Ghost Reading with the Prez

Just in time for the traditional birthday of the Prince of Peace, President Bush says he'll give us all a great big post-Christmas war gift sometime next month. He calls it "a new way forward" in Iraq.

In an interview with The Washington Post last week, he acknowledged the obvious: we are not winning in Iraq. He also dismissed the idea that the midterm elections meant voters wanted to see fewer U.S. boots on the ground. Predictably, he interpreted the election results to mean American voters are simply "not satisfied with the progress," which means send more troops -- even though, short of genocide, there is no military solution to a guerilla insurgency, a.k.a. a popular uprising.

Basically, the president went on to reiterate his belief that the continued occupation of Iraq in the name of "freedom and democracy" -- despite the majority of "liberated" Iraqis who want an immediate end to the U.S. occupation -- is somehow going to lead to an Iraq "that can govern, sustain and defend itself."

Then comes the interesting part of the interview. The president said he couldn't understand why so many people thinks he doesn't read books. Honestly, I'm not making this up.

"Clad in a gray suit and red tie, Bush was relaxed and engaged during the 25-minute interview, going out of his way to say how much he enjoys his relationship with the media despite indications to the contrary. At the end, he talked a bit about recent books -- he mentioned having just finished 'King Leopold's Ghost'," the Post reports.
President Bush just finished reading "King Leopold's Ghost"?! If you haven't read Adam Hochschild's riveting retelling of the Belgian genocide-for-rubber campaign in the Congo, you might want to check it out. Back then, Belgian society was cooking up more than just waffles.

See, back in the 1880s, when Europe was plundering Africa like nobody's business, King Leopold happened to be ruling the Congo with an iron fist called the Force Publique, who took particular delight in the use of the chicotte -- "a whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged cork-screw strip."

Leo's other fist had a stranglehold on Congo's cash cows. First, it was the ivory and then in 1890 John Dunlop invented the inflatable bicycle tire, kicking off a global rubber boom. It just so happens that part of Africa was full of rubber trees, or "the wood that weeps," as they were euphemized back then.

The book explains how King Leopold convinced the undoubtedly "well-informed" people of Belgium of the need to liberate the backward but freedom-hungry black Africans from a bunch of crazy Arab slave traders and to expand "free-trade." Sound familiar?

Anyway, as Hochschild tells it, a few brave Englishmen and a handful of courageous black Americans stirred up a nonviolent regime change movement that led to the downfall of the Belgian billionaire.

Though the book is insightful and inspiring, I think Zachary Karabell's Salon review makes a good point. He points out how during King Leopold's rule of the "Free Congo State," half the population was killed over a natural resource.

"While it would be reassuring to believe that Leopold's violence stopped as a result of intrepid crusaders ... the violence started to ebb only when the population declined to the point that labor got expensive and killing people by intent or neglect meant less profit.

"Viewed through a less idealistic lens, the Congo's history tells us that evil isn't only banal; it can also be profitable, and it often goes unpunished... . Hitler committed suicide; the Japanese were routed after Nanking; but Leopold died in his bed, vastly enriched by the suffering of millions."

Hmmm. Let's see the president is reading a book about a foreign occupier using violence to "liberate" the occupied from Arabs and establish "free trade" in a land that just happens to overflowing with a coveted natural resource.

I don't question whether the president reads. My question is: What lesson will he draw from the book? Who does he see as the liberating force -- King Leopold or those who fought against him?

There's reading and then there's reading comprehension.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com

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