The Way We Were

From ready-to-gamble visionaries to bunker-mentality reactionaries in 34 neoconservative steps.

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Here we are just past our Independence Day, past that moment in memory when the United States was, by active example, a “beacon of freedom” to the world, past the moment in memory when, as Barbara Ehrenreich reminded us in the New York Times on July 4th, the signers of the Declaration of Independence penned their names to the following line (Their George and Ours): “And for the support of this Declaration… we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” She adds:

“Today, those who believe that the war on terror requires the sacrifice of our liberties like to argue that ‘the Constitution is not a suicide pact.’ In a sense, however, the Declaration of Independence was precisely that. By signing Jefferson’s text, the signers of the declaration were putting their lives on the line… If the rebel American militias were beaten on the battlefield, their ringleaders could expect to be hanged as traitors. They signed anyway, thereby stating to the world that there is something worth more than life, and that is liberty.”

Now, let’s leap a couple of centuries-plus and consider another group of Americans who signed onto what’s looking more and more like an inadvertent (political) suicide pact. Our media washes over us like some mind-cleansing drug, so today, in the shambles of Bush administration Iraq policy, in the wake of Abu Ghraib, just beyond the “transition to Iraqi rule,” it’s difficult to recall what life was like back when the press was simply a lapdog; CBS’s Dan Rather was burbling, “George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where”; war was a swift, smiting blow (when was the last time you heard the phrase “shock and awe”?), and we were about to be anointed as the New Rome.

It’s hard to remember that we were then ruled by the greatest, and most arrogant, gamblers in our history, men (and a single woman) ready to roll the dice any old time on the fate of the Earth. In the wake of every crumbling pseudo-explanation for the war in Iraq, it’s hard to remember just how sweeping their vision actually was or what they had in mind when, not so long after September 11th, 2001, they loaded some high-tech hummer (regular cars being far too retro for them) with explosives and drove out into the world looking for something to blow up. Now that the strategists among them are in decline and the “realists,” long left in the lurch, are wheeling and dealing in Iraq and Washington, it’s hard to recall the utopian (or dystopian) fantasies they were so intent on imposing on what turned out to be a surprisingly recalcitrant world.

For the nostalgia buffs among you, the increasingly lonely Dick Cheney, who not so long ago imagined himself to be the co-ruler of our energy planet, continues to hoof it around the country reiterating charges of al-Qaeda/Saddam ties on a “best of 2001-2002” Bush administration top-ten tour. But even the man who prided himself on never cracking, no less cracking a smile, has had his public bad moments and temper squalls — and all without a duck, quail or pheasant in sight to knock out of the skies.

In a bow to the Veep’s oldies-but-badies routine, let’s try, for a moment, to recall the strategic thinking that lay behind the shock-and-awe campaign seen ’round the world: From the start, of course, this was an energy administration. After all, how many national security advisers in our history have had an oil tanker named after them? How many vice presidents ran a giant energy company deeply entangled with the U.S. military? The fact is, when it came to energy, like a group of vulgar Marxists with oil on the brain, most of them saw the world quite naturally in terms of energy flows, just the way a doctor might see blood flows as the body’s essence.

They identified an “arc of instability” that stretched east-west from the former Yugoslavia to the borders of China and southward into Africa. (It was sometimes also said to include the Andean parts of Latin America.) This “arc,” covering significant parts of what once was called the Third World, took in most of the planet’s prime, or prospective, oil lands. Even before 9/11 in this vast region, some of which had dropped out of the former Soviet empire, the Bush administration began to plant, or expand, American military bases. The heart of these oil lands lay in the Middle East, a region with — in better times — the world’s five leading oil producers.

Post 9/11, the top strategists of this administration followed their President happily into the “war on terror,” the wilder among them imagining it as World War IV, the equivalent of, if not World War II, at least the Cold War, and so engendering dreams of another half-century twilit struggle to victory. Endless years of war would release them to act exactly as they pleased. The President (and his speechwriters), dreaming “Good War” dreams from his movie-made childhood, then elevated a pathetic “Axis of Evil” (Iran, Iraq and North Korea, none of which previously knew of their close relationship) to the role of the Axis powers (Germany, Japan, Italy) in World War II; and so, with an enemy of nation states in hand, far more worthy of a world at war than Osama bin Laden and small groups of fanatic Islamists, they announced a policy of global supremacy not over terrorists, but over all the other nations of our planet, swearing that no future bloc of powers would be allowed to interfere with our benevolent hegemony over the Earth — and of preventive war. We would reserve the right to take out anybody we even thought might sooner or later in some way or another challenge us. A list of up to 60 states believed to “harbor” terrorists was also drawn up. This was a list for a lifetime. And finally, declaring weapons of mass destruction evil, they made it our job to decide who exactly shouldn’t have them and to bolster our own nuclear forces in order to prepare for a series of what Jonathan Schell has called anti-proliferation wars. With this trio of policies in their foreign policy quiver, they looked around for some action.

Of course, the neocon strategists of this administration had long been spoiling for, planning for, and dreaming of a second American Gulf War that would take down Saddam Hussein’s regime. (Just a peek at the wonderfully named Project for the New American Century website, where they proudly posted their wares, will give you a sense of this.) Assessing the satanic trio that made up the Axis of Evil — a fierce and desperate despotism with a sizeable air force but no fuel to get pilots aloft to practice flying planes; an increasingly embattled and unpopular but combative semi-theocracy; and a country sitting on the world’s second largest oil reserves, strung out by three failed wars, twelve years of economic sanctions and periodic bombings, and run by a detested, brutal, increasingly out-of-touch regime with a military that was just a ghost of its former self — they naturally chose the third. It was a grudge rematch to begin with; it looked like a snap (there was little question that Saddam’s army, crushed in our first Gulf War, wouldn’t last long in a second one); and the assaults of September 11, 2001 had made it a far more sellable commodity (hence, the endless administration linkages of Iraq and al-Qaeda).

Nothing could be worse than Saddam, so Iraq’s crushed people would prove both pliable and grateful for their “liberation.” (You remember that “cakewalk,” and all those flowers to be strewn in our path by joyous Shiites…) In return for a Saddam-less life, they would, of course, let us proceed apace with our plans. In an over-armed region, we would drastically downsize their army so that they would need our protection forever, build a string of permanent bases to the tune of billions of dollars (in part to replace those being mothballed in Saudi Arabia), and install a government run by Ahmed Chalabi, the sweet-talking exile with so much useful intelligence so close at hand, who was so deeply beloved by the neocons in the Pentagon and the Veep’s office. He would be our satrap in a formally democratic Iraq. It was all so obvious.

And then, of course, there was all that oil. In our desperately over-determined world where the multiple-explanation is the only explanation, the point of all this was never simply to take Iraq’s oil, though the neocons did think it would be most useful in reconstructing and running the country on the cheap, as Pentagon Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made quite clear numerous times and still claims. In a world of rising oil desire and potentially limited oil resources, the point was to find ourselves ensconced militarily at the very heart of the Middle East, controlling the taps to the energy veins of the globe, and to do so before any of those future blocs of irritated countries could form to challenge us.

But Iraq wasn’t the end of their plans. Not by a long shot. Seen as the region’s soft underbelly, Iraq was to be but a pit stop on a long-imagined armed drive through the Middle East — and implicitly the world. (After all, the third member of the Axis of Evil was conveniently located on the other side of the planet.) Iraq was to be the motor for regional change. Once we stood triumphant in our Iraqi bases, Syria would find itself between the pincers of an American Army and Sharon’s militarized Israel. The Palestinians would find themselves completely isolated and would be forced to make a humiliating peace of the defeated with an expansive Israel. (Remember, this administration was filled with died-in-the-wool Likudniks who saw themselves delivering long-term safety to an Israel triumphant, while making regional use of the Sharonistas and their skills to help establish that New American Century.)

Iran, another of those grudge-match countries, with American encampments on two of its borders — don’t forget our war in Afghanistan here — would be ripe for an Iraqi-style regime change, a bring-back-the son-of-the-Shah event filled with Orange County Iranians (already promising the same cakewalks and flowers). The Saudis, that giant oil-well of a state, would, of course, be thoroughly intimidated. With NATO well established in the old Eastern Europe preserves of the Soviet Union, American troops flowing into increasingly permanent encampments in its former Central Asian SSRs as well as into a complex of expanding bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with a strengthened American alliance with a right-wing Hindu government in India (also growing ever closer to Israel), impoverished Russia would finally be “contained” along its many-thousand-mile frontier (in a way the Cold Warriors of the twentieth century could only have dreamed of).

Energy-starved China, with its booming economy, seen by many in this administration as our great future competitor and enemy, would be left out in the cold, and the North Koreans would have been safely stowed in the refrigerator, a fit object for mopping up in a second Bush administration. The uppity old Europeans would be put in their place; the new (Eastern) Europeans would be eternally grateful for whatever economic favors and bases we dropped in their laps; the Middle East would be reorganized on a basis favorable to Israel and so to the U.S.; and there would be an American Iraq with, as they so liked to say, “an Iraqi face” and a democratic façade. This was to be a New Rome indeed, not to say an Earth towered over by a single colossus. Pentagon planners talked about our military configuration in the world as our “footprint” as if we were indeed a giant capable of planting only a single vast foot on the planet. (Note that in all this, the war on al-Qaeda played at best a modest role, except as an enemy of convenience that explained everything to a terrified American populace — largely because this vision preceded 9/11 and had next to nothing to do with terrorism.)

By the way, if you consider this vision, you immediately grasp one of the great, post-war mysteries of Iraq. Now that Iraq policy has crumbled, it’s often asked why, given the Powell Doctrine (and the fact that he was, after all, Secretary of State), we never prepared an “exit strategy” for Iraq? Consider, for example, this sentence from a recent Christian Science Monitor piece: “Much of the discussion [about future U.S. military doctrine] revolves around the so-called Powell Doctrine of war (explicit objectives, overwhelming use of force, clear exit strategy) versus the ‘Rumsfeld Doctrine’ (smaller numbers of highly maneuverable ground forces, emphasis on special operations, and high-tech air power).”

What’s the difference between the two military strategies? Rumsfeld’s was a no-exit strategy. Remember, administration strategists were setting up in Iraq in order to drive elsewhere. They never imagined leaving, just as they never imagined all sorts of other possibilities that didn’t go well with their dreams. In this sense, our President embodied our no-exit administration in his rhetoric. Only one party was going to leave town in this showdown on Main Street — the Saddamist enemy, and they were going to exit stone cold and feet first.

For such a vision of the world, gaily decorated with much talk about bringing “democracy” to the benighted, they were ready to take any step imaginable: targeted assassinations (à la Israel), the setting up of an offshore mini-gulag, the torture of those from whom information must be extracted… all the dark arts of the world were to be mobilized for that bright dream of benevolent imperial domination. They planned for the worst they could imagine with the worst tools they could dream up. Where they failed was in their inability to imagine the world as it was, not as they wished it to be. In this sense they were both a Feith-based and faith-based administration; and this was why — despite copious prewar planning over at State — the boys from the Pentagon arrived in Iraq largely without Iraqis, Arabic speakers, or much in the way of plans for the country. They had won, hadn’t they? They had Chalabi, didn’t they? What else could they possibly need?

Starting with Iraqi nationalism, the basics of our planet in the last century, no less the new one, escaped them, but at least one has to grant them the audacity of their vision. It couldn’t have been grander — though there was no way for the American public to know much about it, since at no other time in our recent past has the American press been so demobilized. At a time when our leaders were putting together the most expansive of global maps, most of the time you could hardly find a piece of analysis, no less news, in our papers that had two countries in it at the same time.

The administration neocons were utopian fantasists who, If you think of Afghanistan as the first enforced stop on their path to Iraq, and Iraq as the chosen second stop on the way to the larger Middle Eastern region, didn’t actually get far along the path they set out for themselves. And here’s the almost incomprehensible thing (if you don’t consider the history of resistance to imperial power of every sort over the last centuries), they were stopped by a group of ill-armed nobodies, lacking predator drones, tanks, billions in intelligence, access to the globe’s emails, or even evidently a central command. They were stopped by relatively small groups of brutes and thugs, fanatics and dead-enders backed by the extraordinary power, the overwhelming desire of everyday Iraqis not to be occupied and ruled by a foreign power or its proxies.

And yet the neocons weren’t completely wrong. They imagined Iraq as the motor for reorganizing first the region, then the world — a kind of wild force for change, a chaos machine that would scramble the previous world order in ways advantageous to them. Their only mistake was to believe that the levers of change in that scrambling would remain in their hands. They loosed — to use a classic phrase — the whirlwind and now it seems to be in the process of sweeping them away.

They weren’t, of course, much at predictions. None of us are. It’s one of those human failings. We can’t help ourselves when it comes to predicting, but we’re almost always surprised by reality. Still, they were worse at it than most, insistent as they were on imposing their soaring vision on a stubborn reality (exactly the charge long laid to the left). In a sense, of all their dreams, only the permanent bases in Iraq and the no-exit strategy remain, embedding Washington in the heartland of chaos for years to come. Perhaps the moral of their tale might simply be: Be careful what you wish for.

Of all the things they couldn’t imagine, the first and foremost — they would have found the thought laughable only a year ago, as laughable as the idea that George W. Bush, our war president, could lose the next election — was that a ragtag Iraqi insurgency would find itself in the driver’s seat of some battered sedan, well-packed with munitions, and driving the Bush administration willy-nilly toward disaster in November. (This wasn’t actually so hard to imagine. It was something I predicted at this site at least a year ago — and if you were reading on the Internet rather than in our mainstream media, you wouldn’t have found me alone.)

Just about everyone who represented respectable opinion in our country knew, only months ago, that Americans didn’t really vote foreign policy. The media repeated this truth endlessly. The war simply couldn’t, wouldn’t be the decisive factor in an American election. Well, think again. Now they know and they still can’t quite believe it. Now the administration knows too and can’t quite believe it either. Now, they’re in a rush to repair the damage and so Chalabi is replaced by Allawi, the Pentagon by the State Department and the CIA, and Bush II’s boys by the dealers of the Bush I administration. In Iraq the new crew is settling up — some form of martial law backed by American troops, a reconstituted semi-Baathist regime, and so on. The realists are back in the saddle and the media has given them a pass and a respite (though only until the next obvious catastrophe in Iraq which is unlikely to be far down the pike). But what a saddle it’s likely to prove to be.

This is the famed getting-the-toothpaste-back-in-the-tube dilemma and, given John Kerry’s insipid imperial suggestions for Iraq, it’s likely to be with us next January no matter who wins in November. One of the few things the neocons seem to have done successfully is pass on a no-exit catastrophe to whomever. Ending the occupation — I mean the real one — and withdrawing our troops, these are not live thoughts in much of Washington. In this sense, with Americans already at the 40% mark on withdrawal, the public is way ahead of its leaders who, on both sides of the aisle, seem to be opting for a Vietnam-style response: escalation.

But, as Dr. Seuss might have said, that is not all, oh, no, that is not all. The administration policies that crystallized in the invasion of and high-handed occupation of Iraq seem to have set off a process that is reorganizing the world in ways we can’t yet fully grasp. Some may be hopeful, some frightening indeed. In Korea and India, the right has already been swept from power. In Italy and possibly Japan, rightist governments totter. In Britain, Blair stands unsteady at the helm as does Howard in Australia, and so on. In the Middle East, this administration has created a border-blurring monster and god knows what will follow. All we can say with any degree of certainty is that it will be ugly, and every day we occupy Iraq under whatever “face” will make it worse.

In our country, the President’s poll numbers look dreadful indeed. (As sociologist Michael Schwartz writes, “The really bad news for Bush in these polls lies in the voters’ evaluations of his leadership, and all three polls concur in recording dramatic declines to his lowest scores since 9/11. To cite just some of this evidence, the WP [Washington Post]-ABC poll registers Bush’s overall approval job rating at 47%, below 50% for the first time since 9/11. Only losing incumbents have been below 50% at this point, with the exception of the Truman miracle of 1948. His ratings on specific issues are also at low ebbs.”) Already, for an election victory, a number of things will have to break very right for him — and we’re only in the early days of July. There’s so much worse to come in Iraq as well as inside the Beltway where a lethal brew of investigations, court cases, commission reports, angry leakers and whistle-blowers, all released by or fallout from this administration’s Iraq policies, ensure unending months of messiness. The president may already be political dead meat, even if the opinion poll head-to-heads with Kerry don’t yet register it.

And here’s an odd little bit of polling info, pointed out by John Nichols of the Nation magazine (Will the Senate Tip?): “Democratic candidate Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina’s superintendent of education, leads in the polls [for a South Carolina Senate seat in a state Bush won by 57%] –despite the fact that one of her opponents dismisses her as ‘an Emily’s List liberal.’ And Tenenbaum’s not alone in showing unexpected strength. Democrats are running even or ahead in four of five races for open Senate seats in the South, and they’re also even or ahead in contests for Republican-held seats in Illinois, Oklahoma, Colorado and Alaska.” Not so long ago, those southern Senate seats would have been considered throwaways, obvious red-state shoo-ins. No one may say it, but this too is Iraq. Though not yet likely, there is the possibility that, depending on how fast events sink in and how disastrous the news proves, the Democrats might take back Congress, and this might itself prove but part of a larger seismic shift, a global reorganization that, on the one hand, might end the quarter-century, near planet-wide reign of the right-wing, and on the other hand, may bequeath us all a desperately more dangerous world.

The Bush people were audacious; they were visionary (and didn’t mind telling you so); the only liberty they truly valued was their liberty to do as they damn pleased; they were focused on unilateral global domination of a sort seen at most only a few times in history; they had the mentality of plunderers and didn’t hesitate to use fear to herd Americans in the directions they most desired. In the end, they may find themselves alone and vulnerable in a Baghdad-on-the-Potomac of their own making with no Green Zone in sight and chaos in the driver’s seat.

Additional commentaries by Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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