Thelma and Louise Imperialism

And it took, of course, the Administration's ongoing catastrophe in Iraq, which drives everything before it, as well as Bush's pugnacious (if hopeless) "surge plan" reaction to rejection in the November midterm elections; it took the President's insistence on victory in a situation where loss was so obvious that you didn't need scads of dollars and the sixteen agencies of the US intelligence community to make the point in a National Intelligence Estimate; it took Vice President Cheney's insistence, in a duke-it-out interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, that the Administration's Iraq policy would be "an enormous success story."

And, of course, it took all those eerie parallels with the Administration's behavior in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, not to speak of the realization that this Administration, devoted to an unfettered commander-in-chief-style of presidential power, believed it already had authorization aplenty to attack Iran. All of this brought home the possibility that our leaders might one day actually take the house down with them, that they might gun the car and head directly for the cliff with something between sneers and smiles on their faces.

Over the Cliff?
An attack on Iran, if it were to happen, promises a special mixture of two fundamentalisms that will make up a single lethal brew. Though our President claims to be a Christian fundamentalist, neither of these Washington fundamentalisms are, in the normal sense, religious or particularly Christian.

The first — the bedrock faith of the Bush Administration and its neocon supporters since September 12, 2001 — is the religion of force. Our self-styled "wartime" Commander-in-Chief, and the Vice President head an Administration that has long been in love with the dazzling military possibilities that seemed open to them as leaders of the last standing superpower. Its high-tech destructive capabilities, they believed, gave them the power to go it alone in the world, shocking and awing a post-Cold War assemblage of lesser states into eternal submission.

Back in 2001-2003, they saw force as their own special Tao, their Way in the world; at their depths — now — reaching into their problem-solving quiver, they naturally find only the same arrow that's always been there; a belief system, a religion for all occasions.

In the case of a possible future assault on Iran, the larger fundamentalism of the Church of Force will surely combine with the only significant force the Pentagon has on hand — air power. The belief in air power's ability to fell regimes and bring whole peoples to their knees, is long-lasting and deep-seated. Since well before World War II, we've been living with a military belief system in which bombing others, including civilian populations, is a "strategic" thing to do; in which air power can, in relatively swift measure, break the "will" not just of the enemy, but of that enemy's society; and in which air power is the royal path to victory.

That this has not proven so; that it did not prove so in Afghanistan, in shock-and-awe Iraq, or in Israel's air assault last summer on Lebanon matters little. Faith in the efficacy of air power (as opposed to its barbarism) is fundamentalist in nature and so not disprovable by the facts on the rubble-strewn ground.

As a result, the strength of the belief that "it" — force, air power — will do the trick the next time, if only you have the nerve not to listen to the Nervous Nellies, if only you commit to it, should not be underestimated.

Do you remember that period before the invasion of Iraq when the neocons and their various admirers were proclaiming us the New Rome, hailing a Pax Americana globally (and a Pax Republicana domestically) that would last forever and a day? They were then intent on describing a jungle world of failed states at the global peripheries that needed an imperial power like...well, like us...for order. That was before the Bush Administration managed to bring a jungle world to Iraq and so to the heart of the global energy system — and they all fell imperially silent.

I've been wondering in their stead: What sort of empire are we? Empires are usually settled, ruled areas (except at their frontiers), not jungle worlds. So if, say, the Congo or Afghanistan or Somalia is a failed state, are we then, under George and Dick, simply a failed empire? Do we now rule (as opposed to threaten) anything? Are we an empire at all — even at home where a vast, ungainly government is being privatized into ever more expensive chaos and the federal budget is being driven over a military-industrial cliff — or are we Kong? Or are we a Three Stooges version of the imperial, or is it just that Dick and George, all four hands on the spinning wheel of state, are heading for that cliff intent on liberating us all?

In that over-the-top interview with CNN's Blitzer, Cheney accused him of, as the Washington Post put it, "embracing defeat."

What an apt phrase for Dick himself — and his presidential pal! Having long embraced a fantasy of victory, they now show every sign of wrapping their arms around their own Iraq defeat as if it were victory, and — with the enthusiasm of Thelma and Louise trapped by all those cop cars — taking the only path that seems open to them. As the alternatives grow ever more stark — surrender to those "Democrat" electees, to the critics, the cavilers, the ragtag insurgents, the alien Mullahs, even panicked Republicans in their own ranks — what's left but that liberating, exhilarating trip over the cliff?

Unlike the movies, where reviews can tell you the ending before you even enter the local multiplex, political life, even geopolitical life, is a remarkably unsettled, as well as unsettling thing.

Nothing assures us that some predetermined fate will actually drive us all over that cliff. But if, before November 2008, we do head in that direction, a small suggestion: Don't bother to buckle your seatbelt. It's not going to be that sort of a trip to the bottom.
By Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation