Published on Monday, February 28, 2005 by TomDispatch.com
Potemkin World or the President in the Zone
by Tom Engelhardt
|"The great motorcade," wrote Canadian correspondent Don Murray, "swept through the streets of the city… The crowds … but there were no crowds. George W. Bush's imperial procession through Europe took place in a hermetically sealed environment. In Brussels it was, at times, eerie. The procession containing the great, armour-plated limousine (flown in from Washington) rolled through streets denuded of human beings except for riot police. Whole areas of the Belgian capital were sealed off before the American president passed."
Murray doesn't mention the 19 American escort vehicles in that procession with the President's car (known to insiders as "the beast"), or the 200 secret service agents, or the 15 sniffer dogs, or the Blackhawk helicopter, or the 5 cooks, or the 50 White House aides, all of which added up to only part of the President's vast traveling entourage. Nor does he mention the huge press contingent tailing along inside the president's security "bubble," many of them evidently with their passports not in their own possession but in the hands of White House officials, or the more than 10,000 policemen and the various frogmen the Germans mustered for the President's brief visit to the depopulated German town of Mainz to shake hands with Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder.
This image of cities emptied of normal life (like those atomically depopulated ones of 1950s sci-fi films) is not exactly something Americans would have carried away from last week's enthusiastic TV news reports about the bonhomie between European and American leaders, as our President went on his four-day "charm offensive" to repair first-term damage to the transatlantic alliance. But two letters came into the Tomdispatch e-mailbox -- one from a young chemist in Germany, the other from a middle-aged engineer in Baghdad -- that reminded me of how differently many in the rest of the world view the offshore bubbles we continually set up, whether in Belgium, Germany, or the Green Zone in Baghdad. (Both letters are reproduced at the end of this dispatch.)
Here's one of the strangest things about our President: He travels often enough, but in some sense he never goes anywhere. As I wrote back in November 2003, as George and party were preparing to descend on London (central areas of which were being closed down for the "visit"):
"American presidential trips abroad increasingly remind me of the vast, completely ritualized dynastic processionals by which ancient emperors and potentates once crossed their domains and those of their satraps. Our President's processionals are enormous moving bubbles (even when he visits alien places closer to home like the Big Apple) that shut cities, close down institutions, turn off life itself. Essentially, when the President moves abroad, like some vast turtle, he carries his shell with him."
Back then, I was less aware that, for Bush & Co., all life is lived inside a bubble carefully wiped clean of any traces of recalcitrant, unpredictable, roiling humanity, of anything that might throw their dream world into question. On the electoral campaign trail in 2004, George probably never attended an event in which his audience wasn't carefully vetted for, and often quite literally pledged to, eternal friendliness, not to say utter adoration. (Anyone who somehow managed to slip by with, say, a Kerry T-shirt on, was summarily ejected or even arrested.)
In a sense, our President's world has increasingly been filled with nothing but James Guckert clones. Guckert is, of course, the "journalist" who, using the alias Jeff Gannon, regularly attended presidential news conferences and lobbed softball questions George's way. The Gannon case, or "Gannongate," has -- are you surprised? -- hardly been touched on by most of the mainstream media despite its lurid trail leading to internet porn sites and a seamy underside of gay culture -- issues that normally would glue eyes to TV sets and sell gazillions of papers (and that in the Clinton era would have rocked the administration). On the other hand, it did cause an uproar in the world of the political Internet, where, if we were to be honest -- and stop claiming to be shocked, shocked -- we would quickly admit that almost all of George's world has essentially filled up with Gannons (though not necessarily with the porn connections).
After all, even the President's Crawford "ranch" is really a Gannon-style set. And in Germany and France, George and Condi, his new Secretary of State, managed to have town-hall style meetings only with audiences of European Gannons; audiences so carefully combed over that, on a continent whose public is largely in opposition to almost any Bush policy you might mention, not a single challenging question seems to have been asked. That certainly represents remarkable advanced planning. It's no easy thing, after all, constantly to rush ahead of a President and his key advisors and create a Potemkin world for them from which reality has been banished and in which no rough edges will ever be experienced.
This urge to shut down a pulsing planet rather than deal with it is but the other side of a no-less-powerful administration urge -- to free the President as Commander-in-Chief (and so the Pentagon as well) of all the fetters of our political system, of all those checks and balances so dear to high school civics classes throughout the land, and to encase his acts in a shroud of secrecy as well as non-accountability. More news about this appears practically every day. Just last week, Ann Scott Tyson and Dana Priest of the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon "is promoting a global counterterrorism plan that would allow Special Operations forces to enter a foreign country to conduct military operations without explicit concurrence from the U.S. ambassador there." The only authority for this would evidently be an "execute order" from the President.
So the President passes through the empty cities of the world and, even when in filled auditoriums, through a world emptied of all reality but his. As I wrote in that 2003 dispatch, this impulse to shut down and shut out
"combines many urges at once. Certainly, there's the urge to stamp an imperial imprint of power on the world, and allied to it, the urge to control. The desire to cut off information, to rule in silence and secrecy, must undoubtedly have allures all its own. And then there's also simple fear (a feeling not much written about since our President and his administration quite literally took flight on September 11, 2001)."
As the Iraqi letter-writer below makes clear, when you live in this way, only listening to your own voice or to those who don't dare to or care to challenge you, you don't always get the best advice. And while for a time you may be able to maintain your fantasies relatively intact, you're likely to have a tin ear for how you sound to others. If, for instance, this was the President's charm offensive, consider the "charm."
His "conciliatory" speeches and press conferences, his pledges to "listen" to the Europeans and "think over" their proposals (though not, of course, to do anything about them) were filled with nearly his normal quotient of imperial "musts," issued like so many diktats to the world at large. These pass largely unheard by American journalists, few of whom seemed to wonder how they sounded, along with the President's typically hectoring/lecturing style, to European leaders or publics:
"The European project is important to our country. We want it to succeed. And in order for Europe to be a strong, viable partner, Germany must be strong and viable, as well… Syria must withdraw not only the troops, but its secret services from Lebanon… Iran must not have a nuclear weapon… Today, a new generation [of Slovakians and other Eastern Europeans] that never experienced oppression is coming of age. It is important to pass on to them the lessons of that period. They must learn that freedom is precious, and cannot be taken for granted; that evil is real, and must be confronted..."
One congenial crowd on the President's tour was filled with American troops, many from Iraq, gathered at Wiesbaden Army Airfield in Germany to "hoo-ah" him. As Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times wrote, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "served as a warm-up speaker. Ms. Rice was raucously greeted with shouts of ‘We love you!' In a pep talk delivered without notes, Ms. Rice asked the crowd of 3,000: ‘Do you know why America has the greatest military in the history of the world? Because it has the greatest soldiers, airmen and seamen in the history of the world.'"
So on the one hand, that diktat tone traveled to Europe inside the Bush bubble; while on the other, those grandiose fantasies of American power made it as well (even if just barely). Since most U.S. media organizations exist more or less inside that bubble too, the "charm offensive" largely carried the day -- at least in the United States, where vivid descriptions of a Bush-depopulated Europe were scarce and analysis of transatlantic handshakes, forced smiles, and body language (as if these were substantive policy) was plentiful indeed.
Of course, just about nobody in our mainstream media thinks -- or writes anyway – that George's musts and Condi's grandiosity are even passingly odd, but the Europeans, evidence tells us, generally think otherwise. As Alain Duhamel of the French paper Libération reminds us, over the last two years our President has had a striking unifying effect on Europe. At the crucial moment when he and his advisors, marching toward the war they so desperately wanted, did seem successful in splitting Europe's governments:
"France, Germany, and Belgium stood firm against him, and, miraculously, a massively refractory European public opinion emerged. What the European Council of Heads of Government never was able to do, George W. Bush succeeded in achieving: the citizens of all of continental Europe and a good number of Britons, whether their governments were left or right, whether their Prime Ministers had committed themselves in the American wake or had refused, all these citizens purely and simply rejected their choices and American methods. George W. Bush was midwife to the birth of a European public opinion."
So yes, last week European leaders stepped inside the presidential bubble, smiled, supped, shook hands, and said the right things to signal amity-restored; but they also understood that the very presence of the President in Europe and his visible unpopularity outside that bubble were indications of just how humbled the American "hyperpower" had been. And then they went their own ways.
So much for the good old days when there was to be an "old Europe" and a "new Europe" -- and National Security Advisor Condi Rice could claim our policy vis-à-vis Europe was to "forgive Russia, ignore Germany, and punish France"? Well, how the mighty have… if not fallen exactly, then slipped badly. (And neocons lurking in think-tanks all over bubblized Washington are fretting about exactly that.)
Nor, last week, could Europe's leaders have missed the way, as a New York Times editorial put it, "a seemingly innocuous remark from the central bank of South Korea" about "diversifying" the dollar into other currencies, made "the dollar tank" and markets briefly plummet. Call it a little taste of another kind of "shock and awe." The greatest superpower with the greatest military and the greatest muscle and the greatest threat potential and the greatest power-projection ability and the greatest …. (well you get the idea) turns out to have economic feet of clay.
Thanks to this administration, our military has been overstretched and humbled by the rebellion of a ragtag bunch of comparatively under-armed rebels and fanatics in Iraq. Administration officials have managed, in a fashion that must be stunning to some of the officers who rebuilt the armed forces in the 1980s, to recreate a Vietnam-like catastrophe, a tunnel with no light whatsoever at the end -- so much for the "lessons" of that war -- and are now clearly considering furthering the Vietnam analogy by hitting out at the present-day equivalent of "sanctuary areas" in neighboring states (Syria and Iran).
No wonder the Europeans mouthed the right words, offered to train a feeble 1,500 Iraqi police recruits a year (not even in Iraq but in Qatar) -- the French donated a single "equipment officer" to the project, about as close to a smirk as you can get -- and then went about their Iran-negotiating-China-embargo-dropping-post-Kyoto-Treaty business. From American mainstream reporting, you generally would have had only the most modest idea that this was the case, though there were a few honorable exceptions, just as you could find rare accounts (usually on the inside pages of newspapers) of those emptied streets of Europe. Probably the single canniest exception I saw came from Tony Karon of Time magazine, who began a piece with the pungent title, Why Europe Ignores Bush, this way:
"Machiavelli's advice to political leaders was that it's more important to be feared than to be loved. That's no help for President Bush on his European tour; in spite of the warm words he's exchanging with European leaders, the reality is that the Bush administration is neither loved nor feared in growing sectors of the international community -- increasingly, it is simply being ignored."
And he ended the piece with a reminder that the rest of the world is not simply waiting for the last global superpower to do its thing. It's reorganizing itself and going about its business just beyond our bubblized line of sight:
"All over the world, new bonds of trade and strategic cooperation are being forged around the U.S. China has not only begun to displace the U.S. as the dominant player in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation organization (APEC), it is fast emerging as the major trading partner to some of Latin America's largest economies… French foreign policy think tanks have long promoted the goal of ‘multipolarity' in a post-Cold War world, i.e. the preference for many different, competing power centers rather than the ‘unipolarity' of the U.S. as a single hyper-power. Multipolarity is no longer simply a strategic goal. It is an emerging reality."
With that, let me turn to those two letters from outside the bubble. Oliver Hass, a 28 year-old chemist and graduate student from Oldenberg, Germany, wrote me recently about what the President's trip looked like to him. In introducing himself, Hass commented on "how necessary it can be for a chemist to forget about molecules and think about real problems." America as a country, he added, "is still largely admired here in Germany and was also a likely place for me to work and live in. Since my teenage years, I've had complaints about American foreign relations, but the core American freedoms -- freedom of speech, tolerance, pursuit of happiness and the will to do better -- shined bright and dissolved the shadows. These days the shadows get ever darker and, like a black hole, they eat up my confidence in our deepest ally and friend (at least in my lifetime)." He then wrote me the following – I've added a few links -- under the title:
At about the same time as Oliver Hass wrote in, I received a note from Ghazwan Al-Mukhtar who said: "I read with interest your 'Engelhardt and Hiro on Iraqi and American fault lines.' Attached is a letter I wrote as an Iraqi living in ‘liberated' Iraq, giving Mr. Bush a few points of concern of ordinary Iraqis. I thought you might want to read it." Indeed, I did; and, in further correspondence, I learned that Ghazwan Al-Mukhtar was a 60 year-old engineer, a 1967 graduate of Marquette University, living in Baghdad, who had criticized Saddam Hussein in his time as a "ruthless dictator" and had no intention of holding his tongue now. He had previously been interviewed from Baghdad by Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! and wrote to tell me that "I am independent person and never joined any political party and I will never join a party." And when asked about whether he wanted his name used or withheld, he added: "If, after everything we have gone through over the last 22 months makes me scared, then I have news for them, NOW NO ONE CAN STOP ME FROM TALKING. I AM FREE." His letter to George Bush from outside the American bubble follows:
To The Honorable Mr. George W. Bush, The President of the United States of America:
An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom is the author of 'The End of Victory Culture', a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley.
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