Imperial History-Making v. Reality-Based Thought

In a now famous remark to Ron Suskind, an unidentified aide to President Bush told the veteran journalist that guys like him were “in what we call the reality-based community.” These are people who (of all things) stubbornly “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” But the administration doesn’t share their empiricism, which, like the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that helped usher in a long era of international diplomacy among nation-states, is rooted in the Enlightenment. All that rationality, that helped us climb out of the Dark Ages, is now mere “history.” So screw your commonsense, everyday, discernible reality! Study? How passé! “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the Bush aide elaborated. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

One recalls the president’s statement to Time magazine in August: “I’m not the historian. I’m the guy making history.” And his flippant response to Bob Woodward’s question: “How is history likely to judge your Iraq war?” “History,” replied Dubya, who actually majored in history at Yale, graduating with a 2.35 GPA, “we don’t know. We’ll all be dead” (CBS News, 60 Minutes, April 18, 2004). History in Bush-thought is something the powerful do and lesser beings sort out (and, the neocons believe, celebrate in song) after the supermen die comfortably. It’s also something that has sides to it, so that you can (like Syria) be on its “wrong side,” hence on God’s hit-list and subject to the terrible swift sword of His Anointed. (The president actually told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas last year that “God told me to smite [Saddam Hussein]. And I smote him.”)

Having shaped history in line with a divinely-commanded plan to create an occupied, free Iraq, the Bush administration continues to heroically plan regime change in Syria and Iran. As in the case of Iraq, it steadily builds the case against both nations, seeking to isolate them internationally and persuade the American people that both constitute a threat to the U.S. and world peace. The biggest threat it would like us to imagine is that posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, working closely with al-Qaeda and other Arab terrorist groups to cause mischief in Iraq, underwrite suicide bombings in Israel, and bring down what some Iranians call the Great Satan. To underscore that threat, he U.S. continues to prod the International Atomic Energy Administration to charge Iran with seeking to produce nuclear weapons, and bring its case to the UN Security Council for a vote on sanctions. The IAEA, finding no hard evidence for the U.S. accusation, has so far resisted pressure. It surely recognizes that such a vote would help validate U.S. aggression against Iran and expansion of the “War on Terror.” Meanwhile Europe, deeply troubled by American behavior in Iraq and U.S. Middle East policy in general, works with Iran to avoid a confrontation over the nuclear issue, and China cultivating an alliance with Tehran threatens a veto of any anti-Iran resolution. Reality-based people don’t relish the prospect of U.S. tanks in the streets of Tehran and Damascus. But the reinvigorated neocons salivate at it, and if they won’t be harnessed by the American people’s antiwar movement, they surely won’t be denied their meal by some queasy denizens of Old Europe. All those in their way stand on the wrong side of History.

In the following dialogue, the Bushite worldview confronts that of a reasonable person inclined to doubt it. ZARATHUSTRA is one of “History’s actors,” while THOMAS represents the reality-based community.


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ZARATHUSTRA: It’s obvious Iran wants to produce nuclear weapons.

THOMAS: Maybe. They’re surrounded by nuclear powers: Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Israel. And they face unremitting hostility from the U.S., which includes them along with Saddam’s Iraq and North Korea as part of the “axis of evil.”

ZARATHUSTRA: Exactly. You just have to assume that they want them.

THOMAS: But they say their nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Iran’s a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Their top mullah has actually issued a fatwa against the production of nukes, and the parliament has endorsed it.

ZARATHUSTRA: That doesn’t mean anything. The Iranians don’t need nuclear power at all, given their oil resources.

THOMAS: But they say their oil is most important as an export, and that the supply will run out in a few decades. Nuclear power will allow them to diversify their economy. Democratic and Republican U.S. administrations agreed to that in the seventies, when we actually encouraged the Shah’s nuclear program.

ZARATHUSTRA: That was totally different. The Shah was our friend, and he wasn’t threatening his neighbors.

THOMAS: Well, he was the gendarme of the Gulf, threatening a lot of people. He backed the Kurds against Iraq, before cutting a deal with Baghdad in 1975. He sent troops into Oman. He was working with the Afghan regime to wipe out the left in Afghanistan, and helped to trigger the Saur Revolution of 1978.

ZARATHUSTRA: He was working with us.

THOMAS: I’m just saying he was threatening his neighbors, and engaging in a massive military buildup with U.S. support. He was involved in a secret alliance with Israel that Arabs felt hostile.

ZARATHUSTRA: Right. He was a friend and ally. Iran’s a great nation and we want it to be a friend and ally again.

THOMAS: But the Iranians hated the Shah, put in power by the CIA in 1953. That’s why they overthrew him in 1979.

ZARATHUSTRA: Yeah, well that was a disaster.

THOMAS: It was the most genuine, mass-based revolution in the history of Muslim states. It was backed by the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party, the Maoists, the Mujahadeen Khalq (those folks you want to work with these days), moderates like Bani-Sadr, and all kinds of mullahs

ZARATHUSTRA: You’re saying it was a fine thing, that revolution?

THOMAS: I’m just saying it had most people’s support.

ZARATHUSTRA: So what? Most of those people supported the seizure of our embassy. They were against us!

THOMAS: Well, we did support the Shah and refused to extradite him back to Iran for trial after he fled to the U.S.

ZARATHUSTRA: You saying we should have sent that great, loyal friend of ours to some court in Iran?

THOMAS: I’m just saying we need to realistically understand the Iranians’ viewpoint. What’s the difference between them asking us to turn the Shah over to them, and us asking the Taliban to turn over bin Laden to a U.S. court?

ZARATHUSTRA: You don’t seem to understand. We have friends and enemies. Our policies reflect that. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about what’s “fair” and all that, but your relativism, and “blame America first” attitude will get you nowhere. We’re AMERICANS, get it?

THOMAS: Okay, but back to the nukes. You’re saying that Iraq wants to enrich uranium.

ZARATHUSTRA: We know they do. They’ve said it. Their parliament has passed a bill demanding that they do it. They say it’s their right under the 1970 nonproliferation treaty.

THOMAS: Isn’t it in fact their right? Haven’t a lot of nations done it, including ones like Belgium and Japan that don’t have nuclear weapons?

ZARATHUSTRA: Yes, but that’s not the issue. Once the Iranians actually enrich uranium, they’ll chuck the fatwas and start producing nukes.

THOMAS: How do you know that?

ZARATHUSTRA: Because it would make sense for them to do so.

THOMAS: Let’s say they do. So we have one more nuclear power. Number nine or ten. Would it threaten the U.S.?

ZARATHUSTRA: It’d be a huge threat to Israel.

THOMAS: Isn’t that a separate issue? And can’t Israel, with its nukes, take care of itself?

ZARATHUSTRA: It sure can. But it will never let Iran’s program reach a threatening stage.

THOMAS: Yeah, I remember the bombing of Osiraq in Iraq in 1981. Israel’s threatening to do it again. But the whole world, including the U.S., condemned that attack back then as a clear violation of international law.

ZARATHUSTRA: Well, we weren’t in charge then. Even the Reagan administration made some mistakes.

THOMAS: You’re saying the Bush administration would back an Israel strike against Iran?

ZARATHUSTRA: There’ll have to be lots of strikes. There are maybe 20 facilities to target. But whether we handle it, or the Israelis do, is something we’ll have to work out. The Israelis are very independent, you know.

THOMAS: So at some point either Israel or the U.S. will have to attack Iran?

ZARATHUSTRA: Yeah. It’s that or wait until the mullahs have their nukes. And they in turn could give some to al-Qaeda.

THOMAS: You know there’s no relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda.

ZARATHUSTRA: I know no such thing. They’re working with al-Qaeda, letting members pass through the country. They’re working with Zarqawi and Ansar al- Islam.

THOMAS: A lot of intelligence analysts question those charges. Remember, Iran almost went to war with the Taliban in 1998. The al-Qaeda types hate Shiism. And I’m not sure this Zarqawi guy even exists.

ZARATHUSTRA: We have plenty of intelligence on him.

THOMAS: I’m sure you do, even though it’s all riddled with contradictions. And you’ve got plenty of reason to attribute Iraqi resistance to “foreign” terrorists. Anyway, isn’t there any way out of a confrontation with Iran? The Europeans have been trying to get it to suspend nuclear enrichment activity. Now they’ve announced that they will.

ZARATHUSTRA: No deal. They still insist it’s their right to master the full cycle of nuclear processing.

THOMAS: But again—they do have that right. All states do.

ZARATHUSTRA: But some states are our enemies, and we will deny them that right, to protect ourselves.

THOMAS: Look, you know as well as I do that Iranian nukes wouldn’t threaten the Homeland. You’re talking about Israel.

ZARATHUSTRA: Not just that. I’m talking about an evil regime that is working against our interests in Iraq.

THOMAS: They say they support the January elections in Iraq. They have good relations with a lot of the Shiite politicians working with the U.S.

ZARATHUSTRA: What if they do? Look. We have a good case against Iran. Weapons of mass destruction, plus support for international terrorism. They also support Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the occupied territories, and the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey.

THOMAS: Not that any of those groups are threatening the U.S. But you’re saying that even if, say, Iran agreed to continued intrusive IAEA inspections, and placed a 10-year moratorium on nuclear enrichment activities, they’d still be evil?

ZARATHUSTRA: Of course. Look how the mullahs treat the people.

THOMAS: I don’t know that there worse than some of “our guys.” The State Department’s actually called Iran a “democracy.” Sounds to me like you just want to overthrow the Iranian government.

ZARATHUSTRA: Exactly, and to liberate the Iranian people.

THOMAS: Like you’ve liberated the Iraqis.


THOMAS: And you want Iran solidly allied with the U.S.


THOMAS: With U.S. bases.

ZARATHUSTRA: Naturally. The Iranian people will want them for their own security, and we need to project power in that unstable part of the world.

THOMAS: And you’ll want U.S. corporations to handle the oil.

ZARATHUSTRA: Who can do it better? The most important thing is that we, rather than somebody else, control the flow of the oil to world markets. It gives us leverage.

THOMAS: But you can’t justify an attack on Iran by arguing that it gives America geopolitical advantages, and engorges corporate coffers.


THOMAS: You need these excuses (nukes, terrorism) to get the public behind an attack.

ZARATHUSTRA: Those aren’t “excuses.” We know Iran wants nukes, and those nukes would upset the balance of power in the Middle East.

THOMAS: So the reasons then—not excuses—are the expansion of US political, military and corporate power in the region, and the security of Israel.

ZARATHUSTRA: That’s safe to say. Plus freedom for the oppressed Iranians.

THOMAS: But you can’t sell a war with such reasons.

ZARATHUSTRA: Look, regime change is already our policy. It already has bipartisan support. How we do it, what reasons we put out, will depend on the circumstances.

THOMAS: Do you really believe that, given the Iraqi quagmire, international opposition (even from Britain this time), and a skeptical public, you can topple the mullahs during the next four years?

ZARATHUSTRA: Wait, wait! Skeptical public? Bush has a mandate from the public. He’s a strong leader with strong moral, religious values. He believes in freedom for the Middle East. People understand that.

THOMAS: He’s using religious fundamentalism and widespread ignorance and gullibility to get support for his foreign policy.

ZARATHUSTRA: How arrogant of you. You really think the American people are stupid?

THOMAS: I think we both know a lot of people can be manipulated, and that Bush is using religious beliefs about the “End Times” and the fate of Israel to drum up support for his war plans. Plus a lot of anti-Arab sentiment and confusion about who’s who in the Muslim world.

ZARATHUSTRA: He’s just tapping into the soul of the Homeland, and feelings that you and your elitist intellectual friends can’t understand.

THOMAS: A lot of people are gonna change their minds as the body count mounts. Practically all the retired senior military leaders call Iraq a disaster.

ZARATHUSTRA: So far, things in the region are working out more or less according to plan. We’re making history, boldly and courageously.

THOMAS: I don’t think you see what’s really going on. When countries are invaded, their people fight back.

ZARATHUSTRA: Terrorists.

THOMAS: And when you say, “We invaded you so you wouldn’t get nukes, or help terrorists,” they’re gonna say, “You and Israel have the nukes, and you’re the biggest terrorists.”

ZARATHUSTRA: Think out of the box. These are historic times, great opportunities. We have the power to remake the world.

THOMAS: I don’t doubt it. You have the power to create chaos.

ZARATHUSTRA: Yes! Creative chaos.

THOMAS: How do you know you can control it?

ZARATHUSTRA: Our system is the finest the world has ever known. It is also by far the most powerful. Through military might, and the strength of our system, we defeated communism. We will defeat all our enemies. It is our destiny to bring about a new order, an order of freedom.

THOMAS: Would you say the Afghans and Iraqis are free?

ZARATHUSTRA: It will be a long process. The important thing is, we’ve toppled their dictators, we’re calling the shots now, and we can help them build stable democracies.

THOMAS: You know what I think? Freedom and democracy have nothing to do with it.

ZARATHUSTRA: What? What else would we want? (Chuckles.) You can’t believe it’s all about oil.

THOMAS: No. Looks to me that it’s about control of oil, leverage over allies and any possible emerging rivals, huge profits, markets, and to protect all that, permanent military bases. Full spectrum dominance in the New American Century.

ZARATHUSTRA: Just what I said. Freedom and democracy. What’s wrong with that?

THOMAS: You’re impossible, you know that? Simplistic. You don’t recognize nuances. We’re not speaking the same language.

ZARATHUSTRA: Mine is the language of the future. Total clarity. When I say something I mean it, and the world knows I mean it. Get used to it.

THOMAS: More the language of the 1930s I think. We really are on opposite sides.

ZARATHUSTRA: You’re either for us or against us.

THOMAS: Guess so. See you around, maybe, unless you folks put me in jail.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and 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 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: