The Cult of Personality 5b: Militarizing America
In the first few months of the Bush II Administration they seemed to be floundering, mostly pre-occupied with cutting off American participation in every international treaty. The dogmatic unilateralism that was to poison the Second Gulf War and its aftermath was already apparent, made crystal clear when they pulled out of the International Children’s Rights Treaty at the request of global corporations who used children in their overseas factories. They were certain enough what they didn’t want to do, and certain of what they did want to do; they were less certain of how to do any of it. The Middle East situation was imploding under Sharon’s hardline tactics, but W wasn’t interested; he talked to Sharon when Ariel called him but would promise him nothing; when Arafat requested his intervention, or at least that he take a phone call to discuss the Palestinian view, W couldn’t be bothered–he was on vacation.
The only initiative in which anyone could interest him was cutting taxes for the oligarchy–a Republican core-value since the day the income tax was instituted. That, he was willing and even eager to work on. Taking advantage of the traditional honeymoon and Democratic reluctance to anger their corporate donors, Bush and the hardline Pubs in the Congress rammed through a $$$Trillion$$$$ tax give-away to the richest 1% in the name of “jump-starting” the economy. It was their only accomplishment in those early months, and for a while it looked to be their last–W had gone back to sleep. He was waiting for The Moment that his god had promised him when he was born-again, The Moment when the door to his destiny would be opened unto him and he would step into the role he was sure God had assigned to him as the Republican FDR.
On September 11th, 2001, The Moment came.
I was far less impressed than many others by the way he handled that tragic event. His seminal speech to the nation was larded with cliches and stock phrases, and his no doubt Rove-inspired instant use of the rubble for photo ops and promises he had no intention of keeping (his promise of $20B in aid to the city was quickly cut by Congressional Pubs to $5B and he even fought that, and his promise of Federal money to help pay police and firefighters and update their equipment never materialized at all) showed breath-taking cynicism at a level even Richard Nixon never stooped to. But the worst part, to me, was his automatically militaristic response; rather than treat this terrorist incident as a police matter in the way that the rest of the world had learned, quite successfully, to do, Bush proposed a military invasion of Afghanistan. He seemed to have little real understanding of the realities of global terrorism, preferring instead to cast the event as if it were Pearl Harbor: a sneak attack by another organized state rather than by a clearly independent terrorist group with ties to a number of different governments.
This lack of sophistication and his comfortable identification with simplistic and inaccurate analyses of the global terrorist threat was a direct result of the influence of neocon thinkers like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, and Gary Schmitt who for years have defined the problem almost exclusively with terms like “state-sponsored terrorism”, insisting that terrorism couldn’t be effectively fought without eliminating the regimes they believed were supporting those terrorists–and eliminating them by military means, by far their favorite response. (You can hear Richard Perle make this argument during a panel on Neoconservatism sponsored by the Hudson Institute; the link comes via Josh Marshall, who was the only centrist on the panel.) Other options, as we now know, were never seriously considered by anyone in the Bush Admin except Powell, and his views were roundly defeated in the first day or two after the attack. Perle, during the panel mentioned above, even insists that no other viable option was available, and that even if Gore had been elected he would have been forced by circumstances to the same actions, though “it may have taken longer”.
This is not the place to make the case that other Western nations who have suffered terrorist attacks have been very successful in treating such attacks as a police matter, systematically capturing and eliminating one terrorist group after another during the past 30 years, or that global terrorism finds its financing far more often from rich, sympathetic individuals than from govts whose assistance has usually been more symbolic than real. Whatever the weaknesses or inaccuracies in the neocon vision may be, what’s important here is that Bush bought into their belief that terrorism could be successfully fought militarily, and that he bought into that belief because it dovetailed nicely with the ultraconservative goal of getting people to identify the President more as the Commander-in-Chief of the US military than as the people’s civilian representative.
The invasion of Afghanistan began the process of militarizing America by allowing conservatives to begin defining every issue, domestic or foreign, in terms of its effect on “the war on terrorism” (WOT, in bloggers’ shorthand). It also gave the army of ultra-right commentators an excuse to ratchet up their vitriol, labeling anyone who criticized the war as an “appeaser”, a “leftie kook”, or even a “traitor” (the word that would later be almost universally applied by the far-right to critics of the Second Gulf War and by wingnuts like Ann Coulter to centrist Democrats and anyone else who disagreed with her extreme beliefs). Naturally, discussion of that “effect” more and more began to center around the activities and needs of the Afghan forces and the potential aftermath of the invasion. Given the swiftness of the initial military victory over the Taliban, it might have ended there but for the ultraconservative planners for whom this was only the first step. The Taliban had no sooner retreated than Admin neocons were openly advocating an invasion of Iraq using the since-disproved excuse that Hussein was a heavy Al Qaeda supporter (the WMD argument had not yet reached the prominence it would later occupy as rationale for war).
Ignoring the well-documented animosity between the secular Hussein and the fanatically fundamentalist wahhabism of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, neocons harped on a fictional connection between the two as a way of extending American anger at Afghan terrorists and re-directing it toward the target after which they had been lusting since Bush I’s refusal to invade Iraq a decade before: the world’s second-biggest oil depository. Officials hinted for months that they had proof that Hussein was behind the 9/11 attack, laying the groundwork for a new invasion theater. They weren’t about to let “War” slip from its prominence as political rationale; it was their strongest weapon in the coming Congressional elections.
In an essay in last October’s Harper’s Magazine (not available online) titled, “We’re in the Army Now”, Kevin Baker pointed out that between March of 2001 and the off-year elections of 2002, Bush had spoken “either at a military facility or to a specifically military audience an astounding 45 times”, an early indication of where his ultraconservative handlers were heading. As Baker put it:
George Bush’s presidency has been from the beginning…a gung-ho, in-your-face approach to governance that has refused any hint of compromise and that has already brought about a seismic transformation of American politics. …[T]he swearing-in of the first truly Republican-controlled Congress to serve under a Republican president in almost 50 years [was] a stunning triumph achieved by an off-year election strategy that boldly repudiated the old notion that all politics are local and based its entire campaign on issues of national security–and on George Bush himself.It was a strategy that depended in large part on deploying the military as a campaign prop. Bush stumped at military bases throughout the 2002 elections, blowing in dramatically on Air Force One to pump his latest tax cut or the Homeland Security plan… There was a tactical advantage to these venues–no American president over the last 70 years has been less comfortable with unscripted appearances before the general public, and by campaigning at military bases Bush’s handlers could assure that his crowds would always be restricted to jubilant, flag-waving supporters–but above all there was the opportunity for the commander in chief to interact personally with our men and women in uniform. He could throw his arms around their necks, shake their hands, hug them, dress up like them. Their physical presence and their…approval erased any remaining public memory of Bush’s own adroit dodge of the Vietnam War, or the fact that he may officially be a deserter to this day after going AWOL from the Air National Guard unit he managed to join during that war….
IOW, Bush had managed to successfully identify himself with “the most revered institution in the country”. Baker quotes a Gallup poll in which 76% of Americans claimed to have “a great deal of confidence” in the military as opposed to the next-highest category, religious leaders (45%), and way higher than their confidence in Congress (29%). “Americans,” Baker wrote, “now see the military as the last refuge of many democratic values in a society that seems ever more shallow and materialistic.” He’s right, and while the neocons can’t be entirely blamed for engineering that feeling, they are certainly guilty of exploiting it.
Why the emphasis on identifying with the military, aside from the obvious political reasons? Baker pointed, as I did earlier in this series, to the origins of the Republican Party:
For all their supposed conservatism, the Republicans have always been the true radical party in America. From its inception in 1854…the GOP [has been] a repository for all sorts of crackpot notions and secret societies–the Know-Nothings and the Sons of Sam and the anti-Masons, the Sabbatarians and the Prohibitionists. Their leading, shared characteristic, what brought them together as a movement in the first place, was their willingness to try to define for the first time just what a true American was–and to enforce that definition by the sword if necessary.From its inception, the GOP has been our party of blood and iron….(emphasis added)
Explains a lot, doesn’t it? For 150 years the True Republicans have imagined themselves to be keepers of the True American flame, arbiters of what is or is not “American”, what does or does not constitute real “patriotism”, what will or will not be allowed to become part of the American landscape. Baker quotes Walter Karp from The Politics of War:
Republicans share a belief that their party is not a faction, not a group, not a wing, but a synonym for patriotism, another name for the nation.
Seen against this background, we can begin to understand that Ann Coulter’s insistent labeling of liberals and Democrats as “traitors” isn’t a mutation but the expression of a long-buried ancestral bloodline passed from John Brown to Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay like an inherited gene, characteristic of the breed. Moderate Republicans are despised almost as much as liberals, more in some circles, precisely because they are viewed as having betrayed the core values of faith in the Republican mission by accepting conflicting views as at least worthy of serious consideration–blasphemy, in the True Republican dogma.
Their identification with the military also now makes perfect sense, for it is the military they will need to use to enforce their world-view on unbelievers, to punish the un-American, and to pursue their objectives abroad. However, none of that would be feasible unless the great body of American citizens could be trained to see the military as their direct representative, the unambiguous expression of their own majority will, the protector of their interests and the ultimate personification of American pride. And the easiest and quickest way to train the public to that belief was to invest them in a single symbol: the President as primarily Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and only incidentally as the civilian leader of a democratic government. It was The Moment that made all that possible for the first time in American history.
For the first time, Republicans found themselves more or less in charge of the federal government at a moment when a stunning new foreign threat presented itself. They immediately embraced the crisis as their own, applying the sorts of radical remedies–both at home and abroad–they have often advocated in the past but have never been able to fully put into effect.
The famous flight to the carrier deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln was thus not merely an isolated photo opportunity seized for political advantage–though it was that, too–but a deliberate attempt to blur if not destroy the line between military and civilian rule that George Washington had established in the first years of the Republic by refusing to wear his uniform in public after he was elected. Washington was adamant in insisting that there be no confusion of roles–America was to be a democracy, not a de facto monarchy or a military state. As a student of Roman history, he was aware of the mischief, not to say destruction, that could be achieved when political figures also held military rank–or were perceived as such–and he rejected even the appearance of melding the two.
George W. Bush has instead embraced that melding, encouraged that confusion. And we have apparently gone along in the name of “supporting the President in a time of crisis.” With the passage of PATRIOT I and the apparently imminent passage of PATRIOT II, we are now well into the process of accepting the notion that the President can cancel the Constitution in the name of protecting us from external threats provided we trust him. It is our personal approval of Bush himself that has opened the door to True Republicans wanting to militarize American society, and reversing that trend will require discrediting Bush himself.