The impunity bubble

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

The ironies ache like ulcers:

“America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”

“America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains . . . that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.”

“America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies.”

Amid unprecedented security — helicopters hovering, the manhole covers on Pennsylvania Avenue welded shut, the traffic barricades around the Capitol extending for seven miles — President Bush ladled up an inaugural address so thick with idealism about helping others you might have thought you’d tuned in to the Miss America pageant.

Next day, the national communication grid lit up with the sunny news: “A Vision of Freedom,” proclaimed my hometown Chicago Tribune, complemented by “Bush’s Bold Vision” across page one of the Chicago Sun-Times. “Bush Pledges To Spread Freedom,” said the Washington Post. And from the Los Angeles Times: “Bush Doctrine: Spread Liberty.”

The Bush administration, with a shattered Iraq showcasing the kind of freedom it intends to spread, with Iran in its sights, seems to be vaulting impunity to new heights. Is it now unfettered not only by the constraints of Congress but by the constraints of language? Maybe we’ll never go to war again. We’ll just go from country to country “breaking the reign of hatred and resentment,” “exposing the pretensions of tyrants” and “rewarding the hopes of the decent and tolerant.”

Huh? What do these words even mean? How do they jibe with Abu Ghraib, shock-and-awe bombing campaigns and 100,000 Iraqi civilian dead? What about the insidious spread of depleted uranium in democracy’s name and the cancer time bomb that is now ticking throughout liberated, broken Iraq?

What a remarkable pass we are at. As W prepares to maximize his final four years, all systems are go. The media, despite some well-publicized soul-searching at the New York Times and Washington Post a few months ago over their terrible prewar coverage, seem prepared to be as uncritical of Bush as ever.

Tom Engelhardt, writing brilliantly in Mother Jones, put it thus: “. . . as we head into George Bush’s second term, you have the most mobilized administration in memory and a media which, in a sense, has demobilized itself almost completely.”

That means anti-Bush America is on its own — at least until the impunity bubble bursts and the consequences of what we’re doing, in the name of freedom, democracy and God, can no longer be ignored. Think Germany, 1946.

In the meantime, I refuse to accept marginal status for believing that the “war on terror” cannot be won militarily or that the rationale for pre-emptive invasion and occupation of a country should be reality-based. (Barbara Boxer, alone among senators in her harsh, blunt, impolite questions to Condoleezza Rice about all this, at Rice’s confirmation hearing last week, has a constituency right now of 48 million people.)

The problem is that the Bush war agenda, because it is in motion and consuming, in its bloody implementation, a billion dollars a week — on Tuesday, the administration requested another $80 billion — looms as a fait accompli. It has become a flying wedge across the planet, so compelling that alternative responses to the post-9/11 threat of terrorism seem iffy and tentative. No matter the Bush approach is accomplishing nothing except to make, at great cost, the situation worse, those of us who envision moral leadership instead of perpetual war as the most certain path to national security are the ones who are called naïve.

Of course, spending a billion dollars a week to empower the world’s poor or implement justice has never been tried. It’s never even been imagined, at least at the geopolitical level — even though you might think, listening to Bush’s inaugural address, that that’s what his administration was doing.

The president is spreading something, but it’s not liberty.