Rambo and the Mean Girl
The Republican Party convention in Minneapolis gave us two American film narratives in an attempt to shift the national political debate away from issues and accountability to personalities and fluffy ideals.
Former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan let the strategy slip in an unguarded open mike moment. Asked if Sarah Palin is the most qualified woman Republican the McCain camp could have found, Noonan exploded: "The most qualified? No! I think they went for this -- excuse me-- political bullshit about narratives --"
McCain's convention speech positioned him as John Rambo. The popularity of the Rambo: First Blood 2, historian Melani McAlister argued in her Epic Encounters, derived from the way it allowed its hero, a betrayed veteran, to fight the Vietnam War all over again and to win this time. McAlister suggests that the popularity in the United States of Israeli macho operations such as Entebbe derived from this same Rambo complex, a desire to compensate for the humiliating defeat of the United States by the Vietnamese and their Chinese and Russian allies.
McCain dwelled at length on his years as a prisoner of the Vietnamese and even adverted briefly to having been broken by torture. The rage and abasement of that moment when he signed a confession of war crimes and denounced the United States
McCain has spoken of his breaking before, as in an October 12, 1997 60 Minutes interview that his critics sometimes misquote:
'Sen. McCAIN: I m--made serious, serious mistakes and did things wrong when I was in prison, OK?
WALLACE: What did you do wrong in prison?
Sen. McCAIN: I wrote a confession. I was guilty of war crimes against the Vietnamese people. I intentionally bombed women and children.
WALLACE: And you did it because you were being tortured...
Sen. McCAIN: I...
WALLACE: ...and you'd reached the end of the line.
Sen. McCAIN: Yes. But I should have gone further. I should have--I--I never believed that I would--that I would break, and I did.'
The film Rambo III had the former Green Beret go off to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Ronald Reagan and Saudi King Fahd's joint jihad against the Soviet Union was a kind of real-life Ramboism, a guerrilla war paid for with $5 bn from the US and Saudi matching funds, and funneled through the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. McCain also supported the raising of a private army of tens of thousands of Muslim jihadis to target Soviet troops and Afghan communists:
' Consider this AP article from 1985:
' Rep. Tom Loeffler, R-Tex., presented the "Freedom Fighter of the Year" award to Afghan resistance leader Wali Khan on behalf of the U.S. Council for World Freedom on Oct. 3.
Loeffler called on Congress and the American people to "broaden support" for freedom fighters in Afghanistan, reminding listeners of America's own fight for freedom.
Congress has agreed to give $15 million in covert assistance to the Afghan cause, the first time the legislators have "stepped forward" with aid since the beginning of the conflict, according to Loeffler. . .
Accepting the award on behalf of Khan was Pir Syed Ahmed Gailani, head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, for which Khan commands 20,000 resistance fighters.
Other congressmen who joined Loeffler included Rep. Eldon Rudd and Rep. John McCain, both Arizona Republicans. '
It was out of the Reagan jihad about which McCain was so enthusiastic that al-Qaeda emerged.
The Iraq War is another Rambo moment for McCain, another opportunity to redeem himself and his country from the failure of Vietnam. McCain's insistence on a "victory" in Iraq that he will not define is more the compulsive acting out of an internal script than it is military strategy or tactics. McCain's victory narrative about Iraq requires that he ignore what I wrote about earlier this week:
' AP reports that Baghdad is still very dangerous despite lowered death tolls from political violence:' Small scale bombings and shootings persist in the capital - each a reminder that the war is not over and that Baghdad remains a place where no trip is routine and residents are still guided by precautions. Most won't drive at night. Many try to avoid heavily clogged streets, remembering that suicide bombers and other attackers intent on killing large numbers of civilians favor traffic jams or congested areas . . . [in August] at least 360 civilians were killed and more than 470 wounded in violence throughout the country, according to an Associated Press count. 'That would be 4,320 civilians killed in political violence every year if the level stayed that low. (I take it this number excludes killed 'insurgents' and Iraqi security forces, so that actual number of war-related deaths would be much higher annually.)
It is estimated that 75,000 persons have died in the civil war in Sri Lanka since 1982, or 2800 a year.
Iraq is higher, just with regard to civilian casualties.
The Kashmir conflict is estimated to have killed 70,000 persons since 1988, or about 3500 a year.
Iraq is higher.
In the Lebanon Civil War of 1975-1990, it is estimated that at least 100,000 persons were killed, 75,000 civilians and 25,000 military.
If we extrapolated out Iraq's August death rate for civilians over 15 years, that would be 64,000 or not far from the toll in Lebanon's war.
Let me repeat: The level of violence at this moment in Iraq is similar to what prevailed on average during one of the 20th century's worst ethnic civil wars! It is still higher than the casualty rates in Sri Lanka and Kashmir, two of the worst ongoing conflicts in the world.
Only in an Orwellian society could our press declare the relative decline in monthly death tolls in Iraq to constitute "calm" in an absolute sense.
And that is if the August levels are taken as the baseline and if the numbers continue to be that low. If we averaged deaths during the previous 12 months, the baseline would be much higher.
The current Iraq Civil War is one of the world's most deadly continuing conflicts, worse than Sri Lanka and Kashmir and on a par with the 15-year long Lebanon Civil War!'
A crucial element in the fall of violence from the catastrophic levels of summer,2006, was the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad of its Sunnis. I wrote in mid-July:
"As best I can piece it together, what actually seems to have happened was that the escalation troops began by disarming the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad. Once these Sunnis were left helpless, the Shiite militias came in at night and ethnically cleansed them. Shaab district near Adhamiya had been a mixed neighborhood. It ended up with almost no Sunnis. Baghdad in the course of 2007 went from 65% Shiite to at least 75% Shiite and maybe more. My thesis would be that the US inadvertently allowed the chasing of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs out of Baghdad (and many of them had to go all the way to Syria for refuge). Rates of violence declined once the ethnic cleansing was far advanced, just because there were fewer mixed neighborhoods. Newsrack was among the first to make this argument, though I was tracking the ethnic cleansing at my blog throughout 2007. See also Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post on this issue.". . .
As Think Progress pointed out,the Washington Post illustrated Karen DeYoung's important article with a clear ethnic map showing the ethnic cleansing:
The point is not that there are no Sunni enclaves left in Baghdad, only that there are many fewer such enclaves, and that many formerly mixed neighborhoods are now entirely Shiite. In fact, this ethnic cleansing is among the major reason that the some 4 million Iraqis displaced internally and externally by Bush's war refuse to return. They have nothing to return to. The mixed or Sunni neighborhoods from which the Sunnis among them escaped no longer exist. A fourth of the Iraqi refugees in Jordan have, moreover, had a child kidnapped. Even if the child was returned, the family is not going to risk returning.
In my earlier post, I also quoted this:
"As Think Progress quoted CNN correspondent Michael Ware:
' The sectarian cleansing of Baghdad has been - albeit tragic - one of the key elements to the drop in sectarian violence in the capital. [...] It's a very simple concept: Baghdad has been divided; segregated into Sunni and Shia enclaves. The days of mixed neighborhoods are gone. [...] If anyone is telling you that the cleansing of Baghdad has not contributed to the fall in violence, then they either simply do not understand Baghdad or they are lying to you.'
McCain and ideologues such as Fred Kagan must deny or ignore the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad and other areas, and ignore the millions of Iraqis now living abroad or in other provinces, many of them in dire straits, because their Rambo complex forces them to insist that an extra 30,000 US troops, inserted for 16 months, made all the difference.
McCain's Rambo foreign policy sets him on a course of confrontation with Russia, which he has not forgiven for its aid to Vietnam in the old days, and with Shiite Iran, which his party's propaganda continues to confuse with Sunni radicalism of al-Qaeda.
One of those slick films shown at the convention on Thursday commemorating the victims of 9/11 actually asserted that "it began in 1979" with the taking of US embassy personnel hostage in Tehran. The film then skipped over to the Sunni radicals. I can't understand what the Iranian hostage crisis has to do with 9/11. This conflating of all Muslim movements, in which McCain frequently engages, is just another Big Lie. Iranians were upset by 9/11 and sympathetic to the US, holding candlelight vigils. President Khatami spoke heartwarmingly against the terrorism that had struck the US, explaining that Iran had also suffered grievously from terrorism.
Moreover, Gary Sick gave circumstantial evidence that Reagan dealt with the Iranians behind the scenes to forestall a hostage release that would reelect Jimmy Carter. And Reagan's extensive dealings with the regime in Tehran, to the point of stealing weaponry from the Pentagon warehouses and selling it to Ayatollah Khomeini, are well known. Now for Reagan's heirs to blame 9/11 of their old partner in crime, Iran, is rich (not to mention being pathological in its dishonesty).
The Iranian hostage crisis came only 4 years after the US embassy in Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City) was overrun and its personnel forced to helicopter out precariously. In some ways, the affront of Iran is intertwined with the humiliationof Vietnam. Perhaps this twinning of the two in his mind is what led McCain to sing "Bomb,bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of an old Beach Boys song.
McCain keeps saying that he knows war and hates it and wants to avoid it. But no one can name a war in recent memory that he did not wholeheartedly promote. He was an enthusiastic cheerleader for Vietnam, Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Gulf War, and the 2003 Iraq War. His record strongly indicates that if elected he will plunge the US into yet more violent conflict, in a never-ceasing quest to wipe out that stain on his character, of having been broken in Vietnam, and that blemish on US nationalism, of defeat.
McCain cannot conceive of ordinary people being important, or of the simple proposition that the US simply could not subdue a left-nationalist mass movement in a densely populated Asian country. It was physically impossible.
In the same way, the US cannot completely dominate 27 million Iraqi Muslims. They won't put up with US bases in their country even for 5 years, much less the half-century that McCain fondly envisages. [See Tomdispatch.com on the American fixation on foreign bases]. Being Rambo is about never having to take account of the wishes of third world publics.
As for Sarah Palin, her spiteful and snarky dismissal of Barack Obama and community organizers recalls the Tina Fey film "Mean Girls." Palin, the former beauty queen who posed in a red, white and blue bikini with a gun, is very like the leader of the Plastics clique in "Mean Girls," the Rachel McAdams character, Regina George. Her clique sets the standard for style at school, establishing itself at the top of the social hierarchy by its regimented exclusiveness. Those who are in any way different are put down by the Plastics, who crow about their superiority just as Palin exults in her (largely non-existent) "executive experience." Although the surface narrative of Sarah Palin is her everywoman small town ordinariness, the subtext is that she is special, as capable of shooting a tiger as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and as at the same time a veritable Miss World. The McCain camp is hoping that the American common person will be seduced into Palin's Plastic clique just as the Lindsay Lohan character was in the film. (Lohan's character was initially an outsider, having returned from Africa . . .)
The classic Mean Girl tactics are snark, put-downs and spreading around false rumors about people you don't like. When Palin falsely charged that Obama planned to raise taxes on middle class people, or blamed Senate majority leader Harry Reid for inaction even though it was the Republican plurality in the Senate that rejected most of his initiatives, she is playing classic Regina, declaring who is in the Plastic clique and who is outside. Even the boasting about being a soccer mom is a claim on status (poor women are not soccer moms, and how many minority women are?)
Palin's put-down of Obama that he lacks executive experience (unlike her own superior Mean Girl self) makes it sound as though she had run something bigger than he had. But Obama has been head of a political campaign with hundreds of thousands of workers and volunteers. Doesn't a campaign head organize people and give orders and plan strategy and tactics, i.e., act in an executive capacity? Isn't that what Barack Obama has been doing for two years and hasn't he proven that he is an excellent executive in this endeavor? Only 114,000 or so people voted to make Palin governor in 2006. In contrast, Obama's executive performance as head of his presidential campaign garnered him 18 million votes.
Rambo and the Mean Girl are narratives intended as what magicians call misdirection.
The Republican Party has given us a failed war in Iraq. None of the stated Bush administration goals in invading Iraq were ever actually accomplished. No threat from Iraq existed, it was completely unrelated to 9/11,had no serious weaponry or military capability, and is not 'liberated' but rather occupied. The government installed under US auspices is best friends with the ayatollahs in Iran and may actually be taking orders from them on some issues.
McCain wholeheartedly supported that war from before it was launched. Yet McRambo is posing as a challenger of the war, and is rebranding this burned-out hulk of a country that he helped to destroy as a "victory."
The Republican Party gave us a long list of massive scandals, in which the American public was actively stolen from and defrauded, not to mention disenfranchised. That was the point of Jack Abramoff and his pyramid scheme intended to create a permanent Republican majority, so that the hogs at the trough could be propped up there and remain indefinitely a drain on your pocketbook. That was the point of Tom Delay's scam, and the many cases of embezzlement and sheer criminality by Republican lawmakers.
Rambo and the Mean Girl will tell you that they are the squeaky clean Republicans, not like all those other Republicans, and we should focus on them, not on all the crooks.
The Republican Party has massively grown the size of the federal government, including especially of the Pentagon, but Rambo and the Mean Girl are all of a sudden promising to fire every other government employee.
The Republican Party oversaw the mortgage crisis. But won't admit it, and neither will these two.
You want a narrative, about a war hero tortured by the confession he signed, or about a feisty soccer mom who cleaned out the Augean stables of Seward's Ice Box, then you have got it.
You want real policy positions and a rationale for them that goes beyond "I will make my friends rich," then you won't find that in the convention in Minnesota.
© 2008 Juan Cole