When a Great Power Goes Mad
With the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War and the grim milestone of 4,000 U.S. dead, the nation has been awash with news retrospectives on the war and speeches by politicians, mostly offering sanitized versions of what's transpired.
With a few exceptions, these media/political reflections have had the feel of self-rationalizations, more than self-criticisms. They’ve conveyed a sense that the U.S. system is doing just fine, thank you, although a few mistakes were made.
So, you have President George W. Bush, the chief author of this catastrophic war, declaring that “normalcy is returning back to Iraq” even as fighting rages across much of the country and rockets rain down on the highly fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
Bush’s comment invited comparisons to the acronym coined by U.S. Army soldiers during World War II: SNAFU for “situation normal, all fucked up.”
In the news media, there were specials, including a much-touted PBS Frontline two-parter on “Bush’s War” which followed the mainstream line of mostly accepting the Bush administration’s good intentions while blaming the disaster on policy execution – a lack of planning, bureaucratic rivalries, rash decisions and wishful thinking.
The chief interviews for the program were with former Bush administration officials and with journalists – such as Michael Gordon and John Burns of the New York Times whose influential reporting helped set the stage for the war – and with Bob Woodward, whose Bush at War was a generally flattering account of Bush’s decision-making.
Remaining outside the frame of mainstream U.S. debate was any serious examination of the war’s fundamental illegality.
During the post-World War II trials at Nuremberg, the United States led the world in decrying aggressive war as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Yet, Frontline and other mainstream U.S. news outlets shy away from this central fact of the Iraq War: by invading Iraq without the approval of the U.N. Security Council and under false pretenses, the Bush administration released upon the Iraqi people “the accumulated evil of the whole” – and committed the “supreme” war crime.
An obvious reason why the mainstream U.S. press can’t handle this truth is that to do so would mean that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, a host of other U.S. officials and even some prominent journalists could be regarded as war criminals.
To accept that reality would, in turn, create a moral imperative to take action. And that would require a great disruption in the existing U.S. power structure, which hasn’t changed much since Bush won authorization from Congress in October 2002 to use force and then invaded Iraq in March 2003.
Not only are Bush and Cheney still in office – and two of the three remaining presidential candidates, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, voted for the war – but the roster of top Washington journalists remains remarkably intact from five years ago.
Iraq War hawk Fred Hiatt still runs the Washington Post’s editorial pages where you can still read the likes of Charles Krauthammer, David Ignatius, Richard Cohen and a bunch of other columnists who pushed for the war.
The same is true for the New York Times’s op-ed page, where writers like Thomas Friedman have prospered despite their erroneous war judgments and where one of the few changes has been to recruit prominent neoconservative William Kristol, who has used his column to chide Americans who won’t hail Bush’s courageous war leadership.
In evaluating this corrupt political/media elite, a historian might want to go back even further and wonder how someone as eminently unqualified and unfit as George W. Bush became president of the most powerful nation on earth.
How did a technologically sophisticated country like the United States with a relatively free press get led down this dangerous path? Why did so many American voters in 2000 believe made-up stories about Al Gore’s supposed delusions, like the apocryphal quote, “I invented the Internet”?
Indeed, how did a seemingly endless supply of myths and half-truths take root in the American psyche?
Going back even a bit further, how were Americans sold on the happy tales of Ronald Reagan’s presidency as the blood of U.S.-supported dirty wars in Central America and elsewhere was washed from the nation’s memory bank?
Why in a media environment with 24-hour cable news programming has intelligent dissent against U.S. foreign policy been so marginalized and excluded? Why are editors and producers so afraid of allowing some of these voices to be heard? How has such a destructive “group think” been allowed to take hold?
One of the obvious answers is fear – at least fear that one’s career would be irreparably damaged by wandering too far outside the safety of the herd.
And while running with that herd, it’s understood that there’s much greater safety in veering right, given the well-funded conservative attack groups that have devoured the careers of many independent-minded journalists who refused to bend.
(I’ve tried to address this history in my books, including Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, as well as at Consortiumnews.com.)
While many Americans – both inside and outside Washington – recognize these real-world constraints on how politicians and journalists address issues, the larger consequences are less understood.
What these trends have done over the past three decades is not just shift the dominant U.S. political/media system to the right. Nor have they just constructed a “group think” that excludes reasonable points of view that challenge the conventional wisdom.
The cumulative effect of this willful conformity and this informal censorship has been to engender a form of collective madness at the decision-making levels of the U.S. government -- and within the upper echelons of the news media.
But it is a flexible form of insanity in which reality is alternatively banished – as it was in the early phases of the Iraq War, from WMD "mushroom clouds" through "Mission Accomplished" – and then is brought in for retooling when matters get too far out of control, when the jarring gap between the official line and the truth starts to destabilize the national political consensus.
In listening to the measured tones of the Frontline narration – not to mention the well-dressed ex-government officials and the well-spoken mainstream journalists – I was left with the feeling that a new synthetic “reality” was being lowered in to replace the older discredited version.
It was as if the bloody madness that President Bush inflicted on the people of Iraq – aided and abetted by many witting and unwitting American accomplices – was being drained of its crimson hue and stripped of its human horrors.
Forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and maimed. Forget the innumerable lives destroyed and the millions displaced. Forget the bizarre forms of torture at Abu Ghraib and the widespread mistreatment of detainees at other Iraqi prisons.
After all, we were being told, the war’s architects were honorable and reasonable men and women who were trying to do the right thing, but sadly they were undermined by bureaucratic inertia, back-biting and, yes, incompetence. It was just one big SNAFU.
But, with a few changes here and there – a new general or two, a tweaked counter-insurgency strategy, some more U.S. soldiers and a bit more patience – everything will work out just fine.
No need for national guilt. No need for accountability. No reason to purge the editorial offices of leading newspapers and TV networks. No reason to talk about impeachment or war-crimes tribunals for committing the "supreme" crime against world peace. No need for any of that.
As President Bush said on March 27, “normalcy is returning back to Iraq,” if you don't take note of the mayhem all around. One might add that a similar form of “normalcy is returning back to Washington,” if you don't take note of all the lies and the self-deceptions.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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