May 12, 2004
Independent Online

With trembling fingers

Despite the worst foreign policy blunder in American history, George W. Bush
and his millionaire supporters don't know the meaning of the word shame

B Y  H A L  C R O W T H E R

I used to take a drink on occasion with a network newsman famed for his
impenetrable calm--his apparent pulse rate that of a large mammal in deep
hibernation--and in an avuncular moment he advised me that I'd do all right,
in the long run, if I could only avoid the kind of journalism committed to
the keyboard "with trembling fingers." I recognized the wisdom of this
advice and endeavored over the years to write as little as possible when my
blood pressure was soaring and my face was streaked with tears. The lava
flows of indignation ebb predictably with age and hardening arteries, and
nearing three-score I thought I'd never have to take another
tranquilizer--or a double bourbon--to keep my fingers steady on the keys.

I never imagined 2004. It would be sophomoric to say that there was never a
worse year to be an American. My own memory preserves the dread summer of
1968. My parents suffered the consequences of 1941 and 1929, and my
grandfather Jack Allen, who lived through all those dark years, might have
added 1918, with the flu epidemic and the Great War in France that each
failed, very narrowly, to kill him. Drop back another generation or two and
we encounter 1861.

But if this is not the worst year yet to be an American, it's the worst year
by far to be one of those hag-ridden wretches who comment on the American
scene. The columnist who trades in snide one-liners flounders like a stupid
comic with a tired audience; TV comedians and talk-show hosts who try to
treat 2004 like any zany election year have become grotesque, almost
loathsome. Our most serious, responsible newspaper columnists are so stunned
by the disaster in Iraq that they've begun to quote poetry by Rupert Brooke
and Wilfred Owen. They lower their voices, they sound like Army chaplains
delivering eulogies over ranks of flag-draped coffins, under a hard rain
from an iron sky.

Yeats' "blood-dimmed tide is loosed." The war news had already deteriorated
from bad to tragic to pre-apocalyptic, which left no suitable category for
these excruciating reports on the sexual torture of Iraqi prisoners.
Fingers, be still. In less than a year, the morale of the occupying forces
had sunk so low that murder, suicide, rape and sexual harassment became
alarming statistics, and now the warriors of democracy--the emissaries of
civilization--stand accused of every crime this side of cannibalism. Osama
bin Laden has always anathematized America's culture, as well as its
geopolitical influence. To him these atrocities are a sign of Allah's
certain favor, a great moral victory, a vindication of his deepest anger and
darkest crimes.

Where does it go from here? The nightmare misadventure in Iraq is over,
beyond the reach of any reasonable argument, though many more body bags will
be filled. In Washington, chicken hawks will still be squawking about
"digging in" and winning, but Vietnam proved conclusively that no modern war
of occupation would ever be won. Every occupation is doomed. The only way
you "win" a war of occupation is the old-fashioned way, the way Rome finally
defeated the Carthaginians: kill all the fighters, enslave everyone else,
raze the cities and sow the fields with salt.

Otherwise the occupied people will fight you to the last peasant, and why
shouldn't they? If our presidential election fails to dislodge the crazy
bastards who annexed Baghdad, many of us in this country would welcome
regime change by any intervention, human or divine. But if, say, the Chinese
came in to rescue us--Operation American Freedom--how long would any of us,
left-wing or right, put up with an occupying army teaching us Chinese-style
democracy? A guerrilla who opposes an invading army on his own soil is not a
terrorist, he's a resistance fighter. In Iraq we're not fighting enemies but
making enemies. As Richard Clarke and others have observed, every dollar,
bullet and American life that we spend in Iraq is one that's not being spent
in the war on terrorism. Every Iraqi, every Muslim we kill or torture or
humiliate is a precious shot of adrenaline for Osama and al Qaeda.

The irreducible truth is that the invasion of Iraq was the worst blunder,
the most staggering miscarriage of judgment, the most fateful, egregious,
deceitful abuse of power in the history of American foreign policy. If you
don't believe it yet, just keep watching. Apologists strain to dismiss
parallels with Vietnam, but the similarities are stunning. In every action
our soldiers kill innocent civilians, and in every other action apparent
innocents kill our soldiers--and there's never any way to sort them out. And
now these acts of subhuman sadism, these little My Lais.

Since the defining moment of the Bush presidency, the preposterous
flight-suit, Fox News-produced photo-op on the Abraham Lincoln in front of
the banner that read "Mission Accomplished," the shaming truth is that
everything has gone wrong. Just as it was bound to go wrong, as many of us
predicted it would go wrong--if anything more hopelessly wrong than any of
us would have dared to prophesy. Iraq is an epic train wreck, and there's
not a single American citizen who's going to walk away unscathed.

The shame of this truth, of such a failure and so much deceit exposed, would
have brought on mass resignations or votes of no confidence in any free
country in the world. In Japan not long ago, there would have been ritual
suicides, shamed officials disemboweling themselves with samurai swords. Yet
up to this point--at least to the point where we see grinning soldiers
taking pictures of each other over piles of naked Iraqis--neither the
president, the vice president nor any of the individuals who urged and
designed this debacle have resigned or been terminated--or even apologized.
They have betrayed no familiarity with the concept of shame.

Thousands of young Americans are dead, maimed or mutilated, 100 billion has
been wasted and all we've gained is a billion new enemies and a mouthful of
dust--of sand. Chaos reigns, but in the midst of it we have this
presidential election. George Bush has defined himself as a war president,
and it's fitting that he should die by the sword--in fact fall on it, and
quick. But even now the damned polls don't guarantee, or even indicate, his

Conventional wisdom says that an incumbent president with a $200 million war
chest cannot be defeated, and that one who commands a live, bleeding,
suffering army in the field is doubly invincible. By this logic, the most
destructively incompetent president since Andrew Johnson will be rewarded
with a second term. That would probably mean a military draft and more wars
in the oil countries and, under visionaries like Dick Cheney and Paul
Wolfowitz, a chance for the United States to emulate 19th-century Paraguay,
which simultaneously declared war on Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and
fought ferociously until 90 percent of the male population was dead.

What hope then? Impeachment is impossible when the president's party
controls both houses of Congress, though Watergate conspirator John Dean,
who ought to know, claims in his new book that there are compelling legal
arguments for a half-dozen bills of impeachment against George W. Bush. Peer
pressure? At the White House, world opinion gets no more respect than FBI
memos or uncomfortable facts. Many Americans seem unaware that scarcely
anyone on the planet Earth supported the Iraq adventure, no one anywhere
except the 40-50 million Republican loyalists who voted for George Bush in

Among significant world leaders he recruited only Great Britain's Tony
Blair--whose career may be ruined because most Britons disagree with
him--and the abominable Ariel Sharon, that vile tub of blood and corruption
who recently used air-to-ground missiles to assassinate a paraplegic in a
wheelchair at the door of his mosque. (Palestinians quickly squandered any
sympathy or moral advantage they gained from this atrocity by strapping a
retarded 16-year-old into a suicide bomber's kit. Such is the condition of
the human race in the Middle East, variously known as the Holy Land or the
Cradle of Civilization.) Says Sharon, oleaginously, of Bush: "Something in
his soul committed him to act with great courage against world terror."

The rest of the known world, along with the United Nations, has been dead
set against us from the start. But they carry no weight. Thanks to our tax
dollars and the well-fed, strong but not bulletproof bodies of our
children--though mostly children from lower-income families--George Bush and
his lethal team of oil pirates, Cold Warriors and Likudists commands the
most formidable military machine on earth. No nation, with the possible
exception of China, would ever dare to oppose them directly.

But the Chinese aren't coming to save us. Nothing and no one can stop these
people except you and me, and the other 100 million or so American citizens
who may vote in the November election. This isn't your conventional
election, the usual dim-witted, media-managed Mister America contest where
candidates vie for charm and style points and hire image coaches to help
them act more confident and presidential. This is a referendum on what is
arguably the most dismal performance by any incumbent president--and
inarguably the biggest mistake. This is a referendum on George W. Bush,
arguably the worst thing that has happened to the United States of America
since the invention of the cathode ray tube.

One problem with this referendum is that the case against George Bush is
much too strong. Just to spell it out is to sound like a bitter partisan. I
sit here on the 67th birthday of Saddam Hussein facing a haystack of
incriminating evidence that comes almost to my armpit. What matters most,
what signifies? Journalists used to look for the smoking gun, but this time
we have the cannons of Waterloo, we have Gettysburg and Sevastopol, we have
enough gun smoke to cause asthma in heaven. I'm overwhelmed. Maybe I should
light a match to this mountain of paper and immolate myself. On the near
side of my haystack, among hundreds of quotes circled and statistics
underlined, just one thing leaped out at me. A quote I had underlined was
from the testimony of Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg trials, not long
before Hitler's vice-fuhrer poisoned himself in his jail cell:

"It is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a
democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist
dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the
bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they
are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and
exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."

Goering's dark wisdom gained weight when a friend called me and reported
that Vice President Cheney was so violently partisan in his commencement
speech at Westminster College in Missouri--so rabid in his attacks on John
Kerry as an anti-American peace-marching crypto-communist--that the college
president felt obliged to send the student body an e-mail apologizing for
Cheney's coarseness.

If you think it's exceptionally shameless for a man who dodged Vietnam to
play the patriot card against a decorated veteran, remember that Georgia
Republicans played the same card, successfully, against Sen. Max Cleland,
who suffered multiple amputations in Vietnam. In 2001 and 2002, George Bush
and his Machiavelli, Karl Rove, approved political attack ads that showed
the faces of Tom Daschle and other Democratic senators alongside the faces
of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. And somewhere in hell, Goering and
Goebbels toasted each other with a schnapps.

Am I polarized? I've never been a registered Democrat, I'm sick of this
two-party straitjacket, I wish to God it didn't take Yale and a major
American fortune to create a presidential candidate. The only current
Democratic leaders who show me any courage are Nancy Pelosi and old Bob
Byrd--Hillary Clinton has been especially cagy and gutless on this war--and
John Kerry himself may leave a lot to be desired. He deserves your vote not
because of anything he ever did or promises to do, but simply because he did
not make this sick mess in Iraq and owes no allegiance to the sinister
characters who designed it. And because his own "place in history," so
important to the kind of men who run for president, would now rest entirely
on his success in getting us out of it.

Kerry made a courageous choice at least once in his life, when he came home
with his ribbons and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. But Sen. Kerry
could turn out to be a stiff, a punk, an alcoholic and he'd still be a
colossal improvement over the man who turned Paul Wolfowitz loose in the
Middle East. The myth that there was no real difference between Democrats
and Republicans, which I once considered seriously and which Ralph Nader
rode to national disaster four years ago, was shattered forever the day
George Bush announced his cabinet and his appointments for the Department of

I'm aware that there are voters--40 million?--who don't see it this way. I
come from a family of veterans and commissioned officers; I understand
patriots in wartime. If a spotted hyena stepped out of Air Force One wearing
a baby-blue necktie, most Americans would salute and sing "Hail to the
Chief." Cultivating these reliable patriots, President Bush cultivated his
patriots by spending $46 million on media in the month of March alone.
Somehow I'm on his mailing list. (Is that because my late father, with the
same name, was a registered Republican, or can Bush afford to mail his
picture to every American with an established address?) Twice a week I open
an appeal for cash to crush John Kerry and the quisling liberal conspiracy,
and now I own six gorgeous color photographs of the president and his wife.
I'm sure some of my neighbors frame the president's color photographs, and
fill those little blue envelopes he sends us with their hard-earned dollars.

I struggle against the suspicion that so many of my fellow Americans are
conceptually challenged. I want to reason with my neighbors, I want to
engage these lost Americans. What makes you angry, neighbor? What arouses
your suspicions? Does it bother you that this administration made terrorism
a low priority, dismissed key intelligence that might have prevented the
9-11 catastrophe, then exploited it to justify the pre-planned destruction
of Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with al Qaeda? All this is no
longer conjecture, but direct reportage from cabinet-level meetings by the
turncoat insiders Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill.

If the Pentagon ever thought Saddam had "weapons of mass destruction," it
was only because the Pentagon gave them to him. As Kevin Phillips recounts
in American Dynasty, officials of the Reagan and first Bush administrations
eagerly supplied Saddam with arms while he was using chemical weapons on the
Kurds. They twice sent Donald Rumsfeld to court Saddam, in 1983 and 1984,
when the dictator was in the glorious prime of his monsterhood.

This scandal, concurrent with Iran-Contra, was briefly called "Iraqgate,"
and, yes, among the names of those officials implicated you'll find most of
the engineers of our current foreign policy. (They also signaled their
fractious client, Saddam, that it might be all right to overrun part of
Kuwait; you remember what happened when he tried to swallow it all.) Does
any of this trouble you? Does it worry you that Dick Cheney, as president of
the nefarious Halliburton Corporation, sold Iraq $73 million in oilfield
services between 1997 and 2000, even as he plotted with the Wolfowitz
faction to whack Saddam? Or that Halliburton, with its CEO's seat still warm
from Cheney's butt, was awarded unbid contracts worth up to $15 billion for
the Iraq invasion, and currently earns a billion dollars a month from this
bloody disaster? Not to mention its $27.4 million overcharge for our
soldiers' food.

These are facts, not partisan rhetoric. Do any of them even make you
restless? The cynical game these shape-shifters have been playing in the
Middle East is too Byzantine to unravel in 1,000 pages of text. But the
hypocrisy of the White House is palpable, and beggars belief. If there's one
American who actually believes that Operation Iraqi Freedom was about
democracy for the poor Iraqis, then you, my friend, are too dangerously
stupid to be allowed near a voting booth.
Does it bother you even a little that the personal fortunes of all four Bush
brothers, including the president and the governor, were acquired about a
half step ahead of the district attorney, and that the royal family of Saudi
Arabia invested $1.476 billion in those and other Bush family enterprises?
Or, as Paul Krugman points out, that it's much easier to establish links
between the Bush and bin Laden families than any between the bin Ladens and
Saddam Hussein. Do you know about Ahmad Chalabi, the administration's
favorite Iraqi and current agent in Baghdad, whose personal fortune was
established when he embezzled several hundred million from his own bank in
Jordan and fled to London to avoid 22 years at hard labor?

That's just a sampling from my haystack. Maybe I can reach you as an
environmentalist, one who resents the gutting of key provisions in the Clean
Air Act? My own Orange County, chiefly a rural area, was recently added to a
national register of counties with dangerously polluted air. You say you
vote for the president because you're a conservative. Are you sure? I
thought conservatives believed in civil liberties, a weak federal executive,
an inviolable Constitution, a balanced budget and an isolationist foreign
policy. George Bush has an attorney general who drives the ACLU apoplectic
and a vice president who demands more executive privilege (for his energy
seances) than any elected official has ever received. The president wants a
Constitutional amendment to protect marriage from homosexuals, of all
things. Between tax cuts for his high-end supporters and three years playing
God and Caesar in the Middle East, George Bush has simply emptied America's
wallet, with a $480 billion federal deficit projected for 2004, and the tab
on Iraq well over $100 billion and running.

"A lot of so-called conservatives today don't know what the word means,"
Barry Goldwater said in 1994, when the current cult of right-wing radicals
and "neocons" had begun to define and assert themselves. Goldwater was my
first political hero, before I was old enough to read his flaws. But his was
the conservatism of the wolf--the lone wolf--and this is the conservatism of

All it takes to make a Bush conservative is a few slogans from talk radio
and pickup truck bumpers, a sneer at "liberals" and maybe a name-dropping
nod to Edmund Burke or John Locke, whom most of them have never read. Sheep
and sheep only could be herded by a ludicrous but not harmless cretin like
Rush Limbaugh, who has just compared the sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners to
"a college fraternity prank" (and who once called Chelsea Clinton "the
family dog"--you don't have to worry about shame when you have no brain).

I don't think it's accurate to describe America as polarized between
Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives. It's
polarized between the people who believe George Bush and the people who do
not. Thanks to some contested ballots in a state governed by the president's
brother, a once-proud country has been delivered into the hands of liars,
thugs, bullies, fanatics and thieves. The world pities or despises us, even
as it fears us. What this election will test is the power of money and media
to fool us, to obscure the truth and alter the obvious, to hide a great
crime against the public trust under a blood-soaked flag. The most lavishly
funded, most cynical, most sophisticated political campaign in human history
will be out trolling for fools. I pray to God it doesn't catch you.

BACK to Bush-whacked America with more articles