Delusions of Empire
Ron Suskind, former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, has a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that is the talk of the internet, and with good reason: it is a devastating portrait of this "faith-based" presidency, with its religio-cultural idiosyncrasies and foibles. But it is not only that. Suskind manages to capture, in a series of vivid anecdotes, the political psychopathology that motivates this administration and shapes its perception. Here is the money quote:
"In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
"The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’"
Anyone who believes that governments create reality is living in a fantasy world, and is surely no conservative, neo- or otherwise, either politically or temperamentally. As the conservative philosopher Claes Ryn has pointed out,
“Only great conceit could inspire a dream of armed world hegemony. The ideology of benevolent American empire and global democracy dresses up a voracious appetite for power. It signifies the ascent to power of a new kind of American, one profoundly at odds with that older type who aspired to modesty and self-restraint.”
Conceit, as I have pointed out before, has always been the defining characteristic of the imperialistic personality, but the sort of hubris exhibited above – "We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality" – goes beyond anything the world has yet seen. The maddest of Roman emperors took care to propitiate the gods, even as they accorded themselves divine status. But none dared venture their own creation myth. This is not just a new kind of American, as Professor Ryn would have it, but a new species of madmen.
The epistemology of modern-day imperialism gives us a glimpse into minds afflicted with a novel form of mental illness, one made possible not only by the concentration of centralized power in the American metropolis, but also by advanced technology and the evolution of the military arts. The savage thug who believes he can control reality by the use of his club – Ayn Rand called this archetype "Attila," after the infamous Hun – has been supplanted by the Gucci-suited technocrat who believes he can create reality by simply pushing a button or issuing an order. By commanding black-winged jet fighters to blast his enemies out of existence, the modern Attila believes he is constructing a new reality, one where his whims, his prejudices, his prissy little orthodoxies have the force of natural law.
In short, the neocons are just plain crazy, albeit in a historically unique fashion. This explains a lot. It explains the peculiar stubbornness that refuses to acknowledge error, even as Iraq implodes. It explains our rulers’ utter indifference to being caught in so many lies – the disappearing "weapons of mass destruction," the illusory "links" between Saddam and 9/11, the brazen "cherry-picking" of sexed-up intelligence, and the outright forgeries.
They aren’t lying – they’re creating "new realities."
The militant craziness of this sort of mindset also explains the casual cruelty involved in implementing the neoconservatives’ vision of empire. It explains Abu Ghraib, not as an aberration but as the new norm. It’s okay to bomb cities filled with civilians, to lock up and torture anyone who gets in your way, all the while proclaiming that you come as a "liberator." You always hurt the one you love – if you’re a sadist, that is.
The air of sneering superiority displayed by Suskind’s anonymous White House aide comes straight from the top: we saw it in the debates, in the scowling visage of King George the Lesser. In his formulaic assertions, his indifference to logic, his inability to admit error, the president was clearly and visibly ensconced in his own private reality. This nearsighted hauteur, the new imperial style of our rulers, is memorably dramatized in Suskind’s account:
"Who besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: ‘Look, I want your vote. I’m not going to debate it with you.’ When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, ‘Look, I’m not going to debate it with you.’"
How does one debate a ruler who has the power to "create new realities"? The answer is: one doesn’t. In this new conception of America’s chief executive, Bush isn’t the president, or even a monarch in the traditional sense, but the virtual embodiment of the American hyperpower: accountable to nothing and no one, either human or divine. The cruelty of Abu Ghraib, the needless slaughter of the war and its aftermath of planned chaos, the campaign of deception that made it all possible – none of this matters to our Promethean overlords, who, in "creating new realities" in the Middle East – nay, the world! – are beyond good and evil. These Actors of History are the creators of our destiny, while the rest of us are just along for the ride.
If ever a ruling class deserved its downfall, it’s this one. The great problem, however, is that they’re going to drag the rest of us down with them.
Let the builders of a new American Empire prattle on about us poor relations in the "reality-based community" all they like. Because the reality they deny is catching up with them, in Iraq – and on the home front. The economic and geopolitical realities of declaring war against a billion-plus Muslims – what the loonier neocons call "World War IV" – exist independently of their ideological prescriptions, as American troops are learning to their sorrow and ours every day in Iraq.
Sooner or later, the reality our rulers think they create is going to have its revenge – the costs, in dollars and lives and human misery, are being counted even as I write. Who will pay, in the end? When will there be an accounting? Soon, I hope.
Those who want some respite from the madness of an ideologically-driven foreign policy are already embracing this concept of the "reality-based community." Because reality is precisely what this White House has been evading when it comes to the Iraqi misadventure, and the wider "war on terrorism" we are pretending to fight. This administration is making war on nation-states when the real enemy is a supranational movement that flourishes in the rubble of our conquests, and spreads over the bombed-out ruins like a poisonous weed. You want reality-based analysis? This war has benefited only two actors in the Middle East drama: bin Laden and Ariel Sharon. The extremists are empowered, instead of isolated, and the future is war, war, and more war, as far as the eye can see….
Our republic cannot and will not survive a regime of perpetual war: if our enemies didn’t unite to exact revenge, inciting the global countryside against the American metropolis, the internal pressures and corruptions of empire would be our undoing in any event. One way or another, reality catches up with empires, which is why their bones litter the roadside, skulls grinning at the ironies of power reduced to dust.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
My article, "The Dan Rather Diversion," is the lead editorial in the November issue of Chronicles magazine, on newsstands now. Of course, if you subscribe, then you can catch my frequent pieces for this excellent journal without having to search for it buried amidst copies of Time, the New Criterion, the Racing Form, and the Advocate. It’s a deal at $39.00 per year. Call: 1-800-877-5459 to subscribe, or do it online.
A major confetti-throwing welcome on the occasion of Ilana Mercer’s first regular column for Antiwar.com. Ilana is a principled longtime libertarian, and literally an international figure: she’s an ex-Israeli, ex-South African, and ex-Canadian, now a permanent resident of the U.S. And it isn’t only her prose that’s beautiful.
She’s opinionated, she can write, and she’s a lot of fun. Give her a warm welcome by checking out her column.
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