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A Really Bad Case of 'Reality'

Once just an administration fantasy, a powerful Al Qaeda in Iraq fueled by Islamic extremism has become the world's nightmare.

by Rosa Brooks

Reality mugs us all, in the end.

In those heady post-9/11 days when the nation's stunned acquiescence made the neoconservative dream of limitless executive and U.S. power seem eminently attainable, the gang running the White House grew fond of quoting pundit Irving Kristol's aphorism: "A neoconservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality."

In this smug formulation, "reality" was understood to mean violence and power - epitomized both by the terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers in a hail of falling bodies and burning rubble, and by the planned U.S. response in Afghanistan and (later) Iraq. To the neocons, "reality" was bombs, blood and fire; the transformative effects of shock and awe.

In a much-quoted 2004 New York Times Magazine article, journalist Ron Suskind described a 2002 conversation with a senior Bush advisor - widely assumed to be Karl Rove - who added an extra gloss to Kristol's aphorism, making it clear that "reality" can mean different things to different people.

As Suskind relates the story: "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. 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.' "

Those comments have been widely mocked by critics of the administration. What hubris, to imagine that your vision and actions can reshape the world according to your wishes! And for many people, recent events, in Iraq and elsewhere, have only validated this early scorn for the neoconservative understanding of "reality."

This week, for instance, saw the release of the latest National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus views of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies. The document offers a chilling account of the world we now live in: a resurgent Al Qaeda, a rapidly growing extremist Islamic movement, a rise in global terrorist threats and out-of-control violence in Iraq.

So it's understandable that many administration critics now conclude, with some satisfaction, that the neocon conception of how "reality" works has been permanently discredited. If empires can choose to create their own realities, why hasn't Bush's American Empire created a stable, more peaceful world? Why aren't we safer than we were before 9/11? The neocons deluded themselves into imagining they could control reality, but in the end, aren't they the ones who've just been mugged? But it's not that simple.

In a very real sense, Suskind's "senior Bush advisor" has been proved more right than wrong. The administration did create realities to match its darkest visions, reshaping the world with remarkable speed and thoroughness.

In 2001, administration stalwarts suggested that Osama bin Laden rivaled Hitler in the danger he posed to U.S. security and insisted that Al Qaeda's power was so great that nothing short of a "global war on terror" was required.

At that time, most experts say, this description of Al Qaeda simply wasn't true. It was little more than an obscure group of extremist thugs, well financed and intermittently lethal but relatively limited in their global and regional political pull. On 9/11, they got lucky - but despite the unexpected success of their attack on the U.S., they did not pose an imminent mortal threat to the nation.

Today, things are different. Thanks to U.S. policies, Al Qaeda has become the vast global threat the administration imagined it to be in 2001. Our ham-handed detention and interrogation tactics and our ill-advised invasion of Iraq have alienated vast swathes of the Islamic world, fueling extremism and anti-Americanism. Today, Al Qaeda is no longer a single organization. Now it's a franchise, with new gangs of terrorists around the world proudly seizing the "Al Qaeda" affiliation.

Other neocon fantasies have also come true. In 2003, there was no alliance between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and no Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in Iraq. Today, thanks to the administration's actions, Iraq has become a prime training and recruiting ground for Al Qaeda, and the NIE has declared Al Qaeda in Iraq one of the greatest threats to U.S. peace and security.

Welcome to the neocons' reality.

Suskind's senior Bush aide was right all along. When an empire acts, it creates new realities - for better or for worse - and all the rest us are left to study those new realities. And, unfortunately, to live with them.

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

© 2007 The Los Angeles Times

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