Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Immoral confusion

Secretary of Defense & Hawk in Chief Donald Rumsfeld defended the war effort in Salt Lake City yesterday at the annual American Legion convention, Rummy the early wave of the administration's assault on the national attention span in this, the runup to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In his address Rumsfeld invoked what's become the new hot-button word in the West Wing. Fascism, and its noun and adjectival variants, are all the rage. The secretary ran down a series of the most high-profile recent terrorist attacks, knitting a weave of connection between 9/11 and attacks in Bali, London and Madrid.

“I recount this history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism,” he said.

The American news media have tended to emphasize the negative rather than the positive, the secretary said. The AP reported that Rumsfeld said more media attention was given to U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners than to the fact that Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith received the Medal of Honor.

Rumsfeld was forthright enough to admit that, thanks to the abuse at Abu Ghraib and recent accusations of atrocities by Marines against unarmed civilians, the U.S. military has "bad actors — the ones who dominate the headlines today — who don't live up to the standards of the oath and of our country."

But mostly it was a rather punitive history lesson, hard on the press and its responsibility to ferret out the truth, intolerant of criticism, insistent on a dubious historical linkage. This was Rumsfeld's America.

It may well have been, as the Rev. Al Sharpton observed on “Hardball” on Aug. 29, “an insult to the intelligence of the American people.” But bad as that is, it's only part of the problem. Before the American Legion membership, Rumsfeld made the comparison of opponents of the Iraq war with those who appeased the Nazis before World War II, in virtually the same breath proposing to put the nation on alert against “the rising tide of a new type of fascism.”

The illogic isn’t hard to follow: the secretary of defense proposes to prepare America for fighting a new kind of war – waged against an enemy with no uniform, no borders, no formal military or governmental or geographic foundation – by invoking the symbolism and associations with a war that ended three generations ago.

Who best, then, to lead the nation’s military might but a resolute cold warrior insistent on fixing shapeless conflicts of the present and the future within the very frames of reference he says are obsolete? The very nature of fascism requires a fundamental government structure, something at odds with today's amorphous asymmetricality of war with a loose network of zealots, those practicing radical perversions of a venerable, honorable faith. Rumsfeld’s tortured reasoning is at war with itself. It's apples and oranges on a global scale.

Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others within the administration have to get their collective mind around the idea of abandoning the shopworn conceptual terminology of Winning and Losing. Just as the theater and context of warfare have changed, so, too, must change the traditional zero-sum game, winner-take-all notions of victory and defeat. In an information age rife with spin and nuance and 24/7 exposure, with audio-video and Internet technology the new universal enabler, "victory" and "defeat" are terms subject to manipulation, how well they’re shaped, how well they’re put across by any actor in a war at any given time.

In classic terms, the Hezbollah guerrillas were largely routed from strongholds in southern Lebanon: weapons confiscated, leadership impacted, if not severely damaged. But the Hezbollah have demonstrated an ability to rebound and to assist, in practical cash-on-the-barrelhead terms, the Lebanese people in the recovery from 34 days of bombardment and attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces. For better and possibly worse, Hezbollah has taken a page from the Israeli manual for survival – inventiveness, drive, solidarity, financial wherewithal – and taken unto itself the role of winner in the conflict, altering, at least in the short term, the traditional roles of Winning and Losing a war in the twenty-first century.

The primary theater for the war in Iraq is not territorial, it’s religious and philosophical, but that’s not to say that territory doesn’t have a role in the prosecution of this conflict. With control of the oil fields constantly shifting, with Shiite and Sunni sectarian violence increasing, and with the leader of Kurdistan, Iraq’s restive northern enclave, announcing a plan to stop flying the Iraqi national flag within his autonomous region, it’s clear that territory is the other prime mover of actors in this war. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for all of his ostensible national authority, is in practical terms not much more right now than the Mayor of Baghdad. "Winning" and "losing" are for him words whose meanings shift, however slightly, every day.

"Victory" and "defeat" are terms that fail to embrace the complexity of what’s taking shape in Iraq. They reflect an almost-colonialist mentality, an attempt to impose an absolute Western-style solution on a region rife with tribal and social ambiguities we cannot now understand. New ways of thinking about this conflict are what’s needed – maybe, even probably requiring new people to do that new thinking.

It’s that necessary flexibility of planning and foresight, the capability to get beyond the institutional comfort zone that is its own Washington monument to stasis and inertia, the ability to think outside the box – to think outside the room the box is in -- that’s lacking in Foggy Bottom these days.

President Bush set the tone a few weeks earlier, with the use of the phrase "Islamic fascists," a frightening juxtaposition that few scholars and not near enough journalists have noted. The prevailing administration notion of conflating a government with a religion is monstrously problematic; it short-circuits the ability to discern, brief enough already in the Internet era; it makes it easy to see the enemy anywhere and everywhere, on the weakest pretext, with only the slightest provocation. We’re seeing that now. An Arab student living in the United States is briefly barred from boarding his JetBlue flight at Kenendy airport because he’s wearing a T-shirt with a pacifist slogan written in English … and in Arabic script.

This is Rumsfeld’s America. The loyal opposition are traitors and defeatists. Staying an incrementally disastrous course is the only option. But in Rumsfeld’s America are embodied bedrock principles that are, finally, un-American. The very idea that dissent against the war is immoral, criminal behavior strikes at the heart and bone of what makes us a democracy -- makes U.S., surely, The Democracy.

It’s the right to stand alone in the crowd and call the emperor on his imaginary wardrobe.

It’s the right to have a dissenting opinion, even if dissent is the only reason for having it.

It’s the right to exercise the contrary impulse, and the willingness to acknowledge that right in others the way you’d take it for yourself.

Keith Olbermann got it right. The host of MSNBC's "Countdown," making an unusually pointed and personal comment on the program, was pitch perfect in his assessment of Rumsfeld's comments, and what they mean to America in the wider sense of who and what we are as a nation:

Olbermann said Rumsfeld’s statement “did not merely serve to impugn the morality or intelligence -- indeed, the loyalty -- of the majority of Americans who oppose the transient occupants of the highest offices in the land. Worse, still, it credits those same transient occupants -- our employees -- with a total omniscience; a total omniscience which neither common sense, nor this administration’s track record at home or abroad, suggests they deserve.

"Dissent and disagreement with government is the life’s blood of human freedom; and not merely because it is the first roadblock against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as “his” troops still fight, this very evening, in Iraq. It is also essential. Because just every once in awhile it is right and the power to which it speaks, is wrong. ...

"This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely. And, as such, all voices count -- not just his.

"Had he or his president perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience — about Osama Bin Laden’s plans five years ago, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons four years ago, about Hurricane Katrina’s impact one year ago — we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their “omniscience” as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact, plus ego.

"But, to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance, and its own hubris. ...

"In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?

"The confusion we -- as its citizens -- must now address, is stark and forbidding. But variations of it have faced our forefathers, when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened our skies and obscured our flag. Note -- with hope in your heart — that those earlier Americans always found their way to the light, and we can, too."

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