With a growing anti-war movement and increasing concerns about the President's mismanagement of the economy, the Bush administration is finally beginning to experience some healthy criticism from the mainstream media. Unfortunately, aside from a few pundits like syndicated columnist Helen Thomas and Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who have been calling it as they see it all along, most of new critiques are couched in unduly polite terms, like subjects at a rare audience with the King pleading for more enlightened policies.
The exceptions to this rule are well worth celebrating - and emulating. They often turn up in unlikely places, like a recent piece by Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times book review of January 26th that deals with a new initiative to put "great books" in the hands of U.S. military personnel. The privately funded program, which has been well received by U.S. troops stationed overseas, has allowed the Pentagon to distribute copies of Sun Tzu's "Art of War" and Shakespeare's "Henry V," along with a book of military profiles and a collection of soldiers' letters home.
The narrow military focus of the titles has drawn criticism from British columnists John Sutherland and Ben Macintyre, who note that the World War II program that the current book distribution was inspired by included a much wider range of books with a much greater critical depth, from Faulkner, Hemingway and Virginia Woolf to Kafka, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens. Shulevitz concurs with these criticisms, observing that "seeking out the new and the challenging is not part of the public relations agenda today."
Thankfully, literature can be a double-edged sword when used for propaganda purposes, as Shulevitz notes, describing the relevance of Shakespeare's "Henry V" to the current political situation.
"The play's plotline . . . offers more commentary on our current situation than the Pentagon probably intended. A newly crowned king's claim to the throne is subject to grave constitutional question, since his father usurped it by murdering its previous holder. The king needs to win his people's trust; he also wants them to forget his youth as a drunk and a bum. He does exactly that by skillfully and courageously prosecuting a war against France, just as his father told him to do: 'Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/ With foreign quarrels.'"
Shulevitz ends her essay by suggesting that at least some of the U.S. military personnel reading their Pentagon-approved copies of Henry V "are likely to realize that it makes something of a case against foreign wars waged by dynastic leaders for less than purely disinterested reasons." Or, as the headnote to the piece puts it "Henry leads his nation into a dangerous, unnecessary, and unjustified war." Sound familiar?
All of which brings us to George W. Bush's latest piece of political theater, his State of the Union address. Taking his cue from Donald Rumsfeld, whose motto with respect to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," our President-select turned rhetorical cartwheels to convince the American people and the world that although United Nations inspectors have yet to find proof that Saddam Hussein's regime currently possesses usable nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, there is an urgent need overthrow him by force.
Bush's skills as a dramatist are decidedly one-sided. The portions of his speech devoted to demonizing Saddam Hussein were far livelier than his long introductory attempt to prove that he is still a "compassionate conservative" who cares about the lot of the average American family. He provided a few new allegations - but no new information - to bolster his assertion that a costly war to unseat Saddam Hussein should take precedence over resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis, or dismantling the Al Qaeda terror network, or shoring up a badly faltering domestic economy, or - heaven forbid - coming up with a comprehensive plan to eliminate all of the world's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, not just the ones that Saddam Hussein may or may not possess.
Ironically, a substantial portion of Bush's case against Saddam Hussein appeared to come from the very United Nations inspectors he is trying to
shove out of the way so he can got on with the war. In his
presentation to the Security Council the day before Bush's State of the Union performance, chief UN Inspector Hans Blix precisely laid out the areas in which Iraqi cooperation had not been forthcoming in accounting for arsenals of chemical bombs and biological agents which Iraq may have possessed as of 1998, the last time United Nations inspection teams were in Iraq. While he was clearly exasperated with Saddam Hussein's regime for not being more forthcoming in clearing up these matters, he made a sensible case for continuing with inspections, not lurching into war.
Bush was on shakier ground when he relied on "intelligence" to make his case. He reiterated the tired claim, based on information from "three defectors," that Iraq may have "several mobile biological weapons laboratories" that "can be moved from place to place to evade inspectors." Never mind that defectors are notoriously unreliable sources on sensitive matters of this sort, or that the image of mobile laboratories offers the perfect public relations image for an administration bent on proving that inspections can never work. We'll just have to trust the President and his advisors on this one. Bush also recycled the charge that Iraq had attempted to buy aluminum tubes "suitable for nuclear weapons productions," despite the fact that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have determined that the tubes Iraq sought are more likely to have been destined for a conventional rocket program, not for the enrichment of uranium for nuclear weapons.
But the President's greatest dramatic stretch was his attempt to once again link Iraq with Al Qaeda, asserting that he has new evidence that "Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists" and that therefore "without fingerprints, he could provide one of the hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own." If this new "evidence" is akin to past attempts to forge an Iraq-Al Qaeda link, it will involve assertions about an Al Qaeda operative who received medical care in Baghdad and then promptly left the country, and about a fundamentalist group in Northern Iraq - an area that is not under Saddam Hussein's control due to the no-fly zone that has links to Al Qaeda. But it is extremely doubtful that the President has any evidence to suggest that Iraq would make a strategic alliance with Al Qaeda or any other global terrorist group, particularly one that involves sharing weapons of mass destruction. As New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon noted in paragraph twelve of his front page analysis of Bush's State of the Union speech, "just a few months ago, the CIA told Congress that Iraq was striving to develop weapons of mass destruction but was unlikely to orchestrate terrorist attacks in the United States unless Washington struck Iraq first. The CIA has never amended that public assessment."
But of course the CIA, even given all of its flaws, has far higher standards of evidence than Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, or the other trigger-happy neo-conservatives in Bushes inner circle. Rumsfeld's effort to force U.S. intelligence analysts to manufacture evidence of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link would make a good Shakespearean drama in its own right, but our megalo-maniacal secretary of war would undoubtedly ruin it by demanding final review of the script.
The balance between war and peace in Iraq may depend upon how many Americans look at the facts behind the President's rhetorical bluster, and how many buy into his increasingly messianic rhetoric. The end of his speech stopped just short of asserting that King George rules America - and America rules the world - by divine right: "America is a strong nation, and honorable in our use of our strength . . . The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity. We Americans have faith in ourselves but not in ourselves alone . . .we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and human history."
It's enough to make you long for Ronald Reagan. Wasn't his favorite slogan "trust, but verify?" Or, for those of us who believe that President Bush is about to drive the country off a cliff, "distrust and verify."
William D. Hartung is a Senior Research Fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School in New York City.