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