Getting Past 'Oh!': Why Americans Misunderestimate the Depravity of the President They Hate
Most Americans have long ago now reached two conclusions about their government. First, that George W. Bush is an incompetent president with, additionally, a temperament ill-suited to the job. And second, that his grand project - the invasion of Iraq - was a major mistake.
Both these conclusions are absolutely incorrect. But only by omission. They are, in fact, quite accurate as far as they go - it's just that they don't go nearly far enough.
Bush is incompetent and Iraq is likely the greatest foreign policy blunder in two-plus centuries of American history. But to say that - and particularly to say that alone - does not truly do justice to either disaster, Bush or his war. The truth about this president and his motives for war are far, far uglier than the words 'incompetence' or 'mistake' imply.
But getting to that requires of American citizens several attributes which have been, shall we say, in something less than great abundance of late. It requires historical background, factual knowledge, a motivation to understand, and the wisdom that results from the combination of all of these. And it requires a substantial degree of courage to go where the facts lead.
Most Americans lack a large degree of each of these, let alone the requisite combination of all of them. As such, this much reviled president is perceived as 'merely' incompetent and error-prone. Would that he and his actions were actually so benign. It would be a much better world. In fact, they are far more deeply pernicious than Americans are willing to let themselves understand. One way to appreciate the extent of American 'ostriching' is by doing a bit of comparative analysis.
It is a curious and telling fact that Europeans figured out Bush far before his own constituents did. There are two reasons for that. One is that they were less frightened than we were. Not that they're necessarily braver than Americans in general, but they've had more experience of terrorism in the past, and we were just hit badly - they weren't. Americans were therefore a fearful people in 2002 and 2003, looking for leadership and reassurance. But looking, as it would turn out, in all the wrong places.
The other thing is that Europeans have a more mature politics than Americans do - let's just come right out and say it. You can see it in their attitudes toward sexuality, drugs and crime. You can see it in their wholesale rejection of nationalism and religion, humanity's worst mythologies and twin curses, wherever they arise. You can see it in their rejection of the juvenile selfishness that characterizes the American style of raw capitalism and obsessive consumption. And you can see it, especially, in their foreign policies and attitudes toward war. In large part because they so heavily and repeatedly paid the consequences of their own prior immaturity about war, their understanding and approach to it today are far more advanced than that of Americans.
It is not that Europeans are cowards or unreliable allies, as American neoconservatives love to paint them whenever the folks on the other side of the Pond get in the way of the raw exercise of American imperial power. They are neither. What they are, rather, is sober. They understand that war is sometimes a necessary resort, but that it must always be the very last resort, and only ever contemplated when the alternative is considerably more horrible (which is to say, given the horror of war, very rarely indeed). They know this all to well, because they spent centuries living it up close and personal. As someone once remarked, "Europeans know that anything could happen there, because everything has happened there". They have learned through the hard experiences of Flanders and Stalingrad and Normandy and Dresden and Dachau the stakes involved when the public is cavalier or even less than vigilant about holding back the dogs of war. Americans have some sense of this after the twin disasters of Vietnam and Iraq, but both of these were fought elsewhere. And, however ugly they were, by far and away the vast majority of the dying was done by brown people living on other shores. Not pleasant, to be sure, but not catastrophic at home. We have never experienced Berlin, 1945.
Europeans also have a greater sense of history than Americans do - and, sadly, they'd be hard-pressed not to, of course - which gives them a larger wisdom about power and human nature. They understand that the motivations for war by those who make it are not always quite, um, as advertised. National leaders do not usually call upon their people to risk life and limb to advance the glory, wealth and power of those same kings or prime ministers, largely because damn few would. Instead, wars must be packaged as necessary to the preserve the national honor, protect national security, or to bring the benefits of some political system or religion to other people. Well before Europeans managed to stop fighting each other they were gaining an understanding of this principle. Not for nothing has war long been referred to as the 'sport of kings' on the continent. And, as it turns out, people are generally not terribly interested in risking their lives, their health, their property, their families, their communities and their sanity so that a handful of elites can have a rollicking good time and maybe score some booty in the process.
Ironically, Americans have a rather similar database on which to draw. I'd be surprised if more than five or ten percent of Americans would agree with the proposition that any prior president ever lied the country into a foreign war (though perhaps the number would be higher in the present context than it was before 2003). Indeed, I'd be surprised if that many could even name the major foreign wars in the country's history. Those wars include the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and the present wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of these nine, at least four - or nearly half - and possibly more involved known egregious lies on the part of the administrations conducting them. And what is revealed when such lies are peeled away is that there was absolutely nothing necessary about these wars whatsoever.
For example, the deceits that were used to justify the invasion of Mexico and the theft of about one-third of its territory were so great that at least one congressman was motivated to denounce President Polk for conducting "the sheerest deception" in lying to the Congress and the country about the war. Perhaps you've heard of this fellow before. Congressman Abraham Lincoln went on to bemoan the "fact that the United States Army, in marching to the Rio Grande, marched into a peaceful Mexican settlement, and frightened the inhabitants away from their homes and their growing crops". He further accused the president of fighting an unnecessary war and of violating the Constitution in doing so, though he nevertheless also voted to supply the Army during the war (why does that ring familiar?).
The Spanish-American War was likely another instance of trumped up war. After multiple investigations over the last century, it is still unclear whether the USS Maine sunk as a result of a mine or an accidental internal explosion, and that lack of clarity alone should have been enough to prevent the war. What is completely clear, however, is that appetent imperialists and yellow journalists were hungry for the war, so much so that they succeeded in bringing it about, including ugly extended fighting in the Philippines against the anti-colonialist guerillas whom the Americans were supposed to be there liberating. Indeed, so great was the manufactured pressure for war that President McKinley, who didn't want to fight it, was ultimately forced to do so.
Then there's Vietnam, the lies surrounding which could fill a library. Here, we have documentary evidence beyond question of these fabrications, supplied via the bravery of Daniel Ellsberg and his colleagues. They risked their freedom and very lives to prove the degree to which the government was lying to the American public and Congress about its involvement in Nam, its involvement in surrounding countries, and its knowledge that the war was hopeless even while it was saying just the opposite. Oh, and did I mention how it was the US government, not the evil communists, who walked out on a previously-negotiated international agreement to allow Vietnam to decide its own fate by ballots, not bullets, simply because it was clear that the American proxies would lose the vote? Or that the American government green-lighted the coup that resulted in the assassination of the President of South Vietnam, the country where we were fighting to preserve 'democracy'? Or the Gulf of Tonkin 'incident' - far weaker a casus belli than even the sinking of the Maine - that gave the pretext for the major escalation of the war? Hey, we're just warming up here. As McGeorge Bundy said, "Pleikus are streetcars". If you wait long enough, one will come along, and you can therefore use such an incident to justify your bombing escalation, your war, or whatever you want to do.
As for the Gulf War, it seems quite probable that Bush the Elder (good lord, how do people from this reprobate family keep becoming president?) had his ambassador, April Glaspie, give Saddam a go-ahead to invade Kuwait, especially given that Saddam produced a tape recording of the conversation which has her saying just that. Of course, the Bush folks just claimed that Saddam had doctored the tape, and there went that. We do know for sure that evidence presented to the public and Congress about Saddam's atrocities was bogus, even though the dictator had surely committed many such crimes in reality. But the big lie about the Gulf War was the unspoken assumption that the United States was continuing its role as the friend of peace, freedom and democracy, fighting Saddam's nasty aggressive dictatorship. In reality, we had helped create Saddam, we had been silent if not complicit when he was committing his worst atrocities, and after the war we stood by and watched as he annihilated his own people whom we'd set up like so many human bowling pins. Most importantly, though, when he had invaded a neighboring country one decade before he committed the unforgivable sin of attacking Kuwait, the US government had actually encouraged him in that effort, armed him, and supplied him with satellite and other intelligence data. That resulted in the Iraq-Iran War, one of the most brutal of the late-twentieth century. To go to war in 1990/91, therefore, out of moral indignation at the invasion of Kuwait, was a massive hypocritical lie.
Go figure, eh? Just as shocking is the fact that everything about the present war in Iraq has been a lie, as well. We know that Bush planned to invade for domestic (let alone personal psychological) purposes well before he was even president, let alone before 9/11. We know that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. We know that the administration knew that Saddam was no threat. We know that they lied repeatedly and egregiously about the evidence that he was. We know that they lie like flea-ridden dogs to this day when they continually claim to be supporting the troops, but still can't even get them sufficient armor. And on and on and on.
But absent a knowledge of this historical record, and absent sufficient courage to grapple with its implications, and absent the facts and costs of the current war in daily life, and absent a motivation to understand these things, Americans continue to vaguely disapprove of the war and the president who bequeathed it to us. That is well, proper and necessary, but hardly sufficient.
This was not a 'mistake' made by an 'incompetent' president. It was those things, to be sure, but leaving it at that would be like describing 9/11 in the history books as an airplane crash. This was a king sporting. This was a war trumped up with zero necessity. This was a war of power and profit. This was a war of immense deceits. This is a disastrous war of epic proportions.
My guess is that Americans simply can't go there, just as many can't possibly entertain the thought that 9/11 might have been done by their government, or at least perhaps allowed to happen. People can imagine that the war was a mistake, but not that they are such pathetic pawns of their own government that their lives and the lives of American military personnel are of zero consequence to political elites. Or that those daddy-figures upon whom they rely for their precarious sense of security could in fact be vicious predators readily able to betray, ruin and destroy their own public for purposes of financial or power enrichment.
This is just too much for the psyche to handle. This is something that happens in banana republics, or history books, right? - not in contemporary democratic America. And certainly not by those super-patriots of the Republican right, the ones who are so eternally vigilant about keeping us safe.
To truly understand the magnitude of what is at stake here, one has to resort to the greatest of violations of trust of which the human animal is capable, such as the molestations of daughters by their fathers, or of little boys by their priests, or the betrayal of comrades during wartime. Such sickening transgressions are often too heinous to even contemplate, frequently blowing the psychological circuits of anyone subjected to them.
Sometimes the choice is between denial or death.
And so it is that Americans continue through their day, oblivious - by self design - to the magnitude of the evil that has been visited upon them.
But, ironically, this is not remedy at all. Obliviousness to victimization by government is no excuse, especially in a democracy, and especially when other innocent people are much greater victims, to the tune of about a million in number.
To a very large extent, those who would ignore the crimes committed in their name - crimes they have the power to stop - become criminals themselves.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net