mentioned in the Presidential debates. Oops, let me correct that, before the flood of e-letters begins.

In the first presidential debate, John Kerry said: "When you guard the oil ministry [in Baghdad], but you don't guard the nuclear facilities, the message to a lot of people is maybe, ‘Wow, maybe they're interested in our oil.'" In the second debate, Kerry said: "The president sides with the power companies, the oil companies, the drug companies" and mentioned in a phrase the need to free ourselves from Middle East oil dependency. In the third debate John Kerry spoke of "$43 billion of [corporate] giveaways" and added parenthetically, "including favors to the oil and gas industry and the people importing ceiling fans from China." The word "oil" never passed the President's lips. So in four and a half hours of TV time in the presence of 50-60 million Americans, oil got perhaps 15 seconds of mention and Chinese ceiling fans perhaps 3 seconds. Coverage of oil in our media has hardly been better. The question is: What's wrong with this picture as a description of the world?

Oh, last week you could read in the foreign press -- the news was considered unremarkable and only modestly covered here -- that, Israel and Russia excepted, a planet-wide 10-newspaper poll showed Bush-loathing reaching new heights. At the same time, the elder Bush's former National Security Advisor, close companion-in-arms, and co-author Brent Scowcroft excoriated young George for being "mesmerized" by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ("Sharon just has him wrapped around his little finger") and characterized recent administration gestures toward the UN and NATO as "a desperate move to ‘rescue a failing venture.'" Oh yes, that was a scoop not for the Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune but for the British Financial Times.

As for Iraq, as our presidential election approaches, there was the first small mutiny by a unit of American soldiers in Iraq. (I swear the word "Vietnam" will never cross my lips.) What put it on front pages was something new in our world -- ubiquitous access to the cell phone. Soldiers in trouble, like ET, called home.

And so that story -- of under-equipped American reservists who refused a "suicide mission" -- did make it to the top of the news here after first being printed up in the Jackson Mississippi Clarion-Ledger. (A number of the soldiers had been based in the Jackson area.) But with American reporters largely locked in their hotels in Baghdad, the intensity of the bad news that is American-occupied Iraq -- as well as our increasing use of air power to bomb heavily populated civilian areas, certainly a war crime -- made it only intermittently to our shores. In fact, thanks to a controversy over a private e-letter (released without permission onto the Web) in which Wall Street Journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi described Baghdad as a near prison for Western journalists, the first accounts by journalists of their constricted lives are finally making it into print, though only in Sunday opinion sections. Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section:

"I… had become a prisoner in my home -- the inhospitable Ishtar Sheraton Hotel -- unable to roam a country I had grown to love, forced to call people I once used to visit. My folding road map, dog-eared from repeated excursions last year, had grown dusty on my bookshelf. By this summer, every road leading out of Baghdad had become too dangerous to travel… all had turned into ‘red routes' in the parlance of security specialists… The capital itself was a patchwork of red (no-go) and yellow (proceed with extreme caution) zones, surrounding the American-controlled Green Zone. Neighborhoods where I had visited Iraqi friends for lunch were now too insecure to enter. And even if I was willing to chance it, my Iraqi friends didn't want to risk being seen allowing a foreigner into their house."

Patrick Cockburn in a piece (not available on line) in the London Review of Books recently pointed out the irony of the news lock-down in Iraq and the kidnappers who have helped to cause it:

"The effect of the increased danger to journalists has been to give the impression, at least in the US, that the crisis in Iraq, while bad, is getting no worse, because US network television correspondents rarely leave their heavily fortified compounds. This is understandable, given that an American journalist stands a minimal chance of surviving if taken hostage. But it also meant that during the three-week battle for Najaf, most American correspondents covered it as embedded journalists with the US army. The kidnappers, for all their verbose anti-Americanism, ensure that there is less coverage of Iraq in the US media as the violence escalates, and so help Bush win re-election… It is strange to sit in Baghdad watching George W. Bush's stump speech about freedom being on the march in Iraq despite continuing troubles. It is a lot worse than that. Iyad Allawi and the interim government rule parts of Baghdad and some other cities. But there could be uprisings by the Shia in Basra or the Sunni in Mosul at any time. The government, probably with American prompting, has told the Ministry of Health to stop issuing figures for the number of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded every day. The government recruits more and more policemen, but in much of the country they stay alive by co-operating with the resistance. In Mosul province they even contribute a portion of their salary to the insurgents. The resistance gets more powerful each month but it is also increasingly split between the nationalists and the Islamic militants."

Meanwhile, 40 American soldiers and 4 private American security men have died in Iraq in just the first half of October and many more were wounded; Baghdad's super-secure Green Zone was penetrated by two suicide bombers; two helicopters went down this weekend while in operation over Baghdad; the Iraqi census that was to have preceded the January elections was "postponed"; and some actual WMD news finally came out of the country -- though there were no screaming headlines here. Missing-in-action, it seems, was dual-use, potentially nuclear-related equipment like milling machines and electron beam welders, stolen from Iraq's former nuclear facilities which were not locked down by the Americans after the invasion. According to diplomats, some of the machinery was removed not by spur-of-the-moment looters but "by experts working systematically over an extended period."

No one knows where this machinery has gone, but potentially this could prove the President right (in a self-fulfilling prophesy sort of way). Some of the equipment may already be showing up in black markets where it could indeed end up in the hands of terrorists or "rogue states" -- and all because Pentagon planners, ostensibly sending American troops into Iraq to prevent the use of, or handing off of, Iraq's supposed WMD to terrorists, neither made plans to guard well-known Iraqi nuclear facilities, nor were willing to allow International Atomic Energy Commission inspectors to return to Iraq and look after the facilities.

And then let's not forget our "wired" President last week, or was he, as in debate two, simply over-caffeinated? Or his chief political strategist Karl Rove who found himself testifying before a grand jury in the Plame name-leak case. Or the FBI which in London, on unknown grounds, moved against some Indymedia websites and managed to close them down temporarily. Or how about the "thieves" who just happened to hit Democratic political headquarters in Toledo, Ohio? Or the Republican-hired company that may have destroyed Democratic voter registration forms in Nevada, or how about… but why continue when New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has already described the dirty-tricks and voting-plots situation so much more eloquently than I ever could.

Aboard the good ship USS State of Denial

Oh, and speaking of weapons of mass destruction news, last week it turned out that, for the second year in a row, carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas par excellence, had entered the atmosphere in unprecedented quantities, baffling scientists. While two years does not make a trend, the fear is that this may reflect our planet's increasing inability to absorb CO2 and so may in turn heighten the possibility of runaway global warming. Global what, you say? You could have caught this in headlines in the British press and it was news, as it should have been, from India to Australia, just not in the United States (despite the fact that the key CO2 measurements were made in Hawaii).

In the meanwhile, Science magazine reported last week on the first global census of amphibians, which indicated that, thanks to climate change, habitat loss, and disease, about a third of the world's frog, toad, newt, and salamander species are now in some danger of extinction. Up to 122 species seem to have disappeared since 1980 in what is already a mini-extinction cascade and another 1,800 are considered in peril. "'What happens to amphibians now could well be a prophecy of what happens to other species, maybe even ourselves,' [a report author Simon N.] Stuart said. ‘They serve as an early warning system.''' But hey, don't worry your brain about the potential for galloping global warming or amphibian extinction cascades. After all, rumor has it that toads cause warts. Certainly, the presidential and vice-presidential candidates weren't eager to clog our heads with this sort of thing. The few minutes the presidential candidates devoted to the environment in the second presidential debate -- mostly George Bush touting himself as "a good steward of the land" -- were pathetic in the extreme and coverage of the subject in our press has been little better.

And oh yes, in the last week-plus, George Bush's case for invading Saddam Hussein's Iraq fell into a rat hole -- or was it a spider-hole -- for the umpteenth time since the early spring of 2003. The chief US weapons inspector in Iraq and head of the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, Charles A. Duelfer ("Wait until Charlie gets back with the final report," the President said in June in response to journalists' questions), issued his final report on Saddam's missing weapons of mass destruction. While offering the President a mouse-hole-sized out -- Saddam would have liked to reconstitute his WMD program someday, Duelfer claimed, though to threaten Iran, not the U.S. -- he indicated not only that Saddam had no nuclear, biological, or chemical WMD, but that he hadn't had any for years, had no significant capacity to reconstitute them, had no plans on the boards to do so, and was in compliance with UN resolutions, more so than the Bush administration whose case has proved a shameful pack of canards. (Duelfer also offered evidence that Saddam may actually have out-planned our President when it came to the post-war occupation -- not, I suppose, a terribly difficult feat.)

Deulfer's report also managed to dismantle just about every prewar statement the President, Vice-President, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice or anyone else in this administration had made about Hussein's ability to "threaten" the United States. In the same week, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld denied that any hard evidence of an al-Qaeda-Saddam link existed; one CIA leak indicated that Saddam had never given Abu Musab al-Zarqawi "safe haven," while another made clear that the administration had indeed been informed before the war that a strong anti-American insurgency might ensue; L. Paul Bremer, the former administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, gave a speech to an insurance convention in which he stated that the administration had thoroughly misplanned its troop strength in Iraq; former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix declared the world less safe thanks to the President's invasion; and the New York Times finally did a thorough investigation of the 60,000 aluminum tubes Saddam's regime had bought in 2001 and which were offered by the administration as its main proof of Saddam's desire to reconstitute his nuclear program (How the White House Embraced Disputed Arms Intelligence).

The article concluded that an improbable idea, "first championed in April 2001 by a junior analyst at the C.I.A.," was picked up and run with by top administration officials, despite expert intelligence to the contrary, and that the tubes weren't intended for centrifuges in a nuclear program but for the making of small artillery rockets. The Times editorialists then composed a lead editorial in which they found themselves shocked, shocked at the results: "It's shocking that with all this information readily available, Secretary of State Colin Powell still went before the United Nations to repeat the bogus claims, an appearance that gravely damaged his reputation." But they didn't profess themselves shocked that this information, largely available to the Times before the war (since it was also available to people like me), hadn't lead the paper to a different position and a different kind of reporting in those pre-war months. But oh well, that's how it goes, doesn't it?

Here's the curious thing, though: The administration's case was always extreme and absurd -- from the "mobile bio-weapons labs" that turned out to be for the inflation of artillery balloons to the nonexistent Niger "yellowcake" to the Iraqi UAVs (unmanned airborne vehicles) that our President announced Iraq could release off our coast to spray anthrax or botulinus toxins far inland (an argument that, unbelievably enough, convinced at least Senator Bill Nelson of Florida to vote for the war resolution). The UAVs, of course, turned out to be observation planes, largely made out of Popsicle sticks; but the truth was you didn't need an intelligence agency behind you, just a modicum of intelligence, or simple commonsense, to know that this was a ludicrous idea (and I wrote exactly that before the Iraq War was launched). After all, how were these deadly planes to get from Iraq to the East coast of the United States in order to become an imminent danger? On tramp steamers, I suppose.

And there were people saying or writing all of this before and soon after the invasion, if only anyone of significance in the media had been willing to pay attention. Former U.S. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, for example, claimed at least as early as September 2002 that Saddam almost surely no longer had WMD and insisted that UN inspectors, if allowed back into the country and given time, would establish just that -- something he never stopped saying. And let's remember that this was a man of whom Paul Wolfowitz, in Congressional testimony in 1998, had said: "It is an honor to appear as part of a hearing in which Scott Ritter testifies. Scott Ritter is a public servant of exceptional integrity and moral courage, one of those individuals who is not afraid to speak the truth." The American press, however, just laughed him offstage and, though he continues to write for places like the Guardian in England, he has not been rehabilitated here.

Jack Shafer of Slate repeatedly and convincingly went after many aspects of the administration's case for war (and the New York Times reporting that seemed to give it credence), including stories about those aluminum tubes and the mobile bio-weapons labs. Peter Beaumont, Antony Barnett, and Gaby Hinsliff of the British Observer began a piece in June 2003 thusly: "An official British investigation into two trailers found in northern Iraq has concluded they are not mobile germ warfare labs, as was claimed by Tony Blair and President George Bush, but were for the production of hydrogen to fill artillery balloons, as the Iraqis have continued to insist." The problem was -- no one here was listening to them.

Or take those notorious aluminum tubes: Physicist David Albright, a respected expert and President of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington D.C., essentially debunked the story of the tubes in a detailed account in March 2003, the month the war began, also throwing into doubt the existence of an Iraqi nuclear program. Remarkably little has been added to his case since. He wrote in part:

"With such weak evidence [of a nuclear program], the administration clings to the aluminum tubes. The tubes were featured in President George W. Bush's State of the Union address in late January and Secretary Colin Powell's Security Council address in early February.

"Yet, the administration has offered few public details about its case or the tubes. It typically restates its views, never answering any technical criticisms of its claims. But publics and other governments need to know the truth, in particular the technical evidence underpinning the administration's conclusion. A critical question is whether the Bush Administration has deliberately misled the public and other governments in playing a 'nuclear card' that it knew would strengthen public support for war.

"For over a year and a half, an analyst at the CIA has been pushing the aluminum tube story, despite consistent disagreement by a wide range of experts in the United States and abroad…"

In June 2003, in a striking summary of Bush administration lies, Christopher Scheer of the Alternet.org website wrote of the tubes in particular:

"LIE #1: ‘The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program ... Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.' -- President Bush, Oct. 7, 2002, in Cincinnati.

"FACT: This story, leaked to and breathlessly reported by Judith Miller in the New York Times, has turned out to be complete baloney. Department of Energy officials, who monitor nuclear plants, say the tubes could not be used for enriching uranium. One intelligence analyst, who was part of the tubes investigation, angrily told The New Republic: ‘You had senior American officials like Condoleezza Rice saying the only use of this aluminum really is uranium centrifuges. She said that on television. And that's just a lie.'"

Of course, at the time just about no one in the mainstream media was paying the slightest attention to anything that only appeared on a website on the Internet. But you could even find examples of such reporting in the mainstream (with Albright among others was quoted) -- lone articles, hesitantly questioning the administration line and usually tucked deep away on the inside pages of papers like the Washington Post. On February 20, 2003, for example, in a piece in which he reported that UN inspectors in Iraq had privately told him American intelligence "tips" were proving to be "garbage," CBS correspondent Mark Phillips added:

"Example: Interviews with scientists about the aluminum tubes the U.S. says Iraq has imported for enriching uranium, but which the Iraqis say are for making rockets. Given the size and specification of the tubes, the U.N. calls the ‘Iraqi alibi air tight.'"

Or to take but one more instance, on March 17, 2003, on the eve of war, Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman wrote a public letter to the President challenging his claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking enrichable uranium ("yellowcake") from the African country of Niger for his future bomb. Waxman, who posted the letter at his website, termed the claim a "hoax" and convincingly laid out evidence for this (months before former Ambassador Joseph Wilson would make the same point and cause a now-famous stir in a New York Times op-ed). This letter, which I posted at Tomdispatch several days later, went singularly unattended in the mainstream press, though Waxman is not exactly an unknown figure in Washington.

Floating off the coast of reality

What's the point of quoting more? You get the idea. In any case, even the most recent media dismantling of the administration's various explanations for war seems to have affected the President's supporters and the administration itself only marginally. No matter how many times these explanations have been torpedoed and sent to the bottom, they (or their cousins) just pop up again like so many Schmoos. The President now claims that Saddam was a threat because he "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means, and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction," a category that, given the present state of our "knowledge," must include about half the planet and most of its rulers.

But undoubtedly the explanations are unsinkable because, in a sense, they had no weight, no heft, in the first place. While they may have been the public face of the war to come, they were never the essence of the matter, and I suspect people sense that. Paul Wolfowitz famously admitted as much when he discussed WMD as an explanation for the war with a sympathetic reporter for Vanity Fair magazine. According to a Pentagon transcript of the interview, he said: "The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason."

Undoubtedly, administration officials right up to the President did believe that, once they got into Iraq, they would find something or other WMD-ish that would retrospectively justify their effort in the eyes of the American public and the world. (After all, Saddam had had the stuff once upon a time.) But their eyes were roaming elsewhere, which was why they planned to guard the Oil Ministry on taking Baghdad but not most other administrative buildings; which was why they never bothered to lock down those now-looted nuclear research facilities. They weren't just thinking oil; they were thinking empire -- a word you don't hear as frequently these days as you did before the war when even liberals like Michael Ignatieff were urging us to take up the imperial "burden."

To control the oil taps of the world, to place pre-planned permanent bases or "enduring camps" right in the middle of Iraq was part of a policy that they believed would protect a Sharonista Israel forever (most of them were, after all, committed Likudniks), lead to the long-wished-for collapse of the hated Syrian and Iranian regimes, and ensure domination over the globe's key resource region (call it "the spread of democracy") for generations.

As historian Juan Cole put the matter recently at his Informed Comment website:

"The US under Bush will likely be a permanent Persian Gulf Power, succeeding the Portuguese, Safavid, Ottoman, and British Empires in that role. At the moment, the US lacks a big permanent land base in the region, though it has a de facto naval base in Bahrain and an air base in Qatar. These are small countries that can host only small facilities. With 12 enduring bases in Iraq, the US posture in the Gulf becomes dominant for perhaps the entire twenty-first century. Being an Iraq power would bring the US into permanent and active diplomatic and military contact with Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran. In all likelihood, the Bush path of Iraq bases leads inexorably toward further US military conflict in the region."

The administration's top officials came up with many explanations for their plan. (Yes, Virginia, they were capable of planning; they just happened to be inside-the-Beltway utopian planners, unprepared for the real world.) But in a nutshell what they looked forward to was taking a drive through the soft underbelly of the Middle East -- Saddam's notoriously weakened army and ravaged land -- where they had no doubt they would be greeted as liberators on their way elsewhere. In their view, Iraq was to be but a way-station and a future U.S. military staging ground. After all, they had larger fish to fry. And had they been right in their overconfident guesses about Iraq, no one in the mainstream media today, and probably not that many Americans, would be reconsidering the welter of often ridiculous public explanations they offered to hustle a fearful public and Congress into support for their imperial plans (which, in a second Bush administration, might gain new life).

Remember, these were men who actually believed they were fighting "World War IV." Former CIA director and all-around-mad-neocon James Woolsey said so then and Donald Rumsfeld more or less repeated this point on his most recent visit to Iraq, comparing the on-going war there (which he referred to as "ground zero" in the "struggle against fanaticism, extremism and terrorism") to the Cold War against the Soviet Union and speaking of the overall war against terrorism as a "task for a generation."

What's wrong with this picture? Well, as a start, Islamist fanatics, though their numbers are undoubtedly growing (in no small part thanks to the policies of George Bush & Co.), are not the equivalent of even a lesser superpower. They are not the Soviet Union. They are not Nazi Germany. They are small, loosely organized, stateless groups of true believers, surrounded by somewhat larger groups of supporters or sympathizers. The regime most fully linked to them, that of the extremist Taliban of Afghanistan, was a rickety failed state built on the rubble of two decades of endless civil war. The Islamist fanatics of al-Qaeda are indeed horrible, but not the essential horror, which is the weaponry that sooner or later, if we continue as we are, will indeed fall into their hands and so turn them into, in terms of the power to destroy, something else entirely. In other words, if you think about it, the greatest horrors of our world are those weapons of mass destruction -- the vast nuclear arsenals that have spread from the superpowers and various European powers to lesser regional powers (Pakistan, India, Israel) and possibly now to North Korea, a lesser power pure and simple, and are still headed downward; but also the biological and chemical weaponry that came out of the Cold War weapons labs of the United States and the Soviet Union. (Think the strangely forgotten Anthrax killer here.)

In other words, a genuine attempt to de-proliferate (and that means the weaponry still in what was once the Soviet orbit and in our own as well) should be the first order of business. What we in the last standing superpower are getting instead is yet madder, military-oriented research meant to create yet more generations of superweaponry.

Genuine de-proliferation is really the "task" of a generation, and a desperately urgent one. It would be one part of the way to turn al-Qaeda and its various look-alikes and groupies back into the fringe movements they actually are. But on this subject, as on a number of the others I've mentioned above, we have a president and administration in total denial, along with much of the media, and a large hunk of the country. We want to be "safe" and "secure," but taking oil lands, pursuing "proliferation wars," and producing new superweapons is hardly the way to go about it. The question is: How do you speak sense to a people floating offshore from reality in the seas of denial?

Read dispatches by Tom Engelhardt throughout the week at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.

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