Friday, November 10
Outlaw Empire Meets the Wave
5 Questions for Our Future

by Tom Engelhardt, November 8, 2006,

The wave -- and make no mistake, it's a global one -- has just crashed on our shores, soaking our imperial masters. It's a sight for sore eyes.

It's been a long time since we've seen an election like midterm 2006. After all, it's a truism of our politics that Americans are almost never driven to the polls by foreign-policy issues, no less by a single one that dominates everything else, no less by a catastrophic war (and the presidential approval ratings that go with it). This strange phenomenon has been building since the moment, in May 2003, that George W. Bush stood under that White-House-prepared "Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared "major combat operations have ended." [...more]

Extremity on Display

So, just past the midterm election mark of 2006, what's left of the New Rome? You could say that George W. Bush's dark success story has involved bringing his version of the United States into line with the look of the "rogue" enemies and terrorist groups he set out to destroy. By the time Americans went to the polls on November 7th, 2006 to repudiate his policies, he had given our country the ultimate in makeovers, creating the look of an Outlaw Empire.

We now have our own killing fields in Iraq where, the latest casualty study tells us, somewhere between 400,000 and 900,000-plus "excess Iraqi deaths" have occurred since the 2003 invasion. And do you remember Saddam's "torture chambers" (which the President used to cite all the time)? Now, we are the possessors of our own global prison system, our own (rented, borrowed, or jerry-rigged) torture chambers, our own leased airline to transport kidnapped prisoners around the planet, and a Vice President who has openly lobbied Congress for a torture exemption for the CIA and spoke glibly on the radio about "dunking" people in water. And, thanks to a supine Congress, we have the laws to go with it all.

The administration went after the right to torture or treat captives any way its agents pleased in places not open to any kind of oversight remarkably quickly after the September 11th attacks. By late 2001, Donald Rumsfeld's office was instructing agents in the field in Afghanistan to "take the gloves off" with a captive. (Inside the CIA, as Ron Suskind has told us in his book The One Percent Doctrine, Director George Tenet was talking even more vividly about removing "the shackles" on the Agency.) Inside the White House Counsel's office and the Justice Department, administration lawyers were already hauling out their dictionaries to figure out how to redefine "torture" out of existence. But why such an emphasis on torture (which is largely useless in the field, as everyone knows)?

What administration officials grasped, I believe, is this: If you could manage to get the right to legally employ extreme (and normally repugnant) acts of torture, then you would have in your possession the right to do anything. Think of the urge to abuse as the initial extreme expression of this administration's secret obsession with the creation of a "wartime" commander-in-chief presidency which would leave Congress and the courts in the dust.

If you want to measure where this has taken Bush officialdom in five years, consider their latest legal defensive measure. According to the Washington Post, the administration has just gone to court to declare American "alternative interrogation techniques" -- which simply means "torture" -- as "among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets." It is trying to get a federal judge to bar "terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons" from even revealing to their own lawyers details about what was done to them by American interrogators. In other words, torture is now to be put in the secrecy vault like a national treasure. Next thing you know, we'll be sending it to the Smithsonian.

Reflected in this desperate maneuver, you can catch a glimpse of an administration driven to the extremity of going to courts it despised -- and thought it had cut out of the process of foreign imperial governance -- simply to bury its own extreme misdeeds. You can feel the fear of the docket (and perhaps of history) in such a stance.

Another example of the extremity into which this administration has driven itself and the rest of us lies in an editorial published in the four main (officially private) military magazines, the Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times, and Marine Corps Times, on the very eve of the midterm elections. It called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation just after the President had given him his vote of confidence once again. Realistically speaking, this can only be seen as an extreme military intervention in the American electoral process.

In so many ways, the American Constitutional system has been shredded and this -- whether we are to be an outlaw empire (and a failing one at that) -- is what Americans were voting about this last Tuesday (though it was called "Iraq").

The Wave

The history of recent American politics at the polls might be seen this way: Not so long after he declared the successful completion of his Iraqi dreams, George W. Bush found himself, to the surprise of his top advisors and supporters, hounded by Iraq's Sunni insurgency. He essentially raced not John Kerry (who recently offered yet another example of his special lack of dexterity on the campaign trail) but that insurgency to the finish line in November 2004. With a little help from his friends in Ohio and the Rove smear-and-turnout operation, he managed to squeak by. Then, in another of those milestone moments on the way to disaster, he declared that he had "political capital" to spare and would spend it.

The next summer, two storms hit the endlessly vacationing President in Crawford, Texas -- Hurricanes Cindy and Katrina. Cindy Sheehan tore away the bloodless look of casualty-lessness in Iraq (where body counts, body bags, and the return of the dead to these shores was being hidden away from both cameras and attention). She gave a mother's face to a son's death and to a nation's increasing frustration.

Katrina revealed to many Americans that the Bush administration had been creating Iraq-like conditions in the "homeland." And that was more or less that.

The President's approval rating plunged under 40% and has (a few momentary blips aside) bounced around between there and the low 30s ever since. By election 2006, presidential "capital" was a concept long consigned to the dustbin of history.

Imagine where that "capital" will be by 2008. Our President has been wedded to his war of choice in a way unimaginable since Lyndon Baines Johnson quit the presidential race after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Based on what's happened so far, there's every reason to believe that, in 2008, he will still be wedded to it (as would potential Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain) and his approval ratings may be bouncing in the 20%-30% range by then.

So what part of the 2001 dream team and its "vision" of the world are we left with? To answer this, you first have to realize that yesterday's electoral "wave" of repudiation is hardly an American phenomenon. It's global and, if anything, we were way late into the water.

All you have to do is look at the latest polling figures (which are but extensions of previous, similar polls) to see that wave in country after country.

The most recent international survey of opinion -- in Britain, Canada, Israel, and Mexico -- found that Bush's America is viewed as "a threat to world peace by its closest neighbors and allies." In Britain, the land of the "special relationship," only Osama bin Laden outranks our President as a global "danger to peace." While he comes in a dozen points behind bin Laden, he does manage to best Kim Jong Il, North Korea's grim leader, as well as those shining stars of the diplomatic firmament, the President of Iran and the leader of Hezbollah. And these are the countries most likely to have positive views of the U.S.

As hectorer-in-chief, George W. Bush has, hands down, used the word "must" more than any combination of presidents in our history. Only recently, he repeatedly told the North Koreans that they must not develop (and then test) nuclear weapons; he told the Iranians that they must halt their nuclear program; and his minions told the Nicaraguans that they must not vote for former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The results: The North Koreans tested a weapon; the Iranians went right on enriching uranium; and the Nicaraguans, poverty-stricken and threatened with nothing short of economic ruin if their democratic vote went into the wrong column, simply ignored him.

In fact, the global part of the election was long over by November 7, 2006. For vast majorities abroad, the vision of the U.S. as an Outlaw Empire is nothing new at all. The wave here has perhaps only begun to rise, but here too those presidential "musts" (along with the President's designation of the Democrats as little short of "enemy noncombatants") have begun to lose their effect. Hence the presidential plebiscite of yesterday.

No matter what else flows from it, the fact that it happened is of real significance. A majority of the American people -- those who voted anyway -- did not ratify Bush's Outlaw Empire. They took a modest step toward sanity. But what will follow?

Here, briefly, are five "benchmark" questions to ask when considering the possibilities of the final two years of the Bush administration's wrecking-ball regime:

Will Iraq Go Away? The political maneuvering in Washington and Baghdad over the chaos in Iraq was only awaiting election results to intensify. Desperate call-ups of more Reserves and National Guards will go out soon. Negotiations with Sunni rebels, coup rumors against the Maliki government, various plans from James Baker's Iraq Study Group and Congressional others will undoubtedly be swirling. Yesterday's plebiscite (and exit polls) held an Iraqi message. It can't simply be ignored. But nothing will matter, when it comes to changing the situation for the better in that country, without a genuine commitment to American withdrawal, which is not likely to be forthcoming from this President and his advisors any time soon. So expect Iraq to remain a horrifying, bloody, devolving fixture of the final two years of the Bush administration. It will not go away. Bush (and Rove) will surely try to enmesh Congressional Democrats in their disaster of a war. Imagine how bad it could be if -- with, potentially, years to go -- the argument over who "lost" Iraq has already begun.

Is an Attack on Iran on the Agenda? Despite all the alarums on the political Internet about a pre-election air assault on Iran, this was never in the cards. Even the hint of an attack on Iranian "nuclear facilities" (which would certainly turn into an attempt to "decapitate" the Iranian regime from the air) would send oil prices soaring. The Republicans were never going to run an election on oil selling at $120-$150 a barrel. This will be no less true of election year 2008. If Iran is to be a target, 2007 will be the year. So watch for the pressures to ratchet up on this one early in the New Year. This is madness, of course. Such an attack would almost certainly throw the Middle East into utter chaos, send oil prices through the roof, possibly wreck the global economy, cause serious damage in Iran, not fell the Iranian government, and put U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq in perilous danger.

Given the administration record, however, all this is practically an argument for launching such an attack. (And don't count on the military to stop it, either. They're unlikely to do so.) Failing empires have certainly been known to lash out or, as neocon writer Robert Kagan put the matter recently in a Washington Post op-ed, "Indeed, the preferred European scenario [of a Democratic Congressional victory] -- 'Bush hobbled' -- is less likely than the alternative: ‘Bush unbound.' Neither the president nor his vice president is running for office in 2008. That is what usually prevents high-stakes foreign policy moves in the last two years of a president's term." So when you think about Iran, think of Bush unbound.

Are the Democrats a Party? If Rovian plans for a Republican Party ensconced in Washington for eons to come now look to be in tatters, the Democrats have retaken the House (and possibly the Senate) largely as the not-GOP Party. The election may leave the Republicans with a dead presidency and a leading candidate for 2008 wedded to possibly the least popular war in our history; the Democrats may arrive victorious but without the genuine desire for a mandate to lead.

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats in recent years were not, in any normal sense, a party at all. They were perhaps a coalition of four or five or six parties (some trailing hordes of pundits and consultants, but without a base). Now, with the recruitment of so many ex-Republicans and conservatives into their House and Senate ranks, they may be a coalition of six or seven parties. Who knows? They have a genuine mandate on Iraq and a mandate on oversight. What they will actually do -- what they are capable of doing (other than the normal money, career, and earmark-trading in Washington) -- remains to be seen. They will be weak, the surroundings fierce and strong.

Will We Be Ruled by the Facts on the Ground? In certain ways, it may hardly matter what happens to which party. By now -- and this perhaps represents another kind of triumph for the Bush administration -- the facts on the ground are so powerful that it would be hard for any party to know where to begin. Will we, for instance, ever be without a second Defense Department, the so-called Department of Homeland Security, now that a burgeoning $59 billion a year private "security" industry with all its interests and its herd of lobbyists in Washington has grown up around it? Not likely in any of our lifetimes.

Will an ascendant Democratic Party dare put on a diet the ravenous Pentagon, which now feeds off two budgets -- its regular, near-half-trillion dollar Defense budget and a regularized series of multibillion dollar "emergency" supplemental appropriations, which are now part of life on the Hill. What this means is that the defense budget is not what we wage our wars on or pay for a variety of black operations (not to speak of earmarks galore) with. Don't bet your bottom dollar that this will get better any time soon either. In fact, I have my doubts that a Democratic Congress with a Democratic president in tow could even do something modestly small like shutting down Guantanamo, no less begin to deal with the empire of bases that undergirds our failing Outlaw Empire abroad. So, from time to time, take your eyes off what passes for politics and check out the facts on the ground. That way you'll have a better sense of where our world is actually heading.

What Will Happen When the Commander-in-Chief Presidency and the Unitary Executive Theory Meets What's Left of the Republic? The answer on this one is relatively uncomplicated and less than three months away from being in our faces; it's the Mother of All Constitutional Crises. But writing that now, and living with the reality then, are two quite different things.

So when the new Congress arrives in January, buckle your seatbelts and wait for the first requests for oversight information from some investigative committee; wait for the first subpoenas to meet Cheney's men in some dark hallway. Wait for this crew to feel the "shackles" and react. Wait for this to hit the courts -- even a Supreme Court that, despite the President's best efforts, is probably still at least one justice short when it comes to unitary-executive-theory supporters. I wouldn't even want to offer a prediction on this one. But a year down the line, anything is possible.

So we've finally had our plebiscite, however covert, on the failing Outlaw Empire of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But what about their autocratic inclinations at home. How will that play out?

Will it be: All hail, Caesar, we who are about to dive back into prime-time programming.

Or will it be: All the political hail is about to pelt our junior caesars as we dive back into prime-time programming?

Stay tuned.
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