George W. Bush is at it again. This time, reports Sy Hersh in The New Yorker, it'll be Iran. (Those of us who guessed it would have been Syria first apparently underestimated his hubris.) And this time he wants to be able to use nukes.
In the novel 1984 by George Orwell, the way a seemingly democratic president kept his nation in a continual state of repression was by keeping the nation in a constant state of war. Cynics suggest the lesson wasn’t lost on Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, who both, they say, extended the Vietnam war so it coincidentally ran over election cycles, knowing that a wartime President’s party is more likely to be reelected and has more power than a President in peacetime.
This wasn’t a new lesson, however, and Orwell was not the first to note that a democracy at war was weakened and at risk.
On April 20, 1795, James Madison, who had just helped shepherd through the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and would become President of the United States in the following decade, wrote, “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”
Reflecting on war’s impact on the Executive Branch of government Madison continued his letter about the dangerous and intoxicating power of war for a president.
“In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive [President] is extended,” he wrote. “Its [his] influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war...and in the degeneracy of manners and morals, engendered by both.
“No nation,” he concluded, “could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
But it’s not just Madison who warned us. More recent presidents have also noted the danger of a craven political usurpation of democracy, particularly when fed by the bloody meat of war.
As he was leaving office, the old warrior President Dwight D. Eisenhower had looked back over his years as President and as a General and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and noted exactly what Madison had warned against.
“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea,” Eisenhower said in sobering tones in a nationally televised speech. “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.”
Nonetheless, Eisenhower added, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence, economic, political, even spiritual, is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
He concluded with a very specific warning to us, the generation that would follow. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes,” he said. “We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
But Americans have been terrified by the prospect of terrorism, endlessly hyped by the Republican majority, and the warnings of Madison and Eisenhower are forgotten by many - and unknown to most of the current generation that now studies "to the test" instead of delving into the deeper lines of American history.
Citizens of other nations, however, immediately recognize what the Republicans are up to.
In October of 2002 - nearly four years ago - I wrote on these pages the following summary of a trip I'd just taken to Buenos Aires:
I just returned from Argentina. People there understand Machiavelli, I discovered; when he wrote his instructions to The Prince, that, “Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose…” it would make perfect sense to anybody who’d lived through Argentina’s past half-century.
And, while they don’t so often read James Madison there, I think they’d agree with the letters he left to his countrymen, that I was reading as I traveled, warning us about war as the greatest danger to the democracy he’d just helped birth. As I walked about, talking with all sorts of people, I kept feeling Madison’s ghost tapping on my shoulder. But more about that in a moment; first the questions I encountered in Argentina:
Is Bush just manipulating the press and really planning to wait until 2004 to have his war, thus guaranteeing his own re-election? Or is it going to happen faster to begin pumping oil and thus repay the oil industry campaign donors who brought him to power? Or is it all about something even more insidious: the end of democracy itself, carefully planned by a small group of cynical intellectuals who truly believe that democracy is cute and quaint but that only an all-powerful government can guarantee stability in a dangerous world?
For example, last weekend in the Buenos Aires airport I was sitting next to a gregarious a man while waiting to board our flight. When he saw my American passport, he said, “You know, this Saddam thing has little to do with trying to throw the 2002 elections, like all you Americans think. Of course, that’s a nice side-benefit, keeping everything else out of the news. But it’s really about 2004 and setting up the Republicans for a half-century of one-party rule like Roosevelt did. Bush will pull back from his war rhetoric after the elections and let in the UN inspectors, and all the world, even his opponents, will hail him as a man of peace. And then, just before the 2004 elections, there will be problems with the inspectors, they'll find some excuse, and the war will start in time for November 2004.” He smiled and wagged a finger at me. “We know about one-party rule here. You'll soon learn.”
Two days earlier, in a pleasant middle-class home, I sat across the table from a woman who had been tortured and electro-shocked by the police for protesting, exactly 20 years earlier, the war between Great Britain and Argentina over the Malvinas or Falkland Islands. I never would have guessed; she was soft-spoken, middle-class, and fashionably dressed. But she was one of “the disappeared” for a brief moment, and among one of the lucky ones who were released. Indeed, the Argentineans knew about one-party rule.
“The war covered up the dark side of the government and the corruption of the politicians of the time,” another woman in a Buenos Aires restaurant told me. “It was a good way of putting the attention of the people somewhere else, like when you’re with a little child, and you want to distract him, and you say, ‘Come here and have some sweets.’ And we bought that immediately. There was dancing in the streets. ‘We’re going to win a war – oh, boy, oh, boy!’ We went with flags to the streets, singing the national songs to celebrate the possibility of winning this war.”
The Falklands/Malvinas war was over quickly, though, in part, because each side had an enemy: a nation. Terrorism, on the other hand, is not an enemy: it’s a tactic. Unless you want to have a perpetual war, you must declare war against an enemy, not a behavior.
But what if a perpetual war is just what the Bush administration wants, as another man in a restaurant in Buenos Aires suggested? The man said in his Latin accent, “He has learn from mistakes of his poppa: don’t end the war too quickly before an election. Keep the talk going, but make sure the war itself happens in 2004.”
Others thought it would happen sooner, to get Iraq’s oil, seize control of the Middle East and neutralize OPEC, and to start the profits flowing to the oil corporations who got Bush elected.
Or maybe it’s all a plan to drive a stake into the heart of democracy, another suggested, using war as the excuse.
Four years later, there can be no doubt that Bush/Cheney/Rove and the Republican cabal lied us into invading Iraq. Ginning it up just before the 2002 midterm elections was largely done so Republicans could take back the Senate in 2002 after losing it because of Jim Jeffords' defection. The 2003 attack was timed, we now can see, so Bush would improve his chances to win the White House in the election of 2004.
So, too, it appears that Bush is now ginning up a new war just in time for the 2006 midterm elections, and Karl Rove probably has a 2007 continuing war in mind to help swing the 2008 elections (or postpone them).
Much of the evidence now available suggests both the 2003 Republican Iraq War and the possible upcoming Republican Iran War are just that simple, just that banal, and ultimately just that traitorous to the traditional ideals of America.
As Governor George W. Bush told Mickey Herskowitz - the man the Bush family hired to ghost-write Bush's autobiography A Charge To Keep - in 1999:
"One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as commander in chief. My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it. If I have a chance to invade, if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency."
Bush's determination to invade Iraq to gain "political capital" even before he was appointed to the Presidency in 2001 was first laid out in an article by Russ Baker, who extensively interviewed Herskowitz. Baker noted:
"Herskowitz said that Bush expressed frustration at a lifetime as an underachiever in the shadow of an accomplished father. In aggressive military action, he saw the opportunity to emerge from his father's shadow. The moment, Herskowitz said, came in the wake of the September 11 attacks. 'Suddenly, he's at 91 percent in the polls, and he'd barely crawled out of the bunker.'"
Oil, to the Republicans, would be a nice bonus. And let's not forget those profits for Halliburton and other big Republican contributors.
But the main reason Bush invaded Iraq, it turns out, was so Republicans could take back the US Senate in the election of 2002, and in the hopes that Bush could finally win an election in 2004.
Apparently Bush is now prepared to do the same with Iran - or at least rattle the sabers loudly enough to convince the world he intends to - for the same purpose. Political capital. Hold on to the Republican majority. Prevent investigations of the many crimes of his administration by denying Democrats the power of the subpoena that comes with a majority in the House or Senate.
And - unless Democrats in Congress and the American people stand up and speak out - in the process Bush and his Republican enablers may just bring about the end of the great American experiment in democracy.
Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author, and host of a daily progressive talk show nationally syndicated by Air America Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio. www.thomhartmann.com His most recent books are "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," "Unequal Protection," "We The People," "What Would Jefferson Do?", and Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class.