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Potemkin Government | The Nation

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Potemkin Government

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The longer the Bush Administration is in office, the clearer it becomes that it has a disordered relationship not just with one aspect of the world or another, such as the war in Iraq or the budget deficit, but with something like the factual world per se. Perhaps the best example is the recent decision to deploy five rockets in silos in Alaska as the first stage of a national missile defense. The problem is that strictly speaking, there is no such thing as NMD. That is, no functioning NMD has yet been invented or tested. Even the chief weapon evaluator in Bush's Pentagon says that at best the missiles have "20 percent" functionality. A previous Pentagon evaluator, Philip Coyle, now at the Center for Defense Information, goes further, saying their capacity is "nil," and calling the system "a scarecrow." Gen. Eugene Habiger, a former chief of the US Strategic Command, states flatly, "A system is being deployed that doesn't have any credible capability." And yet George W. Bush has announced to the world, "We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America...you fire, we're going to shoot it down."

About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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After 9/11, the US invented a new kind of borderless, pre-emptive warfare, plunging the world into an endless cycle of violence.

The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

"That is incorrect," Coyle has commented.

Misrepresentation of programs, including weapon systems, is an old story. But the installation of a system of proven unworthiness is something new. It requires not just denial--a passive operation--but an active insurgency against facts and the scientific laws that guide them, in a sort of a pre-emptive strike against reality itself.

The disorder appears in many forms. Programs announced for one purpose accomplish the opposite. The Clear Skies program dirties them. The Healthy Forests Initiative clear-cuts forests. The No Child Left Behind program, unfunded, leaves millions of children behind. Social Security "reform" defunds Social Security.

Bad news delivered by the Administration's own experts prompts attacks upon them and burial of their reports. When Medicare's chief cost analyst, Richard Foster, charged with computing the price of the President's drug-benefit legislation, tried to communicate his findings to Congress, he was threatened with retaliation. When the head of the Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, informed Congress that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy Iraq, his estimate was derided, and he was pushed aside. When the President's Assistant for Economic Affairs, Lawrence Lindsey, estimated that the Iraq war might cost $200 billion, he was fired.

Even within the Administration's inner councils, show has superseded substance. In The Price of Loyalty, by Ron Suskind, former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill has written that Cabinet meetings were not true places of decision-making, which was performed instead by an informal "praetorian guard" led by the Vice President.

Each of the lists of examples of each of these symptoms of disorder could be lengthened greatly. We are left with a portrait of a "government" whose principal activity is no longer governance but the creation and manipulation of images for political appearances. All concrete purposes, including the "war on terror," are subordinate to these ends.

And yet this same Administration is the one that has laid claim, more categorically than any in American history, to direct, often by force of arms, the affairs of the planet. Even as it has increasingly lost its grip on the world cognitively, it has reached out to grab it physically, asserting permanent military hegemony over the earth and claiming the sole validity of the American system, which it calls the "single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise."

No wonder the misapprehended world itself is undergoing a quiet revolution against Bush in the realm of public opinion. Among the 34,330 people in thirty-five countries polled by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, majorities in only three--Nigeria, Poland and the Philippines--favored the President's re-election. Four of five people preferred Senator John Kerry. The Administration has sought through international propaganda efforts (especially in the Middle East) to win the earth's peoples to join it in its fantasy world. But the world lives in the real world, and is unmoved.

How will it all end? Can a country that cannot see the world run the world? One possibility is that the bubble of illusion will pop, and the Bush Administration will be driven from office in November. Senator Kerry is trying his hardest to accomplish this feat. Another is that the United States will stay loyal to Bush and lose both its grasp of reality and the respect of the world, notably including America's traditional allies.

One more possibility remains to be considered. The President has established something like a Potemkin government. Is it possible that his global ambitions, too, are Potemkin ambitions--that they are as unreal and fungible as his grasp of, say, the mathematics of the budget deficit and rocket science? The war in Iraq, in which so many real lives have been harmed or destroyed, argues otherwise. So does the talk within the Administration of attacking Iran to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons. And at the Republican convention, the President outlined an even more aggressive and ambitious policy to force the Middle East to accept the single viable model.

Yet it is also a fact that the Administration has quietly backed down from a number of its most bellicose threats. In his State of the Union address of 2002, the President vowed he "will not permit" Iran and North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. But North Korea probably has acquired some, and the Administration has done nothing. Secretary of State Powell even said that the North Korean arsenal was "not a crisis." In the first presidential debate, it was the President who emerged as the most devout multilateralist. Would it be too much to hope that the unreality that characterizes the Administration's plans will swallow up its most dangerous ambitions, that global hegemony as a whole will go the way of the threats against North Korea, that in a second term the Administration might even declare a quick victory in Iraq and leave?

Probably, entertaining such hopes is too much. Voting George W. Bush out of office in November is the better idea.

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