[November 4, 2004]

Thinkers versus Believers

Dana Ward, Political Studies, Pitzer College

The stakes and the choice in the 2004 election were starker than in any since 1972, indeed I would argue, at least in terms of stakes, in any since the 1896 referendum pitting quasi-populism against unrestrained capitalism. Internationally, the choice was between Empire and responsible international citizenship. On the domestic front the major question confronted was whether workers or employers would bear the burden of funding government and what programs those funds would support. While the gap between the alternatives spanned the far right and slightly left of center ideological perspectives, it was a wider gap than in any election since the choice between Nixon and McGovern, perhaps even since Hoover and Roosevelt.

Internationally the United States has never been more despised than it is today. In a recent poll covering thirty-five countries from all regions of the world, only the Philippines, Nigeria, and Poland clearly approve the Bush administration, while India's and Thailand's citizens are about as equally divided as our own. Everywhere else opposition to the Bush Administration is massive. Asked to choose between Kerry and Bush, Kerry was the overwhelming choice: Norway 74-4; Germany 74-10; France 64-5; Dominican Republic 61-16; Sweden 58-14; China 52-12; Indonesia 57-35; UK 47-16; Canada 43-6; Venezuela 48-22; Mexico 47-26; Japan 43-23; Turkey 40-25; Kazakhstan 40-12; Russia 20-10; and so on. (PIPA, University of Maryland, September 8, 2004. Available at: http://www.pipa.org/) It should be no surprise that the costs of the current war in Iraq, in stark contrast to the first Gulf War, are born almost entirely by the US taxpayer. Likewise, it should be no surprise that Iraq has become a magnet for those determined to resist the expansion of the US empire much like in 1936-39 Spain attracted international brigades willing to sacrifice their own lives to resist fascism abroad.

That the US is an Empire can no longer be debated for it is loudly boasted to be such by the architects themselves. As with past empires, ours is accompanied by its own self-destructive hubris. By definition, hubris is impervious to reality, but in the Bush administration, divorce from reality is a decidedly clebrated status, witness Ron Suskind's recent description of his encounter with a Bush advisor after writing an article on Karen Hughes unappreciated by the administration: "I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'" (New York Times, October 17, 2004.) Indeed, and the Iraqi reality this administration has created includes 100,000 dead civilians according to a recent Johns Hopkins study (The Lancet, October 30, 2004), an intractable self-defeating occupation which serves to generate rather than mitigate terrorism, and an unsustainable drain on an already wizened treasury resulting in an inevitable parallel to the post-Vietnam stagflation.

The costs of Empire are not inconsequential, both in terms of money and increased international tensions. At a minimum, the Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and has another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories.1 The geographical expansion of US bases into the heart of the former Soviet Union, into the former Soviet Block, and now into the heart of the Middle East occurred largely under Bush's watch and was justified as part of the so-called war on terrorism. The costs of this expansion have contributed greatly to the current deficit. Since we do not know the full extent of the expansion it is difficult to assess the costs, but keep in mind that the 2004 defense authorization bill amounted to $401.3 billion and that 2004 deficit amounts to $412.55 billion. Military Keynesianism, pioneered by Ronald Reagan and now practiced by George W. Bush, produced record deficits in both eras. Because Bush shifted the tax burden onto those least able to sustain it, the irony of this election is that millions of ordinary people struggling to make ends meet voted as if they were already rich and invested in protection that will be redeemed in increased risk.

Not only does US penetration in Asia and the Middle East raise tensions with our most likely long term adversary, China, it was partially made possible by loosening the ties that once bound the Atlantic Alliance. The reduction of troop forces in Germany is the most dramatic example. Thus, another consequence of the choice made in 2004 is partnerships are fast turning into rivalries. Excluded from taking part in what little reconstruction has occurred in Iraq, our former European allies have increasing incentives to build their own alliances against US hegemony. US empire building already has had economic consequences. US firms are reporting increasing difficulty doing business in Europe because of an informal boycott of US goods and services. Europeans alienated by the expanding US empire are turning away from patronizing US firms. For example, The Gap recently had to pull out of Germany. As Europe becomes more fully integrated on the economic front, military integration will most certainly follow (the recent decision on a common EU border security force is but the first step), particularly as US and European interests increasingly collide, most notably over access to oil. Bush's policies have therefore accelerated the trend toward a tri-polar world, requiring the US to unilaterally support its military agenda. Such strains can only weaken the US economy, with results that Gorbachev would certainly recognize. If one were to subscribe to the school of revolution through immiseration, then perhaps we have cause to celebrate Bush's victory, but the human costs of such a path are simply too gruesome a subscription.

Certainly, Kerry's approach to international relations would have been far more collaborative, less interventionist, and most importantly, respectful of international law. The greatest stain Bush has spilled on the fabric of US history is his adoption of preventive war as the foundation of US foreign policy. Preventive war, as everyone should know by now, but does not, was the charge at Nuremberg. For well over a century preventive war has been a war crime, but in September 2002 preventive war became the official doctrine of the US without any public debate. The doctrine was simply announced. The dangers of preventive war are now abundantly apparent. Such a doctrine even if morally acceptable, which it is not, would require certain knowledge of potential threats, a kind of god like omniscience which only a fanatic could claim. But claim Bush did, with the disasterous consequences he is unwilling to acknowledge as the casualties mount.

Given Bush's lack of respect for international law, should anyone be surprised that torture became official US policy under his watch? There is now no doubt but that Rumsfeld had intimate knowledge of the abuses taking place not just at Abu Ghraib, but in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and numerous other secret detention centers around the world. (See Mark Danner, New York Review of Books, June 10, June 24, and October 7, 2004.) He closely monitored the interrogations, meticulously went over the guidelines and approved techniques (waterboarding) which are widely recognized as torture. I had dared to hope that a Kerry victory might result in these war criminals being brought to justice, but Kerry's defeat insures their impunity.

The massive diversion from the war on terror that is the war in Iraq would surely have come to an end sooner than it will had Kerry been elected. That is not to say it would have ended as soon as it should, immediately, but sooner than it will. The election of 2004 will have the effect of the election of 1968: four unnecessary additional years of death and destruction. The Bush administration is incapable of extracting itself from the quagmire it has created because first it won't recognize its mistakes, second the entire project to democratize the Middle East will be still born, and third because Bush is psychologically and ideologically incapable of facing reality.

That Iraq is a quagmire is indisputable, and it became a quagmire much like Vietnam. It is fashionable to pooh-pooh analogies to Vietnam, but the correspondence is now too great to ignore. First, policy-makers' ignorance of the object of their fears was profound in both cases. Partly because the Asian experts in the State Department had been purged in the McCarthy hysteria, there was no one even faintly familiar with, for example, historical tensions between China and Vietnam rendering it highly unlikely that Ho Chi Minh and his followers were Beijing puppets. Peter W. Gailbrath, early in a subsequently brilliant diplomatic career, was the person on the Senate Foreign Relations staff who uncovered and documented Saddam's Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980's. On those responsible for current Iraq policy Galbraith recently wrote, "In too many cases, these were people with no knowledge of Iraq, with no experience in dealing with post-conflict environments, with limited experience in making the US bureaucracy produce results, and with little or no expertise in the substantive matters (i.e., finance, trade) for which they were responsible." (New York Review of Books, September 23, 2004.) The architects of Bush's policy were those released from reality's constraints by the imperialist hubris Suskind revealed. Just as LBJ relied on faulty intelligence to extract the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress, GWB turned possibilities into realities to get a blank check to fight his war in Iraq from a pusillanimous Congress. In both cases, Congress failed in its solemn Constitutional duties, failed to ask the right questions, and failed to demand decent answers for the few questions it did ask. In both cases there was a profound over-estimation of military power and a profound under-estimation of the force of nationalism. In both cases military might was brought to bear on what were essentially political problems. There are numerous additional parallels, but the bottom line is that Bush failed to win Iraqi hearts and minds as miserably as Johnson and Nixon failed in Vietnam. Sheik Mohammed Bashir's comments on freedom's march in Iraq are telling: "It was discovered that freedom in this land is not ours. It is the freedom of the occupying soldiers in doing what they like...abusing women, children, men, and the old men and women whom they arrested randomly and without any guilt. No one can ask them what they are doing, because they are protected by their freedom...No one can punish them, whether in our country or their country. They expressed the freedom of rape, the freedom of nudity and the freedom of humiliation." (Baghdad, June 11, 2004, in The Washington Post, June 12, 2004.)

The failure to manage the transition in Iraq has been described by former CENTCOM commander, General Tony Zinni, in his book, Battle Ready, as nothing short of dereliction of duty: "In the lead-up to the Iraq war and its later conduct, I saw, at a minimum, true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility; at worst, lying, incompetence, and corruption. False rationales presented as a justification; a flawed strategy; lack of planning; the unnecessary alienation of our allies; the underestimation of the task; the unnecessary distraction from real threats; and the unbearable strain dumped on our over-stretched military; all of these caused me to speak out...I was called a traitor and a turncoat by Pentagon officials." (Putnam, 2004). Add to the charge of dereliction of duty, Bush's behavior between his inauguration and September 11, 2001. We now know that despite being told by Clinton administration officials during the transition that the number one threat to the US was Osama bin Ladin, and despite an almost constant barrage of memos from his principle anti-terrorist expert warning that OBL was a threat, the President failed to have a single meeting on the issue for nine months. This too was nothing short of dereliction of duty and just as he escaped the consequences of failing to show up for National Guard duty, yesterday Bush escaped the consequences of failing to bear the most profound duty resting on any president's shoulders. Meanwhile, Bush's fractured mirror image, the true believing crusader Osama bin Ladin, equally free of any reality constraints, equally free to violate international law and to reign suffering down upon innocents, plots the next use of the many more recruits to his cause that George Bush has so willingly, if obliviously, supplied. It is a bitter irony that writing here in Vietnam, because of Bush's policies, I feel far safer than just about any place else on earth.

On the domestic front the 2004 election marks a turning point in our culture. For at least 200 years a core tenent of the American ethos has been respect for work. Ben Franklin, Horatio Alger, indeed Bill Gates are symbols of the rewards to be had for those willing to exert their energies in productive pursuits. George Bush's domestic policies seek to change the reward structure that at least in myth, if not in reality, has spurred Americans to become the most productive nation on earth. Disguised with a suitably Orwellian label, the "ownership society", this policy seeks to shift the relative balance of power between those who must work and those who can choose to work.

Bush's premiere accomplishment on the domestic front, the tax cuts, serves to shift what little is left of the burden of financing government still born by the wealthy on to ordinary citizens. A Congressional Budget Office study of Bush's tax cuts released last August demonstrates that most tax relief went to the wealthiest Americans. The middle fifth of income earners (average income $57,000) had their after-tax incomes increased by 2.3 percent. Those in the top fifth (average income $204,000) saw income boosted by 5.2 percent, while those in the top one percent (average income $1,171,000) saw an after-tax windfall of 10.1 percent. Combined, all tax payers will save around $269 billion, and of that amount $179 billion will go to the top fifth and $89 billion to the top one percent. This means that the cost of financing government, a cost increasing because of deficits and the consequent interest on the debt, has been disproportionately shifted toward those least able to afford it. In addition, Bush tax policies have already begun to remove several taxes on unearned income, e.g. removal of "death", i.e., inheritance, taxes and his goal for the next four years is the removal of virtually all taxes on savings and income earned on savings. The result will be that the only taxes to support the government will come from wage earners. Those who live off savings, investments, and inheritances get a free ride.

The services and protections offered by government will also be vastly diminished. A persistent thread running through all Bush's economic policies is privatization. The Health Savings Accounts are a prime example in that they shift the burden of health care from employers and the government onto individuals. Bush wants to do precisely the same thing with Social Security in the form of personal social security accounts. This plan got no headway in the first administration but he plans to revive the proposal with a more compliant Congress. The administration proposes similar programs to deal with unemployment, Personal Reemployment Accounts. He wants to expand existing IRAs with Individual Retirement Accounts and Lifetime Savings Accounts, and so forth. The goal in each case is to shift responsibility for government, social security, unemployment, retirement and health care on to wages and away from capital. As Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman puts it, "The fundamental economic issue of this election involves the respective roles of work and saving---of labor and capital--in the economy we seek to create." (New York Review of Books, October 21, 2004.) Bush supporters have bought into the appealing sounding "ownership society" with a mortgage on their futures.

On all these issues Kerry had better proposals, proposals that easily could have been financed by rescinding the tax cuts for the top fifth of the population. But that is not all we lost in this election. The federal courts will be changed for far longer than the next four years, the environment will be despoiled, we may move past the tipping point of global warming beyond which there is no possibility of repair, young teenagers will be denied the information necessary to make informed birth control decisions (Texas just removed all information about birth control from their health education high school texts), science will continue to be hamstrung by Bush's restrictive policies, even more information that once was freely available will be removed from the public domain, corporations will be even freer to flaunt the law, and, of course, our civil liberties will be even more restricted.

How could this have happened? How could Bush be rewarded for his dereliction of duty, for his pillaging of the public treasury, subversion of the work ethic in favor of leisure class sloth, and for enriching the already rich at the expense of the working class? There are many answers including corporate control of media, the intimidation of independent reporters, the brazen manipulation of fears of terrorism, the suppression of information, corruption, and our insularity from the rest of the world. Some responsibility falls on Kerry's shoulders for being too timid in his criticism of Bush, for not responding to the "flip flop" charge by pointing out that the biggest flip flopper in this campaign was the candidate who promised compassionate conservatism and gave us 19th century corporate cronyism, who promised to be a uniter and produced the deepest divisions in American society in at least a generation, who promised not to be tempted by nation building and set about the demolition of the Middle East in pursuit of a quixotic mission to re-make the area in the image of the US. But unfortunately, most of the responsibility is our own. As educators we have failed, as citizens we have failed, in our most fundamental responsibility, to speak truth to power.

Bush secured a second term by manipulating a fearful populace, constantly reminding them of their fears, exploiting the primordial rally 'round the leader syndrome. That tactic was successful only because such a wide swath of US citizenry are intellectually unarmed. What is striking about Bush's supporters is how absolutely misinformed they are about so much. A study published October 24, 2004 comparing the beliefs of Kerry supporters and Bush supporters found that even at this late date 72 percent of Bush supporters believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and 56 percent believe most experts share that belief. Despite the findings of the 9/11 commission 75% of Bush supporters believe there was a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Only three in ten of Bush supporters recognize that a majority of the world opposed the Iraq invasion. (PIPA, University of Maryland, October 21,2004.) How can we have produced a population so disconnected, so uninformed, so lacking in even a modicum of intellectual curiosity? To have beaten Bush we needed to fight a war on ignorance, a war that needed to have been on-going for a very long time, but even that might not have been enough.

An equally striking characteristic of Bush supporters, and one far more dangerous and intractable, is that roughly half of Bush supporters believe in "the rapture", the day when the righteous will ascend to heaven and sinners will be left behind in a hell on earth, a day in the not too distant future that is the subject of a series of wildly popular novels. That such medieval mumbo jumbo still holds such sway in American society is the greatest obstacle to a sane politics. There is no way for reality to penetrate such faith, and that is the secret of Bush's success. While we reality based folk are still subject to the force of gravity, the Bush Administration is free to float off into religious revelry, defying any law of man or nature it so desires. Against believers, thinking is no defense.

1 This in fact underestimates the full extent of US overseas military installations, as Chalmers Johnson noted in his article, "The Arithmetic of America's Military Bases Abroad: What Does It All Add Up to?", because it does not include secret bases and often reports single bases for what are in fact multiple bases: "These numbers, although staggeringly large, do not begin to cover all the actual bases we occupy globally. The 2003 Base Status Report fails to mention, for instance, any garrisons in Kosovo -- even though it is the site of the huge Camp Bondsteel, built in 1999 and maintained ever since by Kellogg, Brown & Root. The Report similarly omits bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, although the U.S. military has established colossal base structures throughout the so-called arc of instability in the two-and-a-half years since 9/11. For Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan, which has been an American military colony for the past fifty-eight years, the report deceptively lists only one Marine base, Camp Butler, when in fact Okinawa "hosts" ten Marine Corps bases." See: http://hnn.us/articles/3097.html

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