Editorial note: What follows is the text of a talk given at the 18th annual meeting of the John Randolph Club, Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Hotel Washington, in Washington, D.C.
A note on the origins of this talk: when, after repeated urgings, I failed to respond to the organizers of this conference as to the title of my talk, they simply made one up “The Wall of Silence: America’s Foreign Policy Discourse” and that’s all to the good. It imposed a kind of discipline on me, and made me really think about what that phrase “the wall of silence” says about where American foreign policy is today, and how we got here.
Now this word “discourse” is much used, and abused, nowadays: instead of meaning an open, countrywide debate over what course to take in these perilous times, what we have is a discussion on two levels, two narratives that often have little to do with each other.
The elites, centered right here in the Imperial City, are not involved in any sort of real debate over what direction to take that course, as far as they are concerned, is already set, and it’s just a question of how, and under what terms, we steer our way to empire. The “debate,” in these circles, is over the methods we use in getting to a universally agreed-upon goal, which is establishing American hegemony over much of the earth. To the Washington elites, we are already an empire in all but name, and that’s as it should be: History (capital-H, please!) has so ordained it, and we cannot shirk our “duty” to police the world. To do so would not only signal a military, political, and diplomatic failure on America’s part, it would also underscore a personal failure on their part: after all, these people government officials, think-tank policy wonks, the major media believe they are uniquely qualified to rule the world. This grandiose idea of themselves lording it over everyone else is intimately linked not only to their statist politics, but to their conception of self: in other words, it is part and parcel of an overweening and irrepressible conceit, which oozes out of their very pores and is the central organizing principle of their personalities and their lives.
To illustrate this point, I refer you to a piece that I have often read and re-read in an effort to get a handle on how and why our old republic went to the dogs: it is the text of a talk given by Professor Claes Ryn at the 40th anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society, in which he ruminates on the nature of the new American ruling class whilst watching the scene at a McDonald’s in what he describes as “one of the most affluent and pretentious suburbs in America just outside of Washington, D.C.” As the screams of demanding children pierce the air, and what Professor Ryn characterizes as “bedlam” is unleashed, a lesson is brought home to the observer.
“I used to take offense,” says Professor Ryn, “but the children have only taken their cue from their parents, who took their cue from their parents. The adults, for their part, talk in loud, penetrating voices, some on cell phones, as if no other conversations mattered. The scene exudes self-absorption and lack of self-discipline."
“Yes, this picture has everything to do with U.S. foreign policy. This is the emerging American ruling class, which is made up increasingly of persons used to having the world cater to them. If others challenge their will, they throw a temper tantrum. Call this the imperialistic personality if ‘spoilt brat’ sounds too crude.”
The “will to power” in our elites adults as well as children lies unchecked: for them, there can be no stretch of time between the wish and the fulfillment any longer than a few minutes. The desire for instant gratification the character flaw that turns their children into monsters, and, later, drug addicts, alcoholics, or neurotics of one sort or another is what energizes our foreign policy.
Is the “surge” not working? Well, then, by all means let us have more troops, let us have a super-surge let us do anything but admit to being wrong.
Is Vladimir Putin denying our corporate lords their just due in the oil fields of Siberia? Well, then, he’s got to be denounced as the reincarnation of Stalin, and, furthermore, let’s give the Poles and the Czechs our missile defenses and restart the Cold War!
Did we allow 19 terrorists into the country on account of our lax immigration laws and our complete lack of awareness that groups such as al-Qaeda were only waiting for the right moment to strike? Well, then, we’ll just have to invade and conquer the Middle East and Afghanistan, to boot reduce their ancient cities and culture to rubble, and remake the region into Kansas with palm trees. Nothing is beyond our power: we are like gods.
As Professor Ryn points out: “For Christians, the cardinal sin is pride. Before them, the Greeks warned similarly of the great dangers of conceit and arrogance. Hubris, they said, violates the order of the cosmos, and inflicts great suffering on human beings. It invites Nemesis.”
That nemesis appeared on Sept. 11, 2001, and when it hit our shocked surprise underscored the motives of our attackers. After having lashed out, continually, over a course of decades, wreaking havoc across several continents from the ash heaps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the killing fields of Vietnam and Cambodia, to South and Central America, as well as the Middle East, where we propped up brutal dictators for the benefit of Wall Street, to the Iraq of Saddam Hussein under sanctions, where over a million children and old people died of starvation and easily preventable diseases we (finally!) felt the sting of our own whip as it ricocheted in our faces And yet we still didn’t get it! We were shocked and bewildered. How could they do this to us? There seemed only one explanation: they must hate us because we’re so wonderful. So rich. So powerful. It had to be envy, their innate hatred of freedom, or some other illegitimate and base emotion. They’re jealous yes, that’s it! That must be it!
Instead of asking why men who had once been our allies in the great crusade against Communism, whom we had armed and financed and openly encouraged, had struck such a deadly blow against their creators, our response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was one big temper tantrum. That tantrum still continues to this day, practically unabated and the toll, in lives, both American and Iraqi, is increasing daily, not to mention the monetary price tag, which could well total close to $2 trillion.
Like spoiled children, our rulers lashed out at anyone and everyone. It didn’t matter that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, and that not a single al-Qaeda cadre was on Iraqi soil. Children don’t have any sense of justice: they simply strike the nearest and most convenient target, which is precisely what we did in Iraq. We did the same in Afghanistan, where we continue to stumble around in a futile effort to shore up a regime whose authority doesn’t extend much beyond the capital city of Kabul.
Such debate as did occur in the run-up to the invasion and conquest of Iraq was not over fundamental questions. Both “liberals” and “conservatives” agreed that Saddam had to go: after all, he had defied the high and mighty warlords of Washington, repeatedly, and our much-vaunted “prestige” was at stake. Surely that was worth more much more! than the lives of the million or so Iraqis murdered by sanctions, killed in the 1991 war, and picked off in the decade of bombing raids carried out by successive U.S. presidents. The only difference between the two wings of the American ruling class was over how much more time to give the murderous sanctions before we started dropping the bombs that would do the same grisly monstrous work in a single explosive instant. The “liberals” said “Wait a few years, a few months.” The conservatives demanded “Bombs away!” No one questioned our alleged right to determine the fate of the Iraqi people.
That is what this so-called “discourse” is all about: there is no argument, no dissent, and no debate over fundamentals allowed. We all agree that America is not only uniquely suited to play the part of global hegemon but is probably fated to do so: it’s not just our moral responsibility but also our manifest destiny to hold the life and death of nations in our ever-so-capable hands. Many are called, but few are chosen, as we have been, to exercise our divine right to global “leadership.”
This is an essentially religious conception of our role in the world, one rooted in the theological delusions of Protestant dispensationalists and all sorts of millennialists some of them militantly secular that I have neither the time nor the patience to examine in much detail today. Suffice to say that this peculiar fanaticism has distorted our perception not only of ourselves, but of the world, and imbued our foreign policy with a thoroughly obnoxious and dangerous self-righteousness, as well as a penchant for unhealthy fixations, which has led us to our present predicament.
Like all delusional systems, this view of the United States as the guarantor of world stability and self-appointed global policeman requires those who suffer from it to ignore large portions of reality. Any sense of limits economic, political, spiritual is banished from the self-enclosed universe of Washington warlords, who are committed to believing that America is all-powerful and that it’s just a matter of will the will to power exercised in the right way. Anything that doesn’t fit into the parameters of their shared delusion is ignored: that’s how and why we were actually surprised that the Iraqi people, upon waking up one morning to the sight of a full-fledged American occupation, failed to greet us with showers of rose petals and cries of “Hallelujah!” That’s why we were shocked shocked! at the growth of the Iraqi insurgency, from a few “dead-enders,” as Rumsfeld used to call them, to tens of thousands of heavily-armed insurgents who enjoy the support of the Iraqi majority.
Fly blind, and you just may crash into something substantial.
Self-induced blindness is a necessary concomitant of interventionism, for the simple reason that any admission of failure is bound to throw the whole doctrine into question not only in the eyes of the elites, but, God forbid, the common people might begin to see through the elaborate ruse.
I started out by saying that, when it comes to discussions of U.S. foreign policy, there are two levels of discourse. The first occurs on the level of the elites, in the boardrooms, the newsrooms, the think tanks and the editorial columns of elite newspapers, and the second is the popular discourse, which occurs around the office water cooler, over lunch, at family gatherings, and in the streets, where the hoi polloi when they aren’t completely immersed in the mundane details of their own life dramas wonder what their rulers are up to.
To the ordinary American, in ordinary times, foreign policy is a realm reserved for specialists, the “experts,” who pontificate on events in faraway places and whose job it is to explain the arcane mysteries of foreign peoples to the rest of us. Yet these are far from ordinary times. 9/11, we are often told by gloating neocons, “changed everything,” by which they mean that the Constitution and the foreign policy advice of the Founders has been repealed. Or so they hope. Well, one thing did indeed change, and that was the average American’s interest in foreign affairs. The names of countries no decent American had ever heard of were suddenly on everyone’s lips. Suddenly, we are all Middle East experts: the Shi’ites, the Sunnis, the Wahhabis, the Alawites, and the theological and political distinctions between the various factions that hold sway in Lebanon it’s all old hat to us, six years after 9/11.
This heightened awareness and interest is highly problematic for the elites, who must now make sure that the popular discourse doesn’t’ stray too far from the official, elite discourse. In the past, this was relatively easy to do, since the elites controlled the mass organs of communication and opinion-molding, and, when push came to shove, they could always just jail whatever inconvenient dissidents arose to defy the bipartisan pro-war consensus, as they did Eugene Debs during World War I, or harass and smear the opposition into silence, as they did in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. During the Vietnam era, it took 50,000 American deaths, and many years, before the elites bowed to the popular verdict and got us out of Southeast Asia. What’s different about today is, in short, the Internet.
The Internet has abolished the basis of the foreign policy priesthood by making information once readily accessible only to full-time intellectuals almost common knowledge. What’s more, the war has increased interest in foreign affairs by several degrees of magnitude. Antiwar.com’s readership has increased exponentially since 9/11, until, today, we are rated among the top 10 most popular political Web sites, currently at number seven.
What’s happened is that the storytellers have lost control of their own narrative: the gatekeepers, the “experts,” the think tankers, and the Washington cocktail party circuit have lost their monopolistic grip on the molding of public opinion.
What this means is that reality is beginning to intrude on the closed-in, monastic world of U.S. policymakers and their partisan entourages, and the discourse is undergoing a radical transformation. Suddenly, it is possible to say things out loud that no “serious” “respectable” person would have dared utter before this new era of glasnost.
The first such inroad was introduced into the popular lexicon by Chalmers Johnson, the foreign policy writer and author of an excellent trilogy on the nature and consequences of American militarism, the first volume of which is titled Blowback. This is a technical term employed by U.S. government analysts to describe the unpleasant consequences of Washington’s covert and overt policies, and when Rudolph Giuliani claimed he had never heard of it, and attacked Ron Paul for daring to suggest that the 9/11 attacks were blowback coming from our past interventions in the Middle East, not even the most brain-dead Republican believed him. Of course he had heard it: six years out from the worst terrorist attack in our history, the phrase is on everyone’s lips. In the public discourse, however the one officially recognized by our elites, that is it is still impermissible to admit the truth. Instead, we are told, the perpetrators of 9/11 attacked us not because of our foreign policy, but because we go shopping too much and don’t make our women cover their heads.
On the American street, however, it is quite a different story. As American troops rampage over Iraq and the Israelis bomb Lebanese factories, schools, and churches in their supposed campaign against Hezbollah, Muslim rage seems far less inexplicable or plausibly linked to abstractions like “freedom” and “democracy.” The Iraqis we are killing today have sons, fathers, cousins, and friends, all of whom will dream of wreaking vengeance on their murderers that’s the sort of “blowback” ordinary Americans can well understand, if not empathize with. If one day, one of them detonates a nuclear device in a major American city, only our “experts” will be surprised.
There is some evidence, however, that this insight into the dangers of interventionism is slipping into the elite discourse: when Sen. Warner asked Gen. Petraeus if our policies were making us safer, and the general conceded that he honestly didn’t know, the cracks in the official narrative began to widen. That snapping sound you heard was the patience of the American people giving way, at last.
The great, yawning divide between popular and elite discourse is dramatically demonstrated in the polls, which show that over 60 percent of the American people now believe the Iraq war wasn’t worth starting or fighting. In official Washington, however, the climate of opinion is quite different or, at least, it started out quite differently, and is now being pulled, kicking and screaming, toward the popular position. The street is way ahead of the aristocracy, on this and other matters of foreign policy import.
There is also the question of how we got into this war, and the nature of the “intelligence” that caused our public officials to get up there and say with certainty that Iraq’s possession of “weapons of mass destruction” posed a threat to us and our interests in the region. In official Washington, it’s impolite to say the obvious: that we were lied into war. In the rest of America the real America it’s common knowledge: a CBS/New York Times poll taken this month shows 60 percent of the American people “think members of the Bush administration intentionally misled the public” on the reasons for going to war.
Why did we go to war? This is the question that is bothering the average American, if and when the war comes into his consciousness which is increasingly the case. In the official discourse, this never was much of an issue, since both “sides” agreed on the necessity of going to war, and it really boiled down to a question of timing. The “liberals” wanted to wait Saddam out and delay the attack until it could be done in alliance with the other imperialist powers, under UN auspices and, perhaps, with a Democrat as commander in chief. The neoconservatives wanted to wade right in, without international authorization or further delay, and, in the end, both wings of the War Party signed on to the neocons’ war, including all but one of the present major league presidential contenders.
Reasons for going to war? Evidence of Saddam’s weapons and his supposed links to al-Qaeda? Our elites didn’t really need any such rationalizations for what was, after all, the pure exercise of the will to power for its own sake.
Just as the extinguishing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki underscored the unipolar moment at the end of World War II, when America was briefly an unassailable hegemon that might have used its unmatched power to humble all the nations of the globe at its feet, so, today, our invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia is meant to demonstrate our absolute supremacy, which means our ability to impose our will whenever and wherever we choose. All that guff about the alleged dangers posed by Saddam to our interests in the region and our allies was just window-dressing. The real reasons chief among them, hubris weren’t admissible, at least in public.
On the street, however, and especially as support for the war sagged, the explanations for why we went to war were less charitable, and, over time, more acerbic. As even Alan Greenspan surely an insider’s insider has now admitted, access to oil was one big reason, yet anyone could have foreseen that we wouldn’t have access to it, on account of the chaos caused by the war in the first place. Paul Wolfowitz told us that income from the Iraqi oil fields would cover the costs of the war. Oh well, he must have been mistaken. Or was he just flat out making it up as he went along, i.e., lying?
The American people realize they were lied into war, even if official Washington has yet to acknowledge it, and now they are asking the intriguing question: Who lied us into war?
A few years ago, I had the astonishing experience of listening to my mailman launch into an extended diatribe against the neoconservatives such as might have been penned in Chronicles magazine in the early 1990s. The idea that a small cabal of neocons pushed their pro-war agenda relentlessly and manipulated the “intelligence” to make Saddam seem like a credible threat is no longer confined to paleoconservative polemics, but has become part of the national zeitgeist. Ten years ago, mention of the word “neocon” might bring, at best, looks of puzzlement. Today, it’s shorthand for chickenhawk, and, increasingly, a synonym for a character of pure evil.
This widespread hatred of the neocons began percolating on the Internet, and only later did it spread to the realm of print journalism. Once embedded in the popular consciousness, however, this meme took on more specific forms, and one of these was and is the suspicion that the Israel lobby had much to do with inciting the Iraq war. Now Professors John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have definitively demonstrated the extent of the causal connection, showing that, while there were other factors and pressure groups behind the push for war, certainly we would not be in Iraq today if not for the lobby’s efforts.
The entire project of transforming the Middle East into a Jeffersonian republican utopia originated with a small but influential group of administration officials and semi-official advisers, including Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and Bernard Lewis, while the lobby’s organizational muscle in league with Israeli government leaders campaigned relentlessly for regime change in Iraq. As Mearsheimer and Walt put it:
“Israeli officials were doing everything in their power to make sure that the United States went after Saddam and did not get cold feet at the last moment. They considered Iraq a serious threat and were convinced that Bush would deal with Iran after he finished with Iraq. [T]heir leaders took to the American airwaves, wrote op-eds, testified before Congress, and worked closely with the neoconservatives in the Pentagon and the vice president’s office to shape the intelligence about Iraq and coordinate the drive to war.”
All talk of the Israel lobby is banished from the official elite discourse: one is simply not permitted to mention the lobby’s existence. To do so is to risk being smeared as an anti-Semite except now, it’s no longer quite true. What was whispered is now being shouted: once again, the wisdom of the street has infiltrated the elite discourse.
Acknowledging the Israel lobby’s central role in the internal composition of the War Party is surely going to be one of the last foreign policy taboos to bite the dust. However, the publication of the Mearsheimer-Walt volume, preceded by their piece in the London Review of Books and the controversy that followed, marks the beginning of the end of the lobby’s unchallenged power. Another blow and, perhaps, a mortal one will fall on the lobby when the trial of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former top officials of the AIPAC lobbying group, begins in January. The AIPAC duo are charged with handing over highly sensitive U.S. intelligence to Israeli embassy officials: this could lead to the federal government actually enforcing the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires agents of a foreign power to register as such. Forcing AIPAC to do so would cripple Israel’s amen corner in the U.S., and that, along with the unfavorable publicity stemming from the trial, could be the lobby’s ultimate undoing.
We can only hope.
The wall of silence if it doesn’t refer to the baleful influence of the lobby, then I don’t know what else it could signify. Another meaning is the incredible secrecy in which major policy decisions are made and carried out. We still don’t know the provenance of the so-called “intelligence” that lured us into the Iraqi quagmire, and you can bet Congress isn’t too eager to look into the matter. Yet even this, the final secret of how we got into this intractable war, may come out in the end, now that the monopoly of the elites on the dissemination of information has been ended.
I have to say that, in exploring the issue of how the foreign policy discourse is undergoing significant changes, I surprised myself with the optimistic results of my investigation. I didn’t expect to be heralding the breakup of the foreign policy priesthood, which has been nearly solidly interventionist, and the beginning of a popular revolt against the mad project of turning our republic into an empire. But there you have it: glad tidings all around!