America Betrayed: Will Progressives Take the Fall?

The story of Iraq will be told as a story of betrayal. But which version of that story prevails -- who is cast as the betrayer -- will have profound and lasting consequences for the future of our country.

As we enter this crucial election year, progressives need to be wary that our greatest strength, our longstanding opposition to the debacle in Iraq, could become our greatest weakness. A trap has been set to clamp down on progressives when the apparent progress from the "surge" inevitably unravels into a new round of intense violence.

Are we going to sit idly by while right-wing millionaires and billionaires fund campaigns like Freedom's Watch, with its plans to spend $250 million this year to smear progressive leaders as betrayers? We need to set the terms of the debate before the barrage of deceptions issue forth. At this critical time in our nation's history, the consequences of inaction and complacency could not be more dire.

The truth is that we have been betrayed by an extremist right-wing ideology that currently goes by the name "conservative." Its well-funded message machine lulled the public into a false confidence that led to the most devastating abuse of our military for private gain in this country's history. Contrary to the arguments of many critics, this is not simply a botched policy or misguided approach.

An exceptional story

A trap has been set for progressives, and it comes in the form of a story. The betrayal has been made possible by the conservative take on the Myth of American Exceptionalism. This belief that we are the Great Nation, whose military endeavors always side with the Good, has set in motion a vicious cycle. It is the belief that our country is inherently good and our military strength is unrivaled. Consistency requires that our "enemy" must be evil and is always the lesser foe. Failure is impossible in a fair contest. If we lose, it must be a failure from within. We must have been betrayed.

Kevin Baker, in a Harper's article published in 2006, distilled this tale of betrayal into a political formula used by conservatives:

  • Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy.

  • Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous (and remain steadfast even when it becomes unpopular).

  • Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America.

  • Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.

(The betrayal story is also discussed on Alternet and in the Atlantic Monthly.)

The stage has been set for laying the blame on us. In the runup to the escalation, these phrases were repeated far and wide by unknowing journalists:

  • "defeatist"

  • "cut-and-run"

  • "embolden the enemy"

  • "not supporting the troops"

  • "break the will of the American people"

  • "lack of resolve"

  • "demoralizing the troops"

  • "the party of appeasement"

Often innocently quoted from interviews with conservatives, these phrases reinforce associations in people's brains between peace activists and the disaster in Iraq.

The debate has been framed against us. Our brains have been conditioned through repetitive accusations that opponents of the Iraq occupation are "emboldening the enemy" with their "defeatism" until the only thing that makes sense is the betrayal of America by war-hating peace mongers.

Talk about a twisted role reversal.

Tell a different story

Conservatives have spread a virus, incubating their ideas in our brains with the hope that they would replicate across the country. They have planted seeds of conservative thought to be born by a media that doesn't realize it is complicit in propagating the Betrayal Myth. Our responsibility as citizens is to get the truth out there ahead of the next round of lies. We can take away its capacity to influence our thinking by becoming sensitized to the hidden meaning of these words.

Presenting the facts without changing the story will not be enough. Flesh-and-blood human beings just don't all reason to rational conclusions. We have to pre-empt the trap by revealing the true betrayal of America -- the deceptive conservative agenda and its anti-democratic goals.

Simply pointing out the Betrayal Myth is not enough. Repetition will only make the associations stronger. A major finding of the cognitive sciences, the array of disciplines devoted to the study of brain, mind and thought, is that the majority of human thought is structured outside conscious awareness. A key strategic goal for progressives must be to make conscious the trap and the real betrayal.

The framing of betrayal

In order to be a betrayal, the lies must be done consciously, willfully and callously.

The Iraq betrayal was orchestrated from the beginning. In 1994, nearly a decade before the invasion, Dick Cheney himself predicted the quagmire in which we find ourselves. He clearly articulated how such an invasion would destabilize the entire region, result in huge casualties, and lead to a costly and endless occupation. Eight years later, during the buildup to war in 2002, he told a different story about easy victory and a warm welcome that contradicted his previous statements.

Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld were among the signers of a public statement released in 1998 that laid out plans to control the Middle East as members of the Project for a New American Century.

In his first National Security Council meeting, a mere ten days after being inaugurated, Bush informed Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill that he was focused on invading Iraq. They plotted the invasion of Iraq willfully and consciously years before Bush entered the oval office, knowing its deadly consequences.

They were motivated by the desire to control the Middle East militarily and economically, expand presidential powers, and move our country in a conservative -- and militaristic -- direction and away from societal needs. Many of these objectives have been achieved. They have built permanent military bases, moved toward their vision of a "unitary executive" at home, and shifted trillions of dollars away from schools, roads and healthcare for our people.

Cheney's 1994 interview shows that they knew full well the consequences of their actions. Their claim in 2003 that we would be greeted as liberators was a boldfaced lie. They just didn't care about the massive death, maiming and destruction in Iraq or the crippled economy we would experience at home. Every reason given for the invasion was a lie -- no WMDs, no link between Iraq's government and Al Qaeda, and no real democracy or respect for human rights. Moreover, they have privatized Iraq's economy with conservative economic policy.

Proponents of the invasion and occupation do not acknowledge the violence in Iraq grew directly from the invasion itself and was sustained by a foreign occupation during the instability that followed. Throughout the entire affair, they insisted on calling it a war rather than the more honest description of an occupation, which it became in 2003 with the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. The war metaphor allowed them to repeatedly frame our options as "win" vs. "surrender."

And a new BIG LIE has been crafted and spread. We have been told repeatedly that the so-called surge is working. This is simply false. Through a combination of offering arms and bribes to Sunni fighters, temporary ceasefires as militias regroup, ethnic cleansing, and surrendering territories to militias, a shift in violence statistics has no direct bearing on the increased number of U.S. troops in Iraq. And of course there is no violence in places where there are no people. Estimates for refugees who have fled the country range from 3 to 4 million people. The "surge" has failed to serve its stated purpose -- the government is as dysfunctional as ever and the living conditions are abysmal.

Worst of all, those who profit from the conflict are not paying for it. While the conservative elite benefit from tax cuts, the rest of us will be paying the debt for decades. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates that the conflict will cost American tax-payers $3 trillion. Along the way, we have been left to struggle with a declining value of the dollar, diminished education and an aging infrastructure that is falling apart.

And let's not forget what Alan Greenspan said: "The Iraq war is largely about oil." This is where a particular kind of lie, the deception by omission, has been instigated. Conservatives take care to avoid mention of the long-term oil contracts to U.S. companies or the permanent military bases. Obsessively focused on the occurrence of violent outbreaks, these developments have gone largely undiscussed by the press.

This is the story we need to tell and repeat:

The betrayal of trust

At the time of the invasion, there were four BIG LIES. We were told that (1) we were threatened with weapons of mass destruction, (2) Saddam Hussein's government was responsible for 9/11, (3) we were going to spread democracy, and (4) the conflict would be short and easy with minimal damage at a total cost of about $100 billion. Every reason given for the invasion was a lie -- no WMDs, no link between Iraq's government and terrorists, and no true democracy, and all the horrors that Cheney knew in advance would occur.

Now we have another betrayal, the BIG LIE -- that the so-called "surge" is working. With this Big Lie in place, occupation hawks will be especially well-positioned to blame the inevitable rise in violence and discord in Iraq on those patriotic Americans who are working to end the occupation. It has been accompanied by a key deception by omission where the 30-year oil contracts awarded to U.S. companies and construction of permanent military bases are ignored by politicians and the mainstream media.

All the while, hundreds of thousands have been killed and maimed. Destruction is widespread. Conservative elites benefit from tax cuts and skyrocketing profits while we get stuck with the $3 trillion bill, lost opportunities at home and a crippled economy. Most of it was known in advance, planned and carried out. A colossal betrayal.

This is the real betrayal story. We must head off their Myth of Betrayal. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.

What needs to be done

First and foremost, we must reframe the debate. This needs to happen on several fronts:

The invasion of Iraq was a betrayal of trust, not a mistake.

It is an occupation, not a war.

The escalation has failed, because it has not delivered meaningful political progress.

Congress is the decider, not the president.

Getting the language right is only part of the solution. We also need to get the message out far and wide to counter the swift boaters. And we need to act before they do. It is essential that we synergize the netroots, grass roots, independent media and progressive organizations to counter the decades-old conservative infrastructure.

It is vital that we tell the truth with a powerful narrative and preempt their betrayal narrative before it becomes established. People are ready for the truth.

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