The defining feature of George W. Bush's presidency will be his Global War on Terror. It will overshadow the corruption, the corporate cronyism, the advocacy and use of torture, the domestic spying, the arrogance of his foreign policy, and the budget deficits unmatched in history.
President Bush has carefully, deliberately, and effectively enshrined The Global War on Terror in the American psyche. It is the centerpiece of his presidency, and he never tires of describing himself as a "war president." He claims no prouder achievement.
How will the history books, then, describe George Bush and his war? Might they speak as follows?
It started when the government, in the midst of an economic crisis, received reports of an imminent terrorist attack. A foreign ideologue had launched feeble attacks on a few famous buildings, but the media largely ignored his relatively small efforts. The intelligence services knew, however, that the odds were he would eventually succeed. But the warnings of investigators were ignored at the highest levels, in part because the government was distracted; the man who claimed to be the nation's leader had not been elected by a majority vote and the majority of citizens claimed he had no right to the powers he coveted.
He was a simpleton, some said, a cartoon character of a man who saw things in black-and-white terms and didn't have the intellect to understand the subtleties of running a nation in a complex and internationalist world.
His coarse use of language - reflecting his political roots in a southernmost state - and his simplistic and often-inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric offended foreign leaders, and the well-educated elite in the government and media. And, as a young man, he'd joined a secret society with an occult-sounding name and bizarre initiation rituals that involved skulls and human bones.
Nonetheless, he knew the terrorist was going to strike (although he didn't know where or when), and he had already considered his response. When an aide brought him word that the nation's most prestigious buildings were ablaze, he verified it was the terrorist who had struck and then rushed to the scene and called a press conference.
"You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in history," he proclaimed, standing in front of the ruins, surrounded by national media. "This," he said, his voice trembling with emotion, "is the beginning." He used the occasion - "a sign from God," he called it - to declare an all-out war on terrorism and its ideological sponsors, a people, he said, who traced their origins to the Middle East and found motivation for their evil deeds in their religion.
Within four weeks of the terrorist attack, the nation's now-popular leader had pushed through legislation - in the name of combating terrorism and fighting the philosophy he said spawned it - that suspended constitutional guarantees of free speech, privacy, and habeas corpus. Police could now intercept mail and wiretap phones; suspected terrorists could be imprisoned without specific charges and without access to their lawyers; police could sneak into people's homes without warrants if the cases involved terrorism. To get his patriotic legislation passed over the objections of concerned legislators and civil libertarians, he agreed to put a 4-year sunset provision on it.
Immediately after passage of the anti-terrorism act, his federal police agencies stepped up their program of arresting suspicious persons and holding them without access to lawyers or courts. In the first year only a few hundred were interred, and those who objected were largely ignored by the mainstream press, which was afraid to offend and thus lose access to a leader with such high popularity ratings. Citizens who protested the leader in public - and there were many - quickly found themselves confronting the newly empowered police's batons, gas, and jail cells, or fenced off in protest zones safely out of earshot of the leader's public speeches. (In the meantime, he was taking almost daily lessons in public speaking, learning to control his tonality, gestures, and facial expressions.)
Within the first months after that terrorist attack, at the suggestion of a political advisor, he argued that any international body that didn't act first and foremost in the best interest of his own nation was neither relevant nor useful.
He orchestrated a campaign to ensure the people that he was a deeply religious man and that his motivations were rooted in Christianity.
Within a year of the terrorist attack, he determined that the various local police and federal agencies around the nation were lacking the clear communication and overall coordinated administration necessary to deal with the terrorist threat facing the nation. He proposed a single new national agency to protect the security of the homeland, consolidating the actions of dozens of previously independent police, border, and investigative agencies under a single leader.
He appointed one of his most trusted associates to be leader of this new agency, and gave it a role in the government equal to the other major departments.
To consolidate his power, he concluded that government alone wasn't enough.
He reached out to industry and forged an alliance, bringing former executives of the nation's largest corporations into high government positions. A flood of government money poured into corporate coffers to prepare for war. He encouraged large corporations friendly to him to acquire media outlets and other industrial concerns across the nation. He built powerful alliances with industry; one corporate ally got the lucrative contract worth millions to build the first large-scale detention center. Soon more contracts would follow. Industry flourished.
He also reached out to the churches, declaring that the nation had clear Christian roots, that any nation that didn't openly support religion was morally bankrupt, and that his administration would openly and proudly provide both moral and financial support to initiatives based on faith to provide social services.
But after an interval of peace following the terrorist attack, voices of dissent again arose within and without the government. Students started an active program opposing him, and leaders of nearby nations were speaking out against his bellicose rhetoric. He needed a diversion, something to direct people away from the corporate cronyism being exposed in his own government, questions of his possibly illegitimate rise to power, his corruption of religious leaders, and the oft-voiced concerns of civil libertarians about the people being held in detention without due process or access to attorneys or family.
With his number two man - a master at manipulating the media - he began a campaign to convince the people of the nation that a small, limited war was necessary. Another nation was harboring many of the suspicious people, and even though its connection with the terrorist who had demolished the nation's most conspicuous buildings was tenuous at best, it held resources their nation badly needed if they were to maintain their prosperity.
He called a press conference and publicly delivered an ultimatum to the leader of the other nation, provoking an international uproar. He claimed the right to strike preemptively in self-defense, and nations across Europe - at first - denounced him for it.
It took a few months, and intense international debate and lobbying with European nations, but, after he personally met with the leader of the United Kingdom, finally a deal was struck.
And then George Bush invaded Iraq?
No, George Bush is not the central character here.
The paragraphs above were written by Thom Hartmann, describing the ascendancy of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany in the 1930's. With his permission, they are reproduced here verbatim, except for some very light editing (a few words were omitted to obscure the explicit German context; nothing was added). The excerpt was taken from Chapter 4, "When Democracy Failed," in Mr. Hartmann's book, What Would Jefferson Do? A Return to Democracy.
The book is compelling reading, for it raises a compelling question: where is our nation headed?
A word from Richard Behan
Appearing to be the "author" of this article requires no small degree of impudence. Here, at the end, I am happy to repudiate any such claim, but doing so served a purpose.
Chapter 4 in Hartmann's book was simply gripping. Hitler's ascendance and the concurrent destruction of German democracy were deliberately, openly posed as parallels to contemporary affairs in the U.S., a template perhaps. But it was not a prediction, not a trite, fear-mongering argument that "history repeats itself." Throughout the book, Hartmann's essential theme is the erosion of American democracy, not that we are following in lockstep the history of Nazi Germany.
Nevertheless, the uncanny, detailed similarities between the personalities and behavior of Adolph Hitler and George W. Bush were hair-raising. I wondered if the shock value of Hartmann's comparison could be distilled, extracted, by isolating it from the complexities of his larger canvas, and so I "composed" the piece here.
My doing so is unadorned hype. I want to draw yet more attention, as quickly and starkly as possible, to the hideous presidency of George W. Bush. Hitler succeeded because the German people were complacent, and if a bit of literary shock and awe can help fight complacency here, I find it gratifying to contribute.
Appearing as the "author" was part of the hype.
Richard W. Behan's last book was Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands (Island Press, 2001). Behan is currently working on a more broadly rendered critique, 'To Provide Against Invasions:
Corporate Dominion and America's Derelict Democracy.' He can be reached by
email at firstname.lastname@example.org.