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How George W. Bush Destroyed the Temple of Baal

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First he bombed mercilessly, cruelly grinning throughout. Costumed in a flight suit, he proclaimed a “Mission Accomplished” after he had, with what they call “bipartisan support” (as though this lends some sort of legitimacy), destroyed the modern country of Iraq.

George W. Bush destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure, its institutions, its ruling party and its army. Then he destroyed its social fabric, which had permitted widespread Sunni-Shiite intermarriage and religiously integrated neighborhoods.

Bush destroyed the law and order which had permitted girls to walk to school, heads uncovered, in modern western dress. He destroyed the freedom of physicians and other professionals to go about their work and caused masses of them to exit their country. He destroyed neighborhoods whose residents were forced to flee for their lives. He destroyed the Christian community, which dropped from 1.5 million in 2001 to perhaps 200,000 a decade later. He destroyed the prevalent ideology of secularism and ushered in an era of bitterly contested sectarian rule. He destroyed the right to broadcast rock ‘n roll music, or sell liquor and DVDs.

He destroyed the stability of Anbar province by sowing the chaos that allowed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to establish—for the first time—an al-Qaeda branch in Iraq.

He destroyed the stability of Syria when “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” (now ISIL) retreated into that neighboring country during the “surge” of 2007. By creating power vacuums and generating new chapters and spin-offs of al-Qaeda, he destroyed Yazidi communities and their freedom from genocide and slavery. By hatching the forerunner of ISIL, he destroyed the prospects for a peaceful “Arab Spring” in Syria three years after his presidency ended.

Through his actions he destroyed the border between Syria and Iraq. He destroyed the Tomb of Jonah in Mosul. He destroyed 3,300 year old monuments, the glorious art of the Assyrians, in Nimrud. On August 23 while sitting in his home artist’s studio in Crawford, Texas, he destroyed the 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, Syria.

The most complete structure in that gorgeous pearl of an ancient preserved city, a mix of Roman, Syrian and Egyptian artistic influences, is now a pile of rubble.

(Have you noted how this heart-breaking loss of a world cultural treasure—designated by the UN as a World Heritage Site—has been all but ignored by the mainstream media, which takes all its cues from the State Department? It’s as though this particular ramification of the criminal war-based-on-lies is just so embarrassing that they can’t bring themselves to talk about it. So the talking heads redouble their attentions to Kentucky clerk Kimberly Davis, the spectacle of the Republican primary, the New England Patriots’ Deflategate scandal, and the routine shipment of Russian arms to Syria rather than asking frankly: What the hell have we done in the Middle East? Why has “our” government inflicted such calculated, ongoing, unforgiveable terror on so many innocent people, and on the cultural heritage of all humanity?)

The status quo in the region was grim enough in 2001, when Bush began to plan his general assault. The status quo now is far, far worse. It’s all murder, crucifixions, beheadings, ruin, and the demolition of ancient priceless cultural monuments, with no end in sight.

What will be next, you wonder. Young Muslims are flocking to the black and white banner of the Islamic State, seeing in it a revival of the glorious caliphate of the past—a turning point in world history, retribution for the sins of the west, a scourge upon traitorous leaders and sundry infidels and pagans.

No moral hesitation pauses the fanatic as he takes aim at the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or the exquisite 2900 year old stone reliefs at the palace of King Ashurnarspal II, in Nimrud. Let the unbelievers—the ecstatic vandal thinks—gasp in horror at the death of their idols! Allah wants this done. How great is He!

The destructive power of religious idiocy takes many forms. President George W. Bush was once asked by a journalist to name his favorite philosopher. “Jesus,” he replied. He initially proclaimed his War on Terror as a “crusade.” While denying any anti-Muslim intent, and indeed averring puzzlement that anyone would think him religiously intolerant, he deliberately conflated a host of Muslim targets with al-Qaeda.

GIs in Iraq put up posters in their barracks showing Saddam Hussein next to Osama bin Laden, as though these mutual enemies in real life were somehow comrades-in-arms—both Muslim, Arab, and “anti-American.” They should not be faulted for their display of stunning stupidity; it was inculcated in them. Meanwhile Bush labeled the Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat a “terrorist” and refused to deal with him, as he refused to deal with Iran, brusquely rejecting a diplomatic overture in 2003 through his co-ruler, Dick Cheney.

Bush exploited anti-Muslim feeling in this country after 9/11 to foment public support for a generalized assault on the Middle East. Famously ignorant of the world and of history, he not-so-subtly encouraged the view overtly conveyed by his Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence from 2003 to 2007, Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, who gave speeches in full military dress at religious events declaring that the U.S. was fighting a “spiritual battle” in the Middle East against “a guy called Satan” who “wants to destroy us as a Christian army.”

George W. Bush is directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, plus tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers doing what soldiers typically do when their country is invaded. Estimates of the total death toll between 2003 and 2011 range from around 150,00 to over 600,000. The U.S. military provides no estimate, expressing disdain for such activity (“We don’t do body counts”). But surely the numbers killed by U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East since 2011 far exceed the death count of the Islamic State.

Bush himself did not take a sledgehammer to the walls of Temple of Baalshamin, but he did enable those who destroyed the temple, who are now systematically destroying the ancient tombs surrounding it, battling, in their own fevered minds, some mythical Satan of Gen. Boykin’s imagination.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, said in an interview on RT television September 3 that Cheney “should be in prison for war crimes” and “Dick Cheney, in a word, is an idiot.” I’d say Powell himself bears enough responsibility for war crimes to stand trial, and that he was a “useful idiot” in presenting that collection of lies to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003—even while privately harboring grave doubts about the charges’ validity.

(Notice how following his stint as “the first African-American Secretary of State,” in which he did the white power structure’s bidding—as loyally as he did when he covered up the My Lai Massacre during a tour in Vietnam—Powell despite some forays out into the media has become for the most part a quiet recluse, allowing Wilkerson to reclaim his dignity, and portray him as a victim of the war-mongers rather than a war crimes co-defendant himself?)

But the buck stops at the Chief Executive’s desk. Bush is the chief war criminal. Obama also ranks with Cheney among others who, in a better world, would today be in the dock. Obama stands charged with absolving the Bush cabinet of any legal responsibility for their crimes, and with following up on their regime-change agenda by destroying Libya and spreading unimaginable suffering in Syria and Yemen.

Bush and Obama share blame for the tragic death of the three-year-old Syrian Kurdish refugee boy Aylan Kurdi found in coastal waters by the Turkish official. They bear responsibility for the refugee crisis in Europe unknown for the last 70 years.

When Obama and his then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton decided to support the armed opposition to the Damascus regime in 2011 they took—whatever they might say—the side of radical Islamists versus secularists. Their M198 howitzers supplied to the tiny, pathetic, largely imaginary “Free Syrian Army” wound up in the hands of ISIL, along with tanks and Humvees wrested from the collapsing Iraqi Army across the border. ISIL has acquired U.S.-produced hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers intended for Kurdish forces in Syria.

ISIL and other Islamist forces (some supported by U.S. allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar), as well as U.S.-backed armed “moderates,” have forced the flight of tens, even hundreds of thousands of Syrians into Europe.

Washington would like to blame the government of Bashar al-Assad, who they allege “fired on his own people” during the peaceful protests of the Arab Spring. But those peaceful forces have not by and large joined the Islamist crazies but proposed negotiations with the Syrian regime. Such talks are supported by Russia and Iran but opposed by the U.S. which stubbornly orders Assad to leave the scene.

By insisting on Assad’s removal, sustaining the pipe-dream of a viable U.S.-aligned “Free Syrian Army” that will topple him while also defeating al-Nusra and ISIL, castigating (the seriously anti-ISIL) Russians and Iranians for their assistance to Damascus, and most recently castigating Moscow for its supposed “vast increase” in aid to the hard-pressed regime, the Obama administration is prolonging the civil war that promotes the worst players while sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into an ill-prepared, crisis-wracked Europe. Even the most compassionate, welcoming forces on that continent ask reasonably why Europe should shoulder the burden for Washington’s arrogant regime-change ambitions.

The Original Sin was the war on Iraq, and its destruction in that war-based-on-lies. The inability of the imperialist state to recognize that, and punish those responsible, or generate presidential candidates who can speak honestly about this history (or even coherently address issues of contemporary world politics) confirms that the sin cannot be washed away by or within the system. All we hear is calls to “Make America great again”— as though the destruction of the Middle East is something other than a display of U.S. greatness in all its vicious savagery.

As though the failure of the U.S. to wipe out the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or ISIL, or the diverse, pesky, disobedient forces from Libya to Pakistan to Ukraine who refuse to fall in line behind the U.S.’s agendas makes this country a victim or laughing-stock as Donald Trump wants us to imagine.

Virtually all the presidential candidates in one way or another deploy the themes of  national humiliation and renewed national greatness. They cannot look reality in the face. Or if they do, they cannot share with the people their understanding that they’re agents of the One Percent in this country struggling to maintain global hegemony as our standard of living sinks, as global alliances fray, and as the world becomes increasingly sick and tired of U.S. bullying.

When the closest thing to an “alternative” candidate is Bernie Sanders, who has voted for every military appropriations bill and every pro-Israel Senate resolution, and whose challenge to Wall Street is softened by his politically mandatory loyalty oath to free enterprise, what hope is there for real change through the system?

Wall Street once determined that a black presidential candidate with a (false) reputation as an antiwar figure was just what was needed to revive faith in its bogus “democratic process. Obama got the job. Nothing changed except that there was a “surge” in Afghanistan and a record number of murderous drone strikes infuriating people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. And a record number of prosecutions of whistle blowers and journalists revealing uncomfortable truths about U.S. imperialism.

The fraction of the One Percent that makes the vital decisions knows that what’s important is not so much what candidate wins, as that the system wins, by reaffirming its legitimacy every four years as voters dutifully head to the polls, voting for Tweedledee or Tweedledum, only to become—as all pollsters know—disillusioned down the road, voting next time for the “other party” (there being precisely two assigned by game rules a chance to win) as an impotent “protest” that leads nowhere.

The Original Sin of the Iraq crime cannot be redeemed by a bourgeois election preordained to elect another clown citing U.S. “exceptionalism” as an excuse to break more countries and sow more havoc. The system that bred that crime, inflicting unending misery on the world, cannot be dislodged without truly revolutionary change. I don’t know how it will happen, any more than I know how to repair the damage inflicted to human memory and culture by the monsters now occupying the exquisite dying jewel of Palmyra.

But now we are confronted—by this splendid democratic system—with the choice of Hillary Clinton (“We came, we saw, he died”), airhead Donald Trump (“I’m the most militaristic person here”), asshole Jeb Bush (“anyone would have invaded Iraq”) or even “support our troops” Bernie Sanders as the only feasible options o change course.

Their whole antiquated system, based on the worship of capital and war, needs to go the way of the Temple of Baalshamin. Only that destruction would meet with global relief and celebration.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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