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The Nation

Faith and Fraud

A factitious picture of the world built up by the Bush Administration over its five years in power is now going to pieces before our eyes. Great jagged spikes of reality, like the crags of the iceberg that ripped open the staterooms of the Titanic, are tearing into it on all sides. The disrespected world of facts, an exacting master, is putting down this governmental insurrection against its ineluctable laws.

The pivot is of course the war in Iraq, which in its origins and conduct was and remains a colossal, blood-drenched fraud. But now a majority of the public has caught on and wants the United States to withdraw. In addition, a special counsel has reached directly into the White House and, for the first time since 1875, indicted an official who works there: the Vice President's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, who was trying to suppress the truth about the war by punishing a truth-teller, Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

But of course, the Administration's rebellion against the factual world has gone far beyond the war. The government has been mobilized across the board to erase or deride knowledge of everything from the largest problems now requiring the world's attention--such as global warming and the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their materials (while the Administration ransacked Iraq in vain for them)--to the comparative minutiae of domestic policy, such as the cost of prescription drugs, the extent of power-plant pollution and malfeasance in the award of Pentagon contracts.

As the fantasy explodes, new aspects of the machinery of falsehood are being brought into view. The willful, concerted, energetic tenacity of the defense of fiction is notable. The twenty-two pages of Libby's indictment portray the office of Vice President Cheney skillfully and relentlessly deploying all its resources to protect the single false allegation that Iraq was purchasing uranium in Niger before the war. Cheney and his team worked for weeks to marshal the information and misinformation with which to smear Wilson. Meetings were held to discuss just how to spread the dirt to reporters. A misleading identification ("former Hill staffer") for the designated smearer, Libby, was concocted.

Did the Administration know the truth and lie to others, so that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," as the head of British intelligence put it contemporaneously? Or was it that Bush officials "misled themselves.... And then they misled the world," as the United Nations inspector at the time, Hans Blix, has recently said--in keeping with the old principle of salesmanship that the most persuasive deceiver is a self-deceiver? Or did the Administration, like an overzealous policeman who believes someone is guilty and plants evidence on him to "prove" it, just believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and, combining faith and fraud, fix the facts to fit its belief? Whichever it was, the effort was arduous and protracted. And the same can be said of other assaults on factual truth and its tellers. For hiding the real world, with its powerful capacity to pour forth oceans of new facts every day, is not an inconsiderable task.

Perhaps that's why, in a more recent discovery about the Bush officials, they turn out to have had a minimal interest in actually running things. Many have noted that the Administration had no plan for running Iraq. But it took the federal response, or lack of one, to Hurricane Katrina to show that the same might be true of the Administration's approach to the United States. In light of this new surmise, other puzzles melt away: a Clear Skies Act that dirties the skies, a Social Security plan to address a financial shortfall that deepened the problem and so forth. It has turned out that the Republican Party, which has long seen government as "the problem," not "the solution," is uninterested in governing. But if a "government" ceases to govern, can we call it a government? If a "supermarket" sells no food, can we call it a supermarket? We all keep referring to the "Bush Administration," yet administering seems to be the last thing on its mind.

These disclosures bring a new question to the fore: If the Bush outfit is not governing, what is it doing? The answer comes readily: It wishes to acquire, increase and consolidate the power of the Republican Party. At home the GOP is to become a "permanent majority for the future of this country," in the words of former Republican majority leader Tom DeLay, now also indicted, and abroad the country would be the imperial ruler of the globe.

But if the manufacture of illusion is a shortcut to power, it is a poor long-term strategy in a democracy--as long as the system still functions. The dream of the one-power world may have expired in intractable Iraq, but the dream of the one-party state at home is not yet dead. Bush's difficulty is that his chief opposition is not the weak-kneed Democrats, unable to mount effective opposition even to the Iraq War, but the neglected stuff of the real world. What is currently "voting" against Bush, you might say, is not so much the bloc of independents or security moms or any of the other slices of the demographic pie that public opinion pollsters examine but the molecules of carbon dioxide heating up the global air, the collapsed water purification system of Iraq, the dollars fleeing our Treasury, the wages emptying out of people's pockets.

The weekend following Libby's indictment, a surprising consensus emerged among outside political observers in both parties: Bush should admit error and hire new counselors who could "talk reality" to him, in the words of Ken Duberstein, a chief of staff to Ronald Reagan. The White House quickly brushed the advice aside. Through a spokesman, Bush declined the opportunity to admit anything. And then, bright and early Monday morning, he nominated right-wing Judge Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court, in a trumpet call to rally his right-wing political army. As John Yoo, a right-wing former Bush Administration Justice Department official put it, "With this nomination, Bush is saying 'Bring it on!'" No one would talk reality to Bush. He would fight the truth-tellers, and the truth they would tell him, to the end.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell was the peace and disarmament correspondent for the Nation magazine and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University. Among many other works, he was the author of The Real War, The Fate of the Earth, and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.  He died on March 25, 2014.


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