Why Bush Is Addicted to Perpetual War
I began working on a graphic-novel update and parody of "1984" a few years ago. An awful lot had changed since Orwell posited his dystopian vision of the future from his late-1940s deathbed, and I accounted for those differences in my own version, 2001's "2024."
In order to acknowledge the collapse of Soviet Communism and the failure of fascism to reemerge as a potent political force, I ditched Orwell's oppressive totalitarian state in favor of an entertainment-fueled nihilism in which dimwitted citizens frittered away their lives watching web TV and working at slightly overpaid jobs to buy worthless junk ... on web TV, natch. Where Orwell envisioned endless rows of soldiers marching in perfect unison to the strains of the Two-Minute Hate, I saw a world where nations had been replaced by trading blocs and the objects of hatred were the immigrants in our midst.
The six months following The Really Bad Thing That Happened have made clear that I wasn't the only guy boning up on Orwell.
In "1984," the elite Inner Party rules the rattled and irradiated citizens of Oceania through three conduits of fear and intimidation: surveillance, terrorism and perpetual warfare.
The Oceanians had their two-way telescreens; we suffer a 10,000-employee National Security Agency that relies on automated voice-recognition and keyword software (Echelon, not to be confused with the more picayune and widely-reported Carnivore system) to monitor millions of e-mails, faxes and phone calls each day. But few Americans give much thought to this wholesale violation of their privacy; only those who are doing something wrong, they tell themselves, have anything to worry about.
The first eight months of the Bush Administration were characterized by political insecurity. Bush, widely derided as unintelligent and oafish, had carried less than half of the popular vote in 2000, and many Democrats believed that he had bullied his way into the Oval Office. Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP, partially a reaction to Bush's hard turn to the right after his inauguration, cost Republicans control of the Senate. Most analysts expected big Democratic gains in the 2002 Congressional elections, due both to the stagnating economy and to historical trends against incumbency in mid-term.
The White House saw September 11 as a golden opportunity. The first catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil sparked an unprecedented case of leadership projection: desperate for protection and answers (why do they hate us? can we kill them before they kill us?), Americans wishfully compared Bush to FDR and Churchill. Approval ratings hit 92 percent. But Bush's political advisors knew that peaking early wouldn't guarantee reelection in 2004. Bush's father had been turned out of office just 20 months after the Gulf War ratcheted his score up to 91.
The Bushies have lifted their reelection strategy straight out of "1984," and not just by creating ominous-sounding agencies like the Office of Homeland Security, the supposedly-closed Office of Strategic Information, and a "Shadow Government." As in "1984," the Bush regime tolerates zero dissent -- a two-party system in name only has been distilled to one in which only Republicans express acceptable opinions. And an absence of follow-up attacks has been met by endless alerts, advisors and empty hysterics in the name of security, most recently culminating with Tom Ridge's much-mocked color-code warning system.
But Americans don't seem to miss their Democratic Party very much; after all, Clinton spent more time sucking up to big business than worrying about the fact that ordinary people can't afford to see a doctor. And unless Bush resorts to the Orwellian tactic of setting off bombs to kill his own citizens, the passage of time will inevitably yield to the complacency that could cost him '04.
That leaves "1984's" most potent political tool: perpetual warfare. Just as Oceania was always at war with Eurasia or Eastasia -- who could keep track? -- the "war on terror," we are told, will continue indefinitely.
Indefinitely is just another word for forever.
Thus hundreds, possibly thousands, of American troops are headed to the Philippines to fight a rag-tag outfit of 80 jungle bandits. Our boys are scouring the back hills of far-flung Yemen in search of Al Qaeda fighters on the lam from our ongoing war in Afghanistan. We've set up bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to fight Central Asia's Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- never mind that the world hasn't heard from them since they kidnapped four American mountain climbers in 2000.
China, Indonesia, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the Axis of Evil, you name it ... we're targeting alleged terrorists in 50-to-60 countries with tens of thousands of soldiers and tens of billions of dollars. "So long as there's Al Qaeda anywhere, we will help the host countries root them out," Bush says. "If we expect to kill every terrorist in the world, that's going to keep us going beyond doomsday," responds Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV).
Best of all for Bush, the more we go after Islamist extremists, the more they'll go after us. The war on terror begets more terror begets more war.
The truth is that Bush isn't considering his post-apocalyptic future -- at this point November 2004 will do nicely. But by '04 Cheney or some other GOP big-wig will be gearing up for '08, and after that there'll be a reelection campaign in '12 ... old George Orwell, it turns out, wasn't that far off the mark.
Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," will be published in April.