Weapons of Mass Distraction

One of the favorite pre-election canards among more cynical Bush Administration critics was that Iraq was an election strategy -- that the Dubya obsession with Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, and daily threats to carry out "regime change" (didn't we used to call those "coup d'etats"?) owed its sudden urgency, if not its very existence, to the domestic desire to whip up (pro-Republican) war fever and distract Americans from a wide variety of Bush Administration failings.

To be sure, the fall season invention, out of whole cloth, of a sudden "crisis" concerning Iraq's potential for someday constructing weapons that might or might not ever get used was surely convenient. As it happened, something worked really well for the Republican Party in last month's elections. The lack of attention to issues like the rotten economy, corporate corruption and political cronyism, and Republican attacks on the environment, the poor, and (oh, yeah) the Constitution is as good an explanation as any.

But the "Look! Look! Over here! Over here!" routine has continued apace after Nov. 5. On Monday, for example, we had the "story" -- which led most network newscasts and dominated newspaper headlines -- that George Bush didn't think Iraq would comply with the U.N. resolution on weapons inspections. Well, golly gee, stop the presses -- Bush has said the same thing on a more or less daily basis for months. The fact that so far Iraq seems to have done exactly what it said it would do -- that is, comply promptly and fully -- seems to be of no consequence to the White House (except that it worries them), and hence, it has been of little nor no consequence to our media. When the most flatly impossible piece of the U.N. resolution comes due at week's end -- the requirement that Iraq produce a "complete" list of all its weapons -- the White House will doubtless use the occasion to trumpet Iraqi duplicity, and that, obediently, will be what the headlines focus on for days. Of course, on our side, the Pentagon routinely misplaces billions of dollars; does anyone think we could generate a list of every missile and hand grenade in the land on three weeks' notice?

While our newscasts and headlines follow the daily non-news saber rattling of the Bush cabal, a lot of other things are going on in the War On Terror world that Americans would do well to pay attention to instead. None of them involve Iraq -- except, perhaps, in the sense that the constant threats of invasion are contributing to rising anti-American sentiment around the world. Nearly all of them suggest that the United States, with little public debate, is rushing headlong into a policy of permanent global warfare that will make Americans much less, not more, secure.

Start with last week's bombing in Kenya, and the response of Israel. In the attack, an Israeli commercial El-Al jet was fired on in a failed missile attack, and over a dozen were killed in the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel. Since then, American and Israeli investigators have become convinced that Al-Qaeda (remember them?) launched the attack. Suddenly, diplomatic channels in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv are in full o-god-please-don't-do-it mode, because the daily Middle East diet of suicide bombings and Israeli shootings (the latest fatality, yesterday, involving a 95-year-old Palestinian taxi passenger) has been supplanted by a new Israeli security debate: turning Israel's mighty military juggernaut outward.

Specifically, as Israel's military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, remarked at a military conference yesterday: "In light of the new U.S. strategy, the need is to embark on a pre-emptive course and not only to act after things have happened." In other words, the worst fears of critics of the Bush Administration's justification for unprovoked military assaults -- now known, with the same linguistic torture that brought us "regime change," as "preemptive attack" -- are coming to pass.

Critics feared that once the United States had set the precedent of attacking another country without provocation, any number of other countries would leap at the chance to invoke Bush's bad precedent. Israel would crack down on Palestinians. India would cross the line of control in Kashmir. Russia would flatten Chechnya, Turkey would wipe out the Kurds, everyone in Central Africa would attack each other, and so on.

This, in fact, was exactly what happened with Bush's invention of the doctrine of America's right to invade countries that "harbor terrorists." Within months, Israel, India, and Russia had all cited Bush's actions against the Taliban to justify their own previously unthinkable campaigns. But now, this week, Israel is taking Bush's bad precedent one step further, by jumping the gun. (So to speak.) Bush hasn't even invaded Iraq yet, and Israel is already talking about using his doctrine of preemptive attack -- which is now officially part of U.S. foreign policy -- as justification for launching attacks against any location that might harbor people who wish ill of the Israeli government. And that covers not just Israel's Middle East neighbors, but a good portion of Africa and Asia.

The White House anti-Iraq propaganda blitz is working; many Americans now associate Iraq (an entire country, used interchangeably with one man) with terror and especially with 9-11. The White House, and its media stenographers, have persistently encouraged that belief, even though no such links realistically exist. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda is alive and well, and a much more important fallout from War On Terror strategy, the possibility of proactive Israeli military strikes, is unfolding in front of our eyes. Both are a direct consequence of George Bush's decisions. Will the Bush Administration be held accountable? Of course not.

Similarly, the massive military buildup following 9-11 has impacted American foreign policy everywhere. In particular, it has helped deepen U.S. military involvement with dictatorships across Asia and Africa, and it has also increased the U.S role in Colombia's long-running civil war in recent months. With a newly elected far-right government in power, Washington has poured additional weapons, advisors, and money into the country.

This week, human rights groups are petitioning the White House to demand that the Colombian government reinstate the efficacy of the commission charged with investigating human rights abuses by Colombia's military. The newly appointed far-right head of that commission has stacked the commission with pro-military appointees, ended investigations of several massacres allegedly involving the Colombian military, and reassigned the investigators in those cases. As it happens, U.S. military aid to Colombia is conditioned upon improvements in what has long been our hemisphere's worst human rights record -- far worse, incidentally, than that of Cuba, which the U.S. has waged a lonely economic embargo against for four decades now.

Colombia's military, and closely aligned paramilitary groups, are implicated in the overwhelming majority -- about 80 percent -- of Colombia's kidnappings, tortures, killings, and massacres. If no independent investigations of these incidents can take place, there is far less evidence to use in any challenge of the increasing Pentagon involvement in Colombia. Is there any concern in Washington, or attention by the networks? Of course not. Thanks to the War on Terror, Colombian opposition groups are now officially considered terrorist threats to the United States. That, apparently, justifies anything.

For example, if weapons shipments to Colombia became illegal, that doesn't mean they would stop. The Bush team is riddled with convicted veterans (like John Poindexter, lately in the news) of mid-1980s schemes to illegally arm and fund sadistic thugs in Central America; the biggest of those schemes involved creating a private army, the contras, to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. And, eventually, Nicaragua cried Uncle, and everyone in Washington got their pardons.

And whaddaya know -- today, next door to Colombia, in Venezuela, where massive popular protests unseated a U.S.-backed military coup earlier this year, a huge anti-government strike enters its third day. Unlike most protests one associates with the word "strike," this one is convened not by workers themselves or by labor leaders, but by business owners and managers opposed to the populist government of Hugo Chavez.

Since Washington's attempt to unseat Chavez last April, additional anti- American sentiment has swept South America. Most notably, a populist presidential candidate in Brazil won a landslide victory this fall while explicitly drawing support from his opposition to Bush's neoliberal economic agenda. With virtually every country in the continent now having experienced some form of significant popular anti-globalization resistance in the last two years, the Bush team is paying far more attention to South America than the Clinton Administration did. It's reasonable to expect, given the increase in military support to Colombia and the huge jump in covert action funding this year, that Washington's efforts to unseat Chavez have increased, not diminished, since April, and that the strikes now paralyzing Caracas have a lot to do with Washington and with Bush's vision for a South America without Hugo Chavez -- or any other leaders like him.

Should pro-Chavez forces succeed, again, in keeping the democratically elected Chavez in office, Washington could well move to a more open effort to unseat him. If Chavez is, in fact, removed from office, the anti-American backlash will be fierce. Either way, Venezuela and Colombia are shaping up as a major new front in Bush's global war. But while all eyes are kept focused on Iraq, America's role in the unrest now rocking Caracas is going almost entirely unexamined here at home.

The list continues: Chechnya, Central Asia, Turkey, sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia. The sun never sets on the American empire, or on challenges to it. The very fact that America is unquestionably now managing a global empire is in itself newsworthy; so is the remarkably consistent response of people not wishing to become 21st century colonies in all but name. But so long as U.S. reporters never venture farther than the Pentagon, the White House, or Foggy Bottom (the State Department) for their daily dose of briefings on the State of the Empire, the sheer breadth of what is in play, and the implications for ordinary Americans, are mostly obscured.

Most Americans will only devote so much time and mental energy to news from faraway places. A whole lot is being done around the world in our names, most of it bad, and most of us don't know what much of it is. That -- not electioneering -- is the most important consequence of the diversion that is George Bush's daily saber-rattling.

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