September 25, 2007

Cui Bono? -- and Bush's Monstrous, Deadly Dare

An entry the other day from the frequently insightful Scott Horton at Harper's provides me an opportunity to amplify certain themes. I've discussed these issues before, but further commentary is required so as to dispel common confusions that can arise. The particular confusions involved are of some moment.

In "Cheney's New War Plans," Horton writes:
A thoroughly moderate, wonky international relations expert I know who spends much of his energy evaluating the efficacy of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan recently offered this summary of the Bush-Cheney Administration's efforts:
The Bush-Cheney administration has surrendered much of Afghanistan to the Taliban and much of Pakistan to al-Qaida. They have turned most of Iraq over to Iran, creating the very danger over which they now threaten another disastrous war; they have strained the U.S. Armed Forces to the point of exhaustion, turned the Defense Department over to private contractors, the Justice Department over to the Republican National Committee, and the national debt over to foreign creditors, while leading a party whose single most basic belief is supposed to be that individuals must take personal responsibility for their actions. And they dare to lecture us on national security?
Indeed, the guiding star of the Administration appears to be Monumental Stupidity. Presented with two choices, they can be counted upon to pick the wrong one. Which is why the latest chapter in Cheney's maneuverings to launch the next war can come as no surprise. It's par for the course.
Consider the nature of some of the purported "miscalculations" or "stupidities" listed by these two writers. The Bush administration has drastically destabilized the Middle East, setting the stage for a wider war. The next target is unquestionably Iran -- which had been the primary target from the beginning. They want destabilization of the region, and they want a wider war -- for it is by these means that they seek to consolidate United States dominance of the Middle East, guaranteeing our control of the region's resources (among other factors).

The Bush administration has "turned the Defense Department over to private contractors" -- thus enriching certain huge and hugely influential nominally private companies in amounts of many billions of dollars. Not so coincidentally, the same private companies have numerous and intricate connections to many of those in government. The privatization of national defense also means that certain individuals in government have the ability to deploy not just one private army, but an entire series of private armies, to do their bidding, as may be required and for purposes those individuals will determine.

Turning our national debt over to foreign creditors may indeed be a cause for grave concern and an indicator of possible future economic collapse. But such eventualities hopefully lie some years in the future. Carpe diem, and all that. In the meantime, the top one or two percent of Americans -- including many of these same governmental players and their fellow gang members -- are amassing wealth in colossal amounts. All the rest of America, together with large parts of the world, may be going to hell. What's that to them?

In brief: the major actors in the Bush administration are achieving exactly what they want. They may well be about to launch the start of World War III, which will further enrich their corporate friends by many additional billions of dollars. As the favored few continue to amass vast wealth, the government continues to consolidate political power to an extent that makes a future dictatorship fully realizable. They are well on the road to the achievement of wealth and power on a scale rarely if ever equalled in the history of civilization.

To describe such an achievement as the result of "Monumental Stupidity" is, well, stupid. The problem is one of analysis and method, and it is very widespread. Most major commentators (and almost all bloggers) fall into the same error. The aims I have noted -- the amassing of wealth and power, and the drive to regional (and worldwide) hegemony -- are nothing remotely akin to a conspiracy, unless you view aims stated openly and repeatedly, and pursued over a period of decades in front of the entire world, as a "conspiracy."

The key to the nature of the error lies in this phrase: "while leading a party whose single most basic belief is supposed to be that individuals must take personal responsibility for their actions." Both commentators appear to have taken Republican marketing slogans seriously in the precise manner the Republicans hoped they would. And even though these commentators now view the slogans with suspicion and cynicism, it seems the dynamics involved -- and the vast gulf between marketing techniques and the reality of what is transpiring -- still escape them.

I return once again to these critically important observations from Robert Higgs:
As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent "failed" policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.

When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the "peace process" never gets far from square one, etc., etc. – none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not borne by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.
In my recent essay which included this Higgs excerpt, I went on to write:
It is important to recognize the two perspectives and the two kinds of analysis, and to keep them separate. Almost all of our public debate is conducted on the first level of analysis: what various political leaders say their goals and objectives are. In terms of those stated goals, their decisions in foreign policy are uniformly calamitous, and they lead to results that are the opposite of what they claim they hope to achieve. No public figure will admit the truth of the second kind of analysis and, I regret to note, most Americans are not the least bit interested in hearing such unpleasant truths. Nonetheless, they are truths: a huge swath of our economy is now devoted to preparing for war, making war, and cleaning up after war. To one degree or another, most members of Congress are beholden to the economic powers that drive the obsessive concern with war, and its cornucopia of economic opportunity. Both parties are enmeshed in the War State, and the current corporatist warmaking apparatus devours almost all those who go into public service. Until this intricate and complex system is altered, nothing else will change, except in comparatively superficial ways.
It would hardly do for our national leaders to announce the truth:
We have military power of a kind that allows us to do whatever we want, anywhere in the world. We intend to establish worldwide hegemony, baby. And while we're doing that, we and some of our best friends are going to get filthy, stinking rich. Guess what: most of the governing class is in on the scheme -- and there isn't a damned thing you can do about it.
No, that wouldn't do at all. So our leaders talk of "national interests," which can mean anything imaginable that serves the needs of the moment, and of spreading "democracy." To credit such claims requires as astounding degree of ignorance. Ask the slaughtered Filipinos, or the slaughtered Vietnamese, or those slaughtered in Latin America, or the victims of the genocide that continues in Iraq, about "democracy." To believe our government's aims are in fact what our politicians claim them to be is no longer an honest error, not if one watches only 15 minutes of news every few days, even as presented by our wonderful teevee personalities.

While it is not an honest error, it is easily explained. In large part, people continue to delude themselves in this manner because they are overwhelmed by our national myth throughout their lives. Our national propaganda is unrelenting and unceasing: people are taught the myth in school, it is repeated by every mainstream writer and commentator, and it is presented as Holy Writ by our politicians. The United States represents the climax of civilization. As William Pfaff puts it, in writing about the idea that "the American model of society is destined to dominate the world, by one means or another, since it is held to be the culmination of human development":
This conviction is commonly found on both left and right. It was during the Clinton Administration that the secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, proclaimed that Americans see farther than anyone else because they "stand taller." "Globalization" was a product of the same administration, a program for opening deregulated markets worldwide to U.S. investment that was articulated by the administration as part of world society's march towards unification in democracy and market capitalism (and history's end).

It was also under President Clinton that the unprecedented Pentagon system of regional commands was established that now covers the entire world, responsible for monitoring developments in each region and preparing for possible U.S. interventions under a wide variety of scenarios involving challenges not only to U.S. interests but, as it is said, to world order.

Militarized or otherwise, American policy remains under the influence of an unacknowledged and unjustified utopianism. This is the unanalyzed background to the work of all Washington's foreign policy agencies. It permeates the rhetoric and thinking of Republicans and Democrats alike. It is the reason Americans can think that history has an ultimate solution, and that the United States is meant to provide it.
Ever since the end of World War II (and going back to the Spanish-American War and the occupation of the Philippines), the goal of our foreign policy has been world hegemony -- and this is the goal shared and advanced by both the Democratic and Republican parties. It may not serve the purposes of "ordinary" Americans or of foreigners numbering in the millions -- and God knows, it has murdered enough of them (but mostly poor, brown foreigners, so as to prevent unrest among the docile American public) -- but it certainly serves the interests of the ruling elites.

As it goes abroad, so it goes at home. Our bloated, corporatist, increasingly authoritarian government similarly serves the interests of the ruling elites, as the lives of more and more Americans become exercises in mindless stupor. Most Americans are capable of experiencing what passes for "emotion" only when watching the latest stupidity on teevee, or a new Hollywood blockbuster, or contemplating the latest widget offered at the nearby mall. Our government has murdered more than a million innocent people in Iraq. Hey, man, who are you rooting for on American Idol? Our politicians will not tell us or themselves the truth. What murderer willingly admits he is a vicious sadist, undeterred by the screams of his victims as he counts his money? Nor do most Americans wish to acknowledge what their country has become, or the nature of its actions.

So it's all about self-delusion and marketing. We can't speak of genocide or the pursuit of power and wealth by means of mass murder -- so we talk about "American freedom," "spreading democracy" and "national interests." We insist on our "good intentions" and that, no matter the catastrophic devastation that directly results from our actions, we "mean well."

On the domestic front, because the Democrats and Republicans both want and enjoy the fruits of the corporatist, authoritarian state but still vie with each other for control over the mechanisms of power, the two parties have a problem. In terms of basic principles and the interests they serve, they are indistinguishable. The Republicans are primarily financed by and do the bidding of hugely wealthy corporate powers; so are the Democrats. The Republicans have numerous and intricate ties to the defense industry, which makes incalculable amounts of money from our perpetual war economy; the same is true for Democrats. The Republicans want an increasingly repressive surveillance state to ensure their rule and their own lives of comfort and privilege; so do the Democrats.

So why should any voter support one party over the other? This is not to say there are no differences at all between the parties, as we shall see in a moment. But when we consider the deeper level of analysis, we see that the problem is not one of fundamental political principles, since neither party is about to change those. We come back to marketing. The issue is succinctly described in a post at the aptly named, Stop Me Before I Vote Again:
Been exchanging a few e-mails this last day or so with a Pollyanna-ish comrade -- well, Pollyanna-ish compared to me, anyway. A propos the recent Secret Police Enablement Act, passed with the usual indispensable Democratic assistance, my correspondent observed, "Even on this wiretapping bill, Dems voted overwhelmingly against."

This remark reveals, I think, a really substantial error in how people think about parties. It's as if they believed the party could be characterized by taking some sort of arithmetic sum or average of the opinions of the people who comprise it.

But this ignores the fact that the party is an institution with a structure, with mechanisms of operation and levers of power -- levers which are in some hands and not others.

Among Democrats, it's the aisle-crossers who control the party as an institution. They're like the tiller on a boat -- an inch this way or that, and you've tacked. Or gybed, as the case may be.

It's true that if you average up the (expressed) views of Democratic and Republican officeholders you end up with two different-sounding songs. But all the Bernie Sanderses and Dennis Kucinich-es and Ted Kennedys etc ad soporem are in effect lashed to a chariot whose reins are firmly in the hands of the Lantoses and Liebermans. So the ineffectual enlightenment of the former is worse than useless -- it's an actual snare and delusion, like the sweet nectar that draws the poor fly into the flytrap.

I like to think of the two parties as being a lot like McDonald's and Burger King. In practice, they're marketing the same thing, but they're going after slightly different demographics and have slightly different marketing and branding strategies, and slightly different Secret Sauces to mask the rancid flavor of the same low-grade beef.
The analytic problem, as well as the nature of the differences between the parties, are further explained in these reflections from Chris Floyd:
I would like to apologize to the leaders of the Democratic Party for implying in my previous post that they are political cowards. I confess that I was carried away, rhetorically, in the heat of the moment, and was completely mistaken in ascribing their actions on the recent warrantless wiretapping bill to "spineless acquiescence" to the Bush Administration's authoritarian proclivities.

As one of Empire Burlesque's readers pointed out, that phrase was inconsistent with the rest of the piece, for it implied that the Democratic elite were actually opposed to the essence of Bush's authoritarian/corporatist/militarist agenda, and were somehow acting against their will in surrendering to Bush time and again during the past six years. As the reader noted, drawing on Arthur Silber's analysis ... the Democrats "are not spineless or weak. Nobody pushes them to do what they don't want (no matter how much the Digbys would like to explain away their actions that way.). They're completely corrupt and fully, volitionally complicit." The reader also pointed me to a comment they'd left on Glenn Greenwald's takedown of the vote: "It doesn't take any courage to do what you want to do. Just the opposite. They WANT all these things, but can hardly reveal that to their often sincere but easy-to-dupe followers, so they hide behind the 'we were threatened, Bush made us do it, we're spineless, and we don't want to look weak,' meme. They cop a plea to the lesser charge but the truth is, tragically, far more dark."

I think that's exactly right. They cop to cowardice to cover up complicity. As I said in the previous post, the Democratic elite are spawned by the same corrupt system that produces the Republican leadership. They serve, essentially, the same interests. Because no human organization is a complete monolith, there are of course differences in emphasis, different approaches to policy, different constituencies to be served (or snowed) etc. between the two parties. And it may well be, as Noam Chomsky noted before the 2004 election, that even minute mitigations in the operation of vast power structures can translate into real benefits for many ordinary people, simply due to the scale on which such structures operate. For example, it is almost certain that no Democratic administration would have cut off aid to women's health clinics around the world as the Bush Administration has done -- a heinous act that has resulted in death and suffering for untold thousands of the world's most vulnerable people. That is no small thing.

But the fact that one mafia boss gives groceries to Grandma while another one steals her blind and leaves her out on the street doesn't change the fact that both bosses are part of the same criminal system, operating on the same principles of violence, extortion, arbitrary rule and lawlessness.
Two aspects of Chris's remarks deserve further comment.

First, note again the two levels of analysis that I discussed with regard to foreign policy: the difference between the avowed aims of the governing class, and the truth of what is actually going on. If you consider only what our politicians say with regard to their intentions and goals, mysteries abound. If in fact they are in pursuit of peace and democracy, why have we been engaged in endless war, and why are we still? Why have we left nothing but widespread death and destruction in our wake, while our policies remain unchanged in even the smallest degree? But if you look beneath the rhetoric, a task which our politicians and the major media resolutely refuse to undertake, and if you analyze the problem in the way that, for example, Robert Higgs does, the mysteries vanish. The actual powers-that-be are achieving exactly what they want: chaos, war, murder and destruction.

The same dynamic is found in the realm of domestic politics. While both parties are supported by and serve the same interests, to acknowledge that overwhelmingly significant fact would be to give the game away -- and it would provide no one any reason to support one party over the other. So the Democrats insist they want to "end the war" in Iraq, but they refuse to cut off funding for it. The Democrats insist they do not want still wider war, but they pass resolution after amendment after resolution providing full "justification" for an attack on Iran. The Democrats insist they oppose the Bush administration's authoritarianism, but they do nothing to stop the FISA legislation, even though they certainly could have.

If you believe the Democrats actually mean what they say, and if you further believe that the Democrats themselves believe it, you will be unable to make sense of what they do. You will search for any explanation, even one for which you have no evidence and which is entirely unnecessary given what the record reveals. But again, if you look underneath the surface, the mystery and the contradictions disappear. They are achieving exactly what they want. Now, I'm not prepared to say that no Democrat genuinely believes he or she is opposed to authoritarian government or to genocidal war. Perhaps their convictions on such matters have some smattering of authenticity, and the human capacity for self-delusion is endless. But the point is that when it matters, they do not act as if such convictions matter to them -- and they do not vote that way. Nonetheless, the Democrats forever contend that those convictions do matter to them. As one result, they end up looking as if they are cowards, and looking as if they are betraying their true convictions. But they are cowards only if you believe the marketing; if you look to the underlying analysis, you will see that they act in accordance with their actual goals.

Chris's revealing example of aid to women's health clinics also merits further discussion. That is an especially powerful example of the actual differences between the parties. Similar examples would probably include environmental and worker protections, as well as protection of a woman's right to abortion, that is, her right to her own body -- although it must be noted that the Democrats' commitment in these areas appears to be wildly variable and unprincipled, subject to whatever their latest polls indicate is most appealing to voters, and dangerously undependable. Still, if those issues are of great moment to you, the Democrats are certainly preferable to Republicans.

But I urge you to keep in mind the full meaning of the following from Chris's post: "even minute mitigations in the operation of vast power structures can translate into real benefits for many ordinary people, simply due to the scale on which such structures operate." If you choose to support one party over the other because of those "minute mitigations" that "can translate into real benefits for many ordinary people," that's fine -- but intellectual honesty ought to compel you to recognize the great danger you're courting. That danger lies in "the scale on which such structures operate." We are talking here about the massive power of government on a huge scale. A government that has the power to save you also has the power to kill you. When power is institutionalized on a gigantic scale of this kind, as it now has been in the United States, it is easy enough to flip the switch from a policy you abhor to one you approve, depending on who holds power at any given moment. But government is not run by some impartial, unbiased, God-like and fictitious force: it is run by individual human beings. One person may flip the switch in a way you think is wonderful; the next person in control may flip it back again, and slaughter another million people.

You may think that this system is not going to change in the foreseeable future or in your lifetime, so it is better to have at least semi-decent human beings in charge of it. In some circumstances and with regard to certain issues, I might even agree with you. But be clear about the nature of the system you are thereby supporting: one of immense power, that can cut down any one of us if even a single individual in a critical position decides to do so. And given the issues on which the two parties agree at present, I see nothing to recommend the Democrats over the Republicans. They both stand for endless war and global interventionism; they both stand for authoritarianism on the domestic front; and, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, they both stand for torture. For me, all other issues recede into insignificance. If you make a different decision, at least be honest about the nature of your choice. That's all I ask.

This brings me to my final point: the nature of Bush's deadly dare. In "Dominion Over the World," I am analyzing the continuity of our foreign policy over the last century, and especially since the end of World War II, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. In "Blinded by the Story," I explored how both Democrats and Republicans have sought to empower a surveillance state of vast power. In many other essays, I have set out voluminous historical evidence for the proposition that with regard to fundamentals, the Democrats and Republicans are after the same objective: a corporatist-authoritarian state, perpetually engaged in preparing for and fighting one war after another, all in the name of global hegemony.

It is true that the style of the Bush administration is notably crude and aggressive. But if genuine, widespread opposition to the administration's policies had existed, Bush would never have been able to enact his program in the first place -- and the Democratic Congress would not ratify and sanctify his crimes, as they have done and continue to do. When one appreciates the historic continuity which gave rise to this abominable administration and without which this administration would not have been possible, and when one considers the particular style in which Bush, Cheney and the rest present their program, it is as if they are saying -- both to the nominal "opposition" party and to all Americans:
We're doing what this government has done for over a hundred years. We start wars of aggression to establish American dominance around the world. We began that policy in the 1890s, and we've never stopped. Sometimes we do it through covert operations, and by toppling regimes that won't do as we demand. Sometimes we simply invade and bomb them.

And we've used torture as a standard means of warfare for decades. We just used to hide it better, and we had better PR about how we weren't "really like that." Some of you even said you wanted torture to be brought out "into the open." So we did that.

Beginning with Woodrow Wilson and even before that, the ruling class has wanted a powerful police state here at home. We never kept it a secret, but we made it go down more easily with flowery talk and nice phrases.

We decided to do away with all the camouflage. We recognized what the actual aims had been all along and we agreed with them, so we decided to bring it all out into the open. We didn't want to waste time with all those nice speeches that make people feel better about themselves. Oh, sure, we still do that to some extent. We have to, because you're not willing to face the truth about what we've been doing around the world for 60 years and more, and what we do today.

But we stripped away a lot of the delusions. We knew no one would stop us -- because this is what you've wanted all along, and it's what you want now. You like making the rest of the world do what we tell them. You enjoy it. And whenever you have the slightest excuse for it, real or imagined, wide scale murder doesn't bother you in the least.

You like it. It's what you want. If it isn't, why don't you stop us? You could, you know. If enough of you made your objections known in ways that mattered, we'd have to stop. We're not worried, because we know you won't.

But go ahead. Try to stop us. Try to stop this war and the wars to come, and the mass slaughter, and the growing authoritarianism. Aren't you going to at least try? Aren't you?

Go ahead. We dare you.
And what's the answer from almost all of you, and from almost all Americans?

Exactly. That's what they counted on. They were right.