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When the Gloves Come Off | The Nation

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When the Gloves Come Off

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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.

Reality is that which, when you don't believe in it, doesn't go away.
   --Peter Viereck, poet and conservative thinker

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare.
   --W.B. Yeats

"Every tree in the forest will fall," said James McCord, the Watergate conspirator, as he prepared to blow the lid off the cover-up of the scandal, leading to the forced midterm resignation of President Nixon. The phrase comes to mind as one surveys the condition of the United States today. The country's military power is evaporating in failing ground wars in two pulverized, impoverished countries, leaving its recent pretensions to global imperial grandeur in ashes. Its economic power is crumbling daily as its banking system collapses and its instruments of credit seize up in what Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke has told Congress may be a "heart attack." (To which Pope Benedict has helpfully added that the world's financial system is built "on sand," explaining that "only the word of God is the foundation of all reality.") Its constitutional foundations have been weakened to the breaking point by a lawless executive branch and a supine Congress. Its moral authority has been compromised by military aggression and the institution of torture. Its ecological underpinnings (which it of course shares with the rest of the world) are being put at risk by global warming and the entire panoply of harms that the overgrown human enterprise is inflicting on the natural order. (On October 6 a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reported that almost a quarter of mammalian species are now at risk of extinction.) "Change," indeed!--not the kind "we can believe in" or even the kind we "need" that Barack Obama promises but the kind that bears down upon you like a Category 5 hurricane, whether you believe in it or not. Not change but salvage--and salvation--are the need of the hour: rescue we can believe in.

In combination, these crises form a matrix, a kind of tightening steel net, that will condition and confine all future decision-making. Any one of them could easily prove more than a match for the powers of the next president. Yet there is a choice that overlaps and connects all the others and in a sense stands before them: deciding whether the United States, until now surrounded by a deep fog of illusions, will discipline itself to perceive and deal with the world as it actually is or, taking leave of its collective senses once and for all, will make the final plunge into a world of enticing fantasy. That is the most immediate question placed before the voters in the election that is upon us.

Trust is the lifeblood of a democratic politics, just as faith and credit are the lifeblood of market economics. Each can be sustained in defiance of reality: a people can place its trust in demagogues, investors can bet their money on worthless assets. But only for a while. A day must come when the "pitiless crowbar of events" (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) breaks through the wall. That day has arrived. When, as now, the market system comes to the government begging for rescue, economic credit and political trust are fused. Acknowledging reality will not in itself end the wars, put money back in the banks, lower the price of energy, repair the Constitution or restore the damaged web of life, but it is a necessary condition for addressing any of this work.

Little Facts

It may seem a bit strange, as if in the midst of a ferocious political fight we were suddenly invited to turn ourselves into a tribe of philosophers and try to mount a defense of something as vague as "reality" per se; yet the effort seems required in the face of not just a torrent of deceptions but a multiform insurrection, backed by a tremendous machinery of obfuscation against the very facticity of the world. The appeal of systems of illusion is known to every student of totalitarianism. A fictional world can offer temporary emotional and intellectual comforts that the startling, barbed, always unfamiliar texture of real events cannot supply. The United States is not yet enclosed in the phantasmal world of totalitarianism, but it may be knocking at the gates.

The shock troops of deception are certainly Senator John McCain and his campaign. Their willful, incessantly reiterated distractions, contradictions, distortions and gross lies have by now been widely noted; but their variety and form deserve comment. Several kinds of lies must be distinguished. Some are the traditional kind--lies of concealment regarding matters whose truth is at first widely unknown, as when McCain ads claimed that Obama wanted to teach kindergartners "about sex before learning to read." Others are brazen lies, meaning lies about matters whose truth is already well known, as when McCain's ads charge Obama with imposing "skyrocketing taxes"--whereas anyone who cares to turn on a television can learn that Obama plans to raise taxes only for those who make more than $250,000 a year. His running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, told a brazen lie when she stated that the recently concluded ethics investigation of her attempts to pressure officials into dismissing her former brother-in-law Michael Wooten from his job as an Alaska State Trooper found "no unlawful or unethical activity on my part," adding, "there was no abuse of authority at all in trying to get Officer Wooten fired." In actuality, the report states that she violated the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act by trying to get Wooten fired.

Yet other lies, more brazen still, are ones that immediately contradict one's own statements, as when McCain charged that "Obama...infused unnecessary partisanship into the process" of the economic bailout and then continued to say "now is not the time to fix the blame, it's time to fix the problem." A brazen lie is, in one way, more innocent than a lie of concealment--its falsity is immediately visible--but in another way it is more subversive of truth. Whereas in the case of the lie of concealment the truth can still surface to puncture the deception, in the brazen lie the bolt of truth has already been shot, and no remedy from that quarter is available. The logical next step down this path is what the Republican Party proffers: the roundhouse attack on organizations of information in general, now styled "the media filter." (Even education, another prime source of factual truth, has been cast in disrepute as the province of "the East Coast elite." So strong is this sentiment that Obama's biographical video at the Democratic convention omitted his time at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he became editor of its Law Review.) To the extent that such efforts succeed, the body of lies is free to grow without check from facts. The political "base," thus immunized, is free to believe anything it likes for as long as it likes, to make things up as it goes along.

A further and more comprehensive step down the same road is the open defense of deception. Thus, to brazen lying is added the brazen advocacy of lying. Republican strategist John Feehery entered this zone when he said that information damaging to vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was unimportant "because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent." He crucially added, "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter." Where little facts don't matter, big lies can prosper. However, most startling--though wholly of a piece with the foregoing--is the open articulation and defense of a mode of campaigning in which not just the facts (true statements about reality) but reality is downgraded in principle, as if not merely reports about what is happening in the world but the world itself--the actuality of people's experience and lives--can be thrust aside in favor of fantasy. In this category was the famous statement by McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, that the campaign would no longer be about the "issues" (people's jobs, their health, war and peace, etc.) but about "a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." That was followed by McCain adviser Greg Strimple's statement that "We are looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's aggressively liberal record and how he will be too risky for Americans." Is a global economic crisis a "page" that can simply be "turned"?

It would be a great mistake, though, to imagine that the quarrel between the Democrats and the Republicans is a fight between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The Democrats have allowed themselves to be drawn deeply into the shadow world. The choice between the parties is too often a choice between the greater illusion and the lesser. In this fight, as in the fights to preserve the Constitution and the law, the Republicans are the party of usurpation, the Democrats of abdication. (Together they are well matched, and make a deadly pair.) Indeed, the full capture of the political realm by the propaganda arts has been bipartisan. The iron triangle of pollsters, paid political advertisers and consultants has formed an independent realm of images in which, by common agreement, the prime duties of a candidate are such matters as "defining" the opponent before he defines you, seizing "control of the agenda" and framing a "message" or, more grandiose, a "narrative"--all of which are aimed, whether moving through a land of fact or fiction (or some of both), at winning office.

Meanwhile, the pundit class, unsatisfied with a mere reportorial role yet fearful of expressing opinion outright, presides over a vast realm of "analysis," in which the commentators, sitting behind rows of laptop computers in overdesigned television studios, all too often become so many self-appointed bipartisan advisers to both campaigns--equal-opportunity spin artists. There, the questions asked are likely to be on the order of "Did Sarah Palin beat the low expectations we had set for her in the debate?" or "What must Obama do to pass the 'commander in chief test'?'' or "Will McCain's attempt to energize his base by choosing Sarah Palin alienate independent voters?" or "How can Barack Obama appeal to lower-class white women who voted for Hillary?" They too rarely ask: "Is the United States really heading for 'victory' in the Iraq War?" (as the GOP boldly declares) or "Will the candidates' plans for bailing out the financial system really work?" or "Is a policy of torture morally acceptable?" The upshot is that in the most widely attended media (mostly television), the plight of the United States and the role of a new president in dealing with it must be discussed largely in technical terms. It's as if a fire department, arriving at a burning house, instead of rushing in to save the sleeping children and putting out the blaze were restricted, like so many weather forecasters, to analyzing wind currents, wondering when the second floor will burst into flame or when the neighbor's house will be ignited.

Strong and Wrong

In no area has the Democratic surrender--at once to illusion and the disastrous unleashing of military force--been more abject than in national security policy. The pattern between the two parties was set more than half a century ago, when Republican Senator Joe McCarthy charged that the Democratic administration of Harry Truman had "lost" China and set the stage for the Democrats, fearful of losing another country, to make their catastrophic commitment to the Vietnam War. The keynote of the current round of abdication was certainly the Congressional vote to support the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq. Accused of losing one war, many Democrats felt compelled, some no doubt sincerely but others for a variety of pretexts ("I was voting to take the issue to the UN!"), to sign up for the other one. (Let's try to imagine for a moment how much better a country the United States would be today if Congress had turned down the Vietnam and Iraq wars.) Such have been the terms of the Democrats' enduring dilemma in the face of America's disastrous wars. If they oppose the war, they look weak in the face of the enemy. If, in order to look "tough," they support the war, they look--and are--weak in the face of the Republicans. Or if, like John Kerry in 2004 in regard to Iraq, they support the war and then oppose it, they look like--and are--flip-floppers. Every which way, they look weak. Chronically accused of "softness" on something or other (in the old days Communism, today terrorism), they really are soft in their failure to stand up to their Republican opponents bent on misbegotten wars.

Bill Clinton articulated the Democrats' normally unspoken credo when he said, "When people are feeling insecure, they'd rather have someone who is strong and wrong rather than someone who is weak and right." (The difference is that the Democrats are likely to know in their bones that the war is wrong, whereas the Republicans do not.) Barack Obama has not escaped the dilemma, which persists into this sixth year of the Iraq War. From the start of his campaign, he has advocated an increase in the American military of 92,000 additional troops. An opponent of the war in Iraq from the beginning, he now calls for an increase of two brigades in Afghanistan. It's hard not to believe that the logic here is that if you want to draw down forces in war A (Iraq), you must find a war B (Afghanistan) to step up. Does Obama truly imagine that further militarization of that conflict will lead to its resolution? Isn't it more likely that the current deterioration of the military effort will continue? And if so, isn't there a grave risk that Afghanistan will become Obama's war in the way that Iraq became Bush's war, and with a similar potential to destroy Obama's presidency? And wouldn't it be better to join Afghan's president, Hamid Karzai, who is trying to enlist Saudi Arabia to start negotiations with the Taliban on a political settlement?

At the same time, Obama has sought to outflank McCain on the tough side by calling for hot pursuit of the Taliban into Pakistan, something George Bush is in fact doing. The practice has already led to an exchange of fire with Pakistani troops and looks like the high road to an expanded war. Nor is Obama's promise of withdrawal from Iraq by any means ironclad. After sixteen months, he would leave behind a force of unspecified size devoted to attacking terrorists, training Iraqi forces and protecting American installations. But is this three-pronged mission so very different from the current one? And if Iraq begins to slide toward civil war, as seems all too possible, what will Obama do then? And if that prospect is real, shouldn't he acquaint the public with it now? He has said that he would "reserve the right to pause a withdrawal." But in that case, will the Iraq war, too, become his war? In short, there is good reason to fear that in his eagerness to avoid the appearance of risking "losing" Afghanistan, Pakistan and/or Iraq, he has laid several traps for himself. If he must one day decide to withdraw even in the face of collapse in any or all of those countries, the Republicans will not fail to remind him of his campaign promises of success, and his presidency will be in danger. They're already saying he will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq. Such is the likely price that this Democrat risks for succumbing to illusion in matters of war and peace and failing to acknowledge the full cost that will probably have to be paid for America's military misadventures.

Taking the Gloves Off

As the election entered its final month, the McCain campaign, in one of the more sudden twists in its ever shifting strategy, settled on a phrase to describe what it would do next. It would "take the gloves off," as Governor Palin said to William Kristol of the New York Times. That is, as she put it on the stump, "there is a time when it's necessary to take the gloves off, and that time is right now." Or as she further put it, approvingly quoting a campaign staffer's comments, "OK, let's look at it this way, Sarah: the gloves are off, the heels are on. Let's get to work!" The gloves-off expression has an unmistakable echo in recent history. It was the phrase of choice to describe the Bush administration's programs of torture and abuse. For example, Cofer Black, director of the CIA's counterterrorism center until May 2002, stated to a Congressional hearing in September of that year, "All I want to say is that there was 'before' 9/11 and 'after' 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off." He turned out to be referring to the CIA's infamous global program for "disappearing" and torturing detainees in a system of secret prisons, some run by the CIA and some by foreign governments. One thing led to another, and the phrase, together with the torture it opaquely declared, turned out to have a life of its own. In Iraq, by August 2003, a captain in military intelligence had made it known that in the cells of the prison at Abu Ghraib "the gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees," for "Col. Boltz has made it clear that we want these individuals broken." Soon, the photographs of the horrors of Abu Ghraib flooded the world.

The supposed aim of abusing detainees was obtaining information. But the record shows that misinformation thus obtained was far more important for the course of events than was anything actually learned. As recounted in Jane Mayer's outstanding recent book The Dark Side, in late 2001, Pakistani intelligence captured Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a confederate of Osama bin Laden. Interrogated without abuse by the FBI, he proved an invaluable source of information on Al Qaeda plots but denied knowledge of any connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein or of Iraqi programs of weapons of mass destruction. But at that time there was a keen demand in the highest echelons of the Bush administration to produce just such evidence in order to be able to justify the invasion before world opinion. Al-Libi was taken into CIA custody and sent to Egypt, where the most revolting forms of torture are routinely practiced. "You're going to Egypt!" a CIA officer, in one of the basest moments of American history, screamed at al-Libi. "And while you're there, I'm going to find your mother and fuck her!" In Egypt he was imprisoned in a tiny cage for more than eighty hours and viciously beaten. Al-Libi then discovered that Saddam did indeed have ties to Al Qaeda and programs for weapons of mass destruction. According to a report by the Senate Select Committee in 2006, al-Libi "lied...to avoid torture." Or as he put it to the FBI, "They were killing me. I had to tell them something."

Al-Libi's new testimony quickly flowed up the chain of command to the White House, where it was piped into the vice president's office. From there it made its way to no less august a forum than the United Nations Security Council, where Secretary of State Colin Powell cited al-Libi's torture-induced lies (though without naming him) in his dramatic presentation to the world of the American reasons for invading Iraq. ("A senior terrorist operative," he said, had told interrogators that Saddam had trained two Al Qaeda members in the use of "chemical and biological weapons.") Behind Powell at the UN sat CIA director George Tenet. Behind him, invisible in the shadows of the secret prison system, stood the American-sponsored Egyptian torturers with their instruments of agony.

Yeats understood that fantasy brutalizes the heart. The CIA's torturers demonstrated that the brutalized heart in turn nourishes fantasy. A war was planned. Illusions to justify it were wanted. Torture was one of the chosen means. Here was the destination to which the "strong and wrong" policy finally led. The consequences were of high moment: thousands of American deaths, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, one country smashed, another dishonored. Now in the last weeks of the presidential campaign "the gloves are off" again, fantasy and brutality are mixing in another context and new streams of lies are being pumped into the public bloodstream from the campaign trail. What will the price be this time? More mistaken wars, with their lawlessness, torture and civilian deaths? More immiseration through voodoo economics? Where will the cross-fertilization of delusion and degradation next lead? What will Sarah Palin do with her high heels and her ungloved hands, and to whom? Already a mood of "anger," even "rage," has developed at McCain-Palin rallies, where racial slurs and shouts of "treason" greet mentions of Obama.

The Thin Man

Looking over the wreckage of American policy, it's possible to suppose that the United States of October 2008 is going through what Russia went through in August 1991, the loss of empire. But a better analogy might be the Suez crisis of 1956, when England and France (with assistance from Israel) sought to reassert their imperial roles by invading Egypt, which had just nationalized the Suez Canal. Suez did not so much destroy the British and French empires as reveal that they were already gone. At the time, President Eisenhower exclaimed to Britain's Prime Minister Eden, "Anthony, have you gone out of your mind?"--a question that many people would like to put to the United States just about now. But whereas the Soviet Union simply disappeared, Britain and France of course survived as prosperous middle-power nations. The end of empire did not spell the end of the state. The United States seems likely to remain a country of immense strengths--economic, political, even military--that will survive the collapse of its imperial delusions. Above all, its constitutional system, ravaged yet still standing, offers a means of regeneration of a kind that few other countries possess.

Cyril Connolly once said that inside every fat man there is a thin man struggling to get out. Is Barack Obama (the "skinny guy with a funny name," as he says) that thin man for the United States? Does he stand for the lean, disenthralled, awake America that needs to escape from within the obese, supersized, bewildered giant whose military forces crash through the world, whose ruined credit is dragging down the world economy, whose effluents are choking its own and the world's atmosphere, whose superannuated nuclear arsenal (together with that of Russia) even today threatens the species with annihilation? Obama is an almost preternaturally gifted political man--a kind of Mozart of politics. He seems to possess many elements of stature, even of greatness. His reputation for decency is unblemished. He appears to be remarkably unideological, a true pragmatist--a quality much to be prized in a time when events outrace foresight. He is intellectually agile. He is a writer and speaker of eloquence and originality. He inhabits a degraded public realm with grace. He is an outstanding judge of people and circumstances, if his memoir Dreams From My Father is any indication. (Note that the word "from" in the title, instead of the expected "of," turns a cliché phrase into an interesting one.) He is a good manager--his campaign has been a marvel of skillful administration. But still to be proven are the clarity of his vision and the strength--the "audacity," to use his word--without which his fine qualities will be of little help. Placing himself at the center of the swamp that our political life has become, he has breathed deeply of the narcotic fumes that pervade it. Many of his campaign promises will burden a presidency already destined to have burdens to spare. But his election is a necessity for any decent future for the United States. The fog might begin to lift. It would be a beginning.

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