After four years of blunders, muddles, exaggerations, lies, lawbreaking and paralysis from Kabul to Baghdad, after three years of grand-scale profiteering as America's only unmitigated success at home and abroad in the so-called global war on terror, after the utterly pointless deaths of 1,850 GIs in Iraq, so far, and the increasingly pointless deaths of 221 GIs in Afghanistan, it's fair to say that the Bush administration's strategy in the Middle East was never more divorced from reality than a video game that might be called "Grand Theft Auto: The Bloody Silk Road."
There's nothing wrong with violent, barbaric, pornographic video games. They're games. One hates to sully the "Grand Theft" brand, associating it with something so truly indefensible and immoral as the Bush presidency. But that's where we are. Video games whose casualty count goes no further than a few cases of carpal tunnel syndrome get front-page outrage of supposedly family and religious guardians of society's morals. But daily carnage of a war that has disintegrated Iraq beyond repair -- and keeps massacring Americans whose experience of violence ought never to have gone beyond the odd video games -- draws Sunday congregations eager for more warmongering and blind support for the president who made this all possible. Some morals.
This is not to downplay the role of Islamic radicals. Sitting by after the 2001 attacks was not an option, although a rushed, freelance, discount invasion of Afghanistan that dispersed the plague instead of eradicating it was not the only option. Not only have al-Qaida operatives been fruitful, multiplying their attacks all over the world; not only do we not "have flies walking across their eyeballs," as the CIA's Cofer Black power-pointed to President Bush in a Sept. 13, 2001, Cabinet meeting, but also they have flies walking across our eyeballs on a daily basis. "Good job," as Black himself is fond of saying, sarcastically, about those who impede the "war on terror."
The folly of invading Iraq is a chronicle of a death foretold so often and reconfirmed so grimly that it needn't be repeated here. But the administration's approaches to both Afghanistan and Iraq were the same. From its earliest hours as an administration stunned out of its clubhouse lethargy by the 2001 attacks, the Bush team took to war as a brand with terrific retail potential in a political marketplace dominated by the cheap sell. The marketing campaign of war as some sort of game had its roots in that Sept. 13 Cabinet meeting and in the subsequent weekend gathering of Bush's "war cabinet" at Camp David. There, according to Bob Woodward, chronicler of the administration's joysticks, then-CIA Director George Tenet "distributed a briefing packet with the attention-grabbing title 'Going to War.' In the upper-left-hand corner was a picture of bin Laden inside a red circle with a slash superimposed over his face." And, so, this gathering of eighth-graders high on superpower testosterone set the "war on terror" into motion, with Congress and media as dumb and dumber co-conspirators of the war's founding principles. It would be a year after 2001 before some voices of reason in the major media began waking up to the inanity of both the rhetoric and strategy, and, even then, mainly abroad: "Talk of war," The Economist wrote in an August 2002 editorial, "conjures up the need for the suspension of normal political life and even of civil liberties. That is bad enough in a war of the conventional kind. But this war, if war it is, is one that may go on forever. It can certainly never be declared won; terrorism, like poverty, is probably always with us. Awful as it sounds, that may mean learning to live with terror, even as you fight it: To be dominated by a fear of terrorists, to credit them with greater power than they really have, and to tear up your freedoms in the face of their threats is to hand them a needless victory." (For the record, The News-Journal has been making that point since Sept. 12, 2001.)
For a while this summer, it looked as if the administration was finally maturing. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke publicly of his objections to "the use of the term 'war on terrorism,' " as he put it to the National Press Club on July 18, "because if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution." The Pentagon had stopped using the term, a rare concession to reality, but not uncharacteristic for military men who know their business. By Aug. 3, Bush was playing commander-in-chief again, correcting his general and rehashing his "make no mistake" bombast about being at war.
To prove it, he then kicked off his monthlong vacation.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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