White House Liars on the Defensive

In those heady months building up to the War-Based-on-Lies, New York Times columnist Ron Suskind made some remarks about then-White House Communications Director Karen Hughes. These bothered the administration. So a senior official (Karl Rove?) took Suskind to task, and as Suskind recounted later in an October 17, 2004 NYT piece, mocked him for being “in what we call the reality-based community.”

These are people, the official elaborated, who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” The bullying Bush insider warned against such belief, dismissing it as naïve: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he declared. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality, 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.”

Suskind says he “didn’t fully comprehend” this now famous remark at the time (summer 2002). But he believes “it gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.” I think so too. This is an administration that as Suskind observes rejects “the principles of the enlightenment and empiricism.” It believes that not only does might make right, but might makes what’s real. It manufactures truth. The “wise,” in the empire-building community that transcends empirical reality, create their own reality not only through vicious violence but through control of information. They know, with Foucault, that information is power. So they fabricate it (Niger uranium documents), disseminate it through the corporate press (Judith Miller), pay for positive spin in that “free press” (Armstrong Williams), stage favorable press briefing questions, set up “unrehearsed” encounters between the president and troops (October 2005 teleconference), buy positive press coverage of the U.S. occupation in the “free” Iraqi press. They talk among themselves about “perception management” as though the perceptions of the masses like threatening flood waters must be channeled and contained lest they get out of control. They petulantly punish truth-telling whistle-blowers (Joseph Wilson), disparage ex-officials become honest and knowledgeable critics (Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neill), and seek to intimidate objective academics.

Their approach to reality dovetails nicely with disparate trends in what we might broadly call American “thought.” One is buttheaded religious fundamentalism, which specifically does reject the principles of the enlightenment (being man-centered rather than God-centered) and empiricism to the extent that it challenges the content of scripture.

Another is postmodernism (or some trends within it) which reject not just “metanarratives” but even conventional history (as something unknowable) and in validating equally careful Rankean historical investigations and narratives that might be “true” for the individual author or reader. This can feed into the fascist-like deliberate use of noble lies advocated by the Staussians. Another is the Fukuyama thesis about the “end of history.” If History (in the Hegelian sense, characterized by the clash of antithetical ideas) has come to an end with the putative triumph of capitalism over socialism, any discussion of exploitative ruling classes manipulating the masses to obtain their misanthropic ends including through imperialist war would seem ridiculous. Or if not ridiculous, oh so sixties, so passé, so modern whereas we’re post all that now and ready to move on into a brave new groupthink world.

Anyway, three and a half years after this dialogue between the columnist and “historical actor,” the reality-based community assigned to merely study what the Bush-actors perform is in fact rationally fighting back against the madness. Critical reasoning, once driven from the mainstream press down into the catacomb sanctuaries of the web, revives steadily on TV news. Demands for truth about the “handling of prewar intelligence” (sparked less by politicians’ epiphanies than by the successes of the Iraqi resistance and the mounting U.S. death count), are putting administration officials on the hot seat and causing the Commander in Chief to repeatedly lose his cool. The special prosecutor’s legal investigation into the Plame Affair, and the courts’ prosecution of the Franklin-AIPAC-Israeli Espionage Affair, are also encouraging the “judicious study of empirical reality” maligned by the above-quoted smugly solipsistic shortsighted fool.

Now, in place of the cocky condescension, we get this pronouncement from no less than the vice president, the principal patron and protector of the neocon intellectuals so at war with discernible reality, last month in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute:

What is not legitimate—and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible—is the suggestion by some U. S. senators that the President of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence.

Note the injured tone. Why didn’t the man just say, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality-and you can call it ‘lies’ or whatever you want, but we don’t care, because we’re the champions, the supermen, the empire-builders”? Why doesn’t he quote Gen. Garner, the first U.S. proconsul in occupied Iraq, and tell those timidly critical senators: “You ought to be beating your chest every morning, ought to look in the mirror, suck in your bellies and say ‘Damn, we’re Americans,’ and smile”? (Yes, Garner actually said that in May 2002.) Or why, having once given Sen. Patrick Leahy this instruction, doesn’t he just tell them to fuck themselves?

Because, I submit, the tide has turned a bit. Few now chimpishly beat their chests about the conquest of Iraq. Cheney himself, some report, is on the outs with the president. I wouldn’t be surprised if before the AEI speech he’d had some chaffing encounter with a pissed prez demanding to know whether Dick and his staff purposely misled him on pre-war intelligence. The sense of feigned hurt he would have expressed then would carry over into his angry public talk. Worried that the heroic new reality-creation project is unraveling fast, he feels obliged to lash out at lesser beings who’ve raised the honesty issue. Notice how he distinguishes between “the President of the United States” or “any member of his administration”—an administration in which Cheney’s been as powerful, maybe more powerful, that his pathetic boss. His chief of staff has been indicted and forced to resign. He himself is in the crosshairs of the Fitzgerald investigation. It’s natural for him to sneer, in that urbane understated way of his: “How can anybody call me dishonest? That’s just unacceptable. Dishonest. Reprehensible.”

Cheney had an 80 minute scheduled speech before the warmest audience imaginable, the neocon-dominated AEI where his wife holds a “chair” of sorts. (She’s also a “scholar” in the “American Council of Trustees and Alumni” which rather like David Horowitz’s “Campus Watch” likes to harass and intimidate progressive, truth-oriented academics.) Cheney spoke 18 minutes, stalking off abruptly taking no questions. Why did he shortchange his fans? Did he fear perhaps some questions that, however kindly phrased, might have obliged him to confront that old obnoxiously lingering “discernible reality”?

“Mr. Vice President, you said on August 26, 2002 that ‘we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons On the nuclear question, many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.’ Isn’t it true that the nuclear weapons material has been removed to Syria?”

That would be a nice create-your-own-reality question that could have come up in the Q & A session.

Or: “Mr. Vice President. Thank you so much for your inspiring words here today. You told NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ in September 2002 that Saddam had recently been ‘trying, through his illicit procurement network, to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium—specifically, aluminum tubes.’ Given that Judith Miller and all the experts also said that the tubes were for that purpose, what do you think about those now trying to rewrite history and say that wasn’t so?”

Or this: “Mr. Vice President, in July last year you said, ‘In the early 1990s, Saddam had sent a brigadier general in the Iraqi intelligence service to Sudan to train al Qaeda in bomb making and document forgery.’ Liberals have challenged that intelligence, but what would you say in response?”

I think I understand why Cheney hightailed it out of there, because these aren’t questions that might allow for honest answers in the resurgent reality-mode conception of honesty. But the questions raised by the senators he targeted in his speech are much tougher, and those of journalists, especially Counterpunch-type journalists even more so. These must be very uncomfortable times for the noble liars.

But the great paradox of this exquisite moment, which some see optimistically as the Twilight of the Neocons, is that even as discernable reality stubbornly resurfaces, shining its bright light in some of their ugly faces, the empire-builders still doggedly fight back and even look poised for one or more successes, near term. Some of the principal “history’s actors” have left the administration. Paul Wolfowitz has been bounced up to the headship of the World Bank, where he poses as a humanitarian. Douglas Feith’s left government, Richard Perle and David Frum have checked out and now spend their time denouncing the creation of any Palestinian state, “Scooter” Libby and Larry Franklin are under indictment. Dov Zakheim, Eric Edelman, Marc Grossman, Michael Ledeen and Abram Shulsky all seem to have left. But David Wurmser, John Hannah, Robert Joseph, Elliott Abrams and John Bolton are still around and you can be sure are pushing the original agenda.

That means: taking out the governments of Syria and Iran. This is Bolton’s mission, and despite the embarrassing circumstances surrounding his appointment as U.S. ambassador to the UN (Congress had declined to endorse him, due mainly to his justified reputation as am unstable bully, and so Bush had to install him as a “temporary appointment”) he is scoring some successes in his mission. Building on the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 passed by the U.S. Congress, and the UNSC resolution 1559 of September 2004 demanding among other things Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon, Bolton has been able to orchestrate the likely UNSC condemnation of Syria based on a dubious investigation of the Rafiq Harari assassination case. He’s also succeeded in engineering an IAEA resolution accusing Iran (despite findings to the contrary by IAEA head and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei) of violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Project for a New American Century, a project for creating a new Middle East through wars based on noble lies, remains on track and is even influencing its despised United Nations.

You might think that following the Iraq attack (properly labeled “illegal” by Kofi Annan) that august body would avoid abetting future U.S. regime change projects based on lies. But no, with cowardly France and shameless India so far in tow, the neocon administration hones in on Iraq’s neighbors.

How to derail the train? How to prevent the planned attacks? May I suggest that all of us opposed to the Iraq War, encouraged by the administration’s falling poll numbers and rising support for withdrawal, avoid complacency or the assumption that, “they’re too bogged down in Iraq to attack anybody else”? The U.S. was bogged down in Vietnam in 1970. The antiwar movement was at its height. President Nixon was vowing to gradually reduce U.S. forces and hand over “defense” to South Vietnamese forces. And then he invaded neighboring Cambodia, with horrific consequences.

Already U.S. forces have clashed with Syrians within Syria. The U.S. accuses Syria of actively abetting the influx of “foreign” (non-Iraqi Arab) jihadi fighters into Iraq. The best U.S. intelligence estimates indicate that only 4 to 7% of the anti-occupation fighters in Iraq are non-Iraqi, but the neocon reality creators teach us that al-Qaeda-linked al-Zarqawi and his terrorists (who were they not facing our brave troops in Iraq would be slaughtering our innocents in New York) are the Syria-backed backbone of the insurgency. So, they can say, it’s totally fair to engage in hot pursuit actions, in self-defense, and to wipe out jihadi enclaves, and put pressure on Damascus. And they’ve been assembling a whole array of other charges to justify “regime change” in Syria. Bashar Assad, they’ll say, arranged the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister!

His government supports Palestinian terrorists, and Hizbollah which killed over 200 American troops in Lebanon in 1983! Syria invaded Lebanon, and even though it’s withdrawn its troops, it keeps intelligence operatives in the country! It has weapons of mass destruction!

We should not assume that the administration’s credibility is too low to prevent it from another war based on lies. Nor should we expect the kind of months-long propaganda effort that preceded the attack on Iraq. If attacks on Syria or Iran take place, they may happen suddenly, with explanations given later, as predictable resistance alongside Iraqi resistance produce the kind of “creative chaos” some neocons seem to crave. May the reality-based community militate against their madness!

* * * * *

December 7. I notice that President Bush, in his nothing-new speech before the Council on Foreign Relations today, rushed off just like Cheney had following his abbreviated AEI appearance. Bush also declined to use the full time allowed, contenting himself with a half-hour homily comparing 9-11 to Pearl Harbor and his vaguely conceptualized Terror War with the epochal struggle against fascism. No questions allowed. No dialectic. But his pontificated truth drew a standing ovation. The reality-based community has much work to do.

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: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu



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: gleupp@tufts.edu