Trust Your Nose
Published on Monday, October 21, 2002 by
Trust Your Nose
by John Liechty

The Bush administration has lobbied persistently for permission to scratch its apparently insatiable itch to make war on Iraq. Congress has rolled over without much of a fight, but the American public has been less compliant. In his September 25 speech to the US Naval War College, William Arkin spoke for many people when he said: “I can’t help but feel cynical about the fact that we are going to war to enhance the economic interests of the Enron class.” Some two weeks later, President Bush gave his Cincinnati speech – a long list of the evil things Saddam might do to us unless evil things are done to him first. Favorable press described the speech as unusually and admirably “reasoned and deliberate”. And yet, to many ears nothing Bush said rang half so true as that comment about enhancing the economic interests of the Enron class.

Bush’s rhetoric may indeed have had some rough edges taken off, but as anyone who has bought a used car from a reasoned and deliberate con artist can testify, this is not necessarily a basis for trust. At some point one has to rely on a sense of smell. And there is more than a little post-Enron stench left in the air as this administration announces who it would like to bomb next, hints at a date, and slots the public a little democratic debate time before the attack. When the Cincinnati speech solemnly posits that, “As Americans, we want peace. We work and sacrifice for peace,” the smell induces a wave of nausea. When the speech spends 30 minutes touting the Iraqi threat, and 10 seconds on a smooth reassurance that “this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable,” the smell becomes painfully familiar, taking us back to Gulf War I, when Bush the Father was drumming up support for his own used car, the Desert Storm, driven only on Sundays for purely defensive purposes. It was an easy sell. Thirty-odd countries and an assortment of poor cousins signed on the dotted line, largely owing, apart from the cash incentives, to the 250,000 Iraqi troops said to be massed on the border threatening to roll over Saudi Arabia.

Few bothered to so much as kick Desert Storm’s tires, but among those who did, one discovered an astonishing wobble: “[The Iraqi buildup] was the whole justification for Bush sending troops in there, and it just didn’t exist.” According to Scott Petersen’s “In War, Some Facts Less Factual” (6 Sept Christian Science Monitor), experts examining satellite photos taken at the same time as the classified Pentagon photos on which Bush the Father based his pitch, were “surprised to see almost no sign of the Iraqis.” As the Pentagon has never declassified its “incriminating” photographs, we may never know who they actually incriminate. Jean Heller, the journalist who broke the story, repeatedly asked then Secretary of Defense Cheney’s office for an explanation for the quarter million evaporated Iraqi troops. The answer? “Trust us.”

Now we’re back on the car lot, and many of the salesmen look familiar. Cheney is back, and even Bush as Son Incarnate. “Trust us,” is back too. The car itself sounds familiar, a mint condition Regime Change, doesn’t use a drop of oil, a bargain at 200 billion dollars, not a scratch on it. Too often it feels like we’re in the middle of a stage play, “Demockery” let’s call it, a kind of Restoration comedy from hell involving a cast of salespeople with names like Richard Peril, Dick Chicanery, Dupeya, Conthepeople Rice, Rumsfeld Stiltskin, Paul Crywolfowitz…. Add to this rogues’ gallery one mustachioed stock villain, Sodom Insane, and the cast is complete. There is a more sobering reflection – that “Demockery” is not, after all, a comedic farce with some innocuous ending, but a tragedy – in the recent words of Anatol Lieven: “the tragedy of a great country, with noble impulses, successful institutions, magnificent historical achievements and immense energies, which has become a menace to itself and to mankind.”

In the absence of what governments these days like to call transparency, and given the Bush administration’s long list of ulterior motives for fighting a fresh war, the sooner the better, this does not quite smell like the moment for trust. No doubt there is some (perhaps much) truth in Bush’s assertions against the Iraqi regime. No doubt there is also some (perhaps much) duplicity in his underlying motives and intentions. This government would not be the first to have appropriated William Blake’s intended words of warning as a modus operandi: “A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.”

The current issue of trust hardly needs be boiled down to the with-us-or-against-us logic of a recent headline: “Whom should the US Trust: Bush or Hussein?” The answer for now is a fairly self-evident Neither One. And more pressing questions come to mind. What’s been happening to our economy? Why do we feel revulsion but not all that much surprise as a sniper terrorizes our national capital? Did 250,000 Iraqi soldiers vanish into thin air during Gulf War I, and if so, why hasn’t the Vatican granted the event miracle status? And finally, if this is democracy, why does it so often smell like demockery?

John Liechty teaches in Muscat, Oman. E-mail: