The Irrational Drama of a Declining Empire

As media dissection of Senator Larry Craig’s toilet stall indiscretion abates, George Bush prepares to resume center stage for his starring role in the “The Decline of the Imperial Presidency.” In the last episode of this drama, Bush planned to nominate the recently resigned “brain,” Karl Rove — after the Senate rejected Michael Chertoff and Rush Limbaugh — to replace Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney General.

Gonzalez etched his name in U.S. history by adding torture to democracy’s great arsenal, while stripping away cumbersome baggage like habeas corpus. Gonzalez accomplished these Atlas-like feats while serving as White House Counsel and then Attorney General. After drafting a series of memos at Bush’s request to strengthen Presidential power to combat enemies of democracy, Gonzalez visited then Attorney General John Ashcroft, barely conscious in a post operative state, to demand a signature on some of the documents. What loyalty!

In subsequent gripping scenes, Gonzalez told skeptical Senators he didn’t remember some of his actions. Some Senators said he lied. Others shook their salonic heads. Inside the Justice Department morale sank and Bush complained about how Gonzalez’ “good name was dragged through the mud.” What good name, asked a deus ex machina?

U.S. democracy, I learned in school, along with all American children, means freedom from government intrusion, free elections and fair trials, symbols of our liberty that we now export.

Since neither my grade school teachers nor the mass media challenged the adjectives — free and fair, nor questioned intrusion — a President, like George Bush, can still use them in his own play to paint a thin veneer to cover blatant imperial aggression abroad and violations of civil liberties at home. He has counted on the media not to ask questions.

Elections stand as the prime symbol of democracy and since by 2004 searchers had found no evidence existed for Bush’s alleged reasons for making war on Iraq — WMD and links to al-Qaida — White House playwrights changed the agenda: “Iraq as the first step in the war to make democracy in the Middle East.” The White House stage managers decided Iraqis should hold elections. The play continued. After screening the candidates, Washington provided “security” for the big day. In late January 2005, with military patrols guarding polling stations and nearby streets — the sound of drum rolls? — Iraqis voted. The media responded as the scribes predicted. Images filled TV screens of Iraqis holding up their ink-stained fingers showing they had voted or were the media and the White House the objects of the proverbial finger — as in screw you?

“The Iraqi people gave America the biggest ‘thank you’ in the best way we could have hoped for,” wrote Betsy Hart, a Scripps Howard News Service columnist, words Karl Rove could have scripted.

Main stream analysts naturally avoided discussing the meaning of the vote. Only Naomi Klein stood as Cassandra, declaring that the finger might have meant “dissing” the United States. Klein said that the platforms of the winning parties showed “Iraqis voted overwhelmingly to throw out the <U.S.-installed> government of Iyad Allawi, who refused to ask the United States to leave. A decisive majority voted for the United Iraqi Alliance; the second plank in the UIA platform calls for ‘a timetable for the withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq’.” (The Nation, Feb 28, 2005)

Most responses met White House expectations. “The fact that the voting was going great despite the violence was something few people expected..The voice of the Iraqi people had risen above the clamor of insurgent violence.” (Michael Yon, OnLine Magazine, Oct 10, 2005)

When elections conform to the wishes of the imperial power, they represent democracy. When elections go wrong — Hamas or Hezbollah winning in Gaza and Lebanon — the empire script writers dismiss the results. In 1970, Chileans elected Dr. Salvador Allende to the presidency in Chile on a socialist ticket. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, an Iago-like character, described Chileans as “irresponsible” and advised President Nixon to alter their destiny. What drama when Nixon ordered the CIA to destabilize Allende and helped Chile’s military stage its bloody coup in 1973!

U.S. spinners staged repeated election facades in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, but couldn’t get the actors — “elected governments” — to heed the U.S. directors and stop corruption and cronyism. Does this remind you of the Iraq drama?

“Those darn puppet governments don’t seem to understand they have to obey the puppet masters — or else,” said one young White House staffer. “Or else what?” answered a cynical spinmeister. “Get a new puppet? In Vietnam, the governments we installed didn’t get their troops to fight. The South Vietnamese generals showed little interest in war except for the profit making part.”

Having staged elections, White House scribes sketched the other twin pillar of democracy drama: trials. In December 2003, following the capture of Saddam Hussein, the world watched a fabulous farce: Saddam Hussein’s orchestrated execution — 3 years later, via a U.S. orchestrated trial at least as free as a Salem witch trial.

The <U.S.-created> court was stripped of jurisdiction to hear testimony related to U.S. roles in Saddam’s crimes, like allegedly gassing his own people in Halabja in 1988 and slaughtering them en masse in southern Iraq in1991. Thus, key supporting actors like Rumsfeld and Cheney were exempt. Both had backed Saddam in the 1980s and George the First’s policy in 1991 of not helping rebels who rose up against Saddam at his urging.

Saddam’s execution diverged from script when executioners baited the condemned man while slipping the noose over his head and he spat back insults at them. Oh well!

Bush had learned from Daddy about the importance of show trials. In 1990, Panama George dispatched almost 25,000 troops to arrest the “military strongman,” as the media labeled puny General Manuel Noriega. In 1989, Noriega had disobeyed Bush’s command to help in the Contra war and thus became a serious narcotrafficker. Noriega then received a fair trial in Florida where 52 convicted felons testified against him and received time off from their sentences. (So what that the CIA and DEA used Noriega to get crucial intelligence and make major drug busts. What’s truth got to do with democracy?)

Bush the Second therefore understood that trial theater not only distracts the public from the horrors of occupation, but perpetrates the image of the demonized enemy. In the latest scenes, Saddam Hussein’s cousin, Chemical Ali, and 14 other former Saddamites stood in the dock last week, accused of perpetrating “among the ugliest crimes ever committed against humanity in modern history.” The language conjured up images of these Iraqis dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese — oops, Iraqi — cities! Ali and company allegedly killed tens of thousands of rebellious Shiites in 1991, people George the First encouraged to rise up against Saddam. W’s Daddy followed the adage Kissinger introduced in 1972, supporting a Kurdish uprising and then abandoning the Kurds to the Shah of Iran’s slaughter machine. “Promise them anything, give them what they get and fuck them if they can’t take a joke.”

The Ali trial continues Kissinger’s joke. By mid 2007, as many as 1 million Iraqis have died, four million driven from their homes and hundreds of thousands incarcerated — for no legal reason. In this context, White House playwrights demand that Ali go to trial for killing Iraqis — in the past.

The media, of course, fails to note the irony.

As in Saddam’s trial, U.S. script writers stripped the court of jurisdiction from hearing testimony of U.S. complicity in mass murders: providing Saddam with the ingredients for his deadly weapons and the logistics of where to drop them. The Bush Administration managers of Ali’s trial want to show the United States as a virtuous law enforcement officer who caught another mass murderer and brought him to trial as civilized nations do. Pictures will come with the guilty verdict!

William Randolph Hearst kibbitzed from his grave: “Without pictures, you can’t keep them at war.” As Bush’s empire sink lower in world opinion polls, the drama moves from surrealism to cruel teenage comedy. Welcome to “Jackass III – the degeneration of the empire and its chief.”

SAUL LANDAU is the author of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His films are available on dvd from


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.