Back to Disaster

One of the most astonishing facts about the Bush presidency is simply that it continues to exist.

Only a combination of certain critical conditions have kept the man and his government from suffering the same fate as Mussolini or Ceaucesceu. A politically naive public, a neutered opposition, a compliant press, a Constitutionally-fixed term of office, a truckload of fear, a moderately sufficient economy and a remotely plausible victory in an unpopular war have all conspired to encourage a surly public to simply wait out the clock for the demise of the Creature from Crawford.

Now, however, both of those last two factors are imploding. The Bush administration is consistently on the wrong side of (repeated) history, and more pressure is riding on the other remaining factors ­ especially the knowledge that these fools are required to leave, regardless, in nine months time ­ to keep the dam from bursting.

Side-by-side headlines in Thursday’s New York Times more or less say it all. The front-page-above-the-fold article entitled, “In Economic Drama, Bush Is Largely Offstage”, proceeds to tell the story about how the president hadn’t heard that gas prices are approaching four bucks a gallon, and how he was lecturing the public on the dangers of government action while his own Treasury Secretary (a member of the government, last I checked) was in fact acting, cutting a bullshit deal with Congress.

Next to that article we find this: “U.S. Cites Planning Gaps In Iraqi Assault on Basra: Maliki Underestimated Militias, Officials Say, and Overestimated Iraq Army”. Remember, for those of you whose scorecards are somewhat out of date, said Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is the ‘good guy’ over there, the one we’re pinning our hopes on. And his army is the one that’s supposed to stand up so that ours can stand down. By all accounts, Maliki just woke up one morning and launched. Apparently having little else on his schedule, he decided it would be a good day to invade Basra. No planning, no consultations, no reinforcements. I mean, they had this stuff figured out as far back as the sixth century BCE, didn’t they? Back when Mesopotamians were Mesopotamians!

Looks to me like Mr. Bush has managed to clone himself in Iraq: None of that democracy crap, loads of impetuous and imperious incompetence. If you see Maliki running around for forty years with a bottle in his hand, you’ll know how deep go America’s lessons in good governance for the Iraqi people. Trust me, they’ve learned a lot more than any nation should ever have to.

Meanwhile, as if the economy hasn’t been crummy enough for working stiffs these last three decades, now jobs are fleeing, and gas and food prices rising steeply. But that’s just the good news. A lot of the signs out there suggest that this could be the Big One this time. And why not? We’ve deregulated the financial industry to the point where, for all intents and purposes, it’s the fiscal equivalent of a no-limits-mixed-martial-arts-free-for-all. Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck inside some kind of PBS documentary series on the Great Depression, and it’s the segment on 1929. Oh boy.

No worries, though, ladies and gentlemen. All that cheerleading experience at Andover is now coming in handy for George W. Bush. (By the way, if we ever needed any proof of the ‘liberal bias’ in the American press, the fact that a prep school cheerleader comes off as a tough guy international sheriff, and the last two Democratic presidential nominees, both of whom served in Nam, are portrayed as effete wimps ought to be quite sufficient.)

Meanwhile, as one after the next of the props holding up the American economy get kicked out from underneath it, there he is reminding us that mere ice could never sink a ship as big as the Titanic. Of course, idiocy and smugness are by this time fully expected from this particular Deciderer. But what is truly a sight ­ though hardly less expected ­ are the attempts by Bush and Paulson and the rest to scavenge the last remaining crumbs of national wealth still to be raided before the tsunami washes away half the continent, house and breakfast table included. I guess some habits are just hard to break. Are these the clowns Joni Mitchell had in mind when she wrote “Raised on Robbery”?

Regulation? Oh, no, we can’t have that. That will kill risk-taking and entrepreneurialism. It could harm the economy! Musn’t allow responsible Wall Street speculators to have their greediest impulses regulated, even if the welfare of an entire world economy might be at stake. Support for homeowners getting tossed out of their houses because of scuzzy financing scams they were sold? That would be a bail-out, young nipper! Smells sorta vaguely communist, don’t you think? It would imperil our free enterprise system by introducing the moral hazard of government underwriting personal risk. Follow me carefully now, as I explain the nuances of government assistance in a capitalist economy: Bailouts are fine for massive corporations like Chrysler, foreign countries like Mexico, or fat speculators like the nice people over at Bear Stearns, but we can’t have ordinary working folks getting government hand-outs! Don’t wanna wind up with a nation full of Frenchmen, you know.

If Americans knew the first shred of history, they’d realize that this just a replay of Herbert Hoover. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, that particular Republican president sang (or at least he would have if the song had been written back then). Sure, Herb, that’s cool, babe, but next time Americans came up for air, one-fourth of them had pink slips in their hands and nothing in their cupboards, not even the occasional disoriented cockroach. Still, as Hoover reminded them, the appropriate role for government is to stand by and watch. Charity is a private matter. Starvation is an option. Food, healthcare, housing ­ it’s not appropriate for the government to help out with this, even in a disaster. If you liked Hurricane Katrina, you’ll love Tsunami Bush, the twenty-first century’s reprise of Typhoon Hoover.

Right now the economy feels about as sturdy as a rice-paper umbrella in a hailstorm, and about equally likely to keep the bad stuff away. Jobs are disappearing, healthcare benefits eroding, houses foreclosing at record rates, and inflation is rising, even when the government conveniently excludes the escalating costs of food and petrol from the measure. The proximate source of all this instability is ­ of course ­ insatiable greed in unregulated financial markets meeting the inevitable brick wall of economic reality, at about 140 miles per hour. Turns out even Ponzi schemes can’t escape the laws of physics. All of which, of course, is more than just a little reminiscent of all the good fun the grandparents of today’s corporate sharks brought your grandparents in the 1930s. What’s that old saying about the second time being farce…?

But, hey, we’re not stupid. Okay, well, we’re not always stupid. After the first iteration we learned that trusting ‘the market’ to regulate itself was a bit like trusting Eliot Spitzer to enforce anti-prostitution ring laws. So we created a regulatory apparatus that prevented the worst abuses by the worst offenders, on the theory that putting bad rich people in jail was not quite a sufficient remedy after they might have wrecked an entire global economy in pursuit of their greedy ambitions. And, lo and behold, in the decades following the New Deal, America had an enormously prosperous and stable economy that produced a massive increase in the size of the middle class, and still even allowed the rich to get richer.

But that wasn’t enough for the greediest amongst us, and so Reaganism was created to dupe the middle class into participating in their own fleecing. You know: “Bad communists!” “Bad terrorists!” “Nice tax cut!” “Satisfying nationalist chest-thumping!” What’s that about the national debt? What’s that about crumbling infrastructure? What’s this business of stagnant wages? Cuts to poverty programs? Oops! Time for another war to distract public attention from certain inconvenient realities. Let’s invade… uh, uh, Panama! They’re evil, aren’t they?

Now we’ve got Bush and his bag men out-Reaganing Reagan, who in turn had made Hoover look like Trotsky by comparison. The only difference between the Bush administration and the Enron corporation is that Ken Lay forgot to hire Dick Cheney as its shotgun-wielding enforcer and Alberto Gonzales as its chief counsel. Talk about stupid.

So what’s the right’s prescription for a tanking economy? As the rivets pop one by one in an accelerating crescendo of failing institutional bulwarks, the Bush administration trots out ­ what else? ­ a program of bailouts for the investor class, a half box of crumpled-up Kleenex for the middle class, and more of the lovely deregulation that got us here in the first place. Anyone remotely surprised by this turn of events hasn’t been paying attention for a very long time. Remember when candidate Bush called for massive and reckless tax cuts for the wealthy in 2000, when the economy was booming? Remember when he called for the same remedy in 2001, when the economy was in the toilet? There can only be one explanation for wantonly violating the laws of both Keynesianism and monetarism at the same time: fixing the economy was never your real agenda.

The only amazing thing about the desperate attempts by BushCo to wring the very last drops of middle class wealth out of an imploding economy is the breathtaking shortsightedness of the monied class in whose name it’s all being done. Were they all absent from kindergarten that day when Miss Kinnian went over the parable of The Goose That Lays The Golden Eggs? Just who do they imagine will be shelling out the shekels needed to fuel their yachts, once they’ve wrecked the system itself? Lenin was right. These fools are so greedy, and so short-term in their focus, they’ve sold the rope with which to hang themselves. Unfortunately, by the time that happens the rest of us will have long ago drowned in the mud and the blood lapping up against the scaffold.

Brilliant, eh? Well, if the economy has come a cropper, at least the good news is that we’re not condemned to repeat history when it comes to that stubborn little conflict in Iraq. You know, the one that is sucking up all our money, wasting lives by the millions, ruining our military and trashing our good name abroad. Just like in Viet… er, never mind.

I have been waiting for the better part of five years now for the Iraqi equivalent of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive. Perhaps the assault on Basra is it.

For those whose high school history textbook conveniently forgot to mention it ­ along with most anything else that might be of value to an informed citizenry ­ the Tet Offensive was a major turning point at home in the prosecution of the war. For years, the president and his hacks had been assuaging Americans with inanities like, “We’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel”, or “We’ll have the boys home by Christmas”. When the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong drove so deep into South Vietnam that US marines were literally defending the American embassy from being overrun, the folks at home got the message. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was actually unsuccessful for the North in the medium-term, as US forces rallied and repelled the invasion. But, strategically, the discrepancy between the initial achievements of the attack and what US policy makers were telling the public gave the government a ‘credibility gap’ (it was actually a lot more like a canyon), and gave the war the smell of defeat. It took another five years to actually withdraw, but Tet was quite arguably the beginning of the end.

One reason that both Bush and his war have so far survived is that he could plausibly argue, especially to the poorly informed, that the US is at least not losing there. With the ‘surge’, he could and has been arguing that we are now winning. Scratch the surface slightly and these become absurd assertions. Add in the costs attendant to these supposed benefits and the assertions become downright obscene.

But not many Americans, comfortably insulated from the war by administration policies, are scratching or adding. Which has had me wondering for quite some time now, will there be a Tet equivalent to wake somnambulant Americans out of their stupor long enough to put down the remote, pick up a pen, and write their representatives in Congress?

Probably not, and it probably wouldn’t matter if they did. Democrats in Congress have shown themselves about as capable of reeling in the president as the sociopathic president is capable of feeling compassion. And now, of course, with only nine more months remaining to this disaster (assuming Cheney actually relents and leaves office), it’s almost inconceivable that they’d remove this human scourge from office. Considering what Bush has already done, what possible offense could now move Madame Pelosi and Monsieur Reid to finally act? Does the guy have to nuke San Francisco? If he deployed Ralph Reed to shut down Vegas, would that be sufficient?

But Basra will nevertheless go some distance toward convincing the sixteen or seventeen Americans still supporting the war that maybe they goofed after all. And it will probably especially convince the already enlightened that the time to act is now. In particular, we can hope that military personnel and their families will look at these events and will be moved in greater numbers to say “Basta!” to Basra. It takes a lot for a soldier or a soldier’s father to effectively say “Cindy Sheehan was right and my commander-in-chief was not only wrong, but knowingly lied to me”, but that is precisely where the Basras of this war can be helpful.

Maliki said he was putting it all on the line when he attempted to invade Basra. I say ‘attempted’ because the assault was apparently so poorly planned that the government armored vehicles couldn’t even get into the city, being too wide for the narrow lanes. Brilliant. We’re likely to be spending three trillion bucks on some drunken fool’s Middle Eastern debacle, and nobody thought to ship over a tape measure? Anyhow, Maliki claimed ­ before he fled, that is ­ that this was going to be an all-in death-match against his fellow Shiite, Moktada al-Sadr. And, of course, he was backed by American air power in his invasion, which the corrupt and inept leader ­ the one in Washington, that is ­ defined more presciently than he could have imagined as a “defining moment”.

In the end, it went down a bit differently than Nuri and George originally had in mind for their excellent adventure. The Iraqi army, centerpiece of Bush’s “Iraqification” policy, stalled and melted. The public rose up in disgust and took to the streets in cites all over Iraq, including Baghdad. The Green Zone imperial fortress is under assault from rocket and mortar fire. Maliki has given up his fight-to-the-finish rhetoric and is negotiating surrender with al-Sadr.

George Bush, of course, is having another “Mission Accomplished” moment, calling this debacle a sign of progress in Iraq. Most Americans have long ago given up listening to this fool. For John McCain, however, and for the party he shares with Mr. Bush, this is a disaster of the first rank. McCain has essentially leveraged his entire presidential bid on the surge. If I had a nickel for every time he has said “The surge is working” over the last year, I’d buy out the Republican Party wholesale, then drown it in Grover Norquist’s bathtub.
Irony is too gentle a word for the prospect of this Vietnam vet getting consumed by another Vietnam war. I once respected McCain on some levels, but I can’t imagine today that he hasn’t long recognized ­ along with Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and John Edwards ­ the lie of this war, choosing nevertheless to subsume the resultant tragedy to presidential ambitions of seemingly incalculable proportions. How anybody like that ever gets to sleep at night, I’ll never know. You gotta be missing a gene or something. And yet every president in my lifetime has shown himself quite capable of wholesale death and destruction when it suited his political ambitions.

And so, here we go, back to the future, back to disaster. We just couldn’t hang with all that prosperity and so we trashed the lessons of the Roaring Twenties and brought back Roaring Reaganism. We just couldn’t learn enough from the Vietnam experience to prevent some little embarrassment of a legacy admission to the presidency from taking us into a carbon copy war, even while he and his homies skipped out on the first one.

It’s bad enough that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat the past.

Hell, we are the past.





DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.  More of his work can be found at his website,