Fiction-Based Reality

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Here’s a strange, small tale of our times, as reported from Washington by Guy Dinmore in the sober British Financial Times (Powell gives bleak assessment of Iraq security problems). According to an anonymous counterinsurgency expert Dinmore evidently interviewed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has a “brutally accurate” picture of the deteriorating situation in Iraq and “its potential dangers.” But, writes Dinmore, “a member of an influential neoconservative policy group said that such warnings u2018stop well short of the president.’” Well, actually, not completely short, for Dinmore then offers the following:

“According to Chas Freeman, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and head of the independent Middle East Policy Council, Mr. Bush recently asked [Secretary of State Colin] Powell for his view on the progress of the war. u2018We’re losing,’ Mr. Powell was quoted as saying. Mr. Freeman said Mr. Bush then asked the secretary of state to leave.”

Perhaps he even sent Powell — or, as other rumors have it, a slightly lower-level official — to the principal. This fits, by the way, with an account in the invaluable Washington insider e-service The Nelson Report. Chris Nelson wrote the following in the first week of January after various officials had returned from discouraging inspection trips to Iraq:

“There is rising concern among senior officials that President Bush does not grasp the increasingly grim reality of the security situation in Iraq because he refuses to listen to that type of information. Our sources say that attempts to brief Bush on various grim realities have been personally rebuffed by the President, who actually says that he does not want to hear u2018bad news.’ Rather, Bush makes clear that all he wants are progress reports, where they exist, and those facts which seem to support his declared mission in Iraq… building democracy. u2018That’s all he wants to hear about,’ we have been told. So, u2018in’ are the latest totals on school openings and u2018out’ are reports from senior U.S. military commanders (and those intelligence experts still on the job) that they see an insurgency becoming increasing effective, and their projection that it will u2018just get worse.’”

If true — and Nelson is a reliable guy and Dinmore’s tale is just bizarre enough to have the ring of fiction, which these days seems to mean truth — these accounts catch something of the bizarrely upbeat fiction-based reality of the Bush White House. We already know that the particular fictions of the Bush administration — those mushroom clouds rising over American cities thanks to Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent nuclear program, the evanescent al-Qaeda/Saddam ties, and the fantasy biological and chemical production and delivery systems that were to send poisons spewing over our East coast via nonexistent Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles — were among the numerous fictions successfully imposed on a majority of the American people. Some of them (though no longer the WMD ones) are still being repeated by administration officials and being believed, according to polls, by surprising numbers of Americans.

In other words, the Bush administration has insisted with remarkable success that a vision of the world concocted more or less out of whole cloth inside a bubble of a world is the world itself. It seems, right now, that we’re in a race between Bush’s fiction-based reality becoming our reality (at least in this country) and an administration implosion in the months or years ahead as certain dangerous facts in Iraq and elsewhere insist on being attended to.

The opponents of the Bush administration regularly refer to these tales the President, Vice-President, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor and others tell as “lies,” but that is perhaps too simple. Make no mistake, if they have imposed their fictions on us, they have also — evidently quite literally in George’s case — imposed them on themselves as well (usually under the rubric of “loyalty”). Like most ruling groups, many of them may believe that they are cleverly manipulating the public, but they have manipulated themselves as well. There is usually, in such situations, a kind of ruling group self-hypnosis which can prove powerful and yet, in the end, both delusional and disastrous. Under the President’s determined, even steely, excesses of optimism lie dystopian abysses and half-a-century-plus of history in which policy-making projections about the future, another form of reality-based fiction, and the deepest sort of end-of-time gloom have met and melded.

At some level, in fact, the Bush administration with its war-fighting fictions and global fantasies has brought a central crisis of our times to a boil — the worse the horrors of the last century, the deeper our government found itself plunged into the study of fiction-based realities. Ever since the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb dubbed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, obliterating a city in a way that would once have been reserved for god or nature or fiction alone, our leaders were, willy-nilly, plunged into an unfamiliar world of war-fighting fictions, in part because what might once have been learned from actual war-fighting had now been moved beyond the realm of battle testing. By the time the game-playing strategic thinker Herman Kahn invited the military strategists of his era to “think the unthinkable,” which meant, in fact, to plunge boldly into worlds inhabited for the previous half-century largely by fantasists and science-fiction writers, many of our leaders had already gone the distance. They had, in a sense, had no choice.

As anyone will recall who has read the secret documents produced by the National Security Council in the early days of the Cold War, like the famed NSC 68, only a few years after victory in World War II our top policy-makers found themselves writing obsessively, not for public consumption but for each other, about a possible “global war of annihilation.” In their new, secret combat scenarios, an atomic-armed United States facing a future atomic-armed Soviet Union could either forswear meaningful victory or strike first and without warning, taking on an uncivilized and treacherous role long reserved in American mythology for the enemy. In secret directives, these men began to plan for a future in which 100 atomic bombs landing on targets in the United States would kill or injure 22 million Americans, while a surprise American “blow,” a first strike, might result in the “complete destruction” of the Soviet Union.

By 1950, our top civilian planners had plunged with utter seriousness into fictional scenarios that seemed to outstrip the wildest science fiction novels, not to speak of leading directly into the charnel house of history — and there the Pentagon followed with alacrity. In the wake of the “stalemate” of the Korean War, throughout the rest of the 1950s, actual war-fighting ceased to be a military matter. The CIA was the outfit that fought covertly in the global “shadows,” while left to the armed forces in those years was fantasy. The spacey war games now accessible to any child with a personal computer were then the property of the Pentagon, those guardians of the nation’s burgeoning nuclear strike force with its apocalyptic but unusable scenarios.

When called upon once again to go to war in the early 1960s, the military entered Vietnam with perhaps a certain sense of relief, but as speculators whose leaders had matured writing futuristic war scenarios and whose troops had grown up watching versions of them in their local movie houses. Four decades down the road, world-ending possibilities have only multiplied. The future is now populated with so many onrushing, world-ending threats — from global warming and AIDS to errant asteroids and nanotech destroyers — that nuclear weapons (now folded into a broader if vaguer and blander category called “weapons of mass destruction”) have had to squeeze into line for even minimal world-annihilating attention; at the same time, the successor population to those Vietnam-era teens who used to “watch” the versions of the Pentagon’s fantasies, can now from their bedrooms — armed to the virtual teeth, shooting first and asking no questions later — “walk” the tough streets of Baghdad and scores of other hotspots on and off the planet, as bio-spores descend and nuclear bombs go off, as high-rises fall and terrorists leap out of the darkness of imagined futures.

All of this came to mind not just because of George’s urge to create a fantasy planet, devoid of news from the real one, and impose it on the rest of us; but because the 2020 Project of the National Intelligence Council, a “center of strategic thinking within the US Government, reporting to the Director of Central Intelligence,” just released its major report, Mapping the Global Future. The reason that the report, the size of a small book, made the news was that a few passages in it seemed to contradict the Bush administration by suggesting, as Dana Priest of the Washington Post put it, that “Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for the next generation of u2018professionalized’ terrorists”; that, in other words, the Bush administration itself has already gone remarkably far in destabilizing the planet. As Priest summarized the matter, “President Bush has frequently described the Iraq war as an integral part of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. But the council’s report suggests the conflict has also helped terrorists by creating a haven for them in the chaos of war.” The report’s own prediction went this way: “The al-Qa’ida membership that was distinguished by having trained in Afghanistan will gradually dissipate, to be replaced in part by the dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq. We expect that by 2020 al-Qa’ida will have been superseded by similarly inspired but more diffuse Islamic extremist groups, all of which will oppose the spread of many aspects of globalization into traditional Islamic societies.”

More interesting to me was that striking date: 2020. On a closer look, the CIA’s Global Future report, which drew on the work and advice of up to 1,000 scholars and experts, foreign and domestic, turns out to be a fascinating example of how the war- and conflict-planning parts of our government have plunged into the wind-swept vistas of the relatively distant future. The report offers full-blown scenarios for the years 2010, 2015, and 2020, all of which, given the nonexistence of the future, are by their very nature exercises in fiction. But more curiously yet, it also contains four “scenarios,” offering peeks at four different possible futures in 2020, all written (with gusto) as and labeled as “fiction.” (Some might find irony, by the way, in recent reports that, at the very moment when Porter Goss’s CIA is considering the further reining in of any reality-based revelations in the writings of future CIA agents, it’s sponsoring the NIC’s equivalent of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.)

The four scenarios, all “documents” from the year 2020, are: Davos World, “a hypothetical letter from the head of the World Economic Forum to a former US Federal Reserve chairman on the eve of the annual Davos meeting in 2020,” that lays out a still-globalizing planet of growth and relative prosperity (“At the turn of the century, we equated globalization with Americanization. America was the model. Now globalization has more of an Asian face and, to be frank, America is no longer quite the engine it used to be. Instead the markets are now oriented eastwards.”); Pax Americana, or “how US predominance may survive radical changes to the global political landscape,” a private diary entry written by the UN Secretary General (“[T]he US has risen like a phoenix — albeit a beleaguered one — and it again seems to be the bedrock of the international order.”) — the kicker being that the Secretary General is a woman as, we discover, is the President of the United States; A New Caliphate, a letter from a grandson of Osama bin Laden to a relative meant to show “how a global movement fueled by radical religious identity could emerge” (“The tenuous peace inside Iraq that America had stitched together so laboriously came undone with the sudden re-igniting of the Sunni insurgency; the insurgents proclaimed themselves the true Caliphate and battled anew both Shia and the American garrisons.”); and Cycles of Fear, a final scenario, done through Internet e-mail exchanges between two pseudonymous arms dealers, meant to suggest a 2020 in which the Davos-World scenario has failed utterly, a future filled with freelance WMD proliferators.

Some of this is clever, though none of it will give the works of either Isaac Asimov or Jorge Luis Borges competition. But since we’re such terrible predictors — we’re usually wrong, after all, about even the near-future — what’s interesting in these four CIA-inspired “scenario stories” and much of the rest of the Global Future report isn’t the analysis itself but the urge, even the compulsion, of our top policy-makers and allied scholars and scientists to spend their time in relatively distant fictional futures. Most of those futures, as they lay them out, are reasonably mundane projections of the present global moment as they understand it and probably the result of the sorts of anodyne bureaucratic compromises that the reports of councils of every sort are likely to represent.

Most of those futures also have, at their most optimistic, only a faint tinge of brightness to them, and at their worst are right up there with the grimmest of dystopian visions. Of the four NIC scenarios, “Fear” and “Caliphate” are examples of almost unparalleled dystopian gloom, while Pax Americana and Davos, though meant to be positive, are constrained by worries about insecurities and potential global instabilities of every sort. Reports from elsewhere in the administration, like the Pentagon’s 2004 study of a future globally heated world (pdf file), have elements of full-blown dystopian fiction built into them.

Once upon a time, when people looked to the distant future it was with a certain wonder, with a dream of progress (with a capital P) imprinted on the brain. What our planet would be like in 30, 50, 100 years was then a subject for awe and resplendent speculation. Now, the future, increasingly locked within the bureaucracies of a stumbling “Pax Americana” world, has largely been decoupled from those old dreams of progress and from any spectacle of awe at all. (Perhaps the last optimist about Progress is, sadly enough, our delusional President.) The future is now a place where compromise documents about distant decades are worked out by military or intelligence men, while military planners and scientists spend significant portions of their time in unknown decades to come, putting weapons systems on the drawing boards for futures unknown — and progress (small p), such as it is, is measured by the Air Force’s Air-Launched Anti-Satellite Missile for 2015 or its B-3 Long Range Strike Platform for 2037.

The future — whether imagined as utopian or dystopian — was, not so long ago, the province of dreamers, or actual writers of fiction, or madmen and cranks, or reformers and journalists, or even wanna-be war-fighters. The dystopian future was the concern, for instance, of British novelist H.G. Wells, who brought implacable Martians with advanced weaponry to Earth in The War of the Worlds, but not of British prime ministers or first lords of the Admiralty; the utopian future was the concern of Americans Edward Bellamy, whose novel Looking Backward offered a bright, shining view of a cooperative future, and the quirky feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose novel Herland placed a clever, glowing utopian future in an Amazonian society of women in the then-still-half-charted reaches of Latin America, but it was not the concern of Presidents William McKinley or Theodore Roosevelt or their secretaries of war.

Today, our determinedly optimistic President and his wildly dystopian administration are branding the present as a kind of fiction on many fronts at once, while the Pentagon and our intelligence agencies are taking the future in hand in a business-like and bureaucratic, if somewhat lurid way. A couple of generations back, a group of Latin American writers burst into consciousness on a continent that, in literary terms, had hardly been named. Naming the continent and everything it contained, the imaginable and unimaginable alike, turned out to be a fabulous process and their style was dubbed “magical realism.” Now, it seems, various parts of the American government are increasingly intent on seizing and naming the future, though I’m not at all sure what we should call their style. For one thing, unlike a continent that actually was there ready to be named, magically or otherwise, the future isn’t there at all, no matter the projections you offer about it. So what our new caste of governmental futurologists are doing, no doubt, is mainly naming (or ducking) their own fears and nightmares. Before they’re done with the process, the present administration may give a distinctly dystopian spin to the title most closely associated with magical realism: One Hundred Years of Solitude.

[If you want to explore Mapping the Global Future, the report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project click here to view the main screen; for the four scenarios, click here and scroll down.]

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.

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