The Curtain in Front of the Man: George Bush and al-Qaida
The Curtain in Front of the Man
“the nature of peoples is variable; and it is easy to persuade them of something, but difficult to keep them in that persuasion. And thus things must be ordered in such a mode that when they no longer believe, one can make them believe by force.”
- Niccolo Machiavelli, 1513
“No one can now doubt the word of America”
- George W. Bush, 2004
January 21st, 2004 was an inauspicious moment in American history. The war in Iraq was devolving into a bloodbath of factional fighting, Afghanistan promised the same fate as the Soviets had found in their earlier forays into Taliban country and a fear of September 11th-style attacks was fresh on the minds of the American public. Galvanised by a surge in Wall Street markets and a renewed sense of capitalistic, nationalist pride, Americans badly needed to hear that their rising lifestyles would not be interrupted by what was perceived as the insidious nature of Islamic fundamentalism. Evangelicals, with one of their own in the White House, hoped for a return to Christian principles in law and social order. Industrialists wanted to know their tax burdens would not be increased by socialist manoeuvring within the health-care system. Neoconservative Republicans wanted to verify their guiding principles were being realized by a leader entrusted to do so. George W. Bush would present these affirmations using a language that denied the usefulness of any contradictory methodology. He would do this by invoking a world paradigm constructed by the neoconservative wing of his party.
In 1997, William Kristol formed the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). This organization was to act as a base for deliberating and producing neoconservative agendas for implementation at the highest levels of the American government. With the election of George W. Bush as President in 2000, a substantial number of PNAC members became embedded in the President’s administration. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Bremer and Elliott Abrams were all active members of PNAC while occupying key positions that would influence Presidential decisions, principles and the language being used to convey a guiding ideology. The mandate of PNAC was clear. First on the list of priorities was the “need to increase defense spending significantly.” In order to achieve this goal, it was necessary for the public to fear a perceived threat great enough to warrant a significant increase in the defence budget. The criminal act perpetrated by Al Qaida on September 11th 2001 provided the substance for this justification. Using traditionally conservative rhetorical tactics, the threat was invoked in an effective public forum.
“America this evening is a nation called to great responsibilities. And we are rising to meet them. As we gather tonight, hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women are deployed across the world in the war on terror. By bringing hope to the oppressed, and delivering justice to the violent, they are making America more secure.”
This is the opening statement of the State of the Union Address of 2004. This prelude continues a State of the Union tradition of invoking a perceived threat and the necessity to challenge it. George Washington, in the first State of the Union Address of 1790, spoke to the danger of “hostile tribes of Indians.” Harry S. Truman, in his State of the Union address of 1951, warned “The threat of world conquest by Soviet Russia endangers our liberty and endangers the kind of world in which the free spirit of man can survive.” Lyndon B. Johnson begins his 1969, State of the Union speech with a warning on “the dangers of nuclear war” and the “great difficulties of dealing with the Communist powers.” This well used and efficient method of designating an enemy to justify an increase in military spending met with success. Six months after delivering this speech, Bush passed a bill allocating 418 billion dollars for the defence budget. This was an 18 percent increase to even the highest cold war military budget.
The next professed goal of PNAC and the neoconservatives was the necessity to “modernize our armed forces for the future.” This target manifested itself in the 2004 State of the Union address with Bush’s commitment to “continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us.” This focus on the need to enable defence inside the United States emphasized the fear of an enemy within America. Moving the enemy from far-off Middle Eastern countries to the neighbourhoods of average Americans acted as a catalyst for a massive overhaul of how Americans perceived defence and defence spending. Suddenly, it was no longer a matter of peacekeeping in foreign nations; it was America that required a larger budget for its own interior defence. The necessity of the Patriot Act was reaffirmed along with a massive budget for homeland security.
PNAC’s compulsion “to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values” reverberated in Bush’s rhetoric on keeping certain foreign nations in check. Following a statement describing the successes in the war on terror, Bush explained the following reasoning behind confronting particular foreign governments:
“As part of the offensive against terror, we are also confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists, and could supply them with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. The United States and our allies are determined: We refuse to live in the shadow of this ultimate danger.”
Ripe with connotations addressed later in this essay, Bush plainly states the need to circumvent a pending “ultimate danger” facing America by challenging any nation he sees as empathetic to political actors hostile to American foreign policy. At the forefront on this list are the nations industrialized enough to manufacture weapons of mass destruction similar to America’s –the only states capable of challenging American hegemonic power.
PNAC’s requirement to “promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad” is met with the rhetoric of the 2004 State of the Union address and America’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In his dialogue concerning the war on terror, Bush asserts how Afghanistan:
“has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school. With help from the new Afghan Army, our coalition is leading aggressive raids against surviving members of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free, and proud, and fighting terror and America is honored to be their friend.”
In the case of Iraq, Bush announces:
“[America is] working with Iraqis and the United Nations to prepare for a transition to full Iraqi sovereignty by the end of June. As democracy takes hold in Iraq, the enemies of freedom will do all in their power to spread violence and fear. They are trying to shake the will of our country and our friends, but the United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins. The killers will fail, and the Iraqi people will live in freedom.”
These two concrete examples provide clear evidence of collusion between PNAC and a Bush administration policy of militarily imposing American political values on countries that hold conflicting political persuasions to what America presents. PNAC and its neoconservative founders have contrived exactly what these American values should be and Bush emulates their agenda with political force. Ronald Reagan, another staunch neoconservative, employed this exact same methodology when mobilizing America to confront the Soviet Union when he called them the “evil empire.” Reagan designated an enemy, rhetorically challenged America to confront this enemy and then used his ensuing political capital to pass massive spending bills that increased defence spending by 50 percent over his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Bush has used the same “policy of military strength and moral clarity” that enabled and emboldened Reagan’s military build-ups during the height of the cold war. But what is this moral clarity neoconservatives speak of?
The rhetoric of Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address contains language that allows the speaker to subjectively ascribe morality for political purposes. The opening line references how “American servicemen and women are deployed across the world in the war on terror.” Terror, in a political sense, is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “Violence committed or threatened by a group to intimidate or coerce a population, as for military or political purposes.” A war on terror must then be a military campaign against all who commit or threaten violence for military or political purposes. As all military campaigns, including one waged on terror, threaten or commit violence to coerce a population, any enemy waging a military campaign may be designated the target of Bush’s war on terror without reasonable rebuttal. Bush’s justification for defining certain groups as his target is seen in the succeeding sentence, “By bringing hope to the oppressed, and delivering justice to the violent, they [American servicemen and women] are making America more secure.” Who exactly are the oppressed and who are the violent? Again, we have ambiguous terminology that allows for a subjective definition based on political intention. Since the antithesis of oppression is freedom, America itself, with almost 50 percent of the world’s 9.25 million incarcerated people, may reasonably be defined as the most oppressive nation on Earth. The arguments for defining American culture as violent abound in American culture and in the innumerable military campaigns it has embarked on and enabled over the years. The hypocrisy of labelling any other nation, culture or people as violent or oppressive becomes apparent when weighing this labelling from a purely empirical standpoint. Bush’s America is one of many violent and oppressive cultures. Bush’s actual intention with his actions and his rhetoric is to deny culpability by pointing to another guilty party.
The ability to rationally choose who will be perceived as oppressive and violent, and subsequently deserving of military actions against them, is a powerful political tool to wield. Bush brandishes this weapon in his dialogue on the attacks of Sept. 11th:
“Twenty-eight months have passed since September 11th, 2001 over two years without an attack on American soil, and it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us. That hope is understandable, comforting and false.”
Here, the attack on the World Trade Centre is heralded as the catalyst for defining who the enemies of America are. In this instance, Bush was left with a choice of responses. He could have adopted a cosmopolitan response that would have placed blame on those immediately responsible for the planning and execution of these attacks, holding them personally accountable in a criminal court. Instead, Bush decided on a statist response that allowed him to designate whole countries liable for the actions of political actors within them. This statist response even afforded him the ability to hold a country affiliated with these nations responsible for the actions of the latter’s political actors. This chain of logic went like this: the men who hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Centre buildings were affiliated with a diverse group that called itself Al Qaida; Al Qaida was financed and partially organized by Osama Bin Laden; Osama Bin Laden was affiliated with the Taliban; the Taliban held political control of Afghanistan; Afghanistan was philosophically associated with a similar, totalitarian-style government holding power in Iraq. By assuming a statist response, Bush was justified in making all of these connections (and more) potential targets for a military attack. Bush chose his targets wisely. He rationally considered which opponent would best benefit his administration’s agenda. That agenda, as defined by his neoconservative foreign policy experts, was “the need for a substantial
American force presence in the Gulf.” For these neoconservative hawks, this necessity “transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” Iraq was the number one priority. This disconnect of justice would prove to be Bush and his administration’s undoing.
Thomas Hobbes, in his book, Leviathan, describes the social contract from which governments derive their authority to rule. Hobbes argued that a citizenry must transfer power and authority to the state, in order to structure a society where it becomes mutually beneficial to not act completely out of self-interest. By ceding authority to the state, Hobbes believed the state no longer required consent from its citizenry to act. This covenent between citizens and government that Hobbes describes is facilitated by the ability of the government to inspire fear in all who enter into it; fear of reprisal for those who break the contract. George Bush exploits this precise historical mechanism for social control. America has entrusted him with their leadership. If they choose to reject his authority and decisions, they break the covenant between leader and citizen. In the rhetorical paradigm Bush constructs in the State of the Union speech of 2004, the consequences of breaking that covenant are clearly displayed. In this paradigm “terrorists continue to plot against America and the civilized world” and only “by our will and courage, this danger will be defeated.” By Bush’s logic, only an implementation of his plan of action (our will) can save the civilized world from “the shadow of this ultimate danger.” Regardless of the apparent disconnect from actual justice, Bush’s reaction to the Sept. 11th attacks must be permitted. In 2004, this fear of reprisal was working. Bush was maintaining a 55 percent approval rating from the American public. In the State of the Union Address of 2004, the historical narrative of what happened on September 11th, 2001 was told and believed by those that disagreed with Bush’s reaction and those who didn’t: America was attacked by an enemy and a war on terror had begun.
Another major shift in America’s understanding of the events of September 11th was also initiated by the affirmations of the 2004 State of the Union Address –the historical narrative reversed itself. The actual narrative, in proper chronological order, begins with a single attack on a World Trade Centre Tower. At this point, the American media broadcasted the belief that America had suffered a criminal, terrorist attack. In the moments before the second plane hit the tower, this summation was in the process of being visualized by the public at large. Then, a second plane hits the tower and the concrete realization of a coordinated attack from an organized enemy becomes apparent. At this stage in the sequence of events, the attacks are still deemed to be criminal operations conducted by a subversive, underground group of individuals. As it was believed to be a criminal act, in the conventional sense of the word criminal, Americans expected a conventional response: the criminals who organized these attacks would be sought out and brought to justice in a criminal court. This dynamic began to change on September 21st, 2001, when Bush stepped off of the presidential helicopter and announced, “This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while." This statement predicated the full blown reality that this attack was no longer just a criminal act; it was an act of war. Being an act of war, it no longer held the same conventional expectations. Now, a state (or states) would be held responsible, rather than just the individuals directly involved. A criminal court was no longer the appropriate response. The State of the Union Address of 2004 reinforced this reality. In his dialogue describing the war on terror, Bush tells the citizenry how, “As part of the offensive against terror, we are also confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists, and could supply them with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.” This statement confirms how this has become a war against “regimes” instead of individuals. To the American public, and much of the world, the storyline now plays in reverse: regimes are hostile to American and Western interests; those regimes organize groups that attack the West using terrorist tactics. Using political language, Bush and his administration managed to change the entire temporal reality of the event, leaving America in a war that can be fought on any nation of Bush’s choosing. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and Syria were all put on the table as potential targets. Seeing as most of the terrorists that organized and carried out the attacks of September 11th were Saudis and Egyptians, this manipulation exposes the extent of disconnect involved.
Engaging these specific, alleged enemies in a war also guaranteed a permanent condition: neither side could possibly win. In the case of the Middle East, Bush’s stated goal was to establish the “development of free elections, free markets, free press, and free labor unions,” citing a belief “that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again.” As there is not a single Arab country in the Middle East with a predisposition or a history of sustaining this type of liberal democratic political system, the likelihood of this goal being attained showed little, if any, promise. Moreover, the forced implementation of this standard would not guarantee the cessation of terrorist activities against America coming from subversive groups within these states. On the contrary, western-imposed governmental systems have a history of inspiring exactly these kinds of activist subcultures in the Middle East. Bush’s war on terror would have the opposite effect intended: it would galvanise whole nations into anti-western sentiment. Bush’s use of the word “crusade” would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When one compares the rhetoric of the neoconservatives and George Bush to that of Bin Laden’s, it quickly becomes apparent that they fight the same battle from opposing positions. As each engages the other, the conflict is fuelled perpetually. The neoconservative position is that America must enable western versions of democracy and freedom in the Middle East. It must open economic trade with these burgeoning democracies and permanent military bases in the Middle East should be maintained to ensure the success of these goals. Osama Bin Laden, in his 1998 declaration of war, calls the justification for his position, “[America] occupying the most sacred lands of Islam, stealing its resources, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its peoples, terrorizing its neighbours, and turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighbouring Muslim peoples.” These two directly oppositional statements exhibit a paradigm by which neither side can win without the absolute destruction of the other. The goals of neoconservatism are the complete antithesis of al-Qaida. Each, by pursuing its goal, feeds the counterpoise in a synchronistic fashion. Unless one side is completely and utterly removed from the dynamic, the conflict cannot end. It only took nineteen men to execute the largest attack on America during this entire war on terror. This illustrates how even if there are nineteen men left fighting the neonconservative agenda, the most successful military strike ever conducted by a terrorist organization in history is still possible. The war Bush and the neoconservatives advocate can never be won.
Stepping out of the lexicon of neoconservative rhetoric transforms the narrative into one that allows for a conclusion of hostilities between the East and the West. Moreover, compromise and humility are certainly essential qualities of any new narrative with a potential for peace. Reified theories that present and attempt to impose any universal system, be they democratic or religious, are doomed to unending opposition. Realizing this cyclical nature and the fear and reprisal it demands is the first step to disengaging from it. Americans, en masse, have already begun to disengage with our enemy in the war on terror. Rather than credit Bin Laden and al-Qaida with the attacks of September 11th, the Western world is eager to blame illusive, secret cabals that transcend government and country. The success of movies like “Zeitgeist,” conspiracy-based books and websites that blame 9/11 on unnamed bogeymen in the American government attest to the cognitive dissonance of a public unable to accept responsibility for the cycle of violence they have been participants in. Rather than blame Islamic nations that have been subjected to western imposition for all of the last century, they create a doppelganger of their own government. It releases them from blame.
The language of the 2004 State of the Union Address has now been replaced by the hope and change rhetoric of the Obama administration. It has yet to be determined what hope and change actually mean. As for Bin Laden, there is a clue to his present position in the cyclical exchange with the western world when he made the claim,” "I have one more operation [Sept 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre], and after that I will quit. I can't call this one back because that would demoralize the whole organization." It is possible Bin Laden quit fighting this war against America eight years ago. If that is the case, then it certainly illustrates the redundancy of the individuals involved in this macrocosm of fear and reprisal.
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