Extraordinary renditions –

The playwright and the president


Jeff Sommers, Khaled Diab and Charles Woolfson explore the dynamics between playwright and president as American foreign policy stands in the dock.


January 2006


With Iraq embroiled in bloody mayhem and Europe – as well as most of the world – up in arms at the rising cost of the United States-led ‘war on terror’, American foreign policy stands in the dock. The prosecution’s case has been articulately presented by Harold Pinter, surprise winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. The playwright who revealed reality in a distorted fragment of language, chose the occasion of his award to confront the president whose language reveals but a distorted fragment of reality.


From his wheelchair in the grand concert hall in Stockholm, Pinter delivered a remorseless, rasping condemnation of US foreign policy. What he said was not new. How he said it was, as he cut into the dramaturgical underbelly of political rhetoric, what he called the “voluptuous cushion of reassurance” in which “language is actually employed to keep thought at bay”.


In an ironic twist, the master wordsmith offered US President George W Bush his services as a speechwriter. “We believe in freedom. So does God,” Pinter said on behalf of the world’s most powerful man. “I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority.”

Pinter’s performance was in the true meaning of these newly corrupted words – an ‘extraordinary rendition’.


Bush certainly needs the services of his best word wizards. Faced with mounting popular opposition at home, the president recently made a desperate case for his overseas interventions. Bush decided to use 11 November (Veterans Day in the USA, Armistice Day in Europe) to mount his defence.


In an unconscious Pinteresque parody, the president beseeched his audience to recognise the goodness of American foreign policy and the inherent democratic character of the United States on the world stage. ‘Freedom’, ‘liberty’, or ‘liberation’ were incantations repeated no fewer than 23 times.


Lest we remember

Surrounded by serving officers and retired soldiers, the commander-in-chief told his audience: “ handful of veterans who live among us in 2005 stood in uniform when World War I ended 87 years ago today.”


Some of these aged veterans may have been scratching their heads in bafflement that their president was using their painful legacy to defend his administration’s stridently militaristic foreign policy.


Ignoring the deafening echoes of history, Bush ploughed on: “At this hour, a new generation of Americans is defending our flag and our freedom in the first war of the 21st century.” But he should have paid heed to the voices of the ‘lost generation’ who perished in the trenches of World War I.


You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

-- Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) From 'Suicide in the trenches'


Roused to arms

The ‘war on terror’, according to President Bush, was not one of America’s choosing. “The war came to our shores on September the 11th, 2001,” he intoned. “We didn’t ask for this global struggle. But we are answering history’s call with confidence and with a comprehensive strategy.”


Despite the apparent emotional rawness of his appeal, there appears to have been little that was spontaneous about the ‘war on terror’. “It’s insulting to believe that 9/11 was a turning point that made of Bush an angry Greek god bent on destruction,” observed veteran Egyptian journalist and political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal in an interview on Arab satellite TV shortly before the invasion. “The American empire... is the most powerful in the history of mankind and it's a power that plans and does not improvise its policies – it made think tanks an industry.”


Currently, the most influential and infamous of these think tanks is undoubtedly the neo- conservative Project for a New American Century (PNAC). In 1998, members of the PNAC, including Donald Rumsfeld (current US secretary of defence) and Paul Wolfowitz (deputy US secretary of defence at the time of the Iraq invasion) wrote to then president, Bill Clinton, urging him to remove Saddam Hussein from power using US diplomatic, political and military power.


The old American century

Despite the more openly imperial, unilateral and militaristic tone of the right-wing Bush doctrine, US foreign policy in the Middle East has been surprisingly consistent.


Oil-rich Iraq has been an Anglo-American playground since it was created by the British following World War I. “Our armies do not come into your cities and land as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators,” British Major-General Stanley Maud proclaimed upon entering Baghdad in 1917.


In 1953, in neighbouring Iran, the United States and Britain sponsored the overthrow of the first democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohamed Mossadeq, and propped up his successor, the Shah, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. Such adventures have the habit of creating their own ‘blowback’. The Shah’s corruption and oppression led to the student protests that toppled him in 1979 and paved the way for the Islamic republic. And it is, of course, the US’s traditionally unflinching support of Israel, with its nuclear arsenal and belligerent military policy against Palestinian aspirations for statehood, that strikes the deepest emotional chord of outrage with the average Arab.


But these historical parallels are ignored by apologists and quickly forgotten by the collective consciousness desperately seeking to believe in the goodness of government. “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side,” George Orwell once wrote, “he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” In his classic novel 1984, Orwell expresses this willed blindness through the perpetual oscillation of Oceania from eternal enemy to eternal ally.


Green, the new red

In a bid to frame the situation in epic terms familiar to his American audience and dehumanise the enemy, Bush drew a parallel between Islamic fundamentalism and Communism. “Like the ideology of Communism, our new enemy teaches that innocent individuals can be sacrificed to serve a political vision.”


Islamists, who like fundamentalist Christians, regard Communism as an ‘evil’ and ‘godless’ ideology may be surprised to hear Bush’s description. Despite the obvious ideological differences and the power disparity (the Soviet Union was a superpower with imperial designs, whilst Muslim extremists are small groups of radical individuals), Islamists have served a convenient role for US politicians.


The collapse of the Soviet Union led to panic in the halls of American power. Then the neo- conservatives found a way out, when the movement’s leading thinker, Daniel Pipes, followed the lead of his ‘cold warrior’ father, Richard, and likened Islam to the red threat.

The associative coupling of Islamism with Communism is a fairly recent innovation. In past decades, Islamism was seen – and sponsored – by Washington as a necessary and effective counterbalance against the spread of Communism, the Soviet empire, pan-Arabism, Nasserism, and other undesirable ‘isms’.


Under friendly fire

As with all powerful states, America acts in its own perceived strategic interests. As America and the world changes, so, too, will its enemies and friends.


The USA has a long history of making friends with its future enemies: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein count among that illustrious group. Osama bin Laden, who, like Bush, is the privileged son of an oil dynasty, was once the good friend of the United States. Now the commander-in-chief has turned his guns on this one-time ally in a repetitive mantra of demonology.


For their part, bin Laden and other mujahideen believe that they single-handedly toppled one godless superpower, and now they have turned their sights on another.


Original sin and manifest destiny

But it is not just in the Middle East where American expansionist policy has been consistent. For the United States, it all began with the idea of ‘manifest destiny’ originally used to justify the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population.


Andrew Jackson, president of the United States when the Cherokee tribe were removed, never failed to remind the public that it was being done for the Indians’ own good. “It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy,” he said in his first inaugural address in 1829.


The Cherokee presented an interesting dilemma. It was declared, with a sigh, that most Indians would be removed due merely to the inexorable forces of progress. However, the Cherokee were farmers, had developed a written language with a vibrant press, and were even slave-owning plantation owners – from the perspective of the day, they were “civilised”. Nevertheless, the Cherokee had too much fertile land for cultivating cotton, and, in 1830, gold was discovered on their remaining territory in the Blue Ridge Mountains. By 1838, the last of the Cherokee were infamously forced on the Trail of Tears death march.


Pacifying the Spanish threat

The Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 led to the annexation by the United States of Texas and 40% of Mexico. In his inaugural address of 1845, President James Polk stressed that US expansionism meant extending the “dominions of peace”. “The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our government... Our government cannot be otherwise than pacific,” he insisted.


Polk got his neat military ‘victory’, but it ruined relations with Mexico. “Allow the president to invade a neighbouring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion ... and you allow him to make war at pleasure,” future President Abraham Lincoln lambasted.


The entry into the Union of new slave states was blamed by some for the subsequent American Civil War. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war,” opined another future president, Ulysses S Grant.


Manufacturing consent

The next major innovation employed by the American government to convince its public of the need for war was during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the platform of keeping America out of the dirty European trenches.


Wilson’s message followed the American tradition dating back to George Washington’s farewell address of staying out of European wars. However, Wilson wanted in. But he was faced with a dilemma: how to turn public opinion? The answer was with the new science of public opinion management which was pioneered by such figures as Edward Bernays – the double nephew of Sigmund Freud – who introduced such phrases as “engineering consent”.


Woodrow Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Commission, to unleash a public relations onslaught on the American public. It succeeded just enough to keep Americans from rising up en masse against Wilson’s adventure.

The next major challenge to forge consent for US policy was with the Cold War. President Harry Truman’s advisors were convinced of the need to place the United States on a permanent war-time footing. After the Second World War, the US economy was strangled by the post-demobilisation. Economists and manufacturers alike were convinced America would sink into a depression, and the Marshall Plan was partly in response to this.

This, combined with the United States inheriting the global system abandoned by the weakened British and French, placed the fledgling superpower in a new role of world leadership.


Fear as a weapon of mass manipulation

The need to frighten American citizens into backing a permanent war economy was detailed in National Security Council Document 68. The Communist – and later Islamist – threat had to be magnified. President Dwight D Eisenhower warned in his departing address that this military-industrial complex was out of control. General Eisenhower’s warning shot was not heeded and, today, ‘nation building’ (preceded by ‘nation dismantling’) has become the Bush administration’s stock-in-trade.


“You have to hand it to America,” Pinter praised mockingly. “It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.” But the spell, long broken abroad, is cracking at home.


Every ruling class attempts to impart immutable meanings in its political discourse to ‘key words’, a term coined by Raymond Williams, the great English cultural historian. ‘Democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘peace’, ‘global terrorism’ can become tokens in a fixed currency of discourse that does not acknowledge critical interrogation. Only at rare historical moments, periods of gathering crisis and discontent, does the full measure of this linguistic violence perpetuated on complex realities become apparent. What was formerly hidden is revealed; what was ‘unsayable’ finds popular voice. Such a moment of flux in the rendition of the war on terror seems now to have arrived.


This essay appeared in the 19-25 January 2006 edition of Al Ahram Weekly.



Jeff Sommers is a professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College and visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. He publishes on US foreign relations, political economy, and global studies. He has held several Fulbrights and divides his time between the US and Baltic states.


Charles Woolfson is holder of a European Commission Marie Curie chair and is professor of labour studies at the University of Glasgow. Currently, he teaches and researches in the new EU member Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A former associate dean of faculty and director of the Graduate School in Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow, Woolfson has held a number of prestigious international fellowships and has led international research projects. He has published widely on labour relations, corporate social responsibility and European issues.


©2006 J. Sommers, K. Diab, C. Woolfson


ã2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.