By Peter Morgan
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‘The Thrashing Around of the Beast’

This article is over 18 years, 8 months old
American journalist and writer Mark Danner explains to Peter Morgan why support for the Bush administration is slipping.
Issue 299

You’ve recently written about the minutes of the meeting that took place between Tony Blair and his foreign policy and security advisers in the run-up to the war in Iraq, now known as the ‘Downing Street memo’. How significant have these revelations been in the US?

The Downing Street memo has fit in with a general perception on the part of the US public that the war was begun on false pretences and the Bush administration was not honest about the reasons they were taking the country to war in Iraq. All of this results from the fact that the war is going badly.

Within the memo itself it is interesting that Blair at one point says, ‘We need a political strategy that will function well at least until the military strategy is successful’, meaning that the war, once it was successful, would essentially have justified itself. The fact is the war has not been successful and it has not justified itself, so there is more and more pressure being put on the original rationale. Although probably 80 percent of the US public has only a very vague idea about the specifics of the memo, it does dovetail with a general perception, and intensifies a general perception, that the rationale of the war is becoming cloudier and more difficult to discern.

The rationale for going to war which was stated by Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and other public officials has gone away. We have this misty, murky indistinct reason for being there. So the US public is left only with this awful ‘present’ in which Americans are being killed every day without any rationale and without any sign of an ending. And I think that the Downing Street memo fits into the general notion that we shouldn’t be in Iraq, something is not right and we’ve been misled. So I think in that sense the Downing Street memo has been important.

How has this created problems for the Bush administration generally and are you beginning to see splits and ruptures emerge within official US politics and the Bush administration?

Well, at this point barely a third of the US public tells pollsters that the war was worth fighting. And so nearly two thirds say it was a bad idea. Similar numbers think that the president’s performance on Iraq has been inadequate, and the president’s general popularity ratings have plummeted – they are now in the low 40s, which is about what they were for President Lyndon Johnson around the time of the Tet offensive in 1968.

This plummeting in popularity has not been noticed that broadly in the press, so there’s still an interesting divorce in a funny way between the press treatment of the administration, although it’s become somewhat harsher, and the general lack of popularity with the public.

So how has this affected the government? Well, you’ve started to see some kind of ruptures. The most recent has been in the last couple of weeks when it comes to, interestingly, what exactly the so called war on terror is. You’ve had this high-level, very interesting discussion at the top of the administration about changing the name of what has been called the Global War on Terror (‘GWOT’) to the global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (‘SAVE’). The impetus for changing the name seems to be coming from the defence department side of the government.

Interestingly enough, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, Richard Myers, came out and used this other name [SAVE] four years into the global war on terror, and then the president said in a speech, ‘This is a war, make no mistake about it. We are fighting a war.’ So this is one of the more interesting ruptures that has appeared in the top of the government, seemingly a disagreement about whether what’s going on is a war or, if it’s not, what exactly it is.

From the defence department side we’ve seen intimations of this in the last six months. There was a report from the Defence Science Board that emphasised that this needed to be much more properly conceived, that the idea of treating it as a war, and indeed as a kind of step-child of the Cold War as the government has been doing, was a terrible mistake and it’s been counterproductive.

What’s been most interesting for me is that this disagreement between the defence department which is essentially saying this has to be more broadly conceived as a political effort, and the president who responds and says, ‘No, no, no, I want it to be a war’ – because this is rhetoric that has served him very well since 9/11 – really puts to centre stage the political dilemma of this administration. Since 11 September 2001 the political ‘bread and butter’ of this administration has been the war on terror. Before that attack their approval rating was very low. They were a government that was perceived by a very significant part of the US public to be illegitimate, having been brought into office by a decision of the Supreme Court and having won 540,000 fewer votes than their opponents – the first time in 100 years that had happened. And 9/11 was really what rescued this administration politically. So we’re seeing essentially, it seems to me, the thrashing around of the beast confronted with the fact that its main political nutrient – the global war on terror – is very slowly, but also undeniably, morphing into a political liability. And they don’t quite know what to do about it.

It’s become clear that Al Qaida is still operating, Osama Bin Laden is still alive, and there have been attacks around the world – a very prominent one, of course, in London – and other prominent attacks in many other countries. There are attacks every day on US troops and very large bombings throughout Iraq that are shown on American television. This month (August) may turn out to be one of the worst months when it comes to US casualties. So there is a degree of pressure on the administration, partly because what has motorised them, or the fuel that has driven the government for four years, is now starting not to work. The engine is coughing and spluttering and nobody knows quite how to keep the thing going. This kind of disagreement at the top is extremely unusual in this government – this is certainly the most disciplined administration as far as leaking information and as far as ‘information management’ that I have seen in my lifetime. So seeing this kind of disagreement on a matter of major policy is very unusual.

Is this making them re-evaluate their foreign relations policy, vis-à-vis Iran, for example? Where might these problems in defining the war on terror lead the US ruling elite if they want to intervene in other parts of the world?

There has been a fairly dramatic change in the second Bush administration that hasn’t been noticed much. Under Condoleezza Rice their policies towards the other members of the so called ‘Axis of Evil’ have changed, for example. People did notice her trip to Europe and the attempt to ‘mend bridges’ with European allies. But to me the more dramatic change has been a decisive move in the cases of North Korea and Iran in the direction of diplomacy and seeking diplomatic solutions. The only reason it’s dramatic is because during the first administration policy in both cases was really paralysed by controversy or disagreement within the government on what to do about those regimes.

There was a significant and powerful part of the Bush administration that felt in the case of North Korea and Iran the real way to go was to put pressure on them and not to negotiate a way out – to seek to isolate them, put pressure on them by suggesting that there would be a military solution to this problem and they would be attacked, and to hope as a result of this pressure that these regimes would crumble, implode in the case of North Korea, or be overcome in the case of Iran.

Many of the neocons in the administration felt that one of the side-benefits of the occupation of Iraq would be the eventual overthrow of the Islamic regime in neighbouring Iran. That strong opinion on the part of many people in the administration did not result in the adoption of those policies – obviously we did not attack Iran or North Korea – but the influence of those people was enough to paralyse any diplomatic effort to solve those problems. I think we have seen a change in the second administration where they have become involved much more wholeheartedly in diplomatic efforts to solve both of those problems. This comes down to coming to some agreement that will stop, or in some way disable, the nuclear option of both of those countries. Neither of those efforts has led to anything which the administration could describe as success, but I think it’s very significant that they’ve entered into negotiations.

Having said that, I have to emphasise that there are clearly still people in the administration, particularly in the case of Iran, who are pushing for a military solution. In the last few weeks the administration has made certain noises, primarily from the defence department, that the Iranians are shipping explosives over the border into Iraq and are supporting the insurgency. You see these reports hyped in various neocon journals, so there is still some sentiment to go back to try and get something going militarily against Iran. But there is one very obvious practical matter and that is that there aren’t any troops available, so this has ended any notion, I think, of an Iranian project.

So you already saw, even before this disagreement at the top of the administration over the global war on terror, signs that the administration had re-evaluated some of its policies and was shifting the people who were pushing for implosion. John Bolton is an obvious example of that, who did not become deputy secretary of state. That was what the neocons were pushing for but Condoleezza Rice was able to prevent that with the help of people in Congress. It seems there has been a definite diminution in the power of the really strong neocons in the government.

In your book Torture and Truth you talk about what has happened at Guantanamo Bay. What we’ve seen in this country since the bombings on 7 July is quite a wholesale attack on civil liberties, the government threatening to push through legislation that’s going to curtail a whole number of rights for people. Is this something which has happened in the US since 9/11, not just in the treatment of detainees but in ways that affect the wider civilian population?

There has certainly been a strong effort in the US after 9/11 to ‘adjust the balance between national security and our freedoms’. That is the metaphor of choice here, that there is this balance between security and freedom. I think that metaphor is wholly mistaken and misleading. It strongly suggests in a kind of dictatorial way that every time you lessen civil liberties you improve and strengthen national security; and even worse, vice versa, that every time you increase freedom you weaken national security. That is not true.

The effort in the US after 9/11 was somewhat different to what we have seen in Britain after the 7 July bombing. In the US what happened almost immediately is that the administration moved very strongly to pick up lots of ‘illegal aliens’, lots of non-citizens – sometimes people who had overstayed their visas, people who in one way or another were vulnerable to the government and came from either Middle East or South Asian countries. These were really picked up wholesale and several thousand of them were arrested and held essentially without charge and abused in various ways. That was one of the first things the government did.

The second thing it did was to pass the so called Patriot Act. This allowed for much more intrusive searches, including searches that could be conducted without the owner of the home or property being notified. It allowed for the searching of library records and bookstore records. It allowed for so called roaming wire taps that could be put on lots of different phones rather than a single phone. It much broadened the power of the authorities, the power of the police, the power of the FBI, etc.

You also saw after 9/11 the amazing spectacle of certain Americans being arrested and detained without charge, including Mr Pedea who was supposedly plotting to attack the country with a dirty bomb. These were actually US citizens who were detained and still are detained, without charges being brought, without going to a trial and being put before a judge. Finally, and something which is obviously very well known in Britain, a prison was set up – Guantanamo Bay. At one time there were upwards of 700 prisoners being detained, most of them having been seized in Afghanistan, but also some from other places as well, again without charge.

There has been some incremental movement on that where the courts have to some degree reasserted themselves on Guantanamo and other places. But unlike in Britain, there hasn’t been a very notable attempt to deport people on the basis of public statements they have made. Instead the focus has been on people with questionable status as US citizens, those with overdue visas, etc. There have been a number of arrests and trials of people who had trained in Afghanistan, for example. One of the differences I can perceive between the US and Britain is that in Britain there were a number of prominent mosques, in London and elsewhere, and fairly prominent figures who were speaking out publicly. In the US there has been little prominent preaching of support for Al Qaida, or supporting jihad. So it’s been a little less focused on speech, at least that’s my perception of it.

Something that has been in the news a lot in Britain is the protest outside George Bush’s ranch by Cindy Sheehan – the mother of the US soldier killed in Iraq. How much coverage is that getting in the US and do you get a feeling there is a growing movement against the war, that the tide is turning against the administration and that this is a symbolic protest that people identify with and want to support?

There’s no question that the tide is turning. The polls give dramatic evidence that the support for the war has plummeted. We’re really only talking now about somewhere between three in ten or four in ten Americans who are still willing to support it. I think Cindy Sheehan is an important symbol of that. She makes it possible every night for television to cover her story, and during August too, which is the classic no-news month. The networks are desperate to find some kind of story to fill airtime. It’s a very clever protest as it actually supplies a meal for a starving group of journalists.

Having said all this, it is clear that the time is right. That is, support for the war has gone dramatically down, and August is a very bad month for US casualties, including over 20 marines based in one area of Ohio dying in a very short time. The administration has not been able to offer anything new on the war. That is one of their big problems – they are unable to say anything about the future that is new, different or hopeful. The president’s message has continued to be, ‘We have to stay the course.’ And of course that metaphor, which is a nautical metaphor, implies that you are going in the right direction, that if you just stay the course you will eventually get to your destination, because the course is right. But the problem has been that in the past few months many Americans have become gradually convinced that the course is not right, and that staying the course will not get us to the destination because it’s not heading towards the destination. And the president has not been able to correct that impression. They seem to be utterly sterile when it comes to policy on Iraq.

They have apparently nothing to say except that they’re training Iraqi troops, and they’re trying to get a constitution written; but none of this seems to affect directly the bloodshed that’s on television screens every night, and the fact that the original rationale for the war which the administration leaned on so heavily – the WMDs, the fact that the smoking gun could become a mushroom cloud, which Rice and others repeatedly said – that rationale has been removed.

So now you have an occupation that costs US lives every day – with no rationale. That is simply sapping the approval for the war. So Cindy Sheehan has come up and offered a focus point for that opposition. Now, how far she will go, I don’t know. I do know that she offers a way for the press to kind of embody what, up to now, have been these insubstantial numbers in the polls. There are only so many times you can report that only 37 percent of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the war, only 35 percent think it was a good idea or only 38 percent think it has made us safer. You can keep saying that but it’s very abstract. But Cindy Sheehan, who is a mother, who lost her son in Iraq, is a way to embody that sense of disaffection, dissatisfaction, disapproval of what’s going on in Iraq.

Mark Danner is a staff writer for the New Yorker, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the author of Torture and Truth (Granta)

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