The state of things late Monday, July 31, indicated to some that there may be no one at the wheel. Of course, maybe there never was anyone at the wheel, and no one at all has much influence on what happens in the world.
In the Cold War half the world seemed to turn to Moscow for leadership, and the other half to Washington. Now, although we say, as the only remaining superpower in the world, that we are remaking the world the way God intended it to be - free and democratic and free-market capitalist - the project seems more than stalled. It seems to be falling apart, and no one much is turning to us for leadership. They know they won't get it. They'll get "let things play out" and "through war and death and chaos things will be remade into something better," as stability and calm have, really, been the problem. You could look it up.
Of course those we have named as the bad guys - the terrorists of all sorts all over the world, except for that odd fellow with the bad hair in North Korea who isn't a terrorist at all but shouldn't have the bomb - have the exact same project, remaking the world the way they say God intended it to be, and that is devout and severely narrowed to a whole different set of rules. The guy with the bad hair in North Korea doesn't talk of what God wants - he's a godless communist. He's just dangerous. But it's all evil, and we are here to rid the world of that. There shouldn't be evil in the world, anywhere. We'll put and end to it.
As these words read, this should be a Monty Python skit - that crew was, in their day, forever sending up the logic people used in this world by taking it to its "logical" conclusion. Who can forget Every Sperm is Sacred from The Meaning of Life? You just go with the argument, running it out, and it turns silly. But this isn't a Monty Python skit. It just seems like one. There's a lot in the press about whether our tactics and strategies were right or wrong - from asking whether we sent enough troops to do the job, to what we have had them do, to, way back when, whether the Iraq War was necessary or there were other alternatives. The commentary on what we should have done, are doing and should do to achieve our aim is endless. But maybe it was the basic concept. All the rest is just detail.
The news of the preceding weekend had been of the death of all those women and children in the small village of Qana in south Lebanon. The world was outraged that an American-made precision bomb dropped by the Israeli Air Force killed thirty-seven small children, the rest of the fifty-four dead being women and the elderly. There were riots in Beirut and Gaza, the Lebanese government told our Secretary of State to just go home as there was nothing to talk about, and every nation called for a cease-fire. The government of Israel said it was regrettable, and the Untied States alone said there should be no cease-fire. Condoleezza Rice had been saying that in the Israeli-Hezbollah war we were seeing the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East - and sure it would be painful, but it was worth it - and the president used his Saturday morning radio address to say what was happening was really a great opportunity, if you looked at it the right way. But neither of them had been in the line of fire.
Sunday we announced that Israel had agreed to forty-eight hour halt to all the bombing. They didn't announce it - we did, for them. We cannot appear too heartless. That lasted six hours or so. It was just one of those things you throw out there and hope people remember later, no matter what really happens next. Call it positioning.
What happened next was this -
They had just called up thirty thousand reservists. They called up another fifteen thousand. So the president of Syria told his army to raise readiness, as something seemed to be up. Well, the Jerusalem Post had reported that the White House had been pressing Israel attack Syria. Forget birth pangs. We're talking induced labor. And in Iraq the vice president of our new government there, Shiite by default, was saying Israel was carrying out massacres, and former moderate clerics were on our case. But Israel bombed on, and we stood with them, alone.
Israel's prime minister declared Monday that there would be no cease-fire with Hezbollah guerrillas, apologizing for the deaths of Lebanese civilians but saying "we will not give up on our goal to live a life free of terror." His Security Cabinet approved widening the ground offensive.
And there was the inevitable - the Israel Defense Forces indicated that it might not have been responsible for the deaths at all (here) - the building they bombed didn't fall in until seven hours later and they have no explanation for that, but think something is up. And your can see here that the Israeli Insider is claiming the whole thing was staged - these people killed their own folks to make Israel, and by extension the Americans, the bad guys. You can find a lot of that on the web, and on Fox News Oliver North floated the idea - it may have been a set-up to make "us" look bad. Cognitive dissonance is a wonderful thing.
But things - as we talk about childbirth and opportunity and say dead children are just something you have to accept - are looking bad, as Daniel Froomkin notes here -
People are catching on. Well, actually, the rest of the world had caught on a long time ago, years ago. They've been trying to tell us, but they're foreigners so they don't count, of course. But then polling shows the American public is slowly catching on, late to the game but sensing there's something delusional going on at the top. Some things you have to figure out yourself. The third of the country that says the president is doing just fine and his ideas are sound may find themselves getting more and more defensive - when people laugh at you when everyone is sitting around shooting the breeze you may get upset, not that you'd change your mind. (For a curious discussion of "the apparently literal impossibility of explaining the fundamentally counterproductive nature of the United State's invasion of Iraq, or of what's currently going on in Lebanon, to those who disagree" see William Gibson here - it all goes back to Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and the blindness that "changing paradigms" induces, really - and it is quite convincing.)
In the best of circumstances, Bush would be running the risk of being considered callous. But in the current circumstances, he runs the risk of being considered both callous and delusional.
… You don't get much more Washington Establishment than Richard N. Haass, who was Bush's first-term State Department policy planning director and now leads the Council on Foreign Relations. And he apparently finds Bush's position laughable. Literally.
Peter Baker writes in the Washington Post that Haass "laughed at the president's public optimism. 'An opportunity?' Haass said with an incredulous tone. 'Lord, spare me. I don't laugh a lot. That's the funniest thing I've heard in a long time. If this is an opportunity, what's Iraq? A once-in-a-lifetime chance?'"
And even the most carefully calculating group of people, who know their very careers and just about everything they are depends on not offending anyone about anything on any topic, the Democratic congressional leadership, sent the president a letter on that Monday, about the Iraq part of the delusion. And it included this -
They even stopped squabbling among themselves. Everyone signed on - Murtha, Biden, and the whole gang. This is very odd. But then, when the whole world was there years ago, and two-thirds of the nation is slapping their foreheads and feeling had, maybe it's safe to send a letter now.
The open-ended commitment in Iraq that you have embraced cannot and should not be sustained. Rather, we continue to believe that it is time for Iraqis to step forward and take the lead for securing and governing their own country... We believe that a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq should begin before the end of 2006. U.S. forces in Iraq should transition to a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism, training and logistical support of Iraqi security forces, and force protection of U.S. personnel... Mr. President, simply staying the course in Iraq is not working. We need to take a new direction.
On another issue, the same day out here down in Long Beach, Tony Blair was meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, our odd governor, and the two of them announced an agreement to bypass the Bush administration and work together to explore ways to fight global warming (details here). Just bypass the White House - everyone knows they're a rather useless bunch. Heck, the administration still claims there is a lively debate on whether global warming is caused by man or just stuff that happens now and then, although they find it hard to come up with folks on the latter side of the argument, save for one guy at Yale and the fellow who wrote Jurassic Park. Why even bother trying to get them to do anything? So California and the UK will work something out together. George cannot be happy with Tony. And states really shouldn't be entering into what looks like treaty agreements with foreign countries - that's against the rules. But you've got to do what you've got to do. We're funding embryonic stem cell research out here too. Why even bother to argue with the administration?
And why even deal with people, who, as Scott Rosenberg notes here, here are pretty much saying we have to destroy Lebanon in order to save it. Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt. But as Rosenberg says -
Yep, it's the same thing. And Republican Senator Hegel, was blunt on the floor of the senate - this is "an absolute replay of Vietnam." He says we need to call for an immediate cease-fire - no more civilians in Lebanon get killed and no more rockets drop into northern Israel. Then everyone can talk. Of course he's ex-military. He fought in Vietnam. The administration scoffs at such folk - think Max Cleland, and of course that coward who knows nothing of these matters, John Kerry with all his medals. Amateurs. Monty Python couldn't top all that.
Chalk up another Vietnam parallel: Just as, in that conflict, military officers explained that in order to save a village we had to destroy it, so, today, President Bush explains that the destruction of Lebanon - one of the Middle East's very few functioning democracies -- is all in the service of spreading democracy.
Addressing the Coast Guard in Miami, Bush declared, "When democracy spreads in the Middle East, the people of that troubled region will have a better future, the terrorists will lose their safe havens and their recruits, and the United States of America will be more secure."
Never mind that Hezbollah, the Shiite group that provoked Israel's attack and continues to fire missiles across the border, was actually a part of the coalition that ruled democratic Lebanon. I suppose that if, say, elections in Saudi Arabia replaced its authoritarian monarchy with an Islamist democracy, we would hear something similar from our government: Democracy, yes - but it has to be a democracy that elects just the right people! In taking on the grand mission of bringing democracy to the Middle East, it seems, the U.S. is also committing itself to intervention (or support of others' intervention) any time that democracy produces governments we don't like.
Oh, Bush also took the opportunity to explain how the war between Israel and Hezbollah is actually all a part of the Manichean struggle that commenced on 9/11: "'For decades, the status quo in the Middle East permitted tyranny and terror to thrive,' the president said. 'And as we saw on Sept. 11, the status quo in the Middle East led to death and destruction in the United States, and it had to change.'"
Rosenberg also offers this -
And he wonders what the administration is up to, offering these four possibilities -
First we have the Bush administration's basic position, which, it's fair to say, has all along been: It's time to clean house in Lebanon. Let Israel do whatever it wants. Cease-fires are for wimps (unless they're real, manly cease-fires that are agreed to only after you have pulverized your enemy and achieved your goals). Then we have a succession of escalating awful events on the ground culminating in the Qana carnage - events that not only feature civilian bloodshed but that also immediately and directly harm the administration's "war on terror" by discrediting the U.S. among the Muslim populations whose hearts and minds we are supposed to be winning over. Finally, we have the U.S. engineering a slight slowdown in the Israeli onslaught - trumpeted on front pages as a "concession." This "concession" is so limited it has to be announced by American spokespeople rather than Israel itself, and before long it turns out to be so limited as to be nearly meaningless.
He has the sinking feeling it's number four. And maybe it is.
1) They really mean it when they say that they only want a cease-fire if it can be a lasting cease-fire. Probably they do "mean it" in the sense that this accurately represents the wishful thinking of the president and vice president. As that wishful thinking collides with reality, however, the stance becomes increasingly irrelevant.
2) They think victory for Israel is just over the next ridge - the way it is for the U.S. in Iraq. Therefore holding Israel back from delivering a coup de grâce against the Hezbollah terrorists would hurt the "global war on terror" - civilian casualties are regrettable but it's more important to let Israel get the job done. The assumption here is that, given enough time, the Israeli military machine will get the job done. Unfortunately for Bush (and the Israelis), at the moment the Lebanon campaign looks no more effective at establishing the invader's invincibility than the Iraq invasion was at demonstrating American power.
3) It's a throw-the-gameboard over move. Things in the Middle East are so bad for the U.S. right now that Bush's team wants to go for broke. We have hints that Washington is egging Israel on to take on Syria. With Iraq spiraling the drain and Iran ascendant, Bush sees Israel's Lebanon campaign as the only way to create a new "opportunity" (to use Rice's term) in the Middle East. This scenario would be easier to credit if the neocon gang (Wolfowitz, Feith, et al.) that took us into Iraq were still manning the fort. Today we can only hope and pray that the reality quotient in policymaking circles is a little higher.
4) There is no one at the wheel. "Let it play out" might be a calculated stance, but it could also be the pure deer-in-the-headlights paralysis of a White House that is so far out of its depth it cannot muster any sort of coherent response to a crisis. In other words, there might not be method to this madness; in the immortal words of Martin Sheen's Willard in "Apocalypse Now," "I don't see any method at all."
There may be no one at the wheel. Is there a better explanation?
Well, maybe there is. It's the "human nature" explanation. Everyone tells you what you believe is wrong, and it's unanimous, and basic logic tells you you're wrong, and everyone is pointing to the logic. So you get defensive. You insist you're right, and everyone else just doesn't get it, all of them, every one of them. And you offer an alternative logic. When they laugh you act all noble - you play the misunderstood visionary. No one understands you, and it's so sad. Watch Humphrey Bogart in The Cain Mutiny - he got that thing down cold, maybe his best performance. Of course he was playing a madman, but he nailed the character. It's just in this case we don't get the ball bearings and this isn't about strawberry ice cream. And there will never be a court martial of anyone.
He doesn't like taking crap from anyone. Think of this from Ron Suskind's new book, The One Percent Doctrine -
That too might explain things. The whole crew is like that - the "shock and awe" crowd. We get two an half more years of this.
He's a graduate student at one of America's most prestigious business schools.
He is the leader of his class basketball team.
Without provocation, he hits the leader of the opposing team in the jaw to stop him from making a shot. A few minutes later, he blocks another shot by the same man by smashing his legs on a jump shot.
Years later after both had become successful businessmen, the fellow who'd been struck twice was still wondering what the hell all that had been about. One day he happened to run into the man's brother, now the governor of a state. Could he explain it?
Well, yes. You see, in Texas there are people who get satisfaction from being hard. This was an example of Texas hardness.
Here's a little thought experiment from the novelist Jane Smiley. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992 for A Thousand Acres and her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (Knopf) is pretty good literary criticism. She writes articles for all the major magazines and she's a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has a way with words, and ideas, and on current matters she offers this -
Good question, that. But there's more -
One of the things that is astonishing about conservatives is that they seem not to understand the simplest facts of logistics, such as how expensive and fragile extended supply lines are. I imagine it this way: France sends 150,000 troops to subdue California. California has 36 million people, most of them armed with something - if not guns, then kitchen knives. France divides up its forces between LA, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, and Bakersfield, leaving, say a thousand troops to pacify the Monterey Peninsula, from south of Big Sur to north of Santa Cruz and east to the 101, about 4800 square miles of mountainous and inhospitable terrain. How exactly are they going to do it if we Californians refuse to cooperate? They will certainly make examples of some of us, destroy lots of our houses, wreck as much of our infrastructure as possible, and imprison some of us who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it's a long way from France to Monterey, it's hard to ship lots of supplies all that way, and so unless the French Army takes what we have, thereby alienating us, they are going to be hard put to subdue us, and the longer it takes them, the less likely it is that they will accomplish what they set out to do. Anyway, as soon as the French army leaves my neighborhood, I'm going to do what I want. Just about the only way that the French army is going to succeed here in Monterey is genocide - same in LA, same in San Fran, same in Sacramento.
The French Army is in big trouble because they have mistaken their fantasies for reality, but as they begin to win over the Hispanic population of California, they find themselves looking the other way when some ethnic cleansing takes place. The French Minister of Defense goes on the record saying that "Democracy is messy" a few days after some of my neighbors are ethnically cleansed by their gardeners. All around the world, after this incident, there is muttering about how maybe my neighbors deserved what happened to them (although isn't it too bad about the children?), but I can't help think that before the French army came along we seemed to be getting along well enough here in California. It's just that now, with the infrastructure largely destroyed by the French bombing and survival more difficult, it is inevitable that everything will be messy. Unfortunately, Jacques Chirac, when he planned this war on California, didn't bother to factor in the inevitable social breakdown that has been a documented part of every war since time began. I mean, unfortunately for us. Chirac doesn't care how California has been destroyed because he's distracted by his poll numbers, which are low, and in order to revive them, he is talking about attacking Mexico. This time, though, since the French Army is pinned down in California, he is just going to bomb the Mexican populace into submission. It's going to be a genocide. That seems to be his only strategic alternative, and the defense of France requires it.
Modern air war is always genocide. It has to be, because that's what bombs are for - they are for burning and blasting out civilians. That is the use they were put to the Second World War, and that is the use they have been put to since, and no one has ever proven that genocide-through-bombing was effective in persuading civilian populations to switch loyalties from one side to another. In fact, Jorg Friedrich, historian of the Allied bombing of Germany maintains that thousands and thousands of bombs toward the end of the war only stiffened German civilian resistance. Conservatives live by the principle that force always works in the end - and it does, if genocide is the goal (I mean real genocide, where a majority of a given population are killed), but what have you got when the killing is over? A devastated landscape, the reputation for war crimes, and a big humanitarian mess. The psychology on the face of it is just wrong. They're trying to kill me so I will start honoring and obeying them? Only a conservative would expect something like that, and only from the other side. He himself would never expect to be bombed into submission. So let's quit playing word games.
But let's give the conservatives the benefit of the doubt and say that they know enough to know, even though they don't say so, that bombing and genocide are not actually any more persuasive to an indigenous population somewhere else in the world than they would be to folks at home. But if that is true, why are they so enamored of bombing, attacking, sending in the troops?
And on it goes. It's just a different way of looking at things. Enjoy it while you are still allowed to look at things differently.
Why did they come here, so far from France, in the first place? Oh, right. It was "French interests abroad" that they were trying to defend. You know, I was suspicious when they bought up the water rights in my neighborhood. I thought at the time "Why would the Loire Valley Water Authority buy the rights to the Carmel River?" And then when they put in the sausage facility and started sending groups of hunters out to harvest the wild pigs that infest our area, I was actually happy. But now I understand that for them the cost of doing business in California was just too high. We wanted them to pay pretty steep taxes and we began charging much stiffer permit fees for hunting licenses when we heard that those sausages were selling for about the same price as Kobe beef, while we were getting nothing at our end, the "buy low" end. The water owners and the sausage-makers back in France got incensed at how uppity we Californians were. They decided it was easier and far more cost effective (for them), to send in the French army to permanently secure the supply of water and sausage than it was to actually make a deal with us. But now the river is polluted and the sausage facility has been blown up by insurgents from Santa Cruz, so the French capitalists are thinking of investing in China (and I say French, but really, the money behind them is not only French - it's Saudi, American, British, Chinese, Brazilian. Capitalists are always proud of globalization. Money, as they say, doesn't care who owns it). What Capitalism requires, as I understand it, is the ruthless externalization of costs so that shareholders will keep investing. The job of the executives is always to reduce costs and maximize profits, so getting others to pay and keeping the profits for oneself is always the point and the goal. I am going to repeat that again, because so many average persons think that the corporation is their friend and capitalism is the lifeblood of democracy. The goal of capitalists is to make me, the average citizen, pay as much of the cost of doing business as possible, and to keep for themselves as many of the profits as possible.