President George W. Bush at the opening of the 58th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
I don’t quite remember who made the comparison, or what segment of the political spectrum the person occupied,1 but this individual once likened former United States President Bill Clinton to one of those excessively needy dogs that continues to jump-up on people, slobber, and frantically wag its tail no matter how often its big wet nose is smacked with a rolled newspaper by its brutish owner. The idea behind the analogy was that Clinton spent far too much time craving affection and worrying about being liked, when he should have been more focused on the difficult decisions that are part of governing. In trying to please too many constituencies,2 he was diluting whatever progressive programs the Democrats had left, or so the reasoning might go.
President George W. Bush is an entirely different political animal from Clinton. Nevertheless, Bush’s September 23rd appearance before the United Nations General Assembly reminded me of that vivid, if somewhat gratuitously cruel, description of Clinton, because it has its metaphoric usefulness when also applied to Bush.3 To complete the canine metaphor, Bush’s tail didn’t wag an inch when he marched into the UN or strutted up to the podium for his pre-scripted press conference last March devoted to the imminent war in Iraq;4 rather, with hind legs firmly flexed from years of dedicated jogging, Bush’s tail unwaveringly pointed straight to the heavens. His words, moreover, had all the precision of a dog’s bark.
Bush inherited from Clinton an empire that contrary to immediate appearances experienced only a momentary shudder as a result of the attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon.5 It is, however, an empire feeling the pain of its prolonged occupation of Iraq, which is why Bush was at the UN in the first place. But he wasn’t there to pass around the proverbial hat for cash, troops, or resolutions. He’s left that task to the thoroughly discredited Secretary of State Colin Powell, who for unknown reasons has always been seen as a morally upstanding guy, despite lying for his superiors at least since the My Lai massacre. Powell’s laughable slide show before the UN in February—which the Guardian in England reported Powell himself knew was a charade—should thoroughly dispel any remaining shred of his credibility.
But credibility is largely symbolic these days, and the problem with symbols is that, well, they’re symbolic. The collapse of the Twin Towers and the subsequent extension of US military imperialism work to empty language of its symbolic capacities; contrary to the standard analysis, they don’t suddenly make everything symbolic.7 There’s a strong hostility in the Bush administration toward language’s dialogical component, which means there’s a strong hostility to the way language produces meaning8—a process that is always social, and always begins with dialogue. In this sense, Bush’s notorious troubles with syntax and his malapropisms make him the perfect figurehead to lead the administration.9 Although Bush’s linguistic pratfalls may be easy targets for criticism and even mockery, they also ingeniously—if unintentionally—help disguise the fact that the administration’s willfully imprecise use of language conceals a very coherent strategy of aggressive unilateralism that was carefully developed in the years preceding Bush’s presidency.
Similarly, and perhaps more obviously, entire US domestic and foreign policies and programs are hidden behind Bush’s obsessive use of the word "terrorists," which is beginning to sound like a persistent cough he should think about getting a second opinion on. As mentioned, the attacks of 9/11, far from being the reason for the formulation and implementation of these policies and programs, were instead the pretext the administration had been looking for to strengthen its military presence in Central Asia and the Middle East and clamp down on dissent and civil liberties at home.11 This is pretty much indisputable. The attacks were also an excuse to continue the Clinton administration’s mode of flaunting the will of the UN, as demonstrated only a couple years earlier during the war in Kosovo.
In Bush’s speech on September 23rd, he reiterated his with us or against us, black and white moral vision for the world, thereby eliding the massive gray area in language where dialogue, debate, and meaning-making occur. In revealing how much of current US foreign policy is really just the perpetuation of an approach that originated after World War II, Bush spoke of Afghanistan as "a decent and just society" synonymously with its being "a nation fully joined in the war against terror"; in so doing, he utilized a logic that mimicked US support for vicious dictators during the Cold War as a championing of democratic principles,12 which after the collapse of the Soviet Union was transformed by the neo-liberal universalist Clinton into a conflation of free markets with democracy.13 Again, as apocalyptically spectacular as Osama bin Laden meant the hijackings to be, it’s essential not to isolate them from this larger historical continuum.
What might actually rupture this continuum? An even more frightening terrorist attack? Doubtful. The US military bombing every country harboring potential threats to its interests? Obviously not.14 The end of US hegemony is more likely to be found in the inevitable pollinations US imperialism entails, including the export of its version of global capitalism. Specifically, with the move of manufacturing production out of the US, a massive trade imbalance, the artificial inflation of the US dollar as a global currency, and the financing by other countries of both the US deficit and its purchasing capability, the US is poised to be overtaken by regional economies with firmer and more rapidly expanding economic conditions. To take one example, not only does the US maintain enormous trade deficits with much of Asia, but the region lends the US a portion of the money keeping its economy afloat. This double negative sum can only be maintained for so long until the illusion is unveiled—with the accompanying burst bubble—and the US has to make fundamental adjustments to its economy, and/or China and Southeast Asia supplants the US as a worldwide economic and political15 power.
During the Middle Ages, Europe and North America were frontiers on Asia’s flourishing society, and it’s not unreasonable to assume this might happen again, albeit in a different configuration. But instead of simply shifting from one part of the globe to another dominance over an economic system that has revealed itself to be profoundly inequitable under past and present management,17 maybe there’s an opportunity for another kind of future. In his own address at the opening of the UN General Assembly, President Lula da Silva of Brazil spoke of the deeper causes underlying a climate of terror: poverty, disenfranchisement, and, most acutely, that most material of all material conditions—hunger. As Lula averred: "It is time to call peace by its true name: social justice."18 It’s a contradiction to think that social justice can be imposed. It’s also crucial not to lose sight of the notion—as bin Laden’s 9/11 assaults did in so many ways—that certain forms of resistance are actually complicities with larger historical orders.
- Though I have a suspicion it may have been Alexander Cockburn.
- Further encouraged by presidential advisor Dick Morris’ obsessive poll-taking, and in the wake of Clinton’s failed healthcare initiative.
- It’s one of the many perplexities of political life in the US that the Right could whip itself up into red-faced spasms of indignation over Clinton’s lifestyle indiscretions while remaining deaf and dumb when confronted with the much more destructive lies the Bush administration has disseminated on a global scale.
- The administration made a ballyhooed point of telling how Bush magnanimously dismissed his advisors and preppers in the moments leading up to the press conference so that he could spend a little time gathering his thoughts before such an important public appearance. But this tidbit serves to partially obscure an awareness that the press conference was scripted beforehand, right down to the order in which reporters were allowed to ask questions (Bush himself admitted as much during the press conference). This, in turn, renders fairly pathetic the faux profundity of Bush’s brief spell alone with his pre-prepared thoughts.
- It should be clear by now that the events of 9/11, far from signaling a rupture in US domestic and foreign policy, were a rubberstamp for plans already in place beforehand, specifically those drafted in the mid-’90s by neo-cons Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and other members of the Project for the New American Century, as well as those dreamt by John Ashcroft in his darkest Missouri-defeated sleep. Even the Bush administration no longer tries to blame the current economic recession (and as far as employment opportunities go, it’s a full-fledged depression) on 9/11, as it too was in full swing before the events of that day.
- To say nothing of the diplomatic and juridical circles run around him by his French counterpart, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.
- The relatives and friends of the innocent victims of 9/11 are among the minority for whom everything irrevocably changed in one day in a manner that should shame Bush, the Republican National Committee, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former NYC police commissioner Bernard Kerik (currently in way, way over his head setting up civilian security in Baghdad: it’s one thing to unconstitutionally harass African-American teenagers on the streets of New York City; it’s a totally different story when it comes to fighting trained Islamic militants), all of whom exploited 9/11 in order to resuscitate plummeting political fortunes and line their wallets with the blood of the victims. For much of the rest of the US, it’s back to business as usual + an American flag sticker on the family car.
- In terms of propagandizing its messages, this may be the most visually oriented administration ever—think toppled Saddam Hussein statues, staged aircraft carrier landings, Jessica Lynch’s "rescue," etc.
- It’s also important to note that they make him more human, more fallible; like Clinton’s weaknesses, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
- Geography plays a secondary role. Texan Bush’s use of Wild West clichés—"Wanted dead or alive," "Smoke ‘em out," "Come an’ get ‘em"—is a cheap imitation of the low esteem in which language is frequently held in the Hollywood Western, especially those featuring Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name character. When asked his opinion about an experimental theater and dance performance overseen by Václav Havel at a NATO summit meeting in Prague last year, Donald Rumsfeld replied: "I didn’t understand anything. I’m from Chicago." More recently, when queried by journalists about the potential for a diminished role in Iraq’s reconstruction activities after National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was appointed head of the Iraq Stabilization Group, Rumsfeld huffed: "I think, with the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs and what’s going on in California, one could find something more important than that."
- Which helps explain some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the administration’s involvement in, or foreknowledge of, the attacks. But isn’t it damning and incriminating enough that Osama bin Laden was a one-time darling of the CIA, and that right up until 9/11 the US continued to fund and support favored Islamic militants?
- The support for dictators and the uncritical acceptance of those countries pledging—if not exactly actualizing—their support in the war against terrorism are united in Pakistan’s political leadership.
- Among many instances, Clinton used this language in relation to fledging territories carved out of the former Yugoslavia.
- It can barely handle occupying two of the weakest nations on the planet in Afghanistan and Iraq. Besides, the US is usually smart enough to prefer economic colonization to military occupation (and after the Vietnam War realized it would probably have a better success rate with the former approach). This difference between economic colonization and military occupation distinguishes the Clinton and Bush administrations, and is an outlook the Bush administration is being forced to reconsider—hence, Rumsfeld’s demotion.
- And cultural.
- This is why scholars and pundits have been pointing to China as the country with which the US is headed for its biggest—possibly militaristic—21st-century showdown (China is undergoing the kind of colossal improvements to infrastructure that the US underwent in the ’30s, ’40s, and ‘50s, though it’s ambitiously trying to finish them in a single decade). The Association of South East Nations’ recent endorsement of a free trade bloc in Southeast Asia that eventually could be enlarged to encompass more than half of the world’s population will only further displace the US economy, forcing the US to rely more and more on desperate exertions of military might to maintain its hegemony.
- Is it unreasonable to hope that the socialist principles at the heart of former Communist countries such as China and the Soviet Union might somehow temper the excesses of competitive capitalism? Is it already too late in Russia?
- The Bush administration’s twisted awareness of this idea is signaled by its desire to establish for Iraq an equivalent to the Marshall Plan (including, irony of ironies, the potential for Iraqis to have access to universal healthcare), when it just as desperately needs one back at "home."
Alan Gilbert is a poet and writer whose most recent book of poems is The Everyday Life of Design.