Chasing the Pot--By Lewis H. Lapham

Though the object of being a Great Power is to be able to fight a Great War, the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one. -A.J.P. Taylor

Poker players who win more often than they lose obey a rule of thumb expressed in the phrase "never chase the pot." Were the United States to apply the same policy to the cards it has been dealt in Iraq we would fold the hand sooner instead of later--without conditions or complaint, accepting the loss as a fact beyond the hope of rescue by Commander James Bond or the ace of hearts.

President George Bush apparently doesn't know the game (doesn't know it or believes himself too rich to care what any of the numbers mean), and so in the news from Washington and Baghdad these days we see the squandering of the country's fortune (its wealth, the lives of its young men and women, its character and good name) on the vanity of a feckless commander in chief who holds the equivalent of ofive low unmatched cards--a bankrupt theory of world domination, a collection of lurid snapshots from the Abu Ghraib prison, a botched military occupation of the Mesopotamian desert, a delusionary secretary of defense, few allies in western Europe and none in the kingdoms of Islam. Undetterred by circumstance, well pleased with his persona as the last, best hope of mankind, the President smiles his spendthrift and self-congratulating smile and bets another Marine division on teh chance that it will save Mel Gibson's Jesus from a mob of bearded terrorists in Najaf.

I can understand why some people might find the performance terrifying, also why some otehr people might see it as darkly comic, but what I don't understand is why anybody continues to think that the man knows what he's doing. Presumable they're unacquainted with the lessons of the poker table; maybe they don't know that the President imagines himself in a game with John Wayne, Omar Sharif, and the Devil. Important personages in the new media, sources well informed and highly placed, acknowledge the mess that the noble heir has made of the American gamble in Iraq, but when I suggest that the President would do well to heed the advice of the historian A.J.P. Taylor, the tribunes on the jingo right accuse me of cowardice or treason (not a true American, no friend of our soldiers in the field); representatives of the conscience-stricken left draw my attention to the geopolitical reality of the international oil price and Woodrow Wilson's high-minded notion of making the world safe for democracy. But no matter what the provenience of the correction or the rebuke, all present in the chorus of responsible opinion (Senator Kerry as well as President Bush) offer sentiments identical to the ones that for twelve years bankrolled the American losses in Vietnam--the United States must "stay the course," discharge its "moral responsibility," protect the Iraqi people from the scourge of civil war, maintain its "credibility" as the all-powerful wonder of the world. The sales pitch is as disingenuous now as it was in 1968:

America must finish the job

What job? Instead of going to Iraq with plans for military occupation, we went with the script for a Hollywood western, and we have done as much as we know how to do--captured the bad guy, discovered that he didn't possess weapons of mass destruction, expended large quantities of ammunition, reduced to rubble a substantial weight of antiquated architecture, killed or maimed 4,000 American troops as well as an unlisted number of Iraqi civilians. Begining with the plotline of High Plains Drifter and similar in both disposition and result to the American expeditions to Cuba and the Philipines at the turn of the twentieth century, to Haiti in 1915 and 1994, to Vietnam in 1962-75.

Certainly we can do more of the same, but as to the construction of a democratic theme park on the banks of the Euphrates, we have neither a liking nor talent for the enterprise. Of the books recently leading the New York Times bestseller list, at least sic (smong them those by Richard Clarke, Ron Suskind, John Dean, and Bob Woodward) speak to the Bush Administrations's failure to comprehend, much less anticipate or address, the task described in the Pentagon's promotional brochures. The Washington aides-de-camp arranging the maps on the walls of the White House Situation Room tend to overlook the fact that the Americans are an authentically civilian people, devoid of an exalted theory of the state that might allow us to govern subject races with a firm hand and a quiet conscience. The imperial project serves the interest of the proprieted classes, but the owrk must be performed by the laboring classes, and it is never easy to harness the energy of the latter to the enthusiasms of the former. At about the same time that the Abu Ghraib prison photographs were making the rounds of the Internet, the apostles of freedom-loving blitzkrieg were acknowledging the need for another fifteen infantry to stand watch for another four or five years over the investments of American capital in the oil fields of Basra and Kirkuk. The Pentagon doesn't have the troops, and if the opinion polls can be believed (popular support for the liberation of Iraq falling from 53 percent to 48 percent in the month of May) the American public isn't willing to spend the money or the time. Who will then finish the job? None other than the Iraqi people, currently identified (as were the rebels in the American revolution) as terrorists, detainees, foreign agents, enemy combatants.

Moral Responsibility

The two words sound nicely together when presented to a television camera or to a conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, but where is teh meaning in either the adjective or the noun? How moral? Responsibility to what or to whom?

I know of no war described by its active participants as moral. Men go off to war for as many reasons as can be dressed up with a flag or a name for God; the horror of the battlefield translates the fine language into the savage instinct for survival, the military band music in to the sound of dying animals. Consult the testimony of the witnesses to the killing at Verdun, Stalingrad, or Omaha Beach, and the voices of fast-receding conscience find nothing moral in the mass production of their own collective murder.

The American dimplomatists of fifty years ago at least had the good grace not to mince words. George Kennan in the winter of 1948 circulated a memorandum to his associates at the State Department in which he made no attempt to conceal the motive of straightforward plunder behind the screens of Christion charity:

We have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population...In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming.

The argument presupposed an American realpolitik strongmindedly turned away from what Kennan regarded as "unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standard and democratization."

Responsibility, the second word in the stock phrase, is as nonsensical as the first. The Bush Administration interprets the responsibility as one owing to its own stupidity, arrogance, and pride. The invasion of Iraq was mounted on the false premise that secular democracy (that happy, blessed state) could be forced at gunpoint upon Muslim nationalists faithful to the teachings of the Koran and more familiar with the punishment inflicted upon them by ten years of American economic sanctions than with the sayings of Thomas Jefferson. To excuse the subsequent fiasco of the military occupation, the President asks the American people for the willing suspension of their disbelief. Although characteristic of an administration that defines the acceptance of responsibility as a fool's errand and the admission of error as a sign of weakness, teh stratagem comes up against a difficulty on which a younger and wiser John Kerry remarked soon after his return from the war in Vietnam, a war in which he'd served with distinction as a naval lieutenant but had come to regard as both irresponsible and immoral. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, he said, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" The Bush Administration answers the question with the directive, "Tell the man a lie."

America's credibility at stake

Not America's credibility, the credibility of the Bush Administration. The phrase "American foreign policy" currently stands as a synonym for cynicism and deceit, the credit rating of a White House press release so sharply discounted nearly everywhere in the world among people unaffiliated with the weapons industry, a low-enforcement agency, or the Republican Party that in Israel the newspapers defend the cruelties inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza by saying, "This isn't America; the government did not invent intelligence material nor aggregate the description of the threat to justify their attack."

The Bush Administration staged the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein to prove that America's colossal military power established its right to rule the world from the gun platforms of virtual omnipotence. During the first weeks of the invasion the staff officers at the White House congratulated one another on "the demonstration effect" of their high-tech gladitorial show in the cradle of civilization, certain that the fireworks display would so shock and amaze troublesome regimes elsewhere in the Middle East that no Arab in his or her right mind would chance the risk of overt or covert defiance. Contrary to the expectations of the studio executives in Washington, the events of the last year have taught a different object lesson, demonstrating the limits of American power and suggesting that the Bush Administration's imperialist policy amounts to little else except another name for terrorism--precision-guided and digitally enhanced but otherwise similar in its objectives to the action-movie sequence that destroyed Manhattan's World Trade Center. The apostles of "the new information order" have been making the point for twenty years. The terrorist who blows up a train in Madrid enlists the complicity of CNN, and within an hour of committing the atrocity, he holds as hostage the rage and despair of audience large enough to wreck a government. So also the scenes of street fightin in Fallujah and the exhibition of photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison, seen within the hour by America's prospective enemies everywhere in teh Islamic world. The war on terror is a war of images, the firepower of the world's television cameras striking an asymmetric balance against the weapons of mass destruction in the Pentagon's arsenal of fear.

Like the rescue of Vietnam from the evil castle of Soviet Communism, the rescue of Iraq from the caves of Arab jihad has borne out the law of uninteded effects. Meant to astonish the world with the virtues of democracy, the expedition to Indochina taught a generation of American citizens to think of their own government as an oriental despotism. In Iraq the theory and the practice of terrorism; what we have done instead is to endow it with diplomatic credentials, making credible the policies of blind assassination.

Failure is not an option

Define the American purpose in Iraq as the transformation of the Arab Middle East into a democratic real estate development, or the seizing of what President Bush fondly describes as "an historic opportunity to change the world," and failure is the only option. What is at issue is the degree of failure, and whether the United States can earn a measure of respect (from an increasingly large body of its own citizens as well as from the Iraqi people) by departing, preferably before the end of teh year, without attempting to secure the perimeters of a puppet government or a client state. Every day that American troops kill or be killed (for whatever reason on no matter whose orders) adds to the sum of anger and resentment certain to makemore difficult the country's struggle with its own tribal hatreds, nationalist politics, religious zeal. We cannot know if our withdrawal will incite civil war, or, if such a war occurs, whether it will lead to a worse or more far reaching result than the one assured by our extended military presence. Our Washington geopoliticians wrongly forecast a massive bloodletting in Vietnam after our escape from the roof of the embassy in Saigon. Probably we won't like the government that the Iraqis choose for themselves--whether a secular state in control of its owl oil reserves or an Islamic theocracy unfriendly to Israel--but if we mean what we say about democratic principle and free elections, on what ground do we prevent them from choosing it? Under the auspices of the United Nations, we can provide money and medicine, also roads, sewers, electrification, and copies of The Federalist Papers, but not a constitution similar to the one that we imposed on Cuba in 1901, which reserved our right to "intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence."

In the meantime we can hope that John Kerry, the presidential candidate, remembers the question asked by John Kerry, the naval lieutenant. For the time being he appears to have forgotten what he once knew about lost wars and dishonest advertising slogans. His campaign speeches echo the sentiments of his opponent (job to do, moral responsibility, more American troops back the currency of Iraqi independence); whether offered in good faith or deemed politically expedient, the dead language condemns him to the prison of the past, to the belief that America's "national security" depends on the weight of its military power. The Bush Administraion's gamble in Iraq has proved the error of the hypothesis. The country is less secure now than it was a year ago, the multiplication of our enemies outpacing our production of lying press releases and our manufacture of high-performance artillery shells.

The summer election season presents Kerry with the chance to find his way out of the hall of old mirrors, possibly to discover an exit strategy in the idea that our national security stems from the character and the intelligence of the American people--i.e., from the investment in education, health care, our own infrastructure and environment, not from the chasing of the country's fortune in to the mouth of an omnivorous and never-ending war.

PS Again, LEWIS H. LAPHAM of Harper's magazine wrote the above article, click for interview with him.

PS BONUS: F'ITALL's Satirical remixed state of the union address (in real audio) (in quicktime, or in windows media)