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Political Psychosis & Election 2004

By Nat Parry
February 9, 2004

Election 2004 is shaping up not only as a choice of presidential candidates but a test of whether reality still matters to the American people, whether a new paradigm of lies and distortions that has taken hold since Election 2000 will be extended indefinitely.

In many ways, Bush’s State of the Union speech on Jan. 20 can be viewed as a marker for how far the nation has traveled down this road of deceit and how commonplace the deceptions have become. Sometimes the deceit is brazen; other times subtle.

Bush, for instance, boasted in his speech that his administration had protected the U.S. mainland from terrorist attack during the 28 months since Sept. 11, 2001 – “over two years without an attack on U.S. soil.” Bush’s boast might have sounded a lot shakier if his administration had not hidden the fact that a terrorist had mailed the poison ricin to the White House in November 2003, two months before the speech.

Only after another batch of the poison was intercepted in a Capitol Hill mailroom in early February did the administration acknowledge the earlier White House attack, a delay that may have allowed Bush to safely make his boast although some law enforcement officials say the secrecy put lives at risk.

Other times in this new paradigm, words are used to confuse reason. So, Bush, who has charted a future course of near-endless war, is praised for his optimistic “forward strategy,” while people who criticize the national leader are condemned for practicing “political hate speech.”

New Sales Pitch

In much the same way, “democracy” has become the new sales pitch for the Iraqi occupation now that last year’s fearsome warnings of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have imploded. Vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and the prospects of “mushroom clouds” have shrunk into – as Bush put it in his State of the Union address – “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.”

But as a substitute for those missing WMD stockpiles, the American people are now assured that “democracy is taking hold” in Iraq. The only trouble is from some “Saddam supporters” and “foreign terrorists” who are trying to thwart democracy by taking violent action against the occupation. That simplistic depiction, however, is no more truthful than were Bush’s WMD claims a year ago.

The reality is that almost 10 months since U.S. forces seized Baghdad, Iraqis live under a harsh occupation in which U.S. troops often use deadly force against civilian targets. Iraqis also must live their lives dodging anti-U.S. bombings that kill indiscriminately.

Democracy, which is classically defined as “government by the people,” is non-existent. Local leaders are chosen by U.S. authorities, and the U.S.-proposed caucuses for picking national leaders by the end of June are designed to achieve similar controlled results, not grant any meaningful autonomy to the Iraqi people.

The U.S. caucus plan calls for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to appoint the members of 18 regional organizing committees. The committees would then select delegates to form caucuses. These delegates would, in turn, select representatives to a transitional national assembly, which then would pick Iraq’s new government.

Rather than representing the will of the people, however, the caucuses most resemble a shell game in which the movement of the various caucus components hides the fact that the occupation authorities, by picking the initial organizing committees, ultimately calls the shots. This reality is obvious to Iraqis, though rarely noted in the U.S. news media, which parrots the Bush administration’s language about the caucuses as a crucial step toward Iraqi “democracy.”

False Sovereignty

To many Iraqis, the convoluted caucus system simply means that the occupation authorities want to ensure that the new Iraqi government is acceptable to Washington. Most importantly, whatever “sovereignty” is handed over to these Iraqi “leaders” it certainly won’t include the right to order U.S. troops to leave Iraq or to place any meaningful constraints on the occupation.

In defense of the caucus system, the Bush administration has argued that popular elections, without a formal census and fully-vetted voting lists, might fall short of an optimum democratic result, a theme that the U.S. news media also has repeated over and over again. But what is virtually never mentioned in the U.S. press is that the caucus system is guaranteed to produce an undemocratic result. That is one of the reasons it has been opposed by mass demonstrations in the Iraqi streets and by prominent leaders, such as the Shiites’ Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

For the foreseeable future, the U.S.-brokered Iraqi “democracy” also isn’t likely to grant such basic democratic freedoms as freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, or freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

Nor is it likely that U.S.-demanded security conditions as a prerequisite for elections can be achieved any time soon. If, as U.S. officials claim, a voting census could not be done in the first months of the U.S. occupation – when the Iraqi resistance was scattered and ineffective – why will those prospects get any brighter now that the insurgency has spread and is far more lethal?

The irony is that whatever signs of real democracy exist in Iraq are manifested in a rising popular movement against the U.S. occupation. Mass demonstrations have demanded direct elections, rather than the U.S.-planned caucuses.

One U.S. nightmare has been that a religious figure like Sistani emerges as the popularly chosen national leader. Not only might a popularly elected leader order the U.S. forces out but a true Iraqi nationalist might deny U.S. corporations unfettered access to Iraq’s resources.

Darkening Reality

While Bush’s State of the Union touted U.S. progress in Iraq, the darkening strategic reality is that the Bush administration may have set in motion forces that could lead to a geopolitical crisis for U.S. interests, one that U.S. government policy has sought to avert  for a quarter century.

Over that period, Washington has maneuvered to block the spread of Islamic fundamentalism from Iran to Iraq, where it could threaten the stability of the Persian Gulf oil states, including Saudi Arabia. That was the major reason for Washington’s real-politik backing of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime in the 1980s. Iraq was seen as the chief bulwark against Iran’s Islamic fundamentalism.

Indeed, it was this policy of U.S. containment of anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism and the protection of Saudi Arabia that was a driving motive behind Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Hussein’s secular government was one of the obstacles to bin Laden’s vision of an Islamic region purged of Western influence, as was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.

Ironically, the Bush administration has advanced both of bin Laden’s goals by eliminating Hussein’s government and withdrawing U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia.

Now, the Bush administration finds itself in the tricky position of having to resist – rather than promote – the tide of democracy in Iraq. The reason is that popular elections could lead to a Shiite-dominated Islamic state that might then ally itself with Iran, putting on the spot the corrupt pro-U.S. monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the other oil states. The Shiites, who were persecuted under Hussein’s secular state, make up 60 percent of the Iraqi population and are the likeliest beneficiaries of a truly democratic election.

These complex Middle East realities help explain why national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and other members of George H.W. Bush’s administration opposed George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. Unlike the neo-conservative ideologues of this administration, the older pragmatists saw the dangers that the younger Bush was setting in motion by exaggerating the threat from Hussein’s weapons and falsely linking him to the Sept. 11 attacks.

When Iraqi population didn’t welcome the invading U.S. troops with rose petals last year and the WMD stockpiles didn’t materialize, it quickly became clear to many pragmatists that the younger Bush had marched the United States into a geopolitical trap. The end result would either be a costly and bloody occupation or a strategic victory for bin Laden or possibly both.

Civil War Fears

Complicating the picture even more, CIA analysts are now warning about the rising prospects for civil war in Iraq.

Ethnic violence is spreading in the north, where Iraq’s Kurdish minority fears renewed persecution and loss of autonomy under a new Iraqi government. Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs have clashed in the city of Kirkuk, with Kurdish gunfire killing two demonstrators in a march by Arabs and Turkmens on Dec. 31. Within a week, unknown gunmen had killed three Kurds. Kurdish political parties now want to expel 270,000 Iraqi Arabs from Tamim province as part of a plan to annex the region for a future autonomous zone. [Washington Post, Jan. 23, 2004]

In central Iraq, Sunni Muslims, who enjoyed privileges under Hussein, also worry about what the future holds. They are afraid that Hussein’s repression of the Shiites could now lead to Shiite retaliation against the Sunnis, who have taken the lead in resisting the U.S. occupation.

Beyond the worsening political chaos, the war against the U.S. occupation shows no signs of abating, despite the Bush administration’s hopeful predictions that Saddam Hussein’s capture was the beginning of the end for the resistance. American soldiers continue to die on a daily basis as do Iraqis accused of collaborating with the occupation. Though many Iraqis work with the occupation authorities out of economic necessity, they are still marked for assassination.

Despite Bush’s positive progress report in the State of the Union speech, it’s increasingly difficult to envision how Bush’s strategy of using Iraq as a model for pro-U.S. governments throughout the Middle East is supposed to work.

To many early critics of the U.S. invasion, the predictability of the emerging disaster was one reason they urged caution. Few doubted that the U.S. military could crush Iraq’s outgunned army, but what was less clear was how Iraq’s 25 million people would react once tens of thousands of Americans were occupying the country.

Instead of dealing with these realities, however, the Bush administration and its allies chose to bully the critics with charges of disloyalty, while frightening the American people with dire warnings about Iraq’s WMD being shared with Islamic terrorists.

As the major U.S. news outlets scrambled to wrap themselves in the American flag and “prove their patriotism,” Bush’s WMD claims underwent little serious scrutiny and war fever soon overwhelmed the remaining voices of caution. Americans who didn’t go along were sneered at as “dupes” and “traitors,” while longtime U.S. allies urging restraint were mocked as the “axis of weasels” and saw their products boycotted by Americans.

While not all  the dire predictions that critics made about the consequences of a U.S. invasion – such as the prospect of 500,000 civilian casualties spelled out in an internal UN report – have come to pass, other forecasts have played out more or less as predicted.

The ethnic and religious power struggle now unfolding was predicted. So was the guerilla insurgency. Anti-war organizations, in particular, warned that many Iraqis would see the U.S. presence as an occupation, not a liberation. The Iraqi people have a long, proud history of resisting colonial occupation, such as their victory over the British Empire in 1920.

There were also concerns about what the invasion would mean for regional and global security. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who served as a Middle East peace envoy for Bush, warned in October 2002 that by invading Iraq, “we are about to do something that will ignite a fuse in this region that we will rue the day we ever started.”

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the first Bush administration, said a strike on Iraq “could unleash an Armageddon in the Middle East.” Former South African President Nelson Mandela warned that the U.S. was “introducing chaos into international affairs.” But George W. Bush brushed these warnings aside.

Changed Minds

Ironically, many of those who pounded the drums of war in 2003 were among the skeptics about marching to Baghdad at the end of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognized the pitfalls of ousting Saddam Hussein and trying to transform Iraq. “There is this sort of romantic notion that if Saddam Hussein got hit by a bus tomorrow, some Jeffersonian democrat is waiting in the wings to hold popular elections,” Powell said in 1992. “You’re going to get – guess what – probably another Saddam Hussein.”

Powell said the American people would be “outraged if we had gone on to Baghdad and we found ourselves in Baghdad with American soldiers patrolling the streets two years later still looking for Jefferson.”

In 1998, George H.W. Bush and Scowcroft collaborated on an article published in Time magazine entitled “Why We Didn’t Remove Saddam” in 1991.

“Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in ‘mission creep,’ and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs,” Bush and Scowcroft wrote. “We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger and other allies pulling out as well. Under those circumstances, furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-cold war world.”

The elder Bush and Scowcroft also recognized the damage a march to Baghdad would have done to the larger goal of international cooperation. They wrote: “Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the UN's mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different – and perhaps barren – outcome.”

Even influential neo-conservatives, who pressed for the 2003 invasion, offered different advice in the early 1990s.

Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, William Kristol and Robert Kagan – all of whom backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – supported the first Bush administration’s caution in 1991. Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank devoted to “promoting American interests in the Middle East,” warned in 1991 that, “getting rid of Saddam increases the prospects of Iraqi civil war, Iranian and Syrian expansionism, Kurdish irredentism and Turkish instability.” Pipes added, “Do we really want to open this can of worms?”

A decade later, following the line of the rest of the neo-conservative movement, Pipes dismissed similar warnings as alarmist. “The risks are overrated,” he said. “It's in our interests that they modernize and it's in our interests to help them modernize and I think we know how.” He cited past U.S. nation-building in Germany and Japan after World War II.

International Law a la Carte

Without explicitly admitting failure, some of the war hawks now implicitly concede that the Iraq mission is not going too well.

The Bush administration had ridiculed the United Nations as an irrelevant “debating society” and a “chatterbox on the Hudson.” Now, Bush is going hat in hand to the world body to get its help in Iraq. Bush is asking the UN to decide how political power should be handed over to the Iraqis. Still, Bush continues to assert that the U.S. has a unilateral right to take whatever action it sees fit, with or without international support.

In his State of the Union address, Bush said he would never seek a “permission slip” when protecting U.S. security. So Bush was still saying the U.S. doesn’t need UN approval before invading countries.

Bush also continued to insist that the invasion of Iraq was justified by his desire to enforce UN resolutions, even though the UN had refused to endorse the invasion. “Had we failed to act,” Bush said, “Security Council resolutions on Iraq would have been revealed as empty threats, weakening the United Nations and encouraging defiance by dictators around the world.”

Yet, by acting outside the UN Charter and invading a member state that had not attacked or threatened the U.S., Bush arguably had weakened UN authority more than any other world leader during the UN’s half century of existence.

Furthermore, it’s now apparent that Iraq wasn’t defying the UN over weapons of mass destruction, though Bush continues to say so.

Twice publicly, Bush has falsely asserted that the invasion was justified because Hussein had refused to let weapons inspectors return to Iraq, when the reality is that Hussein not only let the inspectors in but gave them free rein to search the country for banned weapons.

In July 2003, Bush said, “we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region.” [For details, see the White House Web site.]

Bush repeated this false claim on Jan. 27, when he said, “I hoped the international community would take care of him. I was hoping the United Nations would enforce its resolutions, one of many. And then we went to the United Nations, of course, and got an overwhelming resolution -- 1441 -- unanimous resolution, that said to Saddam, you must disclose and destroy your weapons programs, which obviously meant the world felt he had such programs. He chose defiance. It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in.”

Bush’s delusions also are not his alone. On Jan. 25, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tried to defend the WMD rationale for the invasion by positing the question, “If in fact [Saddam] didn't have them, why on earth didn't he let the U.N. inspectors in and avoid the war?”

WMD Hunt

In reality, Hussein did let the inspectors in as a way to avoid war. He also let them examine any sites they wished. His reasoning for cooperation again seems obvious: he knew they weren’t going to find anything. Once allowed into Iraq, the inspectors never complained about a lack of access to sites, including many where U.S. intelligence believed weapons might be stored.

Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix did voice concerns about Iraq's accounting for past weapons, but he stressed that those shortcomings didn’t mean the weapons existed. Blix sought more time for UN inspectors to complete their work, but Bush cut the search short by pressing ahead with his invasion.

In his State of the Union address and other recent comments, Bush has sought to rewrite the history. Though it’s now clear that Iraq had largely disarmed, Bush said that “12 years of diplomacy” hadn’t succeeded in eliminating the country’s alleged WMD stockpiles. However, David Kay, the longtime Iraq war hawk who resigned his position as the head of the Iraq Survey Group on Jan. 23, said “I don’t think they existed.”

“What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last [1991] Gulf War, and I don't think there was a large-scale production program in the '90s,” Kay said. He also reported that President Bill Clinton’s 1998 bombing campaign against Iraq had destroyed much of the remaining infrastructure in Iraq's chemical weapons programs.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told the UN in February 2003 that there was no doubt that Iraq was hiding vast WMD stockpiles, also has conceded that the accuracy of his presentation is now in doubt. “The answer to that question is, we don't know yet,” Powell told reporters.

Free Pass

A year ago, when the Bush administration’s certainty about WMD deserved some questioning, few in the U.S. news media and the political establishment were willing to do much asking.

Bush officials generally got a free pass when making unsubstantiated claims about “reconstituted” nuclear programs and the “grave and gathering danger” that Iraq supposedly presented to U.S. security. The brave few who questioned the assertions were ridiculed and, in some cases, silenced.

MSNBC, for instance, canceled Phil Donahue’s program, which dared to raise some questions about the justification for war. The removal of Donahue and the elimination of other war skeptics was widely interpreted as a move to better position the network to compete with Fox News.

On the U.S. all-news cable networks, Hussein’s possession of WMD was taken as a certainty. The rare skeptic who was let on faced incredulous or hostile questions from anchors.

Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine and self-identified “card-carrying Republican,”  was one those few who questioned the administration’s WMD claims. Ritter, who had performed detailed inspections of Iraqi weapons programs, maintained that no weapons of mass destruction existed and that Iraq didn’t have the capability to produce them.

"The Bush administration has provided the American public with little more than rhetorically laced speculation," Ritter said in July 2002. "There has been nothing in the way of substantive fact presented that makes the case that Iraq possesses these weapons or has links to international terror, that Iraq poses a threat to the United States of America worthy of war."

Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Dennis Halliday also called into question many of the administration’s claims, and particularly the idea that Iraq posed a threat to the United States or Iraq’s neighbors. “The Europeans have asked for some kind of concrete evidence showing that he [Hussein] is producing WMDs, but no one can produce any evidence,” Halliday said in March 2002. He said the weapons inspections issue was “really just a ruse” and that the Bush administration’s goal was always regime change.

Contradictions

U.S. intelligence agencies also were contradicting the administration’s certainty about WMD, finding the data far from conclusive.

In September 2002, for instance, Bush went to the UN to begin his public campaign to win international support for invading Iraq. “Iraq has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons, and is rebuilding the facilities used to make more of those weapons,” Bush said. Later that month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified to the House Armed Services Committee that Hussein’s regime “has amassed large clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons, including VX and sarin and mustard gas.”

But in September 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency determined that “There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has – or will – establish its chemical warfare production facilities.”

Even when the UN weapons inspectors were on the ground in Iraq, scouring the country for illicit weapons and coming up empty-handed, few were willing to openly ponder the possibility that Iraq’s government was telling the truth, and that it was the Bush administration that was lying.

After Iraq produced an 11,800 page dossier in December 2002, documenting its side of the WMD dispute, the U.S. edited out 8,000 pages before passing it on to other Security Council members. The Bush administration then cited Iraqi “omissions” as evidence of “material breach” of Security Council resolution 1441. The U.S. never bothered to present its evidence of Iraqi omissions, but simply maintained that U.S. intelligence knew of Iraqi activities that were not included in the dossier.

During the UN inspections, the Bush administration said it knew about specific Iraqi stockpiles and precisely where they were. But as chief inspector Blix later said, none of the pre-war intelligence from the United Kingdom and the United States helped locate any secret Iraqi weapons. The Bush administration’s Orwellian spin was that the failure of the inspectors to find evidence of WMD was further proof that Iraq was hiding something.

Congress wasn’t much better than the U.S. news media. In July 2002, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then headed by Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware, opened one-sided hearings on the threat Iraq allegedly posed to the United States and the need to take pre-emptive action against the country. The witness list read like a who’s who of Iraqi exiles, U.S. military figures and think tank intellectuals, virtually all of them supporting the case against Iraq.

Typical was the testimony of Khidir Hamza, a former Iraqi nuclear engineer, who claimed that Iraq possessed more than 10 tons of uranium and one ton of slightly enriched uranium, and could have enough weapons-grade uranium to produce three nuclear weapons within three years.

Nothing Iraq could do, even submitting to intrusive UN inspections, would be enough to counter such claims. On March 20, 2003, the United States led an invasion of Iraq in violation of international law and against the wishes of scores of world leaders.

Now, with thousands of Iraqis dead, more than 500 U.S. soldiers killed, Iraq’s infrastructure decimated, national treasures looted, the country on the verge of civil war, Bush’s chief weapons inspector resigning and the hunt for WMDs all but called off, Bush says the war was justified on “humanitarian” grounds. Bush cites Saddam Hussein’s past crimes and his capture as reason enough for war.

Again, however, a few voices have been raised to dispute this latest war rationale. Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading human rights groups, issued a report arguing that historical crimes cannot justify an invasion, which involves more death and destruction. “Despite the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the invasion of Iraq cannot be justified as a humanitarian intervention,” Human Rights Watch said.

The organization has in the past advocated humanitarian intervention, but only to stop ongoing genocides in places such as Rwanda and Bosnia, not to remove a ruler when a human rights catastrophe was not occurring.

‘Dangerous Fantasies’

The Bush administration’s recurring separation from reality has led some to wonder if it suffers from a kind of “psychosis.” Hans von Sponeck, former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, pondered this possibility while commenting about Bush’s State of the Union speech during an interview on the radio program “Democracy Now.”

“My immediate reaction is that there is truly a frightening disconnect between the rhetoric of President Bush and the reality, as it exists, as we see it, as you know it, as we know it in Europe, as the Iraqis know it, the reality outside the White House,” von Sponeck said. “I would say that President Bush's assessment of that reality is really deeply, deeply flawed. One is presented with facts which really are fantasies, very, very dangerous fantasies. One wonders whether there is an element of psychosis here in the White House.”

Von Sponeck said Bush’s failure to deal with the real world extends to his understanding of the present political situation in Iraq and what is signified when 100,000 people march through the streets of Baghdad demanding “free elections, not forced selections.” Also, von Sponeck said Bush is lacking realism when he insists that the Iraqi insurgency consists of “only a few remnants of a thug called Saddam Hussein, and foreign terrorists.” To the contrary, von Sponeck said, “the anger is widespread. And it's getting wider and wider every day.”

Very few members of the U.S. political or media establishments seem willing to draw the obvious conclusion: that the Bush administration either lied repeatedly to justify the invasion of Iraq or that top officials of the U.S. government are living in a fantasy world.

Both options pose hard questions for the press, the politicians and the American people -- and it’s not clear which option is more frightening.

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