Informed Comment has had a few running features, including top ten lists, the Ghoul’s Glossary, and ‘Arguing with Bush.’ With any luck this column will be the last in that dreary series. Readers should remember that back in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration was denying that there had been extensive looting in Iraq after it overthrew the government, was denying that there was a guerrilla war there, and denied that there was an Iraqi insurgency (they seemed to allege that a Lex Luthor clone with hair named Zarqawi was doing all the violence by himself). The mainstream media tended to play along, and merely disagreeing with Bush about these issues was routinely branded treason or even terrorist-loving by sleazy minions of the Right like Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, etc., etc., etc. when people seemed actually to pay attention to these nonentities.
So arguing with Bush became a part of my life, because it did have some professional and personal consequences for me. I say all this because it is now easy to forget that once upon a time, sticking your head up on this issue was a good way to get it cut off.
On Friday, Bush gave a self-glorifying speech on his Middle East policy at the Saban Forum in Washington, DC.
Bush begins by saying, “I have had the privilege to see the Middle East up close.” But then almost all the places he mentions are in Israel or under Israeli control. He doesn’t mention Cairo or Amman, which he did finally briefly visit this year. He does mention Abu Dhabi. But Bush has not been to Beirut, or to Iraq outside the Green Zone. For a president so deeply involved in the region, he has had very little to do with it, and seems to admit here that he sees it through the lens of Israel.
‘Bush says, “I have looked into the eyes of courageous elected leaders from Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.”‘
Bush overthrew the elected government of the Palestine Authority in 2007, having for some time winked at Israeli kidnapping of elected Palestinian parliamentarians and cabinet members on a large scale. He authorized a war on one of the major elected parties in the Lebanese parliament in 2006 and lobbied against a ceasefire that would have saved Lebanon hundreds of lost lives and billions in economic losses. Israeli politicians make key decisions for or rule by fiat and undemocratically over more than 3 million stateless Palestinians.
Bush more or less admits that during the Cold War, the US overthrew elected governments (Syria, Iran) in the region and deployed dictators against the Middle Eastern Left:
‘In the decades that followed that brave choice, American policy in the Middle East was shaped by the realities of the Cold War. Together with strong allies in the Middle East, we faced down and defeated the threat of communism to the region. ‘
But with the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Bush says,
‘With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the primary threat to America and the region became violent religious extremism.’
Bush does not do us the favor of admitting that the US assiduously backed the Muslim Religious Right against the Middle Eastern Left, thus creating the radicalism that so disturbed Washington later on. A fifth of the money the Reagan administration gave to the Afghan Mujahideen went to Gulbadin Hikmatyar, now a major leader of the Neo-Taliban. Bush’s account of history is like a horror movie. First one monster raises its head, then another. He doesn’t explain how the US connived at destroying secular, progressive movements in the region, instead backing Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism.
Bush now repeats the Neoconservative chestnuts:
‘ Through painful experience, it became clear that the old approach of promoting stability is unsuited to this new danger – and that the pursuit of security at the expense of liberty would leave us with neither one. Across the Middle East, many who sought a voice in the future of their countries found that the only places open to dissent were the radical mosques. Many turned to terror as a source of empowerment. And as a new century dawned, the violent currents swirling beneath the Middle East began to surface.’
But secular leftists in Iraq of the 1960s had not sought refuge in the mosques. They were active in unions and parties and the military. They backed Abdul Karim Qasim 1958-1963. But the US either actively plotted Qasim’s overthrow or at the very least knew about the plot and kept quiet. Washington cooperated with the Baath Party in killing large numbers of communists and non-Baath socialists. Kennedy’s National Security Council was ecstatic about the Baath coup of February, 1963. Likewise the US attempted to undermine Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular, left-of-center regime in Egypt. It was Anwar El Sadat, a close ally of the US, who promoted the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Grouping, in an attempt to weaken the Egyptian secular Left. In Iran, the US overthrew the elected nationalist government in 1953, imposing a dictatorial Shah on the country who did in fact push some Iranian intellectuals to ally with the mosque.
Bush removes US policy from any involvement with or responsibility for the promotion of the Muslim Religious Right as a tool in the Cold War.
Bush now turns to the Second Intifada:
‘In the Holy Land, the dashed expectations resulting from the collapse of the Camp David peace talks had given way to the second Intifada. Palestinian suicide bombers struck with horrific frequency and lethality – murdering innocent Israelis at a pizza parlor, aboard buses, and in the middle of a Passover seder. Israeli Defense Forces responded with large-scale operations. And in 2001, more than 500 Israelis and Palestinians were killed. Politically, the Palestinian Authority was led by a terrorist who stole from his people and walked away from peace.’
I personally can’t see how Arafat and Sharon were much different from one another, and this gratuitous swipe at Arafat is calculated to be a poke in the eye of Arabs. As for the process, actually, the Israelis promised in 1993 to stop colonizing the West Bank, and to withdraw from it on a timetable. Then they doubled the number of settlers there through the rest of the 90s. What kind of peace agreement is that, when your negotiating partner is stealing your land on a vast scale after having promised to withdraw from it? No wonder the thing fell apart. And, no one regrets the blowing up of student cafeterias or cafes more than I, but it is not analytically helpful that Palestinian violence is always coded as terrorism, but when the Israeli air force bombs a tenement building and kills innocent families and children, that isn’t terror. (Even Bush had to send Ari Fleischer out to blast Sharon for that sort of thing, though Bush is now erasing that episode.)
Bush commits Anachronism, saying
‘ In Israel, Ariel Sharon was elected to fight terror and pursue a “Greater Israel” policy that allowed for no territorial concessions. And neither side could envision a return to negotiations or the realistic possibility of a two-state solution.’
According to Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, in January of 2001, Colin Powell warned that Bush’s inaction on the peace process would “unleash Sharon and the Israeli military.” Bush said “Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things.” I guess they are clear, now. Bush is now criticizing Sharon, but he himself was at the time a Sharonista.
Bush now reads his charges against Saddam Hussein, which everyone knows.
Then he says,
‘ Syria continued its occupation of Lebanon, with some 30,000 troops on Lebanese soil.’
Syria had clearly overstayed its welcome. But it went into Lebanon in 1976 with a green light from Henry Kissinger in the United States, and with an Arab League mandate. Israel had occupied south Lebanon 1982-2000 with nary a peep of criticism from Washington.
Bush continues his condemnation of the region, excoriating Libya. Then he turns to his other bete noire:
‘And in Iran, the prospect of reform was fading, the regime’s sponsorship of terror continued, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons was largely unchecked. ‘
Iran was not involved in an ‘unchecked’ ‘pursuit of nuclear weapons.’ It was trying to enrich uranium, it said, for civilian energy purposes. It may have briefly done some weapons-related experiments in 2002, afraid of Saddam’s alleged nuclear program that Bush was then hyping. But Tehran shut down weapons-related work in early 2003 when it became obvious that the Iraqi regime was toast. As for terrorism, Bush seems mainly to mean that Iran helped the Lebanese get the Israelis back off their southern territory, which had been illegally occupied.
‘ Throughout the region, suffering and stagnation were rampant. The Arab Human Development Report revealed a bleak picture of high unemployment, poor education, high mortality rates for mothers, and almost no investment in technology. Above all, the Middle East suffered a deep deficit in freedom. Most people had no voice in choosing their leaders. Women enjoyed few rights. And there was little conversation about democratic change.’
I mean, really. Bush erases the fact that Turkey and Indonesia have made important strides in democratization since the late 1990s, or the significant economic growth in Egypt since 2001, or the impressive gains in literacy in Saudi Arabia, etc. He (or his Neoconservative ventriloquists, since we know he can’t actually pronounce most of these words) erases all the change and dynamism from the region, depicting it as uniformly stagnant and lacking the capacity for internal development. This is a rightwing version of Marx’s notion of Oriental Despotism, wherein feudal and village structures lock Oriental societies into a turgidity that prevents normal class conflict and the dialectical changes that derive from them. Obviously, if people are supine and paralyzed to change themselves, real change will have to come from the outside. That is why Marx supported the British crushing of the 1857 Great Rebellion (which the British called a ‘Mutiny’) in India. He configured British colonialism as progressive because it broke up Oriental Despotism and thus created the prerequisites for progressive change. (Christopher Hitchens, in signing on to this project, was in some ways just being an 1850s-style Eurocentric Marxist).
Bush then amalgamates all sorts of unrelated violent incidents, from the Lebanese Civil War to the Iranian hostage crisis to al-Qaeda, into one “terrorist movement.” Really! Shiites are no different from Sunnis? A popular Shiite anti-Shah, anti-imperialist movement is no different from a small hyper-Sunni terrorist group? Bush and his handlers are eager to level the Middle East, to depict it as an undifferentiated terrain of seething irrational hostility. It is, of course, the view also of the Israeli Right. (Since the US and Israel can do no wrong, in the eyes of the Right, opposition to their policies must derive from unthinking fanaticism; it is the same attitude as the Soviet Union had toward dissidents, branding them mentally unbalanced for questioning the Workers’ Paradise). In Bush’s analysis, the solution to the problem of popular resistance to imperialism, as in Iran, is more robust imperialism.
Bush now turns to 9/11, saying,
‘We realized that we are in a struggle with fanatics pledged to our destruction. And we saw that conditions of repression and despair on the other side of the world could bring suffering and death to our own streets.’
Sometimes Bush says that the terrorists do what they do because they are evil. And sometimes he says terrorism is from a lack of US-imposed democracy in the region. But the brains behind the 9/11 attack were smart engineering students living in Germany, so I don’t think lack of democracy was what was angering them. What was angering them was things like the Israeli bombing of Qana in 1996, and the US/UN embargo on Iraq that was thought to have killed 500,000 Iraqi children. Al-Qaeda never demanded more democracy!
Bush says that after 9/11, he adopted 3 new policies:
1. He took the offensive against terrorist networks overseas and deepened cooperation with regional allies such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the countries of North Africa, as well as making it clear that the US would back Israel to the hilt.
2. Bush says, “Second, we made clear that hostile regimes must end their support for terror and their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction or face the concerted opposition of the world.”
It is under this rubric that Bush puts his illegal war on Iraq. He says he has admitted that Saddam was not connected to 9/11. But it seems that Iraq nevertheless had to be punished for 9/11. Bush invokes UN resolutions, but of course he always hated the UN and refused to pay any attention to it when the Security Council declined to authorize the Iraq War. The whole farrago of illogical justifications makes no sense. Iraq had not done anything to the US in the way of terrorism and it was not pursuing weapons of mass destruction. So you can’t put the Iraq War under this rubric unless you are being dishonest. Which Bush is.
Then Bush boasts,
‘ When Saddam’s regime fell, we refused to take the easy option and install a friendly strongman in his place. Even though it required enormous sacrifice, we stood by the Iraqi people as they elected their own leaders and built a young democracy.’
Oh, give me a break. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith were, too, going to install a strongman, i.e. Ahmad Chalabi. They didn’t only because they couldn’t (an Iraqi insurgency started up and the religious Shiite parties flexed their muscles). Then Paul “Jerry” Bremer was going to hold phony ‘caucus-based elections’ that would restrict the electorate to pro-Bush elements on unelected provincial councils. That fell through because Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani shot it down and there were massive demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra in January, 2004, against it. Then Bush put in Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist strong man, as appointed prime minister in the lead-up to the elections, and tried to give him the advantages of incumbency in hopes of throwing the election to him. Bush and his cronies tried as hard as he could for a secular strong man, but they were just defeated by Sistani and the religious parties that had been in exile in Tehran.
Bush lauds the surge and the Status of Forces Agreement without seeming to realize that they are contradictory policies. The troop escalation was intended to allow the US to maintain bases in the long term in Iraq. But the SOFA expels US troops by 2011. So, again, Bush was defeated by Iraqi popular political forces.
Bush seems to attribute Libya’s abandonment of its unconventional weapons program to the Iraq War. But that is a profound misinterpretation.
Bush ties himself in knots, trying to argue that his Iraq War made Iran behave better, but then says it backslid. Of course, everyone knows that Bush’s overthrow of the Taliban and Saddam unleashed Iran as a regional power in the Middle East, which was not what Bush had been going for.
Bush does make an important admission:
‘ According to our intelligence community, the regime in Tehran had started a nuclear weapons program in the late-1980s, and then halted a key part of that program in 2003.’
What the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007 actually said was that the US intelligence community estimates with fair confidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, not that it halted a part of it and continued the rest.
Bush goes on to pledge that the US won’t allow Iran to develop that nuclear weapon that US intelligence says they are not working on, and that the Iranian leadership has consistently said it does not want.
Bush’s third point is his supposed democratization project as a means of fighting terrorism.
I’m all in favor of democratization, but it isn’t a tool kit. You can’t just point a gun at people, make them open the tool kit, and then miraculously you get democracy. You need institutions like a well-trained legal and judicial establishment that can lay the groundwork for a rule of law. You need vital, independent unions and chambers of commerce. You need security. You need lots of things besides the Marines. Bush has done diddlysquat toward promoting those prerequisites of democracy, and, indeed, has undermined many of these key structures in the United States itself.
Bush says “As part of this effort, we are pressing nations across the region – including our friends – to trust their people with greater freedom of speech, worship, and assembly. We are giving strong support to young democracies.”
Bush’s narrative of democratization cannot account for his steadfast support of Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf, or the way in which the Pakistani public actively defied Bush to return to civilian government in 2008.
And while Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, etc., may have been given polite notes by the US embassy encouraging an opening up of their systems, Bush needed them too much for his war in Iraq to really press them very hard, and he hasn’t changed their systems.
Bush boasts, “I was the first American President to call for a Palestinian state, and building support for the two-state solution has been one of the highest priorities of my Presidency.”
You couldn’t tell it by looking. The Palestinians are significantly farther away from statehood now than they were in 2000, and they are also much worse off in every other way. Many are actually being half-starved by the Israelis who have them under siege or are continuing to steal from them or coddle violent fanatics who attack them.
Bush was always all hat and no cattle.
Bush turned the United States into an aggressor nation. He kicked off an orgy of violence in Iraq that has probably left a million dead. He destroyed entire cities. He left millions of widows and orphans, and millions more displaced. He lied, he destroyed habeas corpus at home and abroad, he tortured. It is too soon to know if American democracy will ever really recover from lawless regime.