Dressed to kill –
Under the cloak of Bush’s foreign policy
Things are not going well for US President George W Bush in Iraq. The death of 10 marines in early December 2005 following a roadside explosion in Fallujah brought the number of American military personnel that have returned home in body bags to at least 2,125 since the US-led invasion in 2003.
The Iraqi military and civilian death toll is harder to calculate since no official tab is kept. But by 9 April 2003, some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed by the US military’s own reckoning, and thousands of combatants have died since, particularly during the bloody siege of Fallujah last year. According to the conservative estimate of the independent IraqBodyCount.net, the civilian death toll stands as high as 30,000 (4/12/2005).
Bush’s European allies, after a short-lived period of mending fences, are displaying a growing sense of disgruntlement. A transatlantic row has broken out over the USA’s alleged torture of terror suspects in secret gaols in Eastern Europe and human rights groups have accused the CIA of flying suspects to these covert prisons in planes that have used airports throughout Europe. While working on this essay, one of the current authors passed through a capital airport in one of the Baltic states, where he saw a large, grey, windowless, pot-bellied transport plane squatting menacingly on the runway, with a discreet US flag, like a designer logo, on its tailfin. Displaying the Bush administration’s unique multilateral tact, US Foreign Secretary Condeleeza Rice has warned the European Union to ‘back off’ on the issue.
But the news that’s probably keeping Bush up late at night is his plummeting credibility at home. The American public is increasingly questioning Bush’s self-proclaimed ‘war on terror’ and are demanding explanations for why the reality on the ground does not resemble the virtual reality being emitted from the White House. Why has Bush failed to deliver the two things he promised in Iraq, they ask: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and freedom, peace and prosperity to the Iraqi people?
Bush increasingly appears somewhat like a frustrated Lyndon Johnson, US president from 1963 to 1969, who could not quite understand why “all” Americans did not recognise their prosperity during the Vietnam War and the democratic upheavals of the 1960s.
In a bid to claw back his shaken reputation, Bush decided to use 11 November (Veterans Day in the USA, Armistice Day in Europe) to justify his foreign policy failures since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. Surrounded by serving officers and retired soldiers, the Commander-in-chief told his audience: “A handful of veterans who live among us in 2005 stood in uniform when World War I ended 87 years ago today. These men are more than 100 years old.”
Some of these centennial veterans may have been scratching their heads in bafflement that their president was using their legacy and that of Europe’s ‘lost generation’ to defend his administration’s stridently militaristic foreign policy. Apparently, the irony of using the memory of the First World War – which was known at the time as the ‘war to end all wars’ – was lost on the president.
Ignoring the deafening echoes of history, Bush ploughed on: “At this hour, a new generation of Americans is defending our flag and our freedom in the first war of the 21st century.”
He would have done well to heed Wilfred Owen’s famous warning nearly nine decades ago, particularly given reports that the Americans have used chemical weapons in Iraq:
If you could
hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
From ‘Dulce et decorum est…’
The irony of this moment cannot have been lost on Bush’s most ardent supporter, UK Premier Tony Blair. Blair’s justification for intervention in Iraq has shifted from the threat posed by alleged weapons of mass destruction, to ‘our boys’ in UK bases in Cyprus, to ‘invasion was the right thing to do, as Saddam was a monster who deployed chemical weapons against his own people’.
Yet throughout his address, President Bush beseeched his audience to recognise the goodness of American foreign policy and the inherent democratic character of the United States on the world stage. Like a stereotypical American abroad who cannot seem to communicate with the locals, his solution is merely to turn up the volume and repeat the message as a tautology: US policy is democratic because America is free. Disingenuously, he mentioned ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, or ‘liberation’ no fewer than 23 times, and repeated the words ‘tyranny’ or ‘tyrant’ on at least eight occasions during his address.
This is perhaps not surprising given that he started his second term with a pledge to unleash “the force of freedom” on the entire world. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world,” he had said at the time. But with Iraq in anarchy, Afghanistan in mayhem and thousands of ‘enemy combatants’ being held illegally by the US military, the only force the president seems to have let loose is that of chaos.
“People of Baghdad, remember for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants,” British Major-General Stanley Maud, not George W Bush, proclaimed upon entering the Iraqi capital in 1917. “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.”
In this light, we should inspect the Bush administration’s latest attempt to persuade us of its case. In some ways, his Veterans Day address presented both familiar and novel themes relating to US adventures abroad. On the familiar side is the government’s usual rhetoric when detailing its use of force to command obedience from those insolent enough to question American authority: be sure that only ‘good’ motivates the ‘benign superpower’. But this tradition extends back to America’s original sin – the ethnic cleansing of its indigenous people – and the path of ‘manifest destiny’ it has followed since.
Roused to arms
According to President Bush, the ‘war on terror’ was not one of America’s choosing. “The war came to our shores on September the 11th, 2001,” he claimed. “And our nation has made a clear choice: we will confront this mortal danger to all humanity. We will not tire or rest until the war on terror is won,” he said to loud applause.
“We didn’t ask for this global struggle. But we are answering history’s call with confidence and with a comprehensive strategy,” he stressed.
Despite the apparent emotional rawness of his appeal, there appears to have been little that was spontaneous about the ‘war on terror’. “It’s insulting to believe that 9/11 was a turning point that made of Bush an angry Greek god bent on destruction,” observed veteran Egyptian journalist and one of the Middle East’s best-known political analysts, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, in an interview broadcast on Arab satellite TV shortly before the invasion. “The American empire grew faster than any empire in history. It is the most powerful in the history of mankind and it’s a power that plans and does not improvise its policies – it made think tanks an industry.”
And the war was not just about oil. “What is about to happen in Iraq is a process of taming the coming international monsters, or international competitors who do not include Iraq nor the Arab world,” Heikal argued. He pointed to the resurgent powers of China, and lesser, but still potentially awkward rivals, Russia, Japan and Germany, as being the primary targets.
New American century
The most influential think tank influencing the Bush administration is undoubtedly the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century (PNAC) which wants to extend previous American ascendancy throughout the 20th century to the 21st century. According to its website, it believes that “American leadership is good both for America and for the world” and that “such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle” and that “too few political leaders today are making the case for global leadership”.
In 1998, members of the PNAC, including Donald Rumsfeld (current US secretary of defence) and Paul Wolfowitz (deputy US secretary of defence at the time of the Iraq invasion) wrote to then president, Bill Clinton, urging him to remove Saddam Hussein from power using US diplomatic, political and military power.
The BBC’s leading investigative journalism programme, Newsnight, revealed, in March 2005, that the Bush administration had already made plans for war and for Iraq’s oil before the 9/11 attacks. Insiders told the programme that planning began “within weeks” of Bush’s first taking office in 2001.
Ominously, given the current spat over Iran’s civilian nuclear programme, PNAC’s 2000 report, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, recommends that: “Over the long term, Iran may well prove as large a threat to US interests in the Gulf as Iraq has. And even should US-Iranian relations improve, retaining forward-based forces in the region would still be an essential element in US security strategy given the longstanding American interests in the region.”
Oiling the wheels of democracy
During his Veterans Day address, Bush suggested that: “These extremists want to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East, because we stand for democracy and peace and stand in the way of their ambitions.”
Whatever the totalitarian ambitions of the Islamic extremists may be, it is not America’s record on democracy that most Arabs stand opposed to. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country had lived under more than a decade of punitive US-imposed international sanctions that resulted in the death of at least half a million children, according to UN estimates. Following the 1991 Gulf War, it had also endured an ongoing attrition campaign of Anglo-American airstrikes. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once described the collateral deaths as “worth it”.
In the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was fighting the Iranian Ayotollahs – a war which cost a million lives – he was seen by America and her Western allies as ‘our friend’ and his human rights violations and use of chemical weapons were politely ignored both by the government and its apologists.
The old American century
Despite the more openly imperial, unilateral and militaristic tone of the right-wing Bush Doctrine and its neo-con sponsors, American foreign policy in the Middle East has, since the United States ousted Britain and France in the mid-20th century, been surprisingly consistent and has, in many ways, perpetuated the Anglo-French tradition that preceded it.
Besides Iraq, an earlier example of meddling in the politics of an oil-rich state occurred in 1953, when the United States and Britain sponsored the overthrow of the first democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohamed Mossadeq, and propped up his successor, the corrupt Shah, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. The Shah’s corruption and oppression led to the student protests that toppled him in 1979 and paved the way for the Islamic republic.
The United States is a staunch supporter of the 20,000-member House of Saud which rules Saudi Arabia with a mix of ruthlessness, backwardness and an iron fist. It also backs semi-authoritarian and sometimes brutal leaders, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. And it is, of course, the US’s traditionally unflinching support of Israel, with its nuclear arsenal and belligerent military policy, against Palestinian aspirations for statehood that strikes the deepest emotional chord of outrage with the average Arab.
But these historical parallels are ignored by apologists and quickly forgotten by the collective consciousness desperately seeking to believe in the goodness of the government supposedly representing its will. “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side,” George Orwell once wrote. “He has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”
The famous English novelist, in his landmark novel 1984, took this idea to extremes when he showed that the government – in need of a state of perpetual war to keep control over the population – rewrote the history books and newspapers depending on the enemy of the day: “Today we are at peace with Oceania, and we have always been…Today we are at war with Oceania, and we always have been.”
Despite Bush’s convenient revision of history, he still tried to turn the tables on his critics by saying: While it’s perfectly legitimate to criticise my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.”
In a desperate attempt to turn America’s fight into a global one, Bush told his audience of war veterans that: “These militants are not just the enemies of America or the enemies of Iraq, they are the enemies of Islam and they are the enemies of humanity.”
In a bid to frame the situation in epic terms familiar to his American audience and dehumanise the enemy, Bush sought, as on previous occasions, to draw a parallel between Islamic fundamentalism and Communism. “Like the ideology of communism, our new enemy teaches that innocent individuals can be sacrificed to serve a political vision.” This compelling catechism of evil is all the more dangerous for its spurious associative coupling.
Islamists, who themselves regard Communism as an ‘evil’ and ‘godless’ ideology – and whose views resemble closely those of Bush’s staunchest supporters, the Christian fundamentalists – may be surprised to hear Bush’s description. Yet unlike Islamic fundamentalists, communist movements tended to be at the forefront of the women’s movement, struggles against racism, and the promotion of better conditions for labour.
Despite the obvious ideological differences between Islamic fundamentalism and Communism, and the power disparity (the Soviet Union was a superpower with imperial designs, whilst Muslim extremists are small groups and cells of radical individuals), Islamists have served a convenient role for US politicians seeking to strike fear into the public consciouness.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War led to panic in the halls of American power as the architects of American expansionism no longer had a fig-leaf enemy behind which to hide their obscene designs for global hegemony. New, even more terrifying ‘folk devils’ had to be created.
Then the neo-conservatives found a way out, when the movement’s leading thinker, Daniel Pipes, followed the lead of his ‘cold warrior’ father, Richard, and likened Islam to the red threat. “Whereas the closest parallels to Islam are Judaism and Christianity, those closest to Islamism are other radical utopian ‘isms’, namely fascism and Marxism-Leninism. Islamism is a scourge, a global affliction whose victims include peoples of all religions,” he alleged in an interview with Harvard Magazine.
In describing the father-son ideological likeness, the university paper noted that: “With the birth of Daniel, Richard Pipes was indeed reborn, perhaps even cloned. Daniel…is what old-timers would call a chip off the old block.”
Interestingly, the United States’ equating of Islamism with Communism is a fairly recent innovation and is another example of near-Orwellian double-think. In past decades, Islamism was seen by Washington as a necessary and effective counterbalance against the spread – both perceived and actual – of Communist influence and the Soviet empire.
It was also perceived as an effective counterbalance against pan-Arabism and Nasserism, which had mass appeal on the Arab street throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Starting from that period, the CIA funded and trained Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who attempted to assassinate former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser on at least a dozen occasions, and grew in strength and popularity on the back of government oppression. The USA also backed the promotion by Saudi Arabia of its conservative model of Wahbi Islam across the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Later, through carefully camouflaged shell companies, the CIA funded, trained and armed the mujahedeen fighters – including the ‘prince of darkness’ himself, Osama bin Laden – in Afghanistan against the Soviets who invaded the country in 1979. In fact, then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski commented in a 1998 Le Figaro interview, that he recommended to President Carter that, giving aid to the Afghani forces opposed to rule from pro-Moscow Kabul “…was going to induce a Soviet intervention. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into an Afghan trap.”
The CIA-backed combatants came from all over the Muslim world to push back the ‘godless despoiler’ of Muslim soil. Although the quagmire in Afghanistan helped lead to the premature demise of the Soviet Union, it also unleashed a new monster. We are now experiencing the blowback from that strategy. In 1998, Brzezinski commented that the only cost of this success were a “few stirred up Muslims”. As with several wars fought in the past, the true cost comes in instalments, with no foreknowledge of how many bills will come due later.
The victory in Afghanistan bolstered the confidence of the militant groups who began to believe that they had brought down a superpower by themselves and they turned their attention to the United States, whom they believe is the enemy of Islam. Now they hope to turn Iraq into America’s ‘Afghanistan’, rather than another Vietnam.
“The militants are aided, as well, by elements of the Arab news media that incite hatred and anti-Semitism, that feed conspiracy theories and speak of a so-called American war on Islam,” Bush lamented in his speech.
This is both a consequence of the wrecking ball the US has wielded in the region and a failure of Middle East intellectuals to correct misperceptions – although, on the latter, it must be remembered that America has had a hand in eliminating left-wing and secular intellectuals – who were often admirers of US domestic democracy and culture – throughout the Middle East to take the sting out of the nationalist and pan-Arabist movement.
In addition, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel which was once praised for its independence by the US government has been viciously attacked by senior American officials and had its offices in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose locations were known to the US military, hit – ‘accidentally’ – by American ‘smart’ bombs.
Under friendly fire
As with all powerful states, America acts in its own perceived strategic interests. And this is truly the greatest flaw in the fundamentalist analysis: assuming America is at war with Islam. America merely pursues its selfish ends. As America and the world changes, its interests will also shift and so, too, will its enemies and friends. The wild card, however, is democracy. American democracy is usually what sociologist William Robinson terms a polyarchy: a system which represents a small menu of choice acceptable to the ruling elites, while presenting the illusion of variety to the electorate. Yet, embedded within this polyarchy – and what the status quo attempts to thwart – is democracy, which periodically erupts from the shackles placed upon it.
The USA has a long history of making friends with its future enemies: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein count among that illustrious group. Osama bin Laden, who, like Bush, is the privileged son of an oil dynasty, was once the good friend of the United States. Now the Commander in Chief has turned his guns on this one-time ally in a repetitive mantra of demonology.
“Like the ideology of communism, Islamic radicalism is elitist, led by a self-appointed vanguard that presumes to speak for the Muslim masses. bin Laden says his own role is to tell Muslims, quote, ‘what is good for them and what is not’,” Bush lamented.
But Bush is silent on the self-appointed neo-con vanguard trying to lead American politics.
This neo-conservative coterie, who often possess Trotskyist pasts, have merely traded in one ideology for another, which they uphold with vanguardist confidence in their righteousness. Others are like Bush – and for that matter bin Laden: religious fundamentalists.
Original sin and manifest destiny
But it is not just in the Middle East where American expansionist policy has been consistent. For the United States, it all began with the idea of ‘manifest destiny’ propogated by the country’s founding fathers and used to justify the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population.
Andrew Jackson, president of the United States when the Cherokee tribe were removed, never failed to remind the public that it was being done for the Indians own well being. This was necessary because most people are good and genuinely wish their government to act in accordance with their values and – since the revolutions launched by America, France, and Haiti beginning in 1776 – demand this of the state.
“It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants,” he said in his first inaugural address in 1829.
By December of the same year, a more militant note had entered his voice: “By persuasion and force they have been made to retire from river to river and from mountain to mountain, until some of the tribes have become extinct and others have left but remnants to preserve for awhile their once terrible names.”
The Cherokee presented an interesting dilemma. It was declared, with a sigh, that most Indians would be removed due merely to the inexorable forces of progress. However, the Cherokee were farmers, had developed a written language with a vibrant press, and were even slave-owning plantation owners – from the perspective of the day, they were “civilised”. Nevertheless, the Cherokee had too much fertile land for cultivating cotton, and, in 1830, gold was discovered on their remaining territory in the Blue Ridge Mountains. By 1838, the last of the Cherokee were infamously forced on the Trail of Tears death march.
One of the current authors used to teach where the Cherokee lived. Some of his students’ families received 600 acre grants of Cherokee land. His university’s administration building steeple was sheathed in that gold.
The Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 led to the annexation by the United States of Texas and 40% of Mexico. In his inaugural address of 1845, President James Polk stressed that US expansionism meant extending the “dominions of peace”. “The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our government….. Our government cannot be otherwise than pacific,” he insisted.
Polk got his neat military ‘victory’, but it created instability in the form of trashed relations with Mexico. “Allow the president to invade a neighbouring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion ... and you allow him to make war at pleasure …You may say to him, ‘I see no probability of…[them]… invading us,’ but he will say to you, ‘Be silent: I see it if you don’t,’” observed future president Abraham Lincoln.
The entry into the Union of new slave states was to cause the first US direct blowback and some blamed it for the subsequent American Civil War. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war,” opined another future president, Ulysses S Grant. “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
The lessons drawn by Lincoln and Grant were lost on the US Congress who supported Lyndon Baines Johnson’s bid, in 1964, with the rigged account on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, to further embed America in Vietnam. The same happened in 2003, when Congress bought the Bush administration’s line on Iraq’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
“I was not properly reared, and had the illusion that a flag was a thing which must be sacredly guarded against shameful uses and unclean contacts, lest it suffer pollution,” bemoaned the all-American novelist Mark Twain, who was a prominent member of the American Anti-Imperialist League, in a political essay. “And so when it was sent out to the Philippines to float over a wanton war and a robbing expedition I supposed it was polluted and, in an ignorant moment, I said so.”
The next major innovation employed by the American government to convince its public of the need for war was during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the platform of keeping America out of the dirty trench waters of war Europeans had been bathing in since 1914.
Wilson’s message followed the American tradition dating back to George Washington’s farewell address to stay out of European wars. Wilson, however, thought differently. But he was faced with a dilemma: how to turn public opinion? The answer was with the new science of public opinion management. The new art of public relations was developed with campaigns to transform hated figures in America, such as the ruthless oil baron John Rockefeller, into avuncular figures bouncing children on their knees.
This new art/science was created by figures such as Edward Bernays – the double nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays introduced such phrases as “engineering consent”. Power did not derive from the people, but the people had to be given the illusion of such. Bernays used the analogy of his chauffer, who he called Dumb Jack, to describe why the levers of power must be in the hands of an enlightened class. It would not do to have the Dumb Jacks running the country.
Woodrow Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Commission, to unleash a public relations onslaught on the American public to turn them to war. It succeeded just enough to keep Americans from rising up en masse against Wilson’s adventure. Among the admirers of Wilson’s propaganda effort were the Bolsheviks.
The next major challenge to forge consent for US policy was with the Cold War. President Harry Truman – more accurately his advisors James Byrnes and Henry Stimson – were convinced of the need to place the United States on a permanent war-time footing. After the Second World War, the US economy was strangled by the post-demobilisation. Economists and manufacturers alike were convinced America would sink into a depression such as existed before the war, and the Marshall Plan was partly in response to this.
This, combined with the United States inheriting the global system abandoned by the weakened British and French, placed the fledgling superpower in a new role of world leadership. Moreover, US-Soviet relations soured after the war, leading to the ‘cold war’.
The need to frighten American citizens into accepting the new conflict was detailed in National Security Council Document 68. The Communist – and later Islamist – threat had to be magnified in order for Americans to back a permanent war economy. President Dwight D Eisenhower would warn a decade later in his departing address that this military-industrial complex was out of control. General Eisenhower’s warning shot was not heeded and, today, ‘nation building’ (preceded by ‘nation dismantling’) has become the Bush administration’s stock-in-trade. We seem to have reached a point where the same corporations provide the weapons to demolish a soveriegn country at inflated prices to the US taxpayer, and the contractors to rebuild it from scratch at inflated prices to the citizens of the occupied land.
As CNN relayed live Bush’s Veterans Day speech from Tobyhanna, Monroe County, Pennsylvania to the world, his message sought an audience for US foreign policy beyond the comforting enclosure of a US military base. Yet that global audience cannot be assumed to be passive receptors, taking ‘on trust’ the words of the world’s most powerful man. We should heed the words of Lincoln, Grant, and Twain on power. Every ruling class attempts to impart fixed, immutable meanings in its political discourse to ‘key words’, a term coined by Raymond Williams, the great English cultural historian. These key words can sometimes become the blunt instruments of rhetorical domination, as in the prelude to the current ‘War on Terrorism’. ‘Democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘free markets’, ‘peace’ – heavily loaded with ideological content – can become tokens in a fixed currency of self-enclosed discourse that does not acknowledge critical interrogation.
Only at rare historical moments, periods of gathering crisis and discontent, does the full measure of this linguistic violence become apparent. Such moments are marked by the springing apart of hitherto suppressed meanings, contesting and subverting the previously established ‘legitimate’ discourse. What formerly was ‘unsayable’ finds popular voice. Such a moment of flux seems to have arrived now. And the key words that have hitherto justified the actions of the US administration are to be found in profound, unresolved inner dialogical tension.
Jeff Sommers is a professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College and visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. He publishes on US foreign relations, political economy, and global studies. He has held several Fulbrights and divides his time between the US and Baltic states.
Charles Woolfson is holder of a European Commission Marie Curie chair and is Professor of Labour Studies, University of Glasgow. Currently, he teaches and researches in the new EU member Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A former associate dean of faculty and director of the Graduate School in Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow, Woolfson has held a number of prestigious international fellowships and has led international research projects. He has published widely on labour relations, corporate social responsibility and European issues.
©2005 J. Sommers, K. Diab, C. Woolfson
ã2005 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.
 It is a good and honorable thing to die for one’s country (taken from an ode by Horace