Why Is America Behaving This Way?
Dear Jacqueline and Wolfgang:
You say that as Europeans, you can’t figure out why the U.S. is "rampaging around the globe, behaving like an arrogant bully." So, while we’re waiting for the attack-on-Iraq shoe to drop, let me try to offer a few perspectives that put the current U.S. government’s actions into an understandable context.
To begin to discern the global tides, one must first understand the domestic currents. The key event in America’s recent history is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire. The U.S. no longer had a simple world to navigate: our enemy, the one who provided a balance-of-power container, wasn’t there any more.
Internally, the American right wing, which had always organized itself around combatting communism, desperately needed a new enemy. The fast-changing world was frightening, scary. The new enemy became that very confusion itself. For the Right, the political symbol of that chaos and uncertainty — and, most importantly, moral laxity — was the liberal Democratic Party and its supporters. And thus began the move toward the current nasty Cultural Civil War in America.
As in other societies, in America the confusions of the modern world had led to the swift growth of fundamentalist religious organizations, which promise to explain away the terrors with simplistic enemies: the Devil, ’60s ex-hippies, secular humanists, abortionists, homosexuals, atheists, non-believers among the faithful, you get the idea.
So there we were with no unifying Communist enemy, no clear-cut answers to life’s confusing complexities, the social fabric already fraying because of the near-civil-war we experienced over Vietnam, no clear direction provided us in this new, open-ended world. Democrats began to resemble Republicans as everyone more or less hovered for psychological safety around the middle part of the spectrum, sometimes a little bit Right (Nixon, even Reagan), sometimes a little bit Left (Carter, Clinton), but mostly operating from the center out, while the country tried to figure out where to go.
But there was one group that quickly was getting its act together: the HardRight. Motivated by economic greed and a lust for power, they quickly saw the opportunity ahead for seizing total control. After all, in global terms, the U.S. was now the world’s only superpower; who was there to stop America? In domestic terms, near-total control is a bit trickier to bring off, being a democracy and all, but remained the goal.
The HardRight — a coalition of religious fundamentalists, corporate movers and shakers, and political extremists, many of them politicians — grew out of the traditional Conservative movement, But these HardRight types thought, given that the liberal/centrist approach would take the country to ruin and continued moral decline, that the normal rules of civil political debate, and the checks-and-balances system, were too confining. It would take these zealots far too long to get anything done if they remained straight-jacketed by the usual rules of democracy and the politics of civility and compromise. (Of course, in Europe and elsewhere, similar movements began to develop, with not a little smell of neo-fascism in many of those parties and organizations.)
The HardRight leaders were desperate. Their chance to take over — and thus move their greed-and-power agenda through quickly — was in jeopardy, inevitably getting smothered in the give-and-take of traditional politics, one party in power and then the other, etc. Something had to give.
They were all poised for total control of the three branches of government: the Congress (led by the likes of such GOP HardRightists Gingrich and Armey and Delay and Lott), the Courts (more and more packed with HardRightists), the Executive (Democrat Clinton was looking more and more vulnerable and irrelevant). And then, surprise of surprises, Clinton got re-elected, and continued to exercise his veto over the HardRight’s more outrageous proposals. Clinton was anything but a Leftwinger — he operated mostly from the center — but so strong was the HardRight’s ability to set the agenda in the country that they had effectively moved the parameters of discussion, thus making the center "the left". Clinton was blocking the way and had to go.
Thus the HardRight’s ferocious assault on Clinton, the aim being to wreck his presidency, one way or another. As in the HardRight’s other fights, the only object is to win, to destroy the other side; doesn’t matter if you lie, smear, make 180-degree turns in your own expressed principles. Only victory will suffice. Clinton, unable to control his own adolescent impulses, stepped into the trap; true, he wasn’t removed from office, but the never-ceasing attacks and investigations — which, of course, ultimately yielded no illegalities, only consensual sex (we’ll ignore for a moment the adulterous hypocrisies in the GOP) — basically destroyed his effectiveness as a Chief Executive, and gave the HardRight an organizing point in ratcheting up the Cultural Civil War.
(There have been earlier books by journalists and other uninvolved outsiders detailing the HardRight’s campaign to seize power, and now, finally, there is a book by a very-much-involved insider, David Brock’s "Blinded by the Right," which names names and dates and places where the HardRight conspiracy did its dirty work. Brock was the journalist who smeared Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas episode, and who got the Paula Jones/Bill Clinton story started. In this book, he recants his sleazy HardRight role, and apologizes to those whose reputations he ruined.)
HardRight Agenda Gets Blocked
Just as the GOP did itself in by nominating the bland Bob Dole, because it was "his turn," the Democrats four years later nominated the bland (and, by association with Clinton, somewhat tainted) Gore. His campaign was a see-sawing disaster, but, even so, Gore managed to win the popular vote, by about a half-million ballots. The other side, which nominated a none-too-bright and inexperienced front man, George W. Bush, played political hardball all the way, and the traditional liberals and centrists surrounding Gore never knew what hit them. In the end, ideological HardRightists on the U.S. Supreme Court, totally reversing their principles on states’ rights, simply pulled the plug on counting all the votes and installed Bush as President.
Now the HardRight could move quickly to establish total dominance over the three branches of government, and ram through their agenda: everything for the wealthy and big corporations, the moral/cultural issues for the fundamentalist base of the party, the dismantling of the New Deal/Great Society programs and policies, the destruction of environmental regulations, etc. etc.
All was looking good until Republican Senator Jeffords, out of principle, deserted the conservative party and chose to vote with the Democrats, thus taking control of the U.S. Senate away from the HardRight Republicans. This meant that the entire HardRight agenda was now in jeopardy, as the centrist Democrats could block any meaningful Bush&Co. legislation. Something had to be done.
The 9/11 Attacks
Now please don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying that the Bush Administration ordered or supported the September 11th attacks on the U.S.; there simply is no proof that they knew the targets and date of the attack, only that "something big" was coming. What I am saying is that those attacks were used mightily by Bush&Co. — perhaps with plans drawn up earlier — to accomplish what could not be accomplished by other means: the seizing of fuller power, the movement of America closer to a martial-law society, the evisceration of key civil liberties, the cowing of the Democratic opposition in the name of support-the-war "patriotism," the speedy passage of legislation designed to roll back the social programs of the past 40 years because money to pay for them was taken away (either locked up for a decade in huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and corporations, or spent in war-related adventures), the weakening of oversight agencies that normally would be protecting consumers and the environment, etc. etc.
Again, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Once the U.S. was attacked, it had to respond vigorously in defense, and even go on the offense in some way. These are vicious religious extremists, who must be stopped. The point I’m making here is that, right or wrong in methodology, the Bush Administration has been highly manipulative in using the 9/11 tragedy to its ideological advantage and to the advantage of its corporate sector, especially in the energy/oil arena. Those who disagree are treated as unpatriotic.
On the global front, the hawks in the Administration saw that, as the remaining superpower on the planet, they could do more or less what they wanted in military terms, setting up and supporting friendly regimes (Afghanistan, Israel, et al.) and engineering the demise of those deemed unfriendly (Iraq, Venezuela, et al.). In all cases, the grays of complexity were overlooked and simplistic black-and-white, you’re-with-us-or-against-us diplomacy ruled the day.
Europe, the United Nations, global treaties — nothing and nobody was permitted to stop the U.S. unilaterist approach to foreign relations. What the U.S. elephant wanted, the U.S. elephant moved to take or control, always for the benefit of its corporate-class sponsors. European and other complaints were heard and brushed aside as irrelevant to the task at hand: the establishment of a Pax Americana across the globe.
Normally, the U.S. population and Congress would debate such sweeping moves toward the establishment of what amounts to an empire abroad. But Bush&Co. could breathe easy. Everything was couched in the name of "national security" and the "war on terrorism," so they didn’t have to worry much about being questioned or attacked by the Democrats, or by the media (mostly owned by huge corporate conglomerates, in any case). Even now, as the U.S. prepares to invade Iraq, there has been no debate in Congress — the branch of government under the Constitution given the sole power to declare war — about the wisdom and consequences of such a military adventure.
Bush&Co. constantly heighten the fright level, and have told the citizenry to get used to a "permanent war." The public is beginning to lose its enchantment with Bush’s policies, especially in the domestic area, but there still isn’t a broad groundswell of opposition to his foreign policies, even when they aren’t working or are thoroughly confused and inconsistent.
So you, and your other European friends, ask why America is behaving the way it is. Bush&Co are doing so because they can get away with it. They cleverly have folded their permanent "war on terrorism" into the HardRight agenda, and not enough citizens have noticed or cared.
On the other hand, arrogant bullies always go too far, and invariably get caught out and implode, often as a result of their overweening greed and power-seeking. The lurking Bush&Co. influence-peddling and other scandals, when allied with obvious foreign-policy and military mistakes, are starting to eat away at Bush’s support. If the Democrats do well in the November elections, perhaps even inflicting an embarrassing defeat to the GOP in the Congress, the Bush house of cards will begin to wobble and may even collapse. More Congressional investigations will be launched. Resignation or impeachment is not outside the realm of possibility.
To aid in this process, not only does the liberal/progressive Left in America need to increase the pressure on Bush&Co. but our friends in Europe and elsewhere must maintain their questioning posture and pressure from the outside. A better day will come, the shadow forces will recede, we will move back to a saner, more centrist balance. Keep the faith, and keep on keepin’ on.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught American government and international relations 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 widely on the internet.