No Exit

The Bush administration has brought the notion of the "marketization" of American life to heights unequalled in history. With former (and probably future) business executives and lobbyists in so many key positions, whole cabinet-level departments, the Department of Defense included, are now run more like large corporations than agencies of government.

Unsurprisingly, a new, business-style mind-set has gripped Washington, for corporate leaders like to pride themselves on being resolute, on knowing how to move rapidly, boldly, and with a certain Promethean energy as they go about the process of merging and acquiring. In the sclerotic corridors of the federal bureaucracy it may, indeed, take a bold and driven leader to change the old terms of the game and get things done in inventive and previously unimagined ways.

In a sense, this is the appeal of men like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Richard Cheney and Treasury Secretary John Snow. They do not allow ambiguities, temporary reversals, or naysayers to throw them off course. Like those dynamic entrepreneurs of the 1990s who blazed corporate trails, creating new global business structures in the process, these men do not view themselves as simple keepers of the status quo. They exude a faith-based fervor in their market-driven conviction that they have been almost divinely anointed to usher us into a new world, one guided by new styles of management and sanctified by the accumulation of wealth. They believe in the divine providence of the market, take the gospel of the "long boom" as their religious text, and have an unalloyed confidence that, under their tutelage, the commonweal can only move onward and upward. Their seminaries are the great business schools of the country to which the best and the brightest of a generation flocked to become acolytes of this new commercial cloth, the chosen people of a marketized world.

Such men feel no compunction about operating in the public sphere just as they did in the private one. Indeed, like the Calvinist businessmen analyzed in Max Weber's treatise, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," they view success and wealth as God's way of sanctioning their industrious ministries. They also believe that they have every right to use up whatever resources are at hand to further their goals.

However, the fates of so many of their corporate comrades in the private sector hint at where their new course at home and abroad -- whether in the resource-rich American West or resource-rich Iraq -- may end up. So many of their cohorts of the 1990s, motivated by a similar near-millenarian mind-set, crashed and burned as the dot.com bubble imploded, leaving behind a Ground Zero of collapsed companies, criminal activity, depressed stock values, mega-debt, bankruptcies, legions of unemployed workers, and phalanxes of defrocked CEOs. This speaks not just to the over-weaning arrogance and self-deception with which they went about their neo-liberal revolution, but to the direction similar attitudes may be leading the Bush administration.

If there were any stars by which these titans of nouvelle corporate dynamism were supposed to unswervingly steer as they blazed deal-making trails in the governmental heavens, they were:


  • Undertake a careful process of due diligence before getting into a venture.

  • Always have a viable exit strategy in mind for getting out.

    The extraordinary thing about our present impasse in Iraq is that these corporate evangelists, who played such a critical role in plunging us into war, did such a poor job of due diligence on this Middle East "merger" before committing us to it. And like their take-the-money-and-run entrepreneurial corporate kin, now under indictment or in ignominious retirement, they were so ginned up over their inevitable success that they never bothered to develop a viable exit strategy. Now, as a result of short-sightedness (not to say malfeasance) in their latest "offshore enterprise" in Iraq, their own administration risks suffering a version of collapse that may one day look not so different from that of Enron, WorldCom, or Tyco.

    So what is the remedy for us, if not them? Is there any exit strategy that would actually bring "peace with honor" to our country and extricate us from a sandy quagmire, never mind bring about the well-being of the long-suffering Iraqi people?

    I'm afraid to say that I do not see any easy, constructive, or even face-saving ways out. The bitter fact of our willful entrance into Iraq, and of the stubborn, unilateral and prideful way that we have "stayed the course" since, has brought us to a point in this sorry drama where options once available are being foreclosed with an alarming rapidity. Even if the US were to reverse its policies by 180 degrees and, having long eschewed any multilateralization of the invasion or occupation, suddenly sought to share responsibility with NATO and the United Nations, it is doubtful sufficient support from other nations could be mustered.

    In the French daily Le Croix, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has just rejected the Bush administration's plan to speed up the ceding of sovereignty to an "Iraqi provisional government" as "too late," and he might have added, too little. Similarly, Francois Heisbourg of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, "Had this happened in July, you would have had 50,000 to 60,000 European troops in Iraq. But there is no way a French, a German, or a Russian politician can explain to his people why they should risk being associated with the mess created by the Americans just so the Americans can be home before the next presidential election."

    Now, the French may be distinctly French in their sentiments towards the US, but they are hardly alone. After having its headquarters blown up, the UN has largely vacated Baghdad. The Turks, having suffered grim reminders of the price of consorting with the Bush Administration, have left the military table. The Italians, never great supporters of the Berlusconi-Bush axis, are burying their dead, licking their wounds, and wondering how they ever let themselves be inveigled into this ill-advised adventure. The Japanese, too, are now on hold along with the South Koreans. And with Bush landing in Britain, where London's streets are filled with angry anti-war protesters, one wonders how long it will be before the first of our "allies" in Iraq -- whether the Poles, the Spanish or the Mongolians -- under pressure at home, will make its exit, following the path already paved by the UN, the Red Cross, and Doctors without Borders?

    And so multilateralization may have become something of an idle dream. The notion that "the coalition" can survive, no less succeed in any meaningful way on a few hundred soldiers from such un-gung-ho countries as Norway, Azerbaijan, Portugal and Bulgaria -- and let's not forget New Zealand's 61 engineers, humanitarian aid workers and reconnaissance personnel -- has become little more than a PR ploy. And so Bush's sudden, but terminally belated, conversion on the road out of Baghdad to the idea that Iraqis should now expect to be granted a far earlier "gift" of sovereignty and that multilateral control of this unraveling mess might not be such a bad idea after all, comes at a time when few other workable, much less honorable, options remain open.

    It is hard to imagine a more awkward bind for such an arrogantly can-do administration. After a victorious war, they now find themselves in a hellish occupation in which there's no convincing way either to stay or depart. No wonder the Bush administration, after all these months of treating Iraq as if it were some priceless treasure too precious to be shared with allies -- much less Iraqis -- is panicking. The President and his captains of corporate governance are only now beginning to realize what it must have felt like for Ken Lay as he watched his dream of a new corporate paradigm implode.

    Stuck in a bad play with no exit in sight and no good management strategies up their sleeves, key officials are suddenly frantically looking for some doorstep on which to deposit the writhing body of Iraq. It is all well and good to talk of the UN as if it were some convenient home where countries battered in ill-conceived and badly run conflicts could be dropped off for rehab at international public expense; but partly thanks to our own fiscal and psychological abuse, the poor UN is paradoxically hardly up to the task, never mind whether it has the will, or even the desire, for it.

    Eighty-three years ago, during a violent revolt against British rule in Iraq, Gertrude Bell, deputy to British Commissioner Arnold Wilson, warned in a letter to a friend against trying to "squeeze the Arabs into our mould," because, as she wrote, she feared that the British would only "have our hands forced in a year -- who knows -- perhaps less."

    A poorly thought-through war justified by a kaleidoscope of changing explanations and fought in a place we know little about is hardly different from a badly executed merger or corporate acquisition where both companies, ill-wed, are badly damaged. The difference is that such damage to countries affects so many more people.

    Before our own triumphant age of euphemism and spin-doctoring, we called such an ending by its rightful name -- defeat. One emphatically does not wish defeat on the US, even for such a gargantuan blunder. Nonetheless, a full measure of our leadership's ineptness in this war may be gauged by the fact that, just at the moment when failure forces the administration to consider alternative scenarios to belligerent unilateralism, there may be no hopeful options left open.

    Orville Schell is a long-time observer of Asian affairs and Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Virtual Tibet, Searching for Shangri-la from the Himalayas to Hollywood.

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