So Long, Empire

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The Baghdad-New Orleans Double Feature

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

Glimpse through the commentary pages of American newspapers and you are bound to run into a headline comparing the mess in American-occupied Iraq to the chaos in hurricane-devastated Louisiana.

In fact, forget about the op-ed and commentaries bashing the Bush administration and watch for a few minutes the 24/7 coverage of one of the cable news networks. What you’ll probably see is that famous split-screen: There on the left side of your screen are American soldiers patrolling the ruins of what was once a thriving urban center and is now the scene of death and destruction. And there on the right side of your screen are American soldiers patrolling the ruins of what was once another thriving urban center — but, hey, is it New Orleans that you are seeing on the left and is it Fallujah that is being shown on the right?

Media Czarina spins Iraq and Louisiana

Never mind. After all, according to White House aides, it is all the fault of journalists and pundits that the image of the United States has taken a beating in Fallujah and New Orleans.

Bush administration officials and their allies in the neoconservative magazines and think tanks depict the critics of the administration, including quite a few Republicans, as members of the Reality-Based Community. Those in charge of the administration’s occupation in the Persian Gulf and relief efforts in the Gulf Coast constitute the Faith-Based Community.

The Bushies are confident that effective PR kills the messengers of bad news from Iraq and New Orleans. ‘There are a lot of things being said about us around the world that aren’t true,’ according to Karen Hughes who was appointed as the administration’s global media czarina and is expected to polish America’s post-Iraq-War image around the world. According to the Washington Post she told colleagues that the Bush Administration has "marshaled the resources of our federal government" to help the people of Louisiana, and if things look different on television, well, "we need to aggressively challenge that idea around the world."

Indeed, when it comes to the Bush Administration and its spin masters, it’s all about repeating again and again the upbeat Line of the Day and trying to draw the outlines of a cheery script that will overpower the depressing Mad Max images that reporters are transmitting from Iraq and Louisiana. The Sunnis have rejected the proposed Iraqi constitution and violence is on the rise? Don’t forget Condoleezza Rice’s mantra, sounding at time like the cries of a parrot on crack: "Freedom is on the March! Freedom is on the March! Freedom is on…"

The failure of the Bush Administration to deal with Katrina has been responsible for the death, destruction and disease in the New Orleans? Guys, please, don’t play the "blame game" insist the Bushies and promise that "They’ll be plenty of time to do after action analysis."

Medals for the Michaels?

Mmm… Does that mean that we’ll have two or three more "bipartisan commissions" headed by distinguished lawmakers and statesmen that would blame a few low and midlevel official in the chain of command for what happened in New Orleans, not unlike those intelligence officers who had been already accused of failing to forecast 9/11 and for predicting that we would find Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq?

And will the conclusions by these Katrina Commissions be issued after the mid-term Congressional election, and preferably after President Bush leaves office? And as several pundits have speculated half-jokingly — the emphasis is here on the "half" — will the two Michaels, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown, be the next recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, following the footsteps of two other winners, former CIA director George (‘It’s a Slam Dunk’) Tenet and Paul Bremer, who was responsible for mismanaging the US occupation of Iraq.

You don’t have to be a cynic to treat with a sense of skepticism the notion that the US government will eventually punish those who were really responsible for the fiasco in New Orleans — or that lawmakers and officials will come up with effective ways to correct the problems and make sure that they aren’t repeated.

Consider the following: None of the top political and military figures who have been responsible for the Abu Ghraib catastrophe — as opposed to the soldiers in the field who had followed orders — have been reprimanded.

Creating the Department of Homeland Security in response to 9/11 and absorbing FEMA into the new bureaucratic behemoth has probably been one of the main reasons that the US government wasn’t prepared for the Katrina disaster.

Guess who is watching television?

Among those watching the television images from Iraq and Louisiana are probably those who were responsible for producing the images that traumatized Americans and the world exactly four years ago on 9/11. It’s quite possible that Osama bin Laden and his gang of terrorists have concluded, based on the American performance in those two theaters of operation, that another terrorist attack on an American urban center — involving the use of biological and chemical weapons — could help them achieve their goals, especially if the Bush Administration’s response will combine the effectiveness that characterized the recent performance in Louisiana and the geo-strategic creativity that resulted in the decision to invade Iraq and the political-military skills demonstrated in the management of the occupation of that country.

Will Chicago in the aftermath of a terrorist attack look like post-hurricane New Orleans and will the Bush Administration retaliate by invading Iran?

There is little doubt that the Bush administration’s Baghdad-New Orleans double feature is eroding the credibility of America abroad, making it more difficult for the administration to mobilize support from Congress and American citizens to expand US military and financial commitments in the Middle East.

"The view from abroad of an America floundering on the Gulf Coast was frightening," former army general and Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark told a conference in Washington last week.

"It comes at a time when we Americans have lost much of our legitimacy in the eyes of the world," Clark said during the event organized by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

Progressive and nationalist fantasies

Some of the critics of the Bush administration have expressed their hope that the war in Iraq and the hurricane in Louisiana could ignite public demand for political change in the United States. This would usher a new era in which a reenergized progressive movement will promote social-economic equality at home and diplomatic internationalism abroad. It would demand ‘sacrifices’ from the American people to help close the gap between the ‘haves’ and have-nots’ in the country, and spread freedom and democracy around the world.

Such expectations reflect much wishful thinking on the part of those public intellectuals who are nostalgic about the sense of National Greatness that was supposedly projected by the political dynasties of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys in the 20th century.

The problem is that the political and economic trends that are evident in American society in the early 21st century make it less likely that any US president can succeed in getting the members of the nation’s middle class — that is, those who actually vote in elections — to support policies aimed at massive redistribution of wealth at home, and lengthy and costly military crusades abroad.

Instead, while many Americans will demonstrate their generosity by helping the victims of Katrina, the long-term response will be in the direction of erecting more barriers between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ — more gated communities and less of a drive towards a shared community.

Social and economic inequality will be growing in the America in the coming years and these divisions marked by education, class and race will be accentuated by the failure of millions of Hispanic immigrants to integrate in American society. Just imagine the economic and social nightmare that will take place in California with its huge number of Mexican immigrants (legal and illegal) in the aftermath of the coming earthquake (the Big One).

Similarly, while Americans will support a tough and even a deadly military response to terrorist attacks, there is very little support among them for promoting nation-building worldwide. That sentiment will probably become even more pronounced as a result of the depressing experience in Iraq and the Broader Middle East.

Hence one shouldn’t be surprised if the grand global crusades promoted by the neoconservatives will be replaced by a more sensible policy of protecting America from real external threats. Bye, bye the American Empire; Hello, Gated America.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).

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