How Fear Curdles the Soul

What are the odds? For that answer you’ll have to ring up Vegas oddsmakers or catch Pete Rose on the corner. But Bill Bennett, toppled from his post as self-insinuated czar of moral accusation, may be an odds-on favorite for Iraq’s Viceroy. Oddly, this pilgrim’s progress may end in Baghdad, where gambling’s illegal but the moral stakes are tremendous.

After a war seen as illegal by an increasing number of Americans and as actionable in an international court of law, Bennett as civilian czar of Iraq might not be the dark horse bet his detractors imagine. It’s uncomfortably apparent from the mishandling of the invasion’s aftermath that the US needs a lot more moral bulk and circumspection on the ground. Burning books and stealing Mesopotamian statues is bad. And without weapons found and Al-Queda missing, increasingly it appears that the Bush gang needs a dispensation on the order of a miracle to excuse its invasion in the eyes and minds of the world at large. Could Bennett’s lofty moral demeanor include the very highest connections the Bush administration needs at this point?

Bennett does look to have as much a chance as anyone to find the weapons of mass destruction, even though the odds have soured along with the Bush administration’s still legless justifications for all-out war waging. A moral crusade, such as Bennett has helped oversee domestically and as Franklin Graham is incipiently trying to form in (infidel) country, might distractively enhance the Bush administration’s failure-laden unMarshall Plan. Certainly, the track record indicates fresh horses are needed on the track.

Now weeks into the reconstruction phase of post-invasion Iraq, a blue collar jihad to rebuild the infrastructure and get the oil flowing is required. Bennett, who oversaw the flow of drugs into the US but never really stemmed it, still has the civilian administrative background that retired lieutenant general Jay Garner cannot bring to Iraq’s empty table. The US military’s moral neutrality that watched Baghdad burn has been no church picnic for the already ravaged Iraqi citizenry. While the moral imperative to restore civil society in Iraq remains unredressed, the military, bungling their most civilized chance to act, are pulling out as fast as they can, though Garner himself (“Damn, we’re Americans!”) remains in charge.

Garner’s Defense Department blessed maneuvering to ensconce Ahmad Chalabi, an embezzler that the US landed in Iraq complete with his own armed forces, seems basis enough to have demanded this viceroy’s termination and a clamoring for Bennett’s apotheosis there. Didn’t Garner understand that expatriate Chalabi, who has spent his own long nights at the roulette tables of Europe, hadn’t seen an Iraqi sunrise in long pants until an American Blackhawk flew him in? Didn’t Garner understand that Iraqis reject American interference in their self-determination, and specifically don’t want American-sponsored outsiders like Chalabi? Wanted in Jordan on 31 convictions for thefts of funds, Chalabi may be Viceroy Garner and the Bush administration’s loss-leader of democracy, but in the last fifty years Bennett’s been in Iraq as much as Chalabi, and Bennett’s decade long squandering of eight million dollars of his own funds represents a moral step up from Chalabi who absconded with $70 to $200 million of other people’s money. (It’s hard to say exactly how much Chalabi left with, but Jordan’s central bank was forced to pump $164 million into Chalabi’s Petra bank to keep it afloat.)

Though the Bush administration has chosen to ease out Garner, his replacement Paul Bremer similarly seems a longer shot than the rugged though thoughtfully bemused Bennett. Ronald Reagan’s ambassador at large for counterterrorism and then managing director for Kissinger Associates, Bremer arrives in country with a portfolio emphasizing power tactics and stealth rather than friendly skills. More than likely, changes will be afoot in Iraq as the population realize they have an American counterterrorist in charge. William Bennett, translate your moral tomes into Arabic. The odds are getting better: bind your wounded loins for foreign service.

The erratic “in country” leadership currently floundering on the ground in Iraq– by itself a challenging affair calling for Bennett or someone like him­­might occlude Bennett’s homeland virtues and the local power Bennett has wielded in the past . Thus, from a strictly domestic vantage, Bennett may also represent the Bush administration’s best bet as pit boss of Iraq. Though a family man who from his moral aerie swooped earthward to waste $20,000 every week for the last ten years on legal gaming tables, Bennett has demonstrated a visible commitment to other moral issues not strictly his own.. And he sounds more like a your dad when you were nine than a man bent on turning your school over to Microsoft or turning McDonalds’s wages into Palm Beach’s dividends.

On the treadmill of media interviews and in his books, Bennett’s moral excoriation comes across as chummy. Bennett’s managed to present an avuncular, threatless image, while still urging disagreeable, punitive outcomes for lots of people–from those addicted to drugs to those addicted to free public education, If it must be acknowledged that many across the domestic political spectrum currently harbor doubts about an egregious gambler who’s variously gone disguised both as a moral broadsider in the streets and as a drug czar in office, Bennett’s domestic discourse has consistently displayed a bedside manner his more Hobbesian moral cohorts can only envy. And its powerful message stays the course of moral and political vision through its insistence on hardly more than truisms­things can get better, Bennett says, without government and without money. Like Dorothy, we can will our way back to Kansas. It indeed may be time to put this money-saving domestic asset into foreign territory.

The wolf pack yelps of the Republican womanizers Bennett joined in a sex hunt that tied up government in the Clinton nineties have fairly quieted. And though Bennett’s voice sharpened the point on that moral spearhead, it always spoke in frank, not frenzied tones. Perhaps that manner will mesmerize a new, eastern audience. We will see.

In a press almost magically turned from scandal and witch-hunting after January 20, 2001, revelations of high rolling games of chance funded by Bennett’s stacks of gold chips and his piles of $1000 tokens will die swiftly. No point in starting a moral fuss. The after midnight Bennett with sleeves rolled up and sweat on the brow will dissolve. The folksy prophet of moral probity will soon reappear. But where and when?

Iraq, looted and robbed of its cultural treasure and operating cash, needs someone like Bennett to console them with parables of how easily it all comes and goes. This same Iraq, still thirsty and in the dark, has wounds that its raided and stripped hospitals cannot yet heal. What better time for a burnished and refurbished, slightly sun-burnt prophet like Bennett to shine his light down upon the citizenry of Iraq until the power is finally restored? Who knows, under his tutelage, like loaves and fishes, even the weapons of mass destruction may proliferate and appear. What are the odds? Ask Pete Rose–though like the Bush administration and its moral pals, the line has it that everyone’s still in denial about what’s happening to America’s moral sense, ten to one.

LARRY MAGNUSON, a professor of English, lives in Wavery, Tennessee.

He can be reached at: