I was gambling in Havana,
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this
—Warren Zevon, Lawyers, Guns, and Money
We’ve all seen films and television programs utilizing the standard Twilight Zone-like climactic device wherein the protagonist must convince people of some imminent but fantastical-sounding peril (“the aliens are coming”; “we’re being replaced by pod-people”; “the president is as foolish as he appears”; etc.). You know the hero, his desperate urgency making him look like a lunatic, is in trouble when the authorities start in with the soothing, condescending voices; you’ve probably thought to yourself, as I have: just keep your mouth shut, fool, can’t you see they’re going to lock you up?
Therefore, by benefit of the unique education in wildly improbable eventualities that TV and cinema have afforded us, we all know that if, say, you see a gremlin on the wing of your passenger jet, it’s better to try to calm yourself, close the shade and order a double scotch. Sometimes all you can do is hold on tight or discreetly get out of the way.
So it is with this in mind that I quietly pack some essential belongings into the truck, put in a Spanish language-immersion tape (hola, senior Martinez; hoy es lunes, manana es martes; si muy bien; two days of this and I expect to have an accent like Ricardo Montalban), and merge onto the five freeway southbound one last time. I should have done this sooner.
Never again will I try to convince you that the war in Iraq not only had nothing to do with terrorism or WMD, but that our “leadership,” such as they are, knew this from the start. I will no longer make the assertion that the forcible “liberation” of the Middle East is a means to an end; not of defending America, but of keeping America uniquely dominant in the world. There is a difference, even if the neoconservative “intellectuals” insist no.
It is a very odd world indeed when, among a range of possibilities, that which makes the most sense is treated as conspiracy fantasy.
In an inversion of this Twilight Zone cliché ours is a helter-skelter reality where the absurd is obvious and the obvious absurd:
“what’s that you say? We invaded the nation with the third largest oil reserves in the world, secured its Oil Ministry while all about it was looted and burned, began construction of massive, permanent military bases, locked in long-term, highly favorable oil contracts, attempted to install a criminal expatriate of our own with no domestic support as president before allowing one man-one vote elections only after being pressured by massive street demonstrations not to satisfy the natural yearning for freedom that exists in every Muslim breast and upon which our own existence depends? Now, now—of course we believe you—the doctor is just going to give you a little something to calm you down…
Offered for your consideration, in my best Rod Serling voice.
I think the confusion really began when we did away with the Department of War; creating a “Department of Defense” can only lead to Orwellian double-think, if that wasn’t the intention from the start.
But this isn’t what I came to say.
Many years from now, when the lasting consequences of the Iraq war reveal themselves and the fanciful, obscuring rhetoric has calmed like the dust of a volcanic explosion settling to reveal the new contours of the landscape; when we ask, yet again, how could this have happened, we may be appalled to conclude that it was largely the climax of an epic family drama.
We’ll have to gradually introduce this idea; we can’t all at once disillusion ourselves about just how corrupt our political process is and how the vanity of men, some of them remarkably small and petty, can influence the course of our great nation.
At the moment it is necessary that we assume the might of the United States can’t be leveraged by the egomania of a resentful son; this isn’t Shakespeare, and Freud lost relevance long ago. But never has a family drama of vanity, pride, and filial resentment played itself out on so grand and tragic a scale, as is happening right now before our eyes. It’s a fascinating spectacle, if we cannot yet allow ourselves to look at it full on.
The American republic's is a powerful chief executive, growing alarmingly more powerful still, even as the current officeholder flounders and smashes all about him with his current measure of privilege. One has to wonder how much value Dick Cheney expects to draw from his hard-won imperial presidency (that he could only enjoy by proxy through the second-rate son of a old rival—how it must grate) before handing it off to who knows (perhaps to the transparently egomaniacal John McCain—things could get more interesting still).
Before his surreal elevation to the highest office in the world, George W. Bush had played two very different, one dimensional roles for various interests both political and commercial, that of the affable front man and that of the back-room bully.
In the past George W. Bush lent the name his father cultivated to commercial concerns eager to access influence. He enjoyed his role as front man and disdained details and operation; this is a fair description of his presidency. We all know he once headed a failed oil company; we all know it wasn’t his fault it failed because he wasn’t much involved in its operation. When the end came he dutifully invoked his privileged background, drew what favorable terms that entitled, and was bailed out by his father. The music stopped, and most of the investors were without chairs, but the name, the brand, Bush was mostly shielded from dishonor.
I have to wonder how it felt when it was made clear to him that he wouldn’t surpass his father in business.
Donald Rumsfeld's long overdue ouster and (pending) replacement by perennial insider, possible Iran-Contra conspirator, avowed realist, and alleged intelligence fixer Robert Gates, and the staged intervention of Bush Sr's friend and associate James Baker, is billed as the end of neocon misrule, the surrendering of an incompetently led command.
It is largely theatre (unless you really think that those who we should now turn to for guidance include Vernon Jordan and Leon Panetta); the Iraq Study Group is a Greek chorus to segue our hapless leadership through the costume change from military fatigues to statesmen’s robes. Calling it a “study group” is mildly amusing; once again W. pays someone else to do his homework, and tardily.
The I.S.G. is in reality tasked with fashioning a pretext and political cover for the hasty retreat now made necessary by our absolute failure in Iraq, a failure that was long ago determined; they are crafting the narrative for an exit that was shamelessly put off until now for political considerations. Baker, close friend of the father, is here to bail out the son.
(Baker, you may recall, served as discreet mouthpiece for the former President Bush, voicing concern over W's impending crusade errant in Iraq. Bush the Younger once infamously made a point of publicly dismissing the rare advantage afforded him by being the son of the only other president to make war with Iraq by brandishing his sanctimonious and imaginary close relationship with a "higher father." We embarrass our children from adolescence to adulthood in return for the embarrassment they caused us as children; but some children never stop embarrassing their parents. Some come to do it out of spite.)
The question remains if the son, abetted by the now isolated Cheney, resentful and desperate as his own megalomaniacal hour nears midnight, will attempt one last act of petulant defiance by publicly spurning the discrete offer of a lessened humiliation.
Some are already attempting to redefine success. “We got Saddam” is destined to become an ironic chestnut along the lines of “it only hurts when I laugh.” There isn’t a serious minded person left who doesn’t secretly wish we could put him right back, not in his spider hole but in the presidential palace. If only we could take a mulligan.
But there is no success to be rescued. There are no shining paths of glory before us; just darkened, uncertain escape routes.
Now that there are no more political advantages to seek or defeats to guard against, and G.W. Bush, the draft horse of grander designs he only dimly understands, has ferried his last load, this administration begins the belated process of determining the least costly means of extrication. It is a salvage operation described as a "change of course."
In Korea, when outnumbered Marines had to fight their way out of the Chosin Reservoir, Major General O.P. Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Division, refused to describe it as a retreat, insisting that we were merely "attacking in a different direction." But the ground was yielded. Bush will have to yield Iraq, finally, and that means the large sprawling military bases and favorable oil contracts that, predictably, were the first goals secured and are now the last to be relinquished.
Democracy in Iraq, on the other hand, was initially to be the installation of the exiled Ahmad Chalabi. Failing that it became provisional rule, stalling and trying to channel the elections before bowing to pressure from the (somehow) unaccounted for ambitions of the Shia clergy. Now it has collapsed into talk of partition, coup, and withdrawal. Still, some insist that any suggestion that the goal of installing democracy in Iraq was a ruse is wild-eyed conspiracy theory.
Rhetoric follows power; it provides a veneer of morality and necessity for the more base needs of the state.The neocon theory of worldwide democratic revolution was always cover for naked ambition taking advantage of public fear. A means to an end and a pretext for garrisoning the Middle East against the real threat to American power, Chinese and Russian designs for the world's energy market.
The most fervent media supporters of the Iraq War believed the lyrics they improvised from the sheet music provided by their cappelmeisters in power; they fell in love with the sound of their own voices and the fantasia they presented. But they were made into propagandists and fabricators, unwitting or not.The last to know defeat is at hand will be the hapless volunteers of the blogging brigades, now left behind to fight a rear-guard action for an army in full retreat. As the forces of reality and accountability descend and cut them to pieces, they will turn to find the king's elite guards have left the field.
Cheney remains at V.P. in all likelihood because he knows where the bodies are buried; he buried them. For all of Rumsfeld's crimes and connivance, his image in the public eye is more of an arrogant incompetent than a conspirator. His sacrificing attempts to strengthen the myth of "right war, wrong strategy." History will dispose of that nonsense, but for the moment, for the political establishment that includes the newly victorious and emboldened (but inconveniently complicit) Democrats, a fiction will do. A sort of historical placeholder; a non-defeat defeat.
As for Rumsfeld's departure and Cheney's unimaginable survival, in America we've not only come to expect dishonesty, we admire it; losers we cannot abide. Another defect acquired by a history of triumphalist, moralist posturing; posturing in service of power that has accompanied every war, justified or not, we've engaged in.
The age-old rousing to battle of which neoconservatism is only a recent manifestation. Our experience with this rhetoric is older than the nation itself, emboldening wars of conquest over the Indian tribes while we were still colonies. Then it was land; now it is oil. Then it was our duty to bring Christian enlightenment to the benighted savages; now our duty is to free the "natural desire of every human being" for liberty. Those in need of our help are almost always in possession, or in the way, of something we need. That most of the neocons misunderstand their role in history only makes them more detestable.
The war is lost; it was lost from the start.Those who say we "won the war but lost the peace" have a very curious notion of peace. Has Iraq had a moment's peace since we invaded?
Yesterday's questioning of General Abazaid by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, a vehicle for McCain and Clinton to strut and preen as defenders of the same public will they took for granted until now, was just more theatre; providing second act character transformations for these competing leads designed to make us forget their duplicity. A plot point for the still unwritten third act that will attempt to make our hasty retreat from Iraq resemble victory.
The one question that needed to be asked I didn’t hear (but I may have missed; I can only endure these things piecemeal): General, is there a plan in place for withdrawal?
Still concealed from the public is that the withdrawal of over a hundred thousand troops and untold tonnage of equipment from a chaotically hostile environment is a problem of its own epic proportions. We are about to initiate a very uncertain and dangerous exit.
So two prominent senators bearing no small measure of responsibility are now allowed to pose as our skeptical saviors demanding competence from the administration; it is them we need to be saved from. That’s quite enough senators, thank you for your service.
In David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia there's a scene where Lawrence, the idealistic Englishman who organizes an Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I, has led a band of Bedouin fighters on a daring raid that requires first crossing the treacherous Nefud Desert. In the night one of Lawrence’s servants goes missing, but his camel remains; the boy apparently succumbed to sleep and fell from his mount. Separated from the group on foot, he is written off as dead. Lawrence insists on taking it upon himself to go back for the boy; Sherif Ali, the Bedouin leader already leery of Lawrence's ambitious plan, is furious. Lawrence will certainly die and jeapordize the entire force, he says, in a hopeless effort to save someone his own reckless ambition has already doomed.
The boy, the Sherif tells Lawrence:
"You have killed already."
President Bush, Senators McCain and Clinton:
Iraq you have killed already.
If only we could send them into the desert.