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The Great White War

[by Ross Levine ]

Call me skeptical. Not since his incessant salvos on Social Security has the President been so enamored of the "bull"-y pulpit. He's either hidden away doing the "hard work" he so often reminds us that he does or he's all over the air waves, repeating a single message ad nauseam until our natural immunity to his spin is beaten down. This past week or so, that message has been victory in Iraq.

I've often compared Bush to old Ahab, hot on the flukes of the evil white cetacean, or in the President's case, the purveyors of world tyranny. It has now become abundantly clear that we have a leader with OCD. Here's how the diagnosis was made.

George W. Bush was just a regular guy in early 2001, content to help his well-off friends while advancing a $300 bribe to the rest of us. Then came the day when it seemed, for a brief moment, that the United States was about to be destroyed. For most of our history, two vast oceans have kept us at an acceptable distance from the rest of the dangerous world, but that September, those oceans suddenly seemed to dry up. There we were smoking and bleeding because some dude with three names and a turban decided, like some international Charles Manson, that it was time to sow a war between Muslims and the West. Although our commander in chief looked a little befuddled in Florida that day, he was soon on point at Ground Zero with megaphone and hardhat, ready to launch his Orwellian war on terror. He was like the uninvolved parent who, after something really bad happens to his child, goes on a determined crusade to stop it from every happening again.

That crusade continues more or less unabated four and a half years later. It's been a campaign that has grown in scope, and reflects the President's "madness" in both senses of the word -- his anger, that the country was so brutally assaulted on his watch, and his insanity, his obsessive compulsion to remodel the globe.

First there was Afghanistan, realm of the Taliban, where terrorists trained and works of priceless art were destroyed because those in power did not appreciate their origins.  Where people died buried to their necks while stones were lobbed at their brains. Nobody in America or even the United Nations objected to the invasion of Afghanistan; this was a reasonable response to a despicable attack.

But the President and his staff grew greedy. With Afghanistan subdued, it was time to think bigger. Bush's vision was expanding to encompass the whole Middle East. And why the Middle East? Not simply because it was Al Qaeda's home court, but because the Middle East is to the United States what seals are to the Eskimo -- the key to survival. The President insists the war in Iraq is not about oil and he's right -- that would be like going to war to preserve the right to breathe. No, oil is so much a part of our national landscape that we hardly give it a thought. Like water, it's ubiquitous, and we take its necessity for granted. It may cost more than H2O, but when your whole structure of living depends on something, you shell out the extra bucks and try not to think about it. The house in the suburbs, the pretty car, the kids shuttled to school and soccer practice, the jet trip to Italy -- oil makes it all happen. We tend to focus on the prettier, more exciting aspects of life and not the mundane underpinnings that allow those aspects to exist.

So it is with the President.  Instead of oil, he saw democracy. He saw a region of the world beset by one dictatorship after another -- Egypt, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq. So why'd he pick Iraq? Maybe we still had lots of maps left over from the first Gulf War.  Maybe he did have some filial axe to grind, the need to do Daddy one better. Maybe he thought that, of all the suffering peoples in the Arab world, freeing the Iraqis would be the most dramatic coup, the most likely to inflame feelings of Islamic Ameri-philia. Maybe Iraq was just his best shot at making the WMD rationale stick.

Whatever it was, the President soon managed to take the nation to war. When he got on the tube to announce its beginning in March of 2003, no matter what he says today about no President wanting war, he did want it, bad.  It was his moment to rise from mediocrity into the ranks of planet-shapers like Roosevelt and Churchill. He certainly did get to play the gunslinger riding into town to clean up the mess. The United States has a huge army and military arsenal, and there has to come a time every now and then to put it to work.  Sure, there must have been some thought to the consequences, but jeez, it's kind of like making a decision in your life and then going for it, come hell or high water. It's the high of taking action, the excitement generated by possibility. What's that you say? Maybe entering a marathon is that kind of high, but starting a war? What kind of high is that? Don't people get killed? Maimed? (Tortured?) Doesn't it mean bombs and bullets? Isn't that what a war is?

Well, alas, this war, three years later, has proven exactly like all the others. And it hardly seems like that was what the President and his cabinetry were expecting. No, they expected a reorganization, not a war. More of a corporate shakedown type of thing. They were obsessed with spreading democracy and taking control of foreign threats and making the Middle East more acquiescent to American hegemony than they were about securing territory, averting chaos, distributing equipment and armor, and subduing restless populations. They were more concerned with the curb appeal than they were with the actual foundation. They had a vision, and even as it slips away, they simply tweak that vision rather than question it or acknowledge its deficiencies and take a different tack.

Let's put it this way -- after Nine-Eleven, the President put on a pair of glasses through which the world looked very different.  The world keeps changing, but he has yet to alter his prescription, resulting in a number of distortions. Many in America are begging him to remove the glasses entirely, and see the world as it once was, a place not so easily bent to the will of one nation or one man. But for Bush to take off those specs now would be like Oedipus ripping out his own eyeballs, and W. is certainly not the Oedipal type, not a man who responds to a heretofore unseen truth with an act of self-mutilation. Our President would rather mutilate reality than himself. He would rather declare that we will have victory in Iraq and that he will accept nothing less. Victory in Iraq means no more terrorist insurgents but a stable, U.S.-friendly society with no bones to pick with the West, happy to sell us our oil and receive a few Starbucks and Wal-Marts in return. Not a place conducive to radical Islamists fighting for their caliphate or masterminding plots against our citizens. This is what Bush says he believes in, and assures us he will accept no other outcome.

The irony is, as revealed in his recent news conference, that he apparently doesn't believe this is going to happen on his watch. He says that the decision to remove troops from Iraq "will be decided by future presidents," not himself. Very clever. Ahab will pursue his whale, but really doesn't expect to nab it before he leaves the Pequod. Some other captain will have to subdue the wicked beast. This is what you call a somewhat cynical form of OCD -- you know it's an obsession but you absolve yourself of any responsibility for reining it in.  You hold onto it because it feels good to have something to make you feel strong and important. In defiance, you become great. Even if you defy the people you lead, and reality itself, there is power in it -- the power to exercise power, to say, no matter what you all say, no matter if I'm right or not, I have the power to stay the course, to make progress my way, to stand down when I'm good and ready to stand down, to hold onto my vision as long as possible and let others give up on it, since I won't. Not on your life -- or your son's or daughter's, or the next crop of civilians laid waste by a suicide car bomb or sectarian killing spree.

Is the President of the United States powerful enough to operate so defiantly? Or is he still drawing his power for this war from us, the American people, whom the polls keep insisting have tired of it? Yes, I'm afraid we can't blame it all on George Bush. Just look around; feast your eyes upon the farmland and hillsides covered with new developments far from the central city, demanding the service of oil-hungry motorcars. Unless you live in certain urban areas well served by public transportation, you know the car remains king. The suburban houses keep going up and the land keeps getting paved over and that's not because of the President. It's because we, as a society, have bought into a dream that the likes of George Bush, tilting at his windmills, is required to uphold. After all, it's not like everyone in the U.S. is prepared to lower his or her dependence on gasoline enough to put OPEC in the red. That would take a huge sacrifice, and perhaps destroy our economy, based as it is on super-consumption.  We'd be walking and biking more, taking less glucophage, having fewer gastric bypasses, redesigning our whole society. What a fantasy, no? It's so much easier to redesign other societies. When you're addicted to oil, you don't go into rehab, you put the pushers in rehab, right? The President could certainly make more of an effort to squeeze some extra MPG from the car companies, but the truth is, we may have to do some of the "hard work" ourselves.

But back to the war -- it is with us and it has evolved. It is no longer a contemplated war but an actual one. Short of hanging Bush for it, we can only accept that he will go into his retirement with a great income and lots of opportunities to putt and pontificate. His twins will not be blown up by a roadside bomb, and he will not, guilt-wracked, retreat to a Texas spider hole. There will be no consequences to his involvement in this affair that will even come close to those of the soldier whose legs have been blown off by an IED. George Bush is a lost cause, and we must try to forget him and focus on the government and country to come. We must dedicate ourselves to what lies on the other side of Baghdad.  The mess that is Iraq today will eventually get cleaned up in its own way, as every human mess does. But will America be able to clean up its own act, or are we now terminal imperialists, ready to lash out against the world rather than pause for some reflection on our own demands and appetites? Can the United States survive in a world it is unable to control? The answer to that will determine whether we are a great nation with the misfortune of having a delusional leader, or a nation not quite ready for a leader who sees things as they really are.

March 27, 2006

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