Transformations

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The President remarked on various matters on August 14, 2006 after meeting with members of his "national security team."

They discussed "the need to transform our military to meet the threats of the 21st century." Transforming the military was a Bush campaign theme in 2000. Rumsfeld has been leading the effort. Congress and the American people support it. In practice it has meant raising the military budget by 53 percent since Bush took office. This excludes spending for the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Including those, military spending actually has risen more like 153 percent in 7 years. All figures are approximate and understate the increases.

No one can be against transforming the military because times and threats are always changing. States are always transforming their militaries. When they are not transforming their militaries, they are modernizing them. Later on when the money is spent, they are reported to be overhauling them. There are headlines about how military intelligence is being overhauled, or the fleet is being overhauled, or homeland security is getting a major overhaul. This is progress. Progress with a state military is spending more and receiving less. No one is against progress, except radical libertarians and free market anarchists who want to transform the state military out of existence.

Congressmen love all of this. They love announcing a long list of contracts for military expenditures spread over many cities in their states. When polled, Americans usually approve. They want something called national security. If asked, no two people agree on what it is but they want it anyway. Republicans, excepting those who are closet Democrats, enthusiastically want more. They want the money spent efficiently on the "right" weapons. The public trusts them on defense, yet somehow in the end they vote for weapons systems, uniforms, boots, and electronic gear built by companies housed in their districts. The Democrats, except those who are closet Republicans on defense, make hay by criticizing the Republicans. Then they vote for the budget too and call press conferences to announce how their districts have benefited.

The executives in the state try and try and try to reshape the military. Try as they might, it’s slow going. Military bureaucracies fight guerilla wars against changes they do not approve of. Congressmen argue and promote their favored weapons systems. Theoreticians fight over doctrines. The entrenched old ideas and ways fight the new. But when a country spends $450 billion, something does get done. It satisfies no one. It doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s inefficient. It’s not up to the tasks and threats it faces, but something gets done. New airplanes, new missiles, new tanks, new surveillance techniques, new nuclear weapons, new ships, new training manuals, new directives, new body armor, and new sunglasses, even a new sex doing the fighting. The public is happy. Congress is happy. The generals, most of them, are happy, that is, the desk generals. The fighting colonels are not happy. The executive branch is not happy, although they say they’re happy. They’re leaving for new jobs. They soon forget.

Soon enough a new President is seeking another transformation to fight the wars and meet the threats of the next decade or the next generation. The torch is passed, remember? President Bush, with his Texas background, thinks big like his predecessor Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ set about transforming America, creating the Great Society via a War on Poverty. Win the war on poverty and the great society will follow. Bush thinks of the 21st century and the whole world. A man with large vision looks ahead 100 years and sees what no one else can see. He sees a World Democracy Movement via a Global War on Terror. Win the war on terror and world democracy will follow.

Transforming thought

Americans now like grandiose visions. They support them. It accords with the American can-do spirit. It accords with fighting evil. The motivations seem clear enough. Originally, these motivations involved choosing your own vision (not so grandiose), doing it your way, lifting yourself up, and fighting the evils you saw. Each man was to choose according to his own lights, and this process would lift society. Times have changed. The old individualistic way, the way of freedom, is still here. It’s not altogether dead, although it’s badly wounded. But now there is a rival way. Americans choose collectively. Their focal point is a President. He chooses. His vision decides. He leads. Everyone follows, or is supposed to. A good many mavericks resist, but the President has the power. He decides what will be transformed. He chooses the evil to fight and leads us all in that fight. We dutifully follow. We submit. He represents the General Will. Submit.

Clear enough? The curious thing is that the President’s failures of vision and the failures of execution don’t spark much of a feedback cycle. The people replace the man and get a new vision and a new war. They spend ever-rising sums of money tilting against new windmills. The lances break. They are thrown off their horses, poorer but not wiser. Why is this? It is as if their collective hopes spring eternal. It is as if they stumble along in a daze day by day without putting the pieces together. It as if they were blind. The puppeteer pulls the strings and the puppets pay their taxes. The puppet has shelved his capacity to see and think. He’s no longer a mensch, a person of character with his own vision. Oh yes, he still has some. He still makes his own life. He chooses his own friends, entertainments, and jobs. Yet a larger and larger range of choices is left to those who govern him. The rival way, which is collective choice, which is socialism, is supplanting him bit by bit, slowly drowning his individuality. It is writing his schoolbooks for him, writing his history for him, interpreting his current events for him. It is giving him his vocabulary and ideas. It is replacing his thinking with ready-made thoughts. Corresponding to the imported pajamas made in China, Americans import their ideas made in the White House. The one is as cheap, thin, and shoddy as the other. The one will tear up and disintegrate as easily and quickly as the other. Each looks good, but they aren’t. Then what happens? Replace them. Go buy another. Vote in a new face. The color and pattern change, but the material still shrinks or develops mysterious holes after a few washes.

Transformation of peace into war

We have an inflated currency and inflated rhetoric. We have perpetual wars. These go together. The more grandiose the collective visions, the more the money that is printed and spent. The higher the product prices become, the more that manufacturers seek to maintain their prices. People remember prices better than they do quality. So the manufacturers cut the product size down. A 16-ounce bag of potato chips is cut to 15, then 14, then 12, then 11 ounces while holding the price the same. An 8-ounce can of tuna fish becomes 6, but the price stays the same. Inside the can, the tuna is transformed into unrecognizable bits and pieces that used to pass for cat food. A washing machine that used to last for 25 years begins to last for 8. Letters wear off of keyboards. Shoes transform from comfortable leather to hot plastic. Free markets they seem to be, but corrupted by perpetual inflation and attempts to mitigate it by lowering quality and quantity.

The transformations are real enough, but they are not what the Presidents announced. Their visions when put into practice transform society soon enough, but for the worse.

The President discussed "the global war on terror" and "the situation on the ground in three fronts of the global war on terror: in Lebanon and Iraq and Afghanistan." For over a hundred years, our Presidents have transformed peace into war. Americans typically approved and often urged on this transformation as in the Spanish-American War and its continuation, the Philippine-American War, as in World War I, as in the Korean War and both Iraq Wars. Americans now fear Iran. In one poll, 59 percent agree strongly that "Iran must be prevented at any cost from obtaining nuclear weapons." What can this mean, except a willingness to go to war to prevent another nation from doing what the United States and several other nations have already done? Occasionally Americans have resisted war, as before World War II and during the Vietnam War. Nobody’s perfect.

Again, in large-scale Texas fashion, President Bush is transforming the word "front." A front used to mean a battlefront or a frontier between opposing forces. It was a well-defined line of battle separating two opposing forces. The term "home front" expanded the meaning in a typical pro-state and pro-war way. The home front engulfed the whole society in the battle or war. Now Bush refers to entire countries, each of which has its own war, as being fronts. This dovetails with his notion of a global war on terror, giving it substance and credibility to the unthinking mind. Let Mars attack and the world will be one big front. Terror is Mars. Bush is Orson Welles. Forgive me, Orson.

Bush transforms the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah-Lebanon War

Bush excels at propaganda. His rhetoric is a marvel of how to short-circuit thought and replace it with slogan. Bush knows how to transform thought into non-thought or better yet Bush-thought. For example, he now sells the Lebanon War as an attempt to restore Lebanese sovereignty and its democratic government over all Lebanese territory. Hezbollah is painted as an illegitimate state within a state. It is said to share responsibility "for the suffering of the Lebanese people" with "Hezbollah’s state sponsors, Iran and Syria."

Now here are four lies in the space of one or two paragraphs of the President’s remarks. Israel’s goal seems to have been to disable Hezbollah, not restore Lebanon’s sovereignty. If there was any request by the Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a part, or any concerted cry from the Lebanese people to get rid of Hezbollah and restore Lebanon’s sovereignty, we have yet to hear them reported in the press. In fact many reports say that a large fraction of the Lebanese population supported and still supports Hezbollah. If anything Israel’s attack has weakened the Lebanese government’s sovereignty. Now the country faces occupation by a U.N. force and Israel maintains the option of invading when it wishes.

The second lie is that Hezbollah is an illegitimate state within a state. Is Texas an illegitimate state within a state? Who is Bush to declare that Hezbollah is illegitimate (whether it is a state or not which is another matter)? Who is he to justify on this flimsy basis another nation, Israel, unilaterally going into Lebanon and waging war? It is astonishing to hear the President make such ridiculous statements.

The third lie is "that responsibility for this suffering [of the Lebanese people] lies with Hezbollah. It was an unprovoked attack by Hezbollah on Israel that started this conflict." The responsibility for the war is diffuse. Many parties are involved, including at least the U.S., Syria, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, the U.N., and Hezbollah. The immediate contestants, Israel and Hezbollah, have a longstanding and unsettled dispute. Both have been arming and planning for some time. In this particular incident, Hezbollah’s provocation was relatively mild, taking two Israeli soldiers as prisoners. Israel’s response was obviously far from mild and has directly caused the Lebanese people to suffer. Bush makes himself ridiculous to any thinking person to place the blame on Hezbollah for what Israel has done, but his goal is to transform American thinking, justify the war and its excesses, and create conditions for undermining Hezbollah’s standing. All’s fair in love and politics.

The fourth lie is that Hezbollah attacked Israel and that this started the conflict. Actually, the conflict is a running conflict that has been going on for years. Hezbollah clearly chose the time and manner to take two prisoners for reasons of its own. Israel obviously chose to escalate the conflict at this particular time. Taking two soldiers hostage can hardly be called an attack. It pales in comparison with the Israeli assault or onslaught that it brought on, which is far closer to the meaning of attack.

Bush transforms 9/11

The President asserts that the reason that 9/11 occurred was a lack of freedom in the Middle Eastern region that bred anger, resentment, and radicalism: "Yet, the lack of freedom in the region meant anger and resentment grew, radicalism thrived, and terrorists found willing recruits. We saw the consequences on September 11, 2001, when terrorists brought death and destruction to our country, killing nearly 3,000 of our citizens."

This simple-minded explanation makes no sense. It is designed to transform a more complex truth into a parody of reality. It is designed to ring emotional bells with Americans. Freedom is a precious value for Americans, if only rhetorically, and attacks on freedom by outsiders traditionally mean war. Bush simply wants to gain support for his war-making.

His argument as an argument completely fails. There has always been a lack of freedom in many places on this earth. Why didn’t that cause terrorism before? And if there was terrorism in earlier epochs, why wasn’t it directed against the United States of America? Africans lacked freedom. South Americans lacked freedom. Muslims worldwide lacked freedom. Russians lacked freedom. Chinese lacked freedom. Why didn’t they grow terrorists who attacked the U.S.? If freedom is lacking, it does not necessarily cause terrorism. Furthermore, the opposite sometimes occurs. There are many instances of terrorism and assassination that have occurred when peoples were rather free but some of them resented some action or other of a government, potentate, or state.

Why did terrorists select the United States of America as a target in the late twentieth century and in 2001? They clearly had grievances against the U.S. based upon its history of meddling in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries. It is not a lack of freedom that caused 9/11. The tragedy of 9/11 has political causes arising from state relations between the U.S. and other states in the region.

Bin Laden has consistently stated on several occasions the reasons for 9/11, and they revolve around the presence of the United States political and military establishments in the Middle East. Bin Laden’s rhetoric often sounds as propagandistic as Bush’s. He conflates everything that Israel does with the U.S., when the fact is that Israel often does what it pleases regardless of American influence. Bin Laden’s goals are extreme. He wants fundamentalist states that exclude all Western influences. His anger does arise from a lack of freedom (as he perceives matters), but it is not the freedom that Bush is talking about. Bin Laden wants Middle Eastern countries to be free from U.S. interference, pressures, aid, and presence. He arrogantly tries to speak for all the peoples in the region. Whatever his rhetoric, whatever he really wants or would settle for, and we cannot be sure, it seems clear that he views the U.S. as having significantly infringed on the political freedom or affairs of Middle Eastern countries.

It cannot be denied that America has thrown its weight around in the region numerous times for many years. This is regarded as legitimate statecraft by statists, but resisters, insurgents, and terrorists do not blithely accept all these moves, as events prove. The Bin Ladens, the homegrown terrorists, the insurgencies in Iraq and elsewhere, the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, Khomeini and Ahmadinejad, cannot be attributed to a lack of freedom in the region that somehow turns into anti-U.S. sentiment. An event like 9/11 would not have occurred if the U.S. had not inserted itself assertively, in highly visible and aggressive ways, into the internal affairs of Middle Eastern peoples and nations. Such interferences were not sufficient to cause 9/11. Bin Laden or his equivalent had to come into the picture, but such meddling was a necessary element. The lack of freedom of Middle Eastern peoples is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to create an event like 9/11. It could have occurred even if the people had been free, and if they had not been free it need not have occurred.

Here is why Bush makes this false argument about 9/11: "So we launched a forward strategy of freedom in the broader Middle East. And that strategy has helped bring hope to millions and fostered the birth of young democracies from Baghdad to Beirut." He wants to justify his wars on the basis of defending freedom, with 9/11 having been the attack on freedom. His argument is ludicrous, but that does not prevent it from persuading Americans. Bush gets an A+ for propaganda. He knows how to put across big lies. And, by the way, the quote immediately above has another distortion and/or lie in it, the notion that his strategy has brought hope to millions. How does he know? Because they voted in an election? Tell that to the Lebanese who have been killed, whose homes have been wrecked, and who have been displaced. Tell that to the Iraqis who live in daily fear of their lives or who have fled from their homes and even their homeland because of the level of violence. Tell that to the estimated 50,000—100,000 Iraqis killed and the 50,000 injured.

I await one transformation, and that is the transformation of the American mind.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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