Monday, November 20, 2006
Bush left reality behind. Now we are all trapped
Sunday November 19, 2006
For Americans, Iraq has ceased to be a video game running along the edge of public consciousness. The midterm congressional elections demonstrate that the US public wants to get out of Iraq almost as much as the British, as does the attention suddenly given to the Baker-Hamilton Commission, which was actually set up months ago.
But how is exit to be accomplished? Clearly the White House does not know, nor does the US army. The Baker-Hamilton Commission is unlikely to know, as its members were chosen because they represent the higher reaches of the conventional wisdom.
Yet the impression the Bush administration now gives is that the whole matter has been put into the hands of Baker's group - which is ridiculous, especially as the President continues to declare that inviting Iran and Syria to help stabilise Iraq is unacceptable; he is against talking to them, and says he still expects 'victory'. If so, what is the purpose of the commission?
So this is the situation in which both the administration and most of the Democratic opposition find themselves. The existing policy is a failure, yet nothing can be changed because no one can imagine a valid alternative. American intentions and actions have, it is held, been correct, their goals irreproachable.
If anyone is to blame it is the Iraqis, who failed to seize the wonderful opportunity the United States offered them. Neocons are now saying that the Iraqis did not deserve our help. Some suggest they are an inferior breed.
I don't include Britain in this accusation because, whatever Tony Blair's mesmerised submission to the charms of George Bush, the British government, its people and forces have not been living in this condition of denied reality.
In America, it's as though Bush, his inner cabinet, and the neocons have been playing a video game, with fictional characters and victims, virtual death and torture. Now the disc has suddenly finished, and it's time to shut down the player.
This is not just a figure of speech. American policy has been running on images rather than evidence of real nations and people doing things for real human motives. It has been populated by abstractions: Global Terrorist Conspiracies, Rogue Nations, Fanatics Who Hate Our Freedoms, Generations of Terrorism and The Global Menace of Al-Qaeda.
The US, where actual people live, has been turned into an abstraction: the Sole Superpower, which everyone in the world knows is a Righteous Nation, the Mars (in the neocon Robert Kagan's formulation) defending the fragile Venus which is Europe, the Straussian (Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago philosopher) Realist unflinchingly battling in a Hobbesian universe to protect Kantian Europeans, with their illusions of global parliaments and peace, from nameless horrors.
We are the tranquil Elephant (as another American academic, Michael Mandelbaum, has proposed) which by its very presence guards the smaller beasts of the savanna from carnivorous predators.
This is what we exist to do. We are the leading nation, the most moral, born with the redemptive mission to create what the Puritan preacher Jonathan Winthrop called the 'City on the Hill', the democracy 'of the people and by the people' that originated the modern world with our repudiation of monarchy and inherited privilege, establishing the greatest of republics, saving the Four Freedoms for the world by winning (alone!) both First and Second World Wars, then the Cold War, and now confronting the ultimate test of the 'long war' against Evil itself, incarnate as Terror.
Today this is the language of government, journalism, politics and foreign policy in the US, spoken in the policy discussions at Washington think-tanks and on the editorial pages of newspapers.
Is this Orwellian? Or is it just demagogy, politicians' lies, White House spin, journalistic laziness, formulations conceived to sell books? Or could it be cynical manipulation by apprentice dictators, energy industry and weapons-maker magnates, closet fascists?
It is not Orwellian in that the neocon ideologues, George Bush and Tony Blair, certainly believe all this. They are not being manipulated.
It is not Orwellian because the creators of this cartoon-like conceptual world have themselves become actors in the virtual universe their ideas and actions have made. They have left reality behind - or they simply ignore it, as they did in invading Iraq.
We have passed from 1984 to 2006, into a post-Orwellian condition in which Big Brother has become a part of his creation. He is now imposing it on others by acting as though it were real, at whatever expense to others.
This is our problem today. In some measure we have all been drawn into this virtual world. How do we leave?
· William Pfaff is a senior American commentator on international affairs and American foreign policy. All rights reserved.