As the daily political and military atrocities magnetize our attention, it does us good now and then to take a step back and try for some longer-range perspectives on the world situation, and politics in the U.S. of A. So here, in short takes, are some reflections on four areas that could use some deeper examination: political despair, Bush’s coming downfall, the new face of warfare, and America’s response to Islam.
1. Pendulum Soldiers
Shadow forces have been let loose across the globe. Every so often, it happens. The center, for a variety of sociologic/spiritual/political reasons, doesn’t hold and suddenly wild, crazy, bad people take over key areas of the world, wreaking havoc and destruction. For awhile, people of good will and humanistic tendencies are frightened to death, not being all that familiar with how to relate to extremist leaders. Invariably, the bad guys, because they don’t operate well within rational boundaries, go too far with their arrogant, brutal behavior and ambitions, and the pendulum swings back the other way. The bad guys are gone, or at least are in the descendancy, and the center begins to hold again. It’s the old political/cultural see-saw.
In our time, it’s not clear whether Bush is a symbol or cause of this shadow ascendancy on the world scene. Certainly, his administration’s arrogant, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners, us-vs.-them style, has encouraged other political leaders to act reprehensibly as well around the globe, be it in Italy or France or Africa or Arabia or Israel.
We’re living in a political world that threatens to increase our sense of despair, with more than our fair share of horrible news each day. And so we gird our loins for political battle, knowing we’re going to get verbally pummeled, called names, have our patriotism questioned, maybe even face violence or official surveillance. But we also keep this long-term knowlege in our hearts: that tides do change. Keeping the faith during the bad times is so all-important, laying the foundations, the momentum building, for that inevitable pendulum-swing later. So, dear reader, think of yourself as a Pendulum Soldier, actively working to bring peace and justice and proper balance to this country, this planet, ourselves. We accomplished a lot with the Civil Rights Movement, helping to stop the Vietnam War, setting up environmental safeguards; we warned of the dangers of globalization, we founded institutions to combat the worst of the hardright’s plans. We can do it again. Eyes on the prize. Don’t let the bastards drag you down; falldowngetup — one word.
2. Cracks in the Facade
For awhile, it looked like the Bush Administration was invincible. In the wake of the horrific 9/11 crimes against humanity, nobody seemed to have the courage to put up much of a fight when Bush quickly responded in ways that never would be accepted in normal circumstances. This band of mean-spirited, greedy, determined power-seekers ran roughshod over the Constitution, the institutions of democracy, over real and imagined "enemies" abroad, etc. Instead of governing from the middle and seeking consensus in this new struggle — which would have been appropriate anyway, given that Bush lost the presidential popular vote by half-a million ballots and reached his office only through a political maneuver on the Supreme Court — Bush behaved as if he had an enormous mandate and didn’t need to consult anybody, on anything. It was full speed ahead in enacting long-range tax cuts for the wealthy, ignoring Congress, making secret anything that might prove embarrassing or potentially criminal, freezing out Democrats, retrenching on environmental progress, behaving like a rampaging cowboy in foreign affairs, etc. etc.
The point here is not to examine the details of Bush’s program, but to indicate, as per #1 above, that such arrogant behavior cannot, and will not, continue forever. Every action carries within itself an opposite reaction. Bush&Co. is behaving like a secret corporation, motivated by greed and the desire for monopoly power, and is so outrageous in its open assaults that even those normally in support find their mouths hanging open in astonishment at times, both at the ignorance of the man in charge and in some of the policies they’re expected to champion.
The cracks already are starting to show in domestic policy, with moderate Republicans and most Democrats joining forces more often these days to stop some of the more reckless and dangerous policies propounded by Bush&Co. Even the quiescent Democrats — forced into silence lest they be considered unpatriotic during "wartime" — are starting to locate their spines, and are beginning to offer more in the way of opposition.
In foreign policy, the veteran team surrounding Bush thought itself unchallengeable as well, representing the only superpower in the world. Until it started to falter again and again, when running up against the many-layered complexities of the real world, as opposed to Bush&Co.’s simplistic black-and-white-you’re-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists point of view. They’ve managed to alienate most of Europe, many of their reluctant allies in the Muslim world (Cheney batting zero on his recent trip is a good example), and now, as a result of its unconscionable and sloppy meddling in the internal affairs of Venezuela, a good share of Latin America as well.
In short, in areas domestic and foreign, Bush&Co. are showing signs of inconsistency, incompetency and behavior unbefitting the "leader of the free world." And beginning to suffer some defeats, finally. Consider: No drilling in the Arctic Refuge, federal and state courts slapping Ashcroft’s hands for over-reaching in his police-state desire to control everything and everyone, large public rallies in the streets against Bush policies, editorials from normally-Republican newspapers are starting to get critical; Bush’s approval ratings are slipping fast. When the final unraveling comes, when critical mass occurs and the whole deck of cards begins to collapse — fed by the discovery of all sorts of embarrassing and possibly criminal secrets currently being hidden by the administration — the end-slide is going to be fast and vicious. Resignation or impeachment is not out of the question. Keep the pressure steady and building.
3. The New Face of War
America doesn’t want to fight fullscale, front-on, long-running wars anymore; too many body bags get shipped back to the States and then there’s all hell to pay politically. So, as we’ve seen recently, the U.S. prefers a more high-tech approach: smart bombs dropped from high altitudes, insertion of special forces for quick missions, unmanned drone aircraft for reconnaisance and firing of missiles, night-patrol goggles, etc. etc.
So, on one hand, the wealthy, technologically superior U.S. can, and wishes to, engage in what it laughingly thinks of as a "clean" war, with minimal casualities and "collateral damage." But the new enemies of the U.S. and the developed world don’t need all that highfalutin’, expensive technology. All they need is some plastique and nails, suicide martyrs, computer skills, biological agents, chemical compounds, "dirty" radiation bombs, and the like. We’ve been given enough visions of the future — airplanes used as bombs, young warriors wearing TNT jackets, release of anthrax spores in public, massive viral attacks delivered by email, missing plutonium from labs, etc. — but tend to see them as one-off events. It may not be what many of my lib-rad comrades want to hear but we’d better get used to the coming world of large terrorist attacks, and smaller terror happenings — largely at this point from Islamic extremists — and the panic and economic disasters that will follow.
So we should know what’s coming, but the military expenditures tend still to go to fighting the last war. Partly, it’s ignorance and head-in-the-sandism. (Bush even CUT funds for beefing up security of nuclear power plants!) Partly, more money gets made by corporations building large pieces of machinery — planes, tanks, missiles (and, of course, missile-defense boondoggles) — and that’s the green fuel for political campaigns.
It’ll probably take another huge terrorist attack, something on the scale of 9/11, or bigger, to serve as our final wake-up call. Then maybe we’ll cancel the "Star Wars" missile-defense shield R&D, maybe we’ll even cancel Bush’s huge tax-cut giveaway (mostly to the wealthy, of course)10 years into the future. If so, we’ll be able to use those freed-up monies so that we can pay for effective anti-terrorist programs — and a wide variety of human-need and infrastructure-repair projects — without robbing Social Security and Medicare trust funds, as Bush is currently doing.
And, maybe, just maybe, we’ll start thinking about revising our foreign policies so that we can alter the chemistry of the soil in which young potential terrorists grow. Prevention is always cost-effective in the long run.
4. The Paucity of Understanding:
Islam and the West
Imagine yourself a practitioner of Islam in the Middle East. The mainly Christian West, especially in Europe and America, demonstrates total ignorance about your faith, and appears to be engaged in a crusade against your religion. Partly, that "crusade" (a loaded term employed by Bush, let us remember) is geopolitical in nature, tied mainly to access to cheap oil&gas. But partly that crusade seems to grow out of a hearty disdain for the religion itself, based on prejudice and ignorance of Islam.
Western leaders are constantly getting caught with their religious blinders on. Italy’s premiere Burlusconi blurting out that European civilization is far superior to any other in the world; Bush’s "crusade" remark; House Republican Whip Tom DeLay’s inflammatory statement that only Christianity "offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation. Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world — only Christianity."
There’s such a paucity of understanding of Islam in the West, and perhaps much the same is true about Christianity/Judaism in much of the Islamic world. I know this lack of knowledge about Islam is true for me and many of my friends, though we are quickly trying to catch up. When our elected leaders make disparaging remarks about the religion, openly, you know that anti-Islam bigotry and ignorance runs deep in our Western societies. (At least, Nixon and Rev. Billy Graham tried to hide their anti-Jewish bigotry.)
Now, having said that, it is also true, as many Moslem commentators have pointed out, that contemporary Islam is greatly divided and troubled, not quite deciding how to incorporate its old, revered religious teachings into the modern world of democracy and free-markets. Many Moslem societies are in the process of making the transition — such moderate states as Egypt, Jordon, Indonesia, et al. — but others are still not sure how much, or in some cases even whether, to relate to the non-Islamic world. And that division runs deep in individual societies, Iran being one clear example, with its more worldly younger population anxious for reform and more open access to the outside world but the conservative mullahs constantly standing in the way with prohibitive restrictions.
Given this conflicted point of view, which reflects the chaos and confusion of modern life, it is no wonder that Islamic fundamentalism has risen more and more to the fore, bringing with it not only answers to the seeming chaos of life but, concomitantly, an antagonism to the forces regarded as bringing moral impurity into the healthy spiritual body of Islam: Western values derived from non-Islamic cultures, which threaten to confuse and tempt practitioners of Islam. Of course, there will be Osama bin Ladens, and fatwas, and calls to jihad in such a culture clash.
Not all Moslems, of course, are extremists. Most are, or would be, content being allowed to practice their faith, much as their forefathers did, while interacting with the non-Islamic world in minor but pleasant-enough ways: buying products from the West, enjoying Hollywood movies, listening to hip-hop, etc. But the East/West conflicts, and the seemingly intractable Israel/Palestine dispute, keep intruding — as do the inane comments about Islam from Western leaders like Bush and Burlusconi and DeLay — and thus the pot continues to boil. (I haven’t even mentioned how Arab-Americans consider themselves put upon by the general U.S. population, but in particular by the Bush Administration, which seems intent on targeting them for "special consideration," which further isolates them and puts them at risk.)
Also forcing Moslems into a united front of suspicion against the U.S. is America’s clear support of the current Israeli government’s terror campaign. Granted that there are good and decent reasons why the U.S. might want to support Israel’s right to exist in a hostile Arab environment — the only democracy in the region, affinity and familiarity with the main religion practiced there, Israel supports U.S. policies, etc. — but there is no excuse, especially after the recent horrors associated with Israel’s invasion of the West Bank, for Bush referring to Ariel Sharon as "a man of peace." What has Bush been smoking?
If the U.S. wants to maintain good relations with the Arab Moslem countries, it must mobilize a global peace coalition — with the same dedication and passion with which it has organized its "war on terrorism" coalition — to work mightily to bring about a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. If the U.S. isn’t willing to do this, and there is no evidence to date that Bush is even considering it, all we can expect is a slide into more slaughter, more regional instability, more terrorists fluorishing, more disasters. Israel and the U.S. will have "won" the battle, but risk losing the war. And the gap between the Christian/Jewish West and the world of Islam will grow wider and wider, and ever more dangerous.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government and international relations, has taught at Western Washington University and San Diego State University. He was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 20 years, and has published in The Nation, Village Voice, The Progressive and CounterPunch.