'Testing the Will of the Civilized World'

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In
this piece I am casting a glance back to a mere month ago. How the
world has changed since. The headline above is part of a statement
President Bush made in a talk to the nation Tuesday evening, April
13th. It was featured in a large pullout quote on the
front page of our local daily paper: "Now is the time and Iraq
is the place in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing
the will of the civilized world."

The
assumption behind this statement is a curious one. It is the notion
that abstractions have enemies and will power and can act purposively.

But
of course the first thing you always have to do with a statement
by President Bush is translate it out of the Orwellian he employs
as a primary language. That's what LRC columnist Mike
(in Tokyo) Rogers
says he does: "Whenever I hear “Bush-speak”
. . . I . . . take what he says for the opposite meaning."

On
that basis, here is the translation: "Now is the time and Iraq
is the place in which the civilized world [the U.S.?] is testing
the will of its uncivilized opponents [Iraq's outraged people?]."
Somehow it makes more sense to me that way. We are trying to find
out if Iraq, fighting William
Lind
's Fourth-Generation war, is going to prove tough enough
to withstand us. Bets, anyone?

Let
us suppose for the moment that there is such a thing as a "civilized
world." (I prefer for the moment not to get into the question
of whether we are it.) Then there is also, one supposes, an "uncivilized
world." And since those are the extremes, it would be reasonable
to suppose there is also a less than fully civilized world, or if
you prefer to put it the other way around, a less than fully uncivilized
world.

Do
any of these entities in fact exist as material things; do they
have battalions and armaments, addresses and telephone numbers?
Of course not; they are figments, ideas, at the very least more
or less misleading stand-ins for what is really meant.

Bush
obviously meant by the "civilized world" us, as I have
suggested above: the U.S., plus its few and wobbling allies in this
mess. He meant by the "uncivilized world" all the nations
and peoples who oppose us, starting with the Iraqis but not stopping
there. One could go on and name a huge roster of quite real, and
I fear, quite "civilized" sovereignties (with addresses
and telephone numbers) which would send up a roaring cheer if we
were to come a complete cropper in our present world-conquering
crusade. There would be intense rejoicing at every hand for Goliath
defeated. I'm sure of it.

But
leave that aside. It is exactly Bush's claim to represent the "civilized
world" that is now looking mighty lame. As the Abu Ghraib story
unwinds and exfoliates, it is going to be ever harder to put it
back in the bottle and go forward with the argument that we are
bringing democracy and other blessings of modernity to the backward
folks in Iraq and Islam generally. There is now left only about
six weeks in the run-up to the so-called transfer of real power.
If we can convince the Iraqis and the Muslim word generally that
that is what we will have accomplished, while keeping our bases
and our essential veto over what they do with their new sovereignty,
we may be able to extricate ourselves without a physical disaster.
I have a feeling in my bones, however, that we are much more likely
to have to get out under fire because the whole of Iraq will have
risen up against us in a new intifada, again, as Lind has suggested
it might. It is devilishly hard, as Lincoln said, to fool all of
the people all of the time. That is what we are apparently attempting
to do, and only a thoroughgoing desperado could possibly think it
would work.

I
can see why Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and their assorted neocon brain
trust have perhaps by now adopted the full-fledged, Hollywood-thriller,
desperado stance. Back to the wall, jobs and the future and above
all future reputation at stake, they know that unless they can prevail
and dictate the writing of the history of this epoch, they are apt
to end up looking to posterity like pretty sorry chaps, not at all
the enlightened conquerors they saw themselves as when they first
issued the order to attack.

For
my part I keep hoping we will, as a race (I mean homo sapiens),
at some point – could this be it? – get over the idea that there can
be any sort of heroism or any future in the history books for people
who simply want to steal what someone else owns, using great clouds
of squid ink to divert attention from what they are up to and suckering
entire nations into doing their dirty work for them.

May
18, 2004

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous

(2003).

Tom
White Archives

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