Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
~ Henry A. Kissinger
Things are starting to get interesting.
Global markets, puffed up by the Feds’ loose fiscal policy, took a nosedive the other day, sending ripples of fear through investors. The mortgage industry, after years of irresponsible lending practices, is being wheeled to intensive care. Our troop "surge" in Iraq is producing an all-too predictable wave of violence, and our soldiers in Afghanistan are bracing for a brutal summer offensive by the Taliban.
The casual observer could be excused for wondering if anyone is steering this ship. And if so, do they have a plan? Is there a method to this madness?
The answers to these questions can be found, in my opinion, by examining the needs and wants of our ruling class.
Any honest analysis of history reveals one sober axiom: All statist political systems exist primarily to perpetuate the power and privilege of the elites who control the system. This axiom is true even for those systems that claim to oppose class-based privilege.
It has long been noted, for instance, that socialism is a failure because it "doesn’t work." While that may be true, it fails to account for the cold reality hiding behind the façade of socialist ideology. In truth, socialism "works" perfectly well for those who control the levers of political power. As was the case in the Soviet Union (and in our own statist, mixed economy) the governing elites who possess inside access to decision-making authority do quite well. They enjoy a guaranteed income stream, superior health care services, and a cornucopia of luxuries unavailable to the average citizen.
The key (for the elites) is to find a way to keep the scam rolling despite the negative effects of their own depredations, lest they "kill the goose that lays the golden egg."
The ultimate end-game of such systems is portrayed beautifully in Mel Gibson’s recent movie, Apocalypto. The Mayan Empire depicted in that movie faces a series of social, political, and economic crises that its governing class is at a loss to address, because the disasters stalking it are the creation of the very corrupt forces on which the rulers depend to perpetuate their rule.
In their desperation to maintain control in the face of mounting crises, the king and his feathered priests resort to the crudest method imaginable: human sacrifice. They gather the masses around a grand step pyramid and treat them to endless, demagogic harangues about the glory of the Mayan people, the invincibility of the empire, and the utopia that lies just around the next corner. The priests proceed to brutally kill innocent people in order to demonstrate their special relationship with the gods (and to send a thinly-veiled message to any dissenters in the audience).
Their argument is crude but effective: Only through such sacrifices — which conveniently must be mediated by the rulers — can the crisis be solved and the glories of yester-year return.
In a disturbing historical parallel, the depredations of our own ruling class are eroding the foundations of our society. Our massive, unsustainable deficit spending, our geometrically expanding regimen of stifling regulations, and our never-ending series of military misadventures are slowly but inexorably grinding toward a destructive climax. Our rulers are unable to address these problems because doing so would undermine the very privileges they seek to perpetuate. Thus, they have resorted to a variety of morally bankrupt strategies not unlike those of the Mayans.
This is, in my opinion, the ultimate truth behind our "war on terror."
Unfortunately for our ruling class, the current emperor is singularly inept. The military adventure in Iraq has the potential to backfire badly. Rather than perpetuating the rule of our elites, this war may well fatally undermine it.
President Bush and his dark retinue of feathered priests have, through a series of misjudgments and tactical errors, run the empire into a ditch in Mesopotamia. The president cannot go forward, and he cannot go back. He cannot win (and, from the elite’s perspective, he must not lose).
The Iraq war cannot be won because the objective was impossible from the start. America cannot "bring democracy" to Iraq through force of arms. To make matters worse, the war has badly sullied America’s reputation. Most of the world is disgusted by the war’s destructiveness, and much of our own population has become dimly aware of the underhanded methods used to promote it.
The only way America could win the Iraq War would be the Roman way, which would mean killing most of the Iraqi population and destroying most of the nation’s infrastructure. Having done that, we could then crawl atop the smoking ruins and proclaim our "victory" to the world.
Unfortunately, such a strategy would utterly discredit the empire and thus undermine the central purpose of the war (i.e. it would imperil the power and privilege of our elites).
But while victory is not an option, the empire can’t leave either.
Empires rule through force and threats. For the threats to be credible, the force must be effective.
What would our enemies think if we "turned tail" and left Iraq? Would they not sense weakness? Would they not assume that America is a paper tiger? Would they not pursue policies at our expense that would, in turn, threaten the power and prosperity of our elites?
This must not be allowed to happen at any cost.
To further complicate matters, a withdrawal would not only send a dangerous message to our enemies, it would send an equally dangerous message to our friends.
All across the world, America has cultivated a network of kings, dictators, and thugs who depend on the empire’s gold and lead for their continued rule. These satraps are now standing with their own feathered priests atop their own step pyramids and carefully watching what we do.
If we "bug out" and leave our Iraqi puppets swinging from the lamp posts, what will these allies think? Might they not doubt our value as patrons? Might they not begin to make alternate arrangements?
This would, in turn, threaten the power and privilege of our elites.
This "Catch-22" is, I believe, behind the curious paralysis demonstrated by the Democrats in responding to this war. The Democratic Party is, at its highest levels, very much a part of our elite class. They stand to lose as much from this debacle as the cronies surrounding President Bush.
Senator Clinton’s tortured approach to the Iraq War is a perfect example of this phenomenon. She voted for the war and, in its early stages, enthusiastically supported it. Since then, she has changed her position numerous times and has criticized the war without ever actually doing anything to stop it.
This erratic behavior is, I believe, a consequence of her ambition. She does not despise the corruptive power of the imperial presidency, she covets it. She realizes, at some deep, dark level of her psyche, that our defeat in Iraq and the humiliation of President Bush would have devastating consequences both for the American imperial project and for the office of the emperor itself.
That is very bad news for someone who wants to be the emperor.
But the plebeians are becoming restless. They are starting to ask uncomfortable questions.
Why are we in Iraq? What happened to the WMDs? Why are the military contractors all driving Bentleys?
The perilous situation in which President Bush finds himself is thus striking fear into the entire bipartisan ruling class. However much they may dislike Bush, his fate is inexorably entwined with theirs.
As I see it, only two things could rescue the imperial project from Bush’s ineptitude:
The first is another war.
The theory is quite simple. In times of war, the American people "rally ’round the president." Old sins are forgiven. The government is given a green light to further restrict civil liberties, to go further into debt, and to enact more controls over the economy. Dissent is suppressed and the governing elites once again become the object of popular adulation.
Thus, giving the wheel of war yet another spin is a tempting strategy, and Iran is an inviting target.
Unfortunately, there are some risks involved. America is on the verge of bankruptcy, a process that will be hastened by an additional war. The people are already frustrated by our stalemates in Afghanistan and Iraq (actually, calling them "stalemates" is a bit generous), and even our allies are expressing dissatisfaction with our aggressive foreign policy.
While a glorious victory in Persia could help transform our rulers from goats to golden boys, another failure would be catastrophic. A Shiite offensive in Iraq and a calamitous spike in the price of oil are but a few of the potential pitfalls.
While the masses may love a winner, they despise a loser (just ask Czar Nicholas II or Benito Mussolini).
If our ruling elites have their wits about them, they won’t allow the president to exercise this option. There are simply too many things that could go wrong.
Nevertheless, depending on how powerful Bush’s neocon Svengalis really are, the possibility shouldn’t be written off entirely
The second thing that could save the imperial project is another mass-casualty terrorist attack.
Let me first note that I doubt our rulers would actually stage a terror attack (if for no other reason than the risks and consequences of discovery would be enormous). However, if one should happen to occur, it would benefit our rulers immensely.
Before 9/11, the neocons were openly daydreaming about the positive effects of "another Pearl Harbor." They claimed such an attack would, at long last, focus the American people on foreign policy and prompt aggressive action against "our enemies."
A replay of 9/11 might well infuriate the American people enough to allow the government to "take the gloves off" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our rulers might also regain their status as the objects of anxious hope and comfort for the frightened masses.
This could lead to more emergency diktats, more deficit spending, more no-bid contracts, and a more aggressive prosecution of the war on terror. In the ensuing violence, our ruling elite would probably emerge in a more secure position.
On the other hand, there are risks involved. If an attack succeeded, government officials might be blamed for incompetence (something they somehow avoided after the first 9/11). Also, rather than fury, the American people might react in the opposite way. Like the Spaniards after the Madrid bombings, they might begin to ask hard questions about the value of our interventionist foreign policy.
While these are very real possibilities, I believe they are unlikely. The American people are very different from the Europeans.
My guess is that Americans would be baying for blood.
There is, of course, a third option available to our ruling elites. They could reconstitute our republic. They could withdraw our troops from foreign lands and announce a new policy of noninterventionism. They could drastically downsize our government, repeal laws that suppress civil liberties, and reinstitute states’ rights.
This strategy would get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan, rebalance our budget, and remove the policies that have stirred much of the Muslim world against us.
Despite the obvious advantages, this idea is a non-starter.
The reason it is a non-starter can be found in my original assertion: All statist political systems exist primarily to perpetuate the power and privilege of the elites who control the system.
A policy that drastically downsized the federal government and ended our imperial foreign policy would have a dramatic, negative effect on our ruling elites. As members of a class that controls the world’s dominant nation, they live as Olympians. They wield power on a scale undreamed of by Moguls or pharaohs. The fame, the wealth, and the sex are just too seductive for them to ever contemplate "throwing it all away."
Why would they willingly abandon the one thing that our entire political system exists to perpetuate? Who, having worn the laurels of Caesar, would ever consent to being a mere Cincinnatus?
Even the remote possibility of reconstituting our republic strikes dread into our rulers’ hearts. It is the one thing to which they will never voluntarily consent. Anything — even starting another war or enduring a nuclear terror attack — would be preferable.
Thus, like Cassandra, we libertarians are fated to watch as the tragedy unfolds. Those who have the power to stop it, lack the will (or even the desire)…and those who have the will, lack the power.
Steven LaTulippe [send him mail] is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in the United States Air Force for 13 years.