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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006 11:59 am

The jig is up

We'll remember November, when our hopes were dashed - and rekindled

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November 2006 was a month that historians will study in minute detail, day by day and headline by headline, when they attempt to reconstruct the iron chain of misery the United States has been forging for itself since September 2001 — though some will maintain that November 2000, with its still-disputed presidential election, was the actual beginning of our decline and fall. If these are historians of a distant future and the nation has survived, even regained some of the power and prestige it squandered in this most humiliating of all its military misadventures, their conclusions will be of great but essentially academic interest. If the colossus of the 20th century has self-destructed and vanished from the playing field of history, their chronicles may take on the tragic grandeur of Homer, Herodotus, and Gibbon. But the truest thing about the lessons of history is that they are never learned.

Either way, this November just behind us was the first month since 2001 in which a careful observer could glimpse any excuse for optimism, not so much for the midterm elections of Nov. 7, when President George W. Bush lost his enabling majorities in Congress, but for the month’s last day — historic November 30 — when the congenitally self-assured Mr. Bush stood before us buck naked, stripped of his last pretenses and his last hope that he could salvage much of anything from the smoldering ruins of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The hateful smirk remained, but with a rueful little twist to it, and the swagger was gone. Gone with the president’s majorities was Donald Rumsfeld, his warlord and role model, whose martial body language had sustained the White House in its last comforting spasms of make-believe (but who had issued, on the eve of the election and his own forced resignation, a classified memo conceding that he and Bush had failed in Iraq). Gone, too — shattered by the oft-maligned Howard Dean — was the sinister prestige of the presidential hand-holder and vote-counter, the cutthroat Karl Rove, whose universal prescriptions for misdirection, intimidation, subterfuge, and denial had always served to keep the truth at bay.

On Nov. 29, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by the Bush family fixer James Baker, revealed that its final report would recommend a phased pullout of combat troops from Iraq; most major media authorized their reporters to use the long-verboten “civil war” to describe intramural jihad between Sunnis and Shiites; Senate Democrats called for a special envoy to address the stupefying carnage in Baghdad; and a White House memo disparaging and undermining Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, coincided with the resignation from Maliki’s government of 36 officials loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a crucial bloc that withdrew cursing Bush as “the world’s biggest evil.” An elaborately orchestrated summit dinner for Bush and Maliki in Amman, Jordan, was canceled at the 11th hour. On the morning of Nov. 30, there was no rational creature on this tortured planet who could soberly doubt that the jig was up for Incurious George.

In Baghdad, the daily massacre took place on schedule. Though he crawled up from the wreckage in Amman and flew off to Latvia with a final muted battle cry, “I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before our mission is complete,” no one paid the slightest attention. Back in Washington, “mission” was being redefined hourly, in a rapidly diminishing spiral. Then came Nov. 30 and the breakfast farewell, most likely the last meeting in this life for Bush and Maliki. There they stood, each fiercely embarrassed by the other and committed to mutual repudiation, loathing lurking just beneath their diplomatic manners, the exhausted puppeteer and his soon-to-be-discarded puppet. What’s sadder than the end of the puppet show, with the audience long gone and the sets and costumes folded away, and every poor trick of the trade exposed to view?

The charade was over, even if the bleeding has just begun. This invasion of Iraq was a huge lie conceived in lies, launched and defended by lies, and mismanaged hopelessly by deceivers and deceived alike. It dislodged a nasty dictator that many of these same Republican hypocrites had helped to establish, supply, and maintain; its result is an apocalyptic destruction of life, property, infrastructure, and social order that leaves one of the world’s most ancient civilizations reeling back toward the Stone Age. Under the pressure of our occupation, certain modern inhabitants of Mesopotamia revealed themselves as the most bloodthirsty maniacs who ever set out to please their god with buckets of their neighbors’ blood. (“That was the only thing that surprised me,” said a Special Forces captain I met in a bar in Maine, one who also served in Vietnam. “They hate each other even more than they hate us.”) The government of the United States revealed itself as the most arrogant, naïve and incompetent gang of imperialists who ever botched an occupation and unleashed a genocide.

What prevails in Iraq today is not even civil war but instead pandemic civil terror, a sectarian orgy of murder, torture, and mutilation whose survivors will never forget or forgive, whatever becomes of the civil government of what used to be Iraq. It’s unbearably true that every American soldier who has died or will die in Iraq will have died in vain, died in a disaster that will yield no net gain, now or ever, for his native country or for the cause of civilization and human dignity. If I had any say in divine justice, these thousands of coffins, forged of lead, would be dragged forever across the battlefields of hell by Bush and Rumsfeld and all the civilians who should have known better or who must have known better and never tried to intervene.

Honest historians will record that a failed government of oil pirates, corporate shills, chickenhawks, and neocon fantasists was the worst this country ever endured. But never tell me that Bush and his accomplices, however history makes hash of them, are getting just what they deserve. What they deserve was suffered instead by tens of thousands of young men and women who are dead, maimed, disfigured, and psychologically crippled, victims of the wretched judgment of politicians whose lame schemes and pipe dreams (oil pipes, mostly) they struggled to implement and comprehend. “All we really do,” one young soldier told a reporter from the Boston Globe, “is drive around here until someone shoots us or blows us up.”

“I told you so” is a sweet-tasting thing that turns bitter in your mouth when your vindication is a mountain of corpses. But, yes, we told you so — I told you so, from the first moment George W. Bush waved his silly virgin sword at Saddam Hussein. None of us who anticipated nearly every convulsion of this monumental miscarriage, though, could have anticipated the body count, nor quite the bewildering level of failure and futility. America defeated Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini in less time than it’s taken us to secure Baghdad or even the eight-mile road from the city to the airport. When Condoleezza Rice visited Baghdad last month, they flew Madame Secretary from the airport to the Green Zone in a helicopter because no one — in spite of 15 combat brigades available to defend her — could guarantee her safety on the ground. Bush’s meeting with al-Maliki in Amman was billed as a special honor for Jordan’s King Abdullah, but the pathetic truth is that it was too risky to expose the leader of the free world in the city he “liberated” in 2003.

Those few of us, a despised minority who said from the beginning, “Oh God, sir, please don’t do this,” we would, at this time, accept any polite apology, any sort of recognition that we were trying to frame the facts when nearly everyone was hiding from them.

Thank you. It was nothing, really. It didn’t take “well-placed sources” or special intelligence, neither the kind of intelligence the Bush cabal pressure-cooked or fabulated or ignored nor the kind that most of them were born without. It took only common sense and a little history and a seasoned touch of humility about the limitations of American military presence in an occupied country. An easy lesson, this last, for anyone who served or observed in Vietnam — Saigon in 1970 was like Acapulco compared with the Baghdad of 2006 — but this group does not include Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or any of the Republicans who manufactured the nightmare that unfolded in Iraq.

We’ll have sacrificed trillions of dollars, thousands of experienced combat soldiers who can never be replaced, and what little remained of our diplomatic credibility and sincere alliances with other countries. Worst of all, we’ve empowered our enemies by showing them our weakness where we tried to show our strength. On Nov. 30, with failure sealed (“success” was never defined; “victory” was a joke recycled from Vietnam) — with rats of all shapes and sizes diving from the sinking ship, with nothing on the table except exit strategies, face-saving, and the plight of the president’s political party — there was only one question about Iraq that intelligent people could still debate: Did Bush and his cronies have any honorable intentions to begin with?

I’m afraid that I doubt it. A couple of years ago, when the trauma of 9/11 was fresh and the White House could still intimidate critics with assaults on their patriotism, “oil” — like “quagmire,” “morass,” “Vietnam,” and “civil war” — was a word strictly banned from speculation about the invasion of Iraq. Mention oil thirst and you were a Benedict Arnold, a Julius Rosenberg. (But if terrorist cells and al-Qaeda plots were the target, why didn’t we invade England, where they’ve uncovered hundreds, instead of Iraq, where there were none?)

Yet it all comes back to oil. Never mind the neocon interventionists with their missionary zeal for “exporting democracy” or the brainsick fundamentalist Christians who base their enthusiasm for holy wars and pro-Israel foreign policy on the Book of Revelation. These unsavory innocents provide thin cover for the politics of petroleum that cling to George W. Bush and his family as oil slicks cling to seabirds. You don’t need to study the tangled web of mutual interest that binds the Bushes to the Bin Ladens and the Saudi monarchy, the president’s Enron origins, the stealth careers as “energy consultants” of the never-mentioned Bush brothers Neil and Marvin, the oil-soaked résumés of our president, vice president, and secretary of state, or the whole shabby history of the Houston-Riyadh-Tehran axis, from the CIA coup against Mossadegh in Iran half-a-century ago through the Gulf War and the current catastrophe in Iraq. You don’t need to, and you won’t — 60 percent of the fortunate young Americans ages 18 to 24 who aren’t serving in Iraq are unable to locate it on a map or globe.

You don’t even need to skim the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which, I pray, are paranoid, or to visit the presidential library of George H.W. Bush — now a consensus choice as the best of a bad lot — and see what one friend of mine, a scholar, was stunned to find: “It was scarcely half about his presidency — it was all about oil.” Simply review the quarterly reports from ExxonMobil and other oil-industry giants, whose obscene profits since the Iraq invasion have broken every record in the annals of Big Oil and Big Greed, culminating a year ago in a $398 million golden farewell for retiring ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond. The worst of times for America have been the very best of times for the oil industry, just coincidentally while its handpicked, home-trained politicians ruled our roost.

If you theorized that everything the Bush administration has ever attempted, from Iraq on down, was designed primarily to benefit the energy industry, I’m sure you’d be wrong in some cases, but not enough cases to matter. These six — eight? — long years of George W. Bush, with the Iraq War as their dreadful centerpiece, ought to be remembered as the Petroleum Imperium, when Big Oil and its priorities ruled America unopposed. With its viceroy in the White House, the profit-swollen industry was like some bloated leech or tick gorging itself on a wounded nation’s lifeblood. But for these true believers oil is the nation’s lifeblood — reason enough in itself to avoid any future presidents from the state of Texas.

Shortly after the Republicans lost the House and the Senate, two respected writers with very different concerns, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and environmentalist Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books, issued their direst warnings that the fates of the United States (Friedman) and the planet itself (McKibben) depend absolutely on breaking our lethal addiction to fossil fuels. McKibben suggests a nine-year window of hope. If I had to choose one small, ironic note that pleased me during the election postmortems, it was the announcement that Detroit would take another crack at the electric automobile.

“Caribou in, Big Oil out,” read the headline in my local paper, and I grinned and thought, “We’ll see.” One of my inoperative predictions was that the awful mess Bush has made of the Middle East would be sure to destroy the Democratic president that any sane America would have elected in 2004. Now that the lame duck is obliged to ride out his own disaster, all the way to the finish line, is it too much to hope for an extended eclipse of the frightening Republican coalition that sustained him?

Much depends, unfortunately, on the Democratic Party — not a party I’ve often admired or ever been tempted to join. Democrats are finicky, timorous, prone to correctness tests and victim-group rhetoric. They’re inclined toward cannibalism, inflicting their most grievous wounds on each other and choosing their leaders through a ghastly process of attrition. Their inner circle maintains an elitist Eastern bias that’s pure poison at the polls; they back down from America’s toxic concentrations of wealth and power almost as reliably as the Republicans serve and salute them. Their sudden conversion to an antiwar party is a sorry case of following, not leading, the electorate. But the failure of all attempts to expand the two-party system, along with the disturbing purges of moderates, racial progressives, economists with hearts, and conservatives with principles from the Republican Party, leaves the Democrats as our last hope “within the system,” as we used to say — and a sedentary nation succumbing to epidemic obesity and surgically attached to electronic playthings will never make another revolution.

Many of these Democrats you’re not going to like. Some of them wore out their welcome before the ink was dry on the election headlines. Party chairman Howard Dean, who led the Democrats out of Egypt and ought to have been the toast of their town, was, incredibly, denounced as incompetent by “strategist” James Carville and even asked to resign. Carville, who has yet to cure his own wife, Mary Matalin, of an ugly addiction to right-wing politicians, imagined that he could have done much better. And after another wild summer of classroom and workplace shootings, a kind of All-American open season on schoolgirls and supervisors when we were reminded that this is a dysfunctional country where any felon, drug addict, mental patient, unstable in-law — or, for that matter, terrorist — easily purchases all the firepower his feverish heart desires, it gave us a sinking feeling to hear Carville concede handgun control as if it was some old, dead issue. “If somebody brings up guns,” he warned the new legislators as the NRA cooed and beamed, “I’m going to shoot ’em.” In that same day’s paper there was the story, horrifying but all too familiar in these parts, of an 8-year-old in Gastonia, N.C., who picked up the family handgun, a .25-caliber automatic, and blasted a hole in his 5-year-old brother’s forehead.

But I don’t mean to lower expectations. Liberals and progressives, this one included, have a bad habit of asking too much. Democrats, or at least anti-Republicans, always expect but rarely deliver candidates with charm, talent, intelligence, and integrity. (Three of four gave us Bill Clinton.) All that Republicans ask of their leaders is a certain ruthless team spirit. That’s how they breed Karl Roves and Tom DeLays, and that’s how they win.

Of course there’s room for guarded optimism. Congressional support for the Iraq war is drying up almost overnight, which is bound to save a lot of money and even, someday, a few lives. The energy, pharmaceutical, and health-insurance cartels, after running roughshod over public policy for a decade, lost many of their favorite legislators and may be humbled by the Democrats, if only in revenge for years of partisan handouts to the GOP. The long-stalled minimum wage will be increased for sure.

Environmentalists will have a more prominent seat at the table; with a little luck they’ll ease the pressures to drill for oil in the Arctic and extend commercial access to public lands and national parks. Blacks and women — in both numbers and leadership positions — are represented in Congress as they’ve never been before. But again, as with that electric car, it’s the off-center and unfamiliar that provide the few rays of hope I entertain.

Jon Tester, the new Democratic senator from Montana and a pro-gun farmer with a military brushcut, is a populist out of personal necessity, not educated philosophy. In the multimillionaires’ club of the Senate, where you can spend $20 million on a losing campaign, he’ll be the outsider whose family farm earns $20,000 a year, which he previously supplemented by playing the trumpet and teaching music to his neighbors’ children. He lives in a county that’s lost 9 percent of its population in the past five years. Naturally one of his gut issues is the rapid devastation of rural America, an issue that’s been almost invisible to the corporate K-Street Congress.

“When Jon talks about the café that’s trying to hold on, the hardware store that just closed, the third generation that can’t make a living on the farm, he’s living that life,” one of his best friends told the New York Times.

When Americans think of poverty, they think of soup kitchens and homeless people sleeping on the grates in city sidewalks. Maybe it’s time to take another look at the farms and small towns where this country was born and baptized, before exurbs, malls, Wal-Marts, agribusiness, and utility deregulation began to empty the rural counties as cruelly as London landlords cleared the Scottish glens of Highlanders. “Grave and deteriorating,” harsh words the Baker report used to describe the Iraq situation to a chastened, suddenly smirkless president, apply equally to the situation in Jon Tester’s Chouteau County and to great stretches of desolated rural America. If a unique politician such as Tester could call attention to this tragedy, no less profound in its implications than the national humiliation in Iraq, he’d be a hero to many people who have no heroes left — and not least of all to me.

Hal Crowther’s book of essays, Gather at the River, was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism. He was the author of “Bring it on,” published in the Nov. 2 edition of Illinois Times.

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