Thursday, December 02, 2004

Access of Evil - or - Everything I need to know about terrorism I learned in the 50s. - Part II

With apologies for the long delay, I will now deliver what I promised – sorta.

In Part I, I re-wrote the 1951 and 2001 State of the Union addresses by swapping the words Communism and Terrorism (and their derivatives) and changing or omitting historically specific details, while maintaining the integrity of the themes and ideas. It was my intent to show the continuities and dissimilarities of the ideas in each speech so that I could then discuss what that means for our present situation.

As astute reader will have noticed already that it was the 2002 SOTU that had the (in)famous phrase “Axis of Evil”. This is where I’d like to start. There are reasons why I chose the 2001 SOTU that are relevant to the present discussion. Chief among these is that the 2002 SOTU just did not contain much in the way of ideas. In fact, what you’ll see below is that what is there is largely redundant. By ideas, I have in mind concepts, a worldview. This is as opposed to policy initiatives, unspoken assumptions or subjective descriptions of events, places and people - of which there were plenty.

Here’s what we can salvage from that speech using the same treatment. (Please note, for interests of space, I have largely omitted the ellipses that would have shown deleted text.)

As we gather tonight… the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our Union has never been stronger.

Our cause is just, and it continues. We have seen the depth of our enemies' hatred. And the depth of their hatred is equaled by the madness of the destruction they design.

Thanks to the work of our law enforcement officials and our partners, hundreds of communists have been arrested. Yet, tens of thousands of communists are still at large. These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield, and we must pursue them wherever they are. Freedom is at risk. And America and our allies must not, and will not, allow it.

My hope is that all nations will heed our call, and eliminate the communist parasites who threaten their countries and our own. Many nations are acting forcefully.

But some governments will be timid in the face of tyranny. And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will.

And all nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation's security.

We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.

We can't stop short. If we stop now our sense of security would be false and temporary. History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom's fight.

Our first priority must always be the security of our nation, and that will be reflected in the budget I send to Congress. My budget supports three great goals for America: We will win this war; we'll protect our homeland; and we will revive our economy.

We are protected from attack only by vigorous action abroad, and increased vigilance at home.

During these last few months, I've been humbled and privileged to see the true character of this country in a time of testing. Our enemies believed America was weak and materialistic, that we would splinter in fear and selfishness. They were as wrong as they are evil.

We were reminded that we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history. We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do.

No people on Earth yearn to be oppressed, or aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police.

America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere.

No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture. But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance.

America will take the side of brave men and women who advocate these values around the world, because we have a greater objective than eliminating threats and containing resentment. We seek a just and peaceful world beyond the war on communism.

Rarely has the world faced a choice more clear or consequential.

Our enemies send other people's children on missions of suicide and murder. They embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. We stand for a different choice, made long ago, on the day of our founding. We affirm it again today. We choose freedom and the dignity of every life.

Steadfast in our purpose, we now press on. We have known freedom's price. We have shown freedom's power. And in this great conflict, my fellow Americans, we will see freedom's victory.

Thank you all. May God bless.

It has become rather common to assume that Bush and Co. do not have a worldview, simply an agenda. While making no assertions yet as to which comes first, they have both. In both the 2001 and 2002 SOTU’s, they telegraphed to anyone listening their intentions. In fact the motivation for my exercise in rewriting these speechs came from my reaction to the 2002 SOTU. I read it as a declaration of war. I saw in it an old Cold War mentality that found a new home in the War on Terror.

Actually doing the exercise, however, showed to me that my first reaction was too simple.

The Bush speeches were short on ideas, especially in comparison to Truman’s 1951 SOTU. But they were, I think more importantly, long on detail. Bush named names, literally. Both SOTU’s were replete with actual people’s names. But also there was a prevalence of references to specific places and events. The difference between Truman and Bush is that Bush tends to talk about each of these details in isolation – both from History and from each other. Truman attempted to situate the Cold War both in a historical context and a conceptual one. Bush frames his ideas and objectives as a reaction to the events of 9/11. This enables him to filter out contrary historical and contemporary events. The War on Terror that Bush describes in his speeches lives in its own universe.

But what he holds back from the Cold War is the idea that we face a murky enemy, capable of infiltrating America, danger abounds – and that the proper focus of our efforts to defend ourselves remains other nation-states. It is as if Bush and Co. do not realize that communism is a political and economic system which therefore lives in, or seeks to live in, nations; and terrorism is not. So they strike at Iraq and think/claim they are striking at terrorism. They destroy Fallujah, a place, in an effort to destroy an “insurgency”, a method.

Take this hangover from the 1950s and combine it with the historical shortsightedness, which asserts that history began on September 11th, 2001, and you get a potent mixture. The result is a McCarthy-esque worldview that only applies to a specific situation.

I vividly recall, prior to the Iraq invasion, the incredulity on the part of liberals at the lack of perspective inherent in the neo-conservative argument. What if we applied the rules they are making for themselves generally to the world? What if every nation got to decide on its own if and when another nation constituted a sufficient “threat” that a preemptive war was justified? Why are they not applying these rules to other threats, other tyrants? And so on.

This was met with equal incredulity on part of neo-conservatives (and their fellow cons). Don’t they understand that we were attacked? We were, by the way, attacked. And it must be said that this constituted another significant difference in the speeches. Especially in the 2001 SOTU, I had to deal with the repeated use of the word “attack”, for which there was no 1951 era equivalent. Communists did not “attack” us like the terrorists did. There was no 9/11 equivalent in 1951.

But there was in 1941. Here’s where the “axis of evil” line becomes relevant. It recalls the Axis in WWII. It isn’t an idea so much as a reference that is meant to connect the dots from Pearl Harbor to the Cold War to 9/11. We were attacked and – later – we were forced into a prolonged battle with a shadowy threat to our way of life and our values. This odd conflation of WWII and the Cold War allows Bush and Co. to borrow elements from each, as suits their purposes, in their response to terrorism, and discard the rest. That the threats facing the US and the free world are not analogous to either WWII or the Cold War becomes unimportant. The WWII/Cold War story provides a narrative framework within which they talk to us, and I suspect each other, about the War on Terror. They are prisoners of their own rhetoric.

The assertion, made by many, that the agenda of invading Iraq, for oil and spoils, precedes the justifications for the war and the general conduct of the War on Terror, I think misses the point. It assumes too much of depth of thought and planning on the part of Bush and Co. It is not that they are not capable of it. It is that it just does not seem to occur to them. I mean more than just the general lack of planning for the aftermath in Iraq. I mean a general orientation of intuiting policies and objectives in an undifferentiated mass. To us going to war for oil or for security or for liberation are three distinct things. And that distinction is critical. To them the liberation of the Iraqi people, the privatization of the Iraqi economy by large American and multinational firms and security of the American people are all part of a single entity. What matters is they sense these connections, their ideas feel coherent, their claims fit a story.

It’s a story that is at once American and juvenile. It is the tale of the cowboy and of Captain Avenger, of the entrepreneur and of the selfish child. Truman’s 1951 SOTU was an explicit call for a multinational and cooperative approach to containing the “threat” of communism. The framework of cooperation, of generally applied and generally agreed upon international law was posited as a prerequisite, not the antithesis, of American security. To alter his speech to read like it could have been from 2001, I had to change many references to the community of nations and the free world as the primary agents of security of freedom and instead posit the US the lone guard or the first among lesser allies. That movies and backyard playacting is the primary contact with war that most of the architects of the invasion of Iraq have had is not accidental nor incidental.

If I’m correct, then it’s only the unexpected costs and difficulties of reaching a satisfactory conclusion to their adventure in Iraq that has prevent Bush and Co. from moving on to the next project of liberation/imperialism. Sure, they’ve blown stuff up, and one might think that now that that’s done it is time for another game. I’m not so sure. Clearly they are already trying to quit this game. Afghanistan was boring. Iraq is too hard. It remains to be seen, and I have no great prescience here, if these experiences have soured them on these sorts of misadventures or simply primed them for another go at it in the hopes that it will be more fun the next time.

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