Don't worry, the White House is telling us. The world's most powerful leader was simply making a rhetorical point. At a White House press conference last week, just in case you haven't heard, President Bush informed the American people that he had told world leaders "if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." World War III. That is certainly some rhetorical point, especially coming from the man singularly most capable of making such an event reality.
Pundits have raised their eyebrows and comics are busy writing jokes, but the president's reference to Armageddon, no matter how cavalierly uttered and subsequently brushed away, suggests an alarming context. Some might note that the comment was simply an offhand response to a reporter's question, the kind of free-thinking scenario that baffles Bush so. In a way, this makes what the president said even more disturbing, since we now have an insight into the vision, and related terminology, which hovers just below the horizon in the brain of George W. Bush.
When I was a weapons inspector with the United Nations, there was a jostling that took place at the end of each day, when decisions needed to be made and authorization documents needed to be signed. In an environment of competing agendas, each of us who championed a position sought to be the "last man in," namely the person who got to imprint the executive chairman (our decision maker) with the final point of view for the day. Failure to do so could find an inspection or point of investigation sidetracked for days or weeks after the executive chairman became distracted by a competing vision. I understand the concept of "imprinting," and have seen it in action. What is clear from the president's remarks is that, far from an innocent rhetorical fumble, his words, and the context in which he employed them, are a clear indication of the imprinting which is taking place behind the scenes at the White House. If the president mentions World War III in the context of Iran's nuclear program, one can be certain that this is the very sort of discussion that is taking place in the Oval Office.
A critical question, therefore, is who was the last person to "imprint" the president prior to his public allusion to World War III? During his press conference, Bush noted that he awaited the opportunity to confer with his defense secretary, Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice following their recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. So clearly the president hadn't been imprinted recently by either of the principle players in the formulation of defense and foreign policy. The suspects, then, are quickly whittled down to three: National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Vice President Dick Cheney, and God.
Hadley is a long-established neoconservative thinker who has for the most part operated "in the shadows" when it comes to the formulation of Iran policy in the Bush administration. In 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Hadley (then the deputy national security adviser) instituted what has been referred to as the "Hadley Rules," a corollary of which is that no move will be made which alters the ideological positioning of Iran as a mortal enemy of the United States. These "rules" shut down every effort undertaken by Iran to seek a moderation of relations between it and the United States, and prohibited American policymakers from responding favorably to Iranian offers to assist with the fight against al-Qaida; they also blocked the grand offer of May 2003 in which Iran outlined a dramatic diplomatic initiative, including a normalization of relations with Israel. The Hadley Rules are at play today, in an even more nefarious manner, with the National Security Council becoming involved in the muzzling of former Bush administration officials who are speaking out on the issue of Iran. Hadley is blocking Flynt Leverett, formerly of the National Security Council, from publishing an Op-Ed piece critical of the Bush administration on the grounds that any insight into the machinations of policymaking (or lack thereof) somehow strengthens Iran's hand. Leverett's article would simply underscore the fact that the Bush administration has spurned every opportunity to improve relations with Iran while deliberately exaggerating the threat to U.S. interests posed by the Iranian theocracy.
The silencing of informed critics is in keeping with Hadley's deliberate policy obfuscation. There is still no official policy in place within the administration concerning Iran. While a more sober-minded national security bureaucracy works to marginalize the hawkish posturing of the neocons, the administration has decided that the best policy is in fact no policy, which is a policy decision in its own right. Hadley has forgone the normal procedures of governance, in which decisions impacting the nation are written down, using official channels, and made subject to review and oversight by those legally and constitutionally mandated and obligated to do so. A policy of no policy results in secret policy, which means, according to Hadley himself, the Bush administration simply does whatever it wants to, regardless. In the case of Iran, this means pushing for regime change in Tehran at any cost, even if it means World War III.
But Hadley is simply a facilitator, bureaucratic "grease" to ease policy formulated elsewhere down the gullet of a national security infrastructure increasingly kept in the dark about the true intent of the Bush administration when it comes to Iran. With the Department of State and the Pentagon now considered unfriendly ground by the remaining hard-core neoconservative thinkers still in power, policy formulation is more and more concentrated in the person of Vice President Cheney and the constitutionally nebulous "Office of the Vice President."
Cheney and his cohorts have constructed a never-never land of oversight deniability, claiming immunity from both executive and legislative checks and balances. With an unchallenged ability to classify anything and everything as secret, and then claim that there is no authority inherent in government to oversee that which has been thus classified, the Office of the Vice President has transformed itself into a free republic's worst nightmare, assuming Caesar-like dictatorial authority over almost every aspect of American national security policy at home and abroad. From torture to illegal wiretapping, to arms control (or lack of it) to Iran, Dick Cheney is the undisputed center of policy power in America today. While there are some who will claim that in this time of post-9/11 crisis such a process of bureaucratic streamlining is essential for the common good, the reality is far different.
It is said that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this has never been truer than in the case of Cheney. What Cheney is doing behind his shield of secrecy can be simply defined: planning and implementing a preemptive war of aggression. During the Nuremberg tribunal in the aftermath of World War II, the chief American prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, stated, "To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." Today, we have a vice president who articulates publicly about global conflict, and who speaks in not-so-veiled language about a looming Armageddon. If there is such a future for America and the world, let one thing be certain; World War III, as postulated by Dick Cheney, would be an elective war, and not a conflict of tragic necessity. This makes the crime even greater.
Sadly, Judge Jackson's words are but an empty shell. The global community lacks a legally binding definition of what constitutes a war of aggression, or even an act of aggression. But that isn't the point. America should never find itself in a position where it is being judged by the global community regarding the legality of its actions. Judge Jackson established a precedent of jurisprudence concerning aggression based upon American principles and values, something the international community endorsed. The fact that current American indifference to the rule of law prevents the international community from certifying a definition of criminality when it comes to aggression, whether it be parsed as "war" or simply an "act," does not change the fact that the Bush administration, in the person of Dick Cheney, is actively engaged in the committing of the "supreme [war] crime," which makes Cheney the supreme war criminal. If the world is not empowered to judge him as such, then let the mantle of judgment fall to the American people. Through their elected representatives in Congress, they should not only bring this reign of unrestrained abuse of power to an end, but ensure that such abuse never again is attempted by an American official by holding to account, to the full extent of the law, those who have trampled on the Constitution of the United States and the ideals and principles it enshrines.
But what use is the rule of law, even if fairly and properly implemented, if in the end he who is entrusted with executive power takes his instructions from an even higher authority? President Bush's relationship with "God" (or that which he refers to as God) is a matter of public record. The president himself has stated that "God speaks through me" (he acknowledged this before a group of Amish in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2004). Exactly how God speaks through him, and what precisely God says, is not a matter of speculation. According to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, President Bush told him and others that "God told me to strike at al-Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did." As such, at least in the president's mind, God has ordered Bush to transform himself into a modern incarnation of St. Michael, smiting all that is evil before him. "We are in a conflict between good and evil. And America will call evil by its name," the president told West Point cadets in a speech in 2002.
The matter of how and when an individual chooses to practice his faith, or lack thereof, is a deeply personal matter, one which should be kept from public discourse. For a president to so openly impose his personal religious beliefs, as Bush has done, on American policy formulation and implementation represents a fundamental departure from not only constitutional intent concerning the separation of church and state but also constitutional mandate concerning the imposition of checks and balances required by the American system of governance. The increasing embrace by this president of the notion of a unitary executive takes on an even more sinister aspect when one realizes that not only does the Bush administration seek to nullify the will of the people through the shackling of the people's representatives in Congress, but that the president has forgone even the appearance of constitutional constraint by evoking the word of his personal deity, as expressed through his person, as the highest form of consultation on a matter as serious as war. As such, the president has made his faith, and how he practices it, a subject not only of public curiosity but of national survival.
That George W. Bush is a born-again Christian is not a national secret. Neither is the fact that his brand of Christianity, evangelicalism, embraces the notion of the "end of days," the coming of the Apocalypse as foretold (so they say) in the Book of Revelations and elsewhere in the Bible. President Bush's frequent reference to "the evil one" suggests that he not only believes in the Antichrist but actively proselytizes on the Antichrist's physical presence on Earth at this time. If one takes in the writing and speeches of those in the evangelical community today concerning the "rapture," the numerous references to the current situation in the Middle East, especially on the events unfolding around Iran and its nuclear program, make it very clear that, at least in the minds of these evangelicals, there is a clear link between the "end of days" prophesy and U.S.-Iran policy. That James Dobson, one of the most powerful and influential evangelical voices in America today, would be invited to the White House with like-minded clergy to discuss President Bush's Iran policy is absurd unless one makes the link between Bush's personal faith, the extreme religious beliefs of Dobson and the potential of Armageddon-like conflict (World War III). At this point, the absurd becomes unthinkable, except it is all too real.
Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation's greatest founders, made the separation of church and state an underlying principle upon which the United States was built. This separation was all-inclusive, meaning that not only should government stay out of religion, but likewise religion should be excluded from government. "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself," Jefferson wrote in a letter to Francis Hopkinson in 1789. "Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent." If only President Bush would abide by such wisdom, avoiding the addictive narcotic of religious fervor when carrying out the people's business. Instead, he chooses as his drug one which threatens to destroy us all in a conflagration derived not from celestial intervention but individual ignorance and arrogance. Again Jefferson, in a letter written in 1825: "It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it [the Apocalypse], and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams."
Nightmares, more aptly, unless something can be done to change the direction Bush and Dobson are taking us. The problem is that far too many Americans openly espouse not only the faith of George W. Bush but also the underlying philosophy which permits this faith to be intertwined with the governance of the land. "God bless America" has become a rallying cry for this crowd, and those too ignorant and/or afraid to speak out in opposition. If this statement has merit, what does it say for the 6.8 billion others in the world today who are not Americans? That God condemns them? The American embrace of divine destiny is not unique in history (one only has to recall that the belt buckles of the German army during World War II read "God is with us"). But for a nation born of the age of reason to collectively fall victim to the most base of fear-induced theology is a clear indication that America currently fails to live up to its founding principles. Rather than turning to Dobson and his ilk for guidance in these troubled times, Americans would be well served to reflect on President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered in the middle of a horrific civil war which makes all of the conflict America finds itself in today pale in comparison:
"Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. ... The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ... [T]hat He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?"
God is not on our side, or the side of any single nation or people. To believe such is the ultimate expression of national hubris. To invoke such, if one is a true believer, is to embrace sacrilege and heresy. This, of course, is an individual right, granted as an extension of religious freedom. But it is not a collective right, nor is it a right born of governance, especially in a land protected by the separation of church and state.
The issue of Iran is a national problem which requires a collective debate, discussion and dialogue inclusive of all the facts, and stripped of all ideology and theocracy which would seek to deny reasoned thought conducted within a framework of accepted laws and ideals. It is grossly irresponsible of an American president to invoke the imagery of World War III without first sharing with the American people the framework of thought that produced such a comparison. Such openness will not be forthcoming from this administration or president. Not in the form of Stephen Hadley's policy of no policy, designed with intent to avoid and subvert both bureaucratic and legislative process and oversight, or Dick Cheney's secret government within a government, operating above and beyond the law and in a manner which violates both legal and moral norms and values, and certainly not in the president's own private conversations with "God," either directly or through the medium of lunatic evangelicals who embrace the termination of all we stand for, and especially the future of our next generation, in a fiery holocaust born from the fraudulent writings of centuries past. The processes which compelled George W. Bush to speak of a World War III are intentionally not transparent to the American people. The president has much to explain, and it would be incumbent upon every venue of civic and public pressure to demand that such an explanation be forthcoming in the near future. The stakes regarding Iran have always been high, but never more so than when a nation's leader invokes the end of days as a solution.
Scott Ritter was a Marine Corps intelligence officer from 1984 to 1991 and a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is the author of numerous books, including "Iraq Confidential" (Nation Books, 2005) , "Target Iran" (Nation Books, 2006) and his latest, "Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement" (Nation Books, April 2007).
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