This past year has been such a tumultuous, confusing one. I needed help in trying to make sense of it all. So back I went again to that publishing franchise for easy-to-understand assistance for dummies like me.
Q. During the campaign and in the first months after he was installed in office, Bush promised that he would not be one of those nasty, hard-edged right-winger types but instead would be a "compassionate conservative" and, in international policy, "humble," acting in concert with our friends and allies to maintain the peace. What the hell happened?
A. You mean you haven't figured it out by now? Watch my lips: politicians lie. Bush's handlers knew the country wouldn't accept their bedrock rightwing program, so their true intents were concealed behind slogans that said nothing but conveyed an unthreatening, comfy aura. Once in power, the gloves came off. The same pattern was followed in foreign policy.
Q. Wait a minute. There's that little matter of the 9/11 attacks and the 3,000 Americans who died. You can't blame that on Bush and his handlers.
A. Let's see how Bush & Co. might have interpreted the realities. Its first nine months in power in 2001 were not marked by much success, and Bush appeared, to put it gently, a bit over his head. It was bogged down in Congress trying to get its HardRight agenda through, it was bumbling around in foreign policy.
Then Jeffords' defection gave the Senate to the Democrats, making it even more difficult to govern. Something drastic had to be done. They looked back at the first Bush administration and saw that the president had 91% approval ratings during the Persian Gulf War; they looked at the world and saw that the US was the only superpower and that Clinton had evidenced no overall vision for how to approach that golden opportunity.
The truth was staring them in the face: they needed a war. But not just a traditional one, where you defeat the opposing nation and go back to normality -- they remembered well that after the Persian Gulf War was over, President Bush's popularity ratings began to slide precipitously. Only a permanent war would give them the time-cushion and the social support they needed for enacting their agenda.
Q. You ARE going to get to 2002, aren't you?
A. Hang in there. To fully understand how we got to here, one must always take a look back at there.
In the Spring and Summer of 2001, the highest echelons of the Bush administration were receiving intelligence from all over the world that the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden -- a former US protege in Afghanistan, trained to fight the Russian invaders in the early '80s -- was about to launch attacks inside the US, probably by air and aimed at icon targets. Bush & Co. was about to receive the gift of a "moral cover" for its true ambitions. And so, as the attack time-period neared, it chose to do nothing, and then, after the 3,000 deaths, manipulated Americans' fears and outrage into the launching pad for its programs: authoritarian tactics at home, a reach for empire abroad. (We talked about this once before, you know; see "The Bush 9/11 Scandal for Dummies," 7/1/02 TPP.)
This past annum, 2002, was its go-for-it year, and 2003 -- with the Republicans in control of the Congress, the courts, the White House and most of the conglomerate-owned media, and with the Democrats still in disarray, searching for a new leader -- will be its consolidate-power-and destroy-your-enemies year. It's thinking long-range: exercising total control for at least another decade or two.
Q. That is so conspiratorial, I don't want to believe it. No American government would be that Machiavellian, so dastardly.
A. Better get used to it. These guys play for keeps. They may even believe they are carrying out their programs for benign, patriotic reasons -- to protect American interests (which tends to mean mostly US corporate interests), to defend the homeland, etc. -- but, even if that were true, their actions will do just the opposite. In the short run, those policies will probably succeed -- lots of corporate folks will make a lot of money, the US will bomb the hell out of Iraq, have effective control of the oil fields, and scare other leaders who might want to oppose the US -- but in the long run, the world will figure out how to screw up US plans and operations, the terrorists will gain more adherents and will carry out more devastating attacks inside America, the fast-disappearing liberties inside the US (and the huge financial and moral costs of maintaining imperial control abroad) will provoke massive resistance, etc. 2002 was just a prelude.
Q. What does "fast-disappearing liberties" mean? What happened in 2002 along those lines? I know about the USA PATRIOT and Homeland Security Acts -- but those are aimed at finding terrorists. I want my government to find terrorists. I want to feel protected.
A. Finding terrorists is a noble aim; there ARE bad guys out there planning more attacks. But I'm reminded of the US officer during the Vietnam War who said they "had to destroy the village in order to save it." In order to "save" the US population from terrorists, Bush & Co. is quite willing to "destroy" the very freedoms and civil liberties that are the bedrock of American society, that make us the envy of all democracies around the world -- and that, not incidentally, threaten Bush & Co.'s hold on power. The laws you mention were written in advance and then rushed through Congress; to oppose them, especially in the 2002 election year, was to risk being called "unpatriotic" or "soft on terrorism." Which means that as long as the "permanent war on terror" goes on, Bush & Co. believe it has patriotic cover for whatever it wants to do, and that the opposition will be hamstrung.
Those laws you mention permit, indeed establish, police-state tactics. Consider: Attorney/client confidentiality no longer exists; citizens no longer have the right to privacy; government agents can conduct "black-bag" operations inside your home; they can tap your phones and enter your computer and check out what you're saying and thinking; they can find out what you buy and what books you take out of the library -- and all of this can be done without your even being aware of the intrusions, and devoid of judicial or congressional oversight.
Q. Wait a minute. Get those terrorists anyway you can. I haven't done anything wrong, I don't have anything to hide, so I don't care if they snoop around.
A. The laws are so broadly written that if an angry neighbor or a disgruntled fellow-worker tells the feds your loyalty may be in question, you get a file opened on you. Agents start asking your neighbors and colleagues questions implying traitorous behavior. Your computer is seized. Maybe you lose your job. Maybe your friends begin to shun you. Maybe you're declared a suspected "enemy combatant" and whisked off to an undisclosed military site; there, you have no access to a lawyer, or even to tell people where you are. You could be there for years, or until "victory" is declared in the permanent war, which will be the 12th of Never.
Q. You're just making this up. I remember Ashcroft and Bush promising before those acts were passed that American citizens need not worry, since those laws would apply only to foreign terrorist suspects.
A. Guess again, my friend. Already, in 2002, several American citizens were "disappeared" into the American gulag. It could happen to you, to people you know, at any time Bush & Co. feel like it. The laws are in place, and the courts, which would determine the constitutionality of those laws, are packed with ideological supporters of the Bush administration.
Q. And you're suggesting that because the population didn't rise up in 2002 to protest that shredding of Constitutional guarantees of due process, that 2003 will see the Bush administration going after domestic political "enemies" and locking them away?
A. You got it on the first try. Look, there's a war about to begin -- probably sometime in the next two months -- and those who are effective in opposing that war, and those being too vocal and effective in opposing Ashcroft's police-state tactics, must be dealt with, lest the foundational base of power be weakened.
Would-be strong Democratic candidates against Bush will be trashed and smeared early. Anti-war leaders will continue to be harassed and kept off commercial airplanes -- this began to happen in 2002 -- and the peace movement will be compromised by violence initiated by undercover agents inside the organizations. If the online progressive websites start reaching beyond their relatively tiny constituencies and actually start organizing folks for effective action, they will be closed down. More "enemies of the state" will find themselves in the American gulag. In short, 2002 is going to look like a cakewalk for liberals and progressives, compared to what is about to come down -- all in the name of ensuring "patriotic support for the war effort" and "homeland security."
Q. But I keep reading about cracks beginning to appear in the Bush administration, revealing them to be vulnerable. There's hope there, right?
A. True, there are a few fissures beginning to appear.
Internationally, the Bush administration continues to alienate its allies, and, when it launches its war against Iraq, will stir up an enormous hornet's nest abroad. (In the Middle East, that, plus abandoning the Palestinians to the tender mercies of Ariel Sharon, is like pouring gasoline on a simmering fire.) Threatening to drop nuclear weapons on anyone it deems worthy of that threat is another policy not designed to win the US friends abroad.
Domestically, Gore dropping out opens the way for new ideas and new faces; the internal debate will lead to more pointed attacks on Bush & Co., and when the Dems finally settle on a new candidate, there may be unity on how to go after Bush & Co. more aggressively and effectively. Additionally, there still are the outstanding Bush administration scandals that could pop up and bite them. Plus the 9/11 victims' families are hanging tough for a real investigation of what led up to the attacks. The forces of opposition to Bush&Co.'s domestic and international policies are starting to coalesce -- and even some GOP moderates and traditional, anti-big-government conservatives are starting to complain about the police-state excesses. The covert racism underlying the GOP's Southern strategy became evident when Lott couldn't control his mouth. And so on.
But the HardRightists -- who began working decades ago to assume control -- aren't going to give up power easily. It's going to take a major effort to dislodge them. As led by Rove and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, these guys are clever and ruthless, a deadly combination. The saving grace is their sense of themselves as invulnerable and their over-reaching greed and hunger for power while they're in control. In short, their arrogance and rapaciousness may lead to bad mistakes. So work, work, work, organize, organize, organize, get ready to pounce. 2002 was just the run-up; the real game starts now.
Bernard Weiner is co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org), where this article first appeared. A Ph.D. in government and international relations, he has taught at Western Washington State, San Francisco State and San Diego State universities and wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 20 years.