By Michael Brenner
Back in 1991, Yugoslavia was set on fire by neo-Fascist Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and his fellow uber-nationalist leaders who took power in other republics of the confederation.
As the blaze swept through the country, a senior general on the General Staff of the national Yugoslav Army, who resisted the hyper-nationalist revival, morosely commented that, were there a Nobel Peace for stupidity, we’d be the leading candidate. He had in mind political stupidity of the kind that leads to dire consequences with no reasonable justification.
Sadly, the perennial favorite for the past 17 years would be the United States. We’d have a whole row of ‘Dumbbells’ on the fireplace mantel in the Oval Office – with the place of honor reserved for the awaited Lifetime Achievement Award. An invasion of Venezuela or a war with Iran would definitely secure it for Uncle Sam. One or the other seems a credible possibility. Neither makes any sense; but that is exactly the point of the Stupidity Prize.
Another unique feature of this Nobel is that it would not be granted to a single individual. Rather, given to an entire country. For we (almost) all have a share in these dimwitted collective acts. The run-up to possible war against Iran is déjà vu all over again. Iraq is the model and, in some sense, the mold.
Bellicosity pervades Washington’s ruling circles. Cartoon images of the enemy are disseminated everywhere. He is alien and menacing. The target is portrayed as a clear and ‘imminent’ threat to America who is beyond reason. Fictive provocations are conjured up. No evidence is presented to substantiate the claims – its speculation is rooted in its super-secret classified Intelligence. That purported information comes from Mossad on high whose powers of creative fiction are unmatched. Eager recipients at high policy-making circles in Washington await it with relish. The sourcing is quietly leaked to serve as the ultimate confirmation of the Intelligence’s credibility.
To question it is to traffic in ‘fake news’ and disinformation, to serve as ‘useful idiot’ who is handmaiden to the terrible trio of Russia, Syria and Iran who in turn instigate the demon that is Hizbullah. Insinuations are made that you are anti-Israel. That is to say anti-Semitic.
And that means that you are actually anti-Scripture since for the CHINOs (Christian In Name Only) who predominate in Trump world, it’s the Old Testament that inspires them – not the New Testament. Plus, of course, the Book of Revelation.
From the last comes the apocalyptic vision that stirs the CHINOs’ soul and makes the Hebrews return to the land of Yahweh the penultimate step to Armageddon. Thereby, for Pence, Pompeo, et al. the politically awkward teachings of Jesus Christ are eclipsed by the more congenial Christ of the envisioned Second Coming – the vengeful Son of Yahweh who wields Joshua’s sword. It is doubtful, though, that even John of Patmos’ fevered imagination could conjure the image of the 300-lb. Pompeo atop the Pale Horse.*
For Evangelicals and the Christian Right, that is the philosophical foundation for the belligerent foreign policy laced with self-righteousness that Washington has followed since 9/11. It has counterparts made to measure for other American religio-political denominations. So the carrier fleets ply the sea eastwards, the B-52s shriek across the sky, and our occupation forces in Syria and Iraq are put on high alert. All of these pronouncements, all the passion and emotion, all the scary stuff is absorbed by the media, by the think tank scribblers, by the cowed Democrats (most of whom actually believe it). They amplify it.
The American mind is on a war-footing. Our leaders roar their hostility at countries on all points of the compass: Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua as well as Iran and Venezuela. The alpha howler, Mike Pompeo, ventures as far as Greenland to yell epithets at whomever is in listening range. (Or, could his howls in fact be coded messages received by a submarine of Russia’s Northern Fleet – artfully designed to elude surveillance by the NSA or some other instrument of the Deep State?)
This bellicose display poses troubling questions: Should it be aid that we have remembered nothing; that we have learned nothing? Are Iraq and Afghanistan compounded by Syria and Yemen totally expunged? Have we as a country reverted to type as evinced by 1848 and 1898 – as cited last week?
As prelude to answering those questions, let’s step back a couple of generations to Vietnam. A retrospective’s most stunning conclusion is that the country has made a systematic effort to forget – to forget everything about Vietnam. Understandably; most of it was ugly – on every count.
In regard to how we relate to the rest of the world, though, there is no discernible change whatsoever from the 1960s. The post-Vietnam interregnum of war fatigue was short-lived. Today, the overweening pride, the belief in American exceptionalism – as duty and/or prerogative, the penchant for using military force, the self-righteousness, the double standards applied in politics and ethics – they remain hallmarks of our foreign policy.
That truth has been demonstrated in the Middle East, in the yen for picking fights with Russia, Iran or whomever, in our sub rosa interventions in Latin America. These days that is done without the Cold War justification of our facing a diabolical threat to our core interests (even survival) as the Soviet Union and/or Red China supposedly did. Instead we have the disorganized Salafist thugs with a penchant for acts of terror – 98% of them abroad. By no measure can so-called Islamo-Fascism be equated to Soviet-led international communism (actual or imagined).
On this score, America has become more belligerent than it was in 1965.
And some of this flailing about is due to the fraying of the myths that have given meaning to the American experience all these years. Those myths are bound up with the country’s unique place and mission in the world. Now untenable, the inability to come to terms with awakened awareness of realities that should have been evident in 1975 adds markedly to what haunts us.
Cultivated amnesia in effacing collective memory does not serve the nation well. It will harm us even more – going forward. It cannot be otherwise among those masses of Americans who see memory itself as a threat to the precious autonomy to live in the instant. Poking at their smart watches to recall the home address they text to the robot who sends an automated Uber taxi, they have closed off all mental space for pondering Tet, the Mekong, Pol Pot, My Lai and those fellow countrymen who fell in the misbegotten quest for an imagined America preeminence around the globe.
The national memory book already is closing, too, for Guantanamo, Falluja, Abu Ghraib, Bush’s puerile “Mission Accomplished” stunt, and – more recent offspring: the Islamic State, the razing of Raqqa, the ramifying refugee crisis and Obama’s hacking of the Senate Intelligence Committee to better serve the CIA’s extra-legal machinations abroad and spying at home. (Really? When did that happen?) In compensation, we’ll always have the war porn of The Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty to cuddle with.
So, there is no simple response to the proposition that we are revealing again the ‘true’ America manifest in 1848 and 1898. Let us recall that Americans were deeply divided by our 19th century wars of expansion. The searing experience of Vietnam half a century ago bore even more bitter fruit both in domestic politics and in the blow struck American self-esteem by our ignominious failure.
Yet, the so-called ‘Vietnam Syndrome,’ resented by the hawks, represented for many a reversion to national ideals and aversion to war without just cause.
That latter sentiment manifest itself in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. It is now easy to overlook the widespread popular reluctance to our embarking on that dubious adventure. This despite the lingering emotional trauma of 9/11. It was the political elite who pressed for action, who endorsed the war in Congressional resolutions, who disseminated the lies of the Bush crowd that justified aggression.
Moreover, the fiasco of the corrupt, shambolic and counter-productive occupation seemed to dull the appetite for follow-on follies. The considerable, if comparatively low casualty list added to the distaste – as did torture and other criminal acts. Yet, here we are, little more than a decade later, on the brink of taking a greater gamble, with still less rationale, and in the face of disagreement (if not serious opposition) from most of the world – including our most steadfast allies.
To find an explanation for this baffling state of the United States has to dig deep into the American psyche. It must probe the craven passivity of more reasonable persons and institutions, Americans’ ingrained insecurities and self-absorption, and the influence of foreign governments with powerful partners in the American Establishment.
And then there is the factor of willpower.
The war-mongers – whether they be neocons, ultra-nationalist aggrandizers, racists, militarists (by no means all uniformed officers), or just power hungry bullies looking to hurt someone (Mike Pompeo) – probably are in a minority. What they do have is the conviction, the audacity, the passion to go after what they want – and to ride roughshod over inter alia: their tepid critics, the political careerists whose only principle is never to take a stand, and a celebrity-oriented media that always go with the flow.
It’s not hard to provide the concrete examples of each type in the category. In reverse order: the New Yorker chose this moment to run a long, uncritical profile of John Bolton that is remarkable for its elision of the man’s dark impulses, his appetite for attacking foreign countries on any pretext, or his role as a main instigator of the Iraq debacle.** He is, though, a celebrity; so, in today’s America, he sells magazines.
The essay, in effect, was a self-advertisement for Bolton and his reckless views on bombing first and asking questions later. In effect, it serves as skilled cosmetic surgery that transforms the crackpot mad-bomber into a responsible statesman. Why pay a hack publicist to do the job, when you can get it done by a certified journalist for free?
The piece was written by Dexter Filkins who has found the middle of the road by working both sides of the street on Middle East issues – as has his editor David Remnick, a staunch advocate of the Iraq war.
Remnick’s ‘bottom-line’ mentality was also evident in his cutting ties with long-time contributor Sy Hersh whose truth-telling was seen as jeopardizing subscriptions – and, perhaps, denying the magazine access to prized subjects like Bolton.
Hersh has been forced to publish in England and Germany. (Bolton cleverly has insulated himself from any potentially troublesome expertise within the NSC by appointing as his senior staffer for the region a young woman who majored in medieval literature. No challenge from that quarter to whatever the Israelis and Saudi feed him).
As for the milquetoast politicos, just take a look at the horde of Democrats who are eying the Oval Office. Only two or three have had anything coherent to say on foreign policy: Tulsi Gabbard (shunned by the party leadership), Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren (who only recently has moved away from the Washington consensus that follows the Netanyahu line).
Joe Biden is a Caucasian male remake of Hillary and Obama. The latter never saw a fight he didn’t want to run away from and his rhetoric about Iran was little different from that of the Trumpites. It deviated only in that Obama saw pragmatic need for the nuclear accord. The intolerable alternatives were a war for which he had no stomach, or prevarication opening him to charges of feckless appeasement. Biden goes so far as to offer public praise for Dick Cheney and Mike Pence while pronouncing Republicans in Congress as basically good guys. With enemies like that….
Finally, there are the tepid critics, most of whom declare themselves some sort of liberal-to-moderate Democrat, e.g. the editors and opinion writers of The New York Times. Remember that the Times lent its full weight to the Bush disinformation campaign on Iraq.
It is unrelentingly harsh in its condemnation of Iran, buying into the casual misrepresentations that are staples of the foreign policy community discourse. It tacitly accepts the sanctions regime along with the illegal third-party boycott/embargo strategy. It opposes military action, today, while keeping its editorial distance from the current crisis. If war breaks out, they doubtless would come out strongly for less ‘kinetic’ use of force and mumble some words redolent of pathos about civilian casualties.
Understandably, the war party ignores all three strands of the unimpressive ‘opposition’.
America’s wars in the Middle East have come to resemble a chain-smoking habit. As soon as we snub out one, we reach for another. In fact, two or three may be smoldering in the ashtray simultaneously, while lighting the next.
Thought and intention are secondary to impulse. Each country we fight in is like a different pack of cigarettes; we may leave it aside for a while before returning for another drag. Iraq has been our favorite. Our conflicts there warrant Roman numerals: Iraq I = kick Saddam out of Kuwait; Iraq II = kick Saddam out of Iraq: the “shock-and-awe” extravaganza that went on for 8 years; and then Iraq III = the battle against ISIS and whomever else gets in our way.
The latter is an impressive but not inclusive list: Assad’s Syria, Iran, Russia, Hezbullah, the Shi’ite militias. It leaves out the actual culprits, though: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, Israel. There is a modicum of method to the madness – if viewed from Riyadh or Jerusalem.
The first of these Iraq wars is a distant memory for most Americans – just a brief diversion from triumphant celebrations of victory in the Cold War. It now is relegated to the back pages of the history books somewhere between Vietnam and the wars of the ex-Yugoslavia. Iraq II does still shadow us, but its details are becoming blurry. It serves mainly as a quarry for selective anecdotes marshalled in support of whatever somebody wants to do (or not do) in Syria or Libya or Iran or Yemen or Somalia.
Its repercussions, though, have been profound. Its lessons not yet learned. Barack Obama’s dedication to sealing it off, pulling down the curtain, conformed to a widespread disposition to sublimate an affair so damaging to our national self-image of competence, political virtue and moral conduct. As with so many other things, Obama reinforced a popular penchant for avoidance.
Will we launch a war against Iran?
Set against this background, it most certainly is possible. Beyond that, confident predictions elude us. The Trump administration is in a perpetual state of disarray and internecine mayhem.
There is no process, no order, no logic. It looks like an octopus trying to put on mismatched socks. Some people definitely want war: Bolton for one. Pompeo would enjoy one.
Trump himself loves acting the tough guy – in word and deed. His imagery is all aggression and hate. Yet, deep down, he probably is a coward with little more appetite for an open-ended military conflict he could not control than Obama had. Octavio-Cortez is a more appealing and safer target than Ayatollah Khamenei. Then, there is the election to consider.
His is the world of bluster; there, he is the proven master. That’s a far easier act than welcoming body bags back from the Gulf and coping with an economic crisis created by the ensuing chaos.
Still, Trump can be manipulated. He is ignorant, hostage to his emotions, none too bright, easily provoked, and unprotected by sane people. Bolton and his gang know that.
* Trump himself is an atheist. As a clinical narcissist, he is in thrall to only one sovereign: the all-consuming self.
** The New Yorker’s pandering profile of John Bolton conforms to a pattern observable among ‘liberal’ publications. They have a compulsion to find decent and reasonable officials in the top ranks of even the most vile regimes. That expresses the desperate desire that an adult minder is in the vicinity of the Oval Office so that the Orangutan is not left alone with his Twitter and can of Diet Coke to decide on matters of war and peace. Let’s recall how The New York Times paid valedictory tribute to Nikki Haley in a long, effusive editorial and their more recent celebration of Gina Haspel. (Of course, being women boosted their stock). They fall into the same category as Bolton à la the New Yorker.
This phenomenon is reminiscent of an experience in Milano some years ago. Strolling along the via Manzoni that runs from Teatro Alla Scala toward the Società del Giardino, my attention was taken by an intriguing shop front marked by a finely wrought sculptured violin hanging over the pavement. It was weathered with age, as was the carved door with the flaking gold lettering ANTIQUARIATO MUSICALE.
The dusty windows offered a hazy view into a dim interior populated by an odd assortment of musical artifacts – scores, instruments, and such like. Most noticeable were three caged parrots identified by a cursive card as Singing Macaws. Irresistibly drawn by this bizarre anomaly, I pushed open the door to be greeted by a wizened gentlemen in a grey smock whose overall appearance matched perfectly that of his antique surroundings.
Quizzically, I inquired about the birds. Pointing to the first somewhat faded and subdued specimen, I asked what he sang. “Schubert lieder” came the response – and his price is 5,000 Euros. “Okay, let’s hear him.” A prod from the ancient shopkeeper evoked an ungodly string of squawks and screeches with a momentary hint of “Auf dem Strom”.
I pointed to the second, drab parrot. “His repertoire is strictly Baroque, all of the Bach cantatas. You can have him for 8,000 Euros.” Again a prod. Again a burst of high-pitched noise that would do justice to a frat party at TGI Friday’s at happy hour. Disappointed, but still intrigued, I turned to the last bird: a downcast, elderly creature who long had lost his lustre. “25,000 Euros!” Taken aback: “has he mastered every Verdi aria for tenor?” The reply: “No – in fact, I’ve never heard him sing a note.” Then, why on earth is he worth that exorbitant price?”
“Signore, the other two call him Maestro!”
Sulzberger and Remnick nod, snatch the molting Maestro, pay the 25,000 (+ VAT) – and then run feature stories their star performer offered as a sign of hope for the future of vocal classical music.