Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bush's Ahab-Like Obsession With Iraq Is Hampering the U.S. Around the World

All the officers were disloyal. They were always fighting me. If the crew wanted their shirt-tails out, they'd let them. Take the tow line ... defective equipment. But they began spreading wild rumours about steaming in circles, -- and then "Old Yellowstain". I was to blame for Maryk's incompetence. Maryk was the perfect officer, but not Queeg. But the strawberries, that's where I had them.
- Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) breaking down on the witness stand in the 1954 movie "The Caine Mutiny," screenplay by Stanley Roberts, based on the play by Herman Wouk

I have come to a conclusion that I hope, for the good of the country, Americans are rapidly coming to as well: President George W. Bush is Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeq, the part made famous by Humphrey Bogart, in "The Caine Mutiny."

Okay, most Americans have never heard of Queeg (and, gasp, maybe even Bogart) at this point. But I think Bush is about three setbacks away from pulling out some ball bearings and muttering utter nonsense about Iraq while the country looks on in horror. After all, we're one-third of the way there. Now we just need the ball bearings and the American people to wake up.

Maybe I chose the wrong literary reference in analyzing Bush. Maybe it would have been better to go with Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," with Bush's single-mindedness over Iraq leading to his destruction, just like Captain Ahab's obsession with the whale brought him down. (Funny that I would choose two sea captains, one a military man, to compare to a guy who couldn't even see out his cushy National Guard duty during the war in Vietnam.)

In the course of an hour or two today, these headlines appeared in Yahoo!'s top stories:

Seven Dead in NATO Helicopter Crash in Afghanistan

Putin: U.S. Has Triggered New Arms Race

Roh: Offer to Aid North Korea Went Unheeded

Three seemingly unrelated stories. But, really, they are all closely linked in that they represent ways Bush has lost touch with the real problems in the world as he has pursued a poorly-planned, doomed-to-fail, globally indefensible war policy in Iraq.

Let's take a step back. On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 Islamic militants, mostly from Saudi Arabia, under the direction of Osama Bin Laden, hijacked and crashed four American planes, crashed them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and killed more than 3,000 people. The Islamic militants who were running Afghanistan at the time, the Taliban, allowed Bin Laden to conduct Al Qaeda training and operations inside its borders.

Notice, the previous paragraph does not contain the word "Iraq." On Sept. 11, 2001, there were no Al Qaeda training camps in Iraq, and the Iraqi government had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the Sept. 11 attacks.

After Sept. 11, with the support of nearly all Americans, both major U.S. political parties, and most of the world (and our allies in NATO), the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban, the regime that had allowed the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks to operate with impunity. There was nearly no dissent to the U.S. actions. You would think that a logical man would continue the work in Afghanistan, make sure the Taliban was destroyed, show the world that anti-American hatred was unfounded, and continue to bask in the glow of world support.

Unfortunately for the United States, the President did not take that logical step. Instead, he pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan to pursue a poorly-thought-out overthrow of the Iraqi government. The result, in Iraq, is that the U.S. is bogged down in the middle of a civil war, losing soldiers to attacks on a daily basis while Iraq descends further and further into chaos and ethnic division. But, even more importantly, the invasion shifted attention away from more serious problems in the world, alarmingly stretched the American military to its limits, eliminated support from other countries, and, crucially, fomented anti-Americanism in the Islamic world, leading to more terrorists and more attacks. If Bin Laden had been able to script Bush's decisions beginning in 2003, I'm sure he would not have changed much from what the President actually did. Bush played into Bin Laden's hands.

Which leads us to the headlines. Thanks to Bush's folly in Iraq, the Taliban and Al Qaeda (and its leader, Bin Laden), the true enemies from the Sept. 11 attacks, are growing stronger. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and American soldiers are dying there, with no reinforcements coming (they're all in Iraq for Bush's "surge"). Had Bush stayed out of Iraq and finished the job in Afghanistan, the headline set out above would likely never have existed.

Which leads us to headline number two, Russia's recent missile tests. Now, it is quite clear to Westerners that the placement of NATO missiles in Eastern Europe is meant to protect European countries from attacks by "rogue" nations, mainly Islamic countries that have anti-Western bents (like Iran). It is quite clear to a Westerner that the missiles are not in any way directed towards Russia. But, any 20-year-old politics major can probably see how all of this would be filtered very differently through the lens of the Russians.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has followed an arc of losing money, power and international relevance while it got its house in order, enduring the indignity of its former satellites thumbing their noses at Moscow, and then rebounding in recent years, flush with oil money and a renewed vigor in engaging in the world. And, during the last several years, Bush, with his Ahab-like obsession with Iraq and Queeg-like loss of perspective, did not recognize any of this and acted as if he purposely wanted to piss off the Russians. With the U.S. having lost all its moral authority in the world, not to mention the respect of most of its allies, it is hard to make the argument stick that the missiles pose no threat to Moscow, even though they don't.

I'm a child of the cold war. It is in my genes not to trust the Russians, and it is clear that the NATO missiles were not aimed at them. But, at the same time, unlike during the 1980s, the words to come out of Moscow cannot be easily dismissed as propaganda. Under Bush, the U.S. is running wild and unchecked in the world. It makes me angry what Bush has done, removing the U.S. from the higher moral ground. And, more importantly, the U.S. did not have to do anything substantively different to avoid this run-in with the Russians. Some basic, entry-level diplomatic skills demonstrated over the last few years could have kept the issue from erupting as it has. Unfortunately, based on their record, it's clear that Bush and his foreign policy team have not shown any interest in, or proficiency with, diplomacy.

Finally, the article on North Korea reminded me that while Bush bellowed about nuclear weapons in Iraq that weren't there, there are two nations that actually have different levels of emerging nuclear proficiency, and both of those countries are led by dangerous, certifiable nut jobs. Only, with the American military severely overextended thanks to the war in Iraq, the U.S. lacks the military power to back up any actions against Iran and North Korea. It's like sitting at a poker table, but your two competitors can see all your cards. It's tough to win that way.

It's amazing to me that Republicans like to sell themselves as the party that will keep you safe, and yet every action Bush has taken on Iraq has made us infinitely less safe. How is he allowed to get away with it with no backlash from the country? It helps when the electorate allows itself to be fooled by diversions and talking points. It also helps when the media doesn't make these issues their lead stories.

I watched CNN for a total of about 90 minutes today, and two stories dominated its coverage, taking up somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds of the air time: The tuberculosis case and crash test results of convertibles. The tuberculosis case, while interesting, affected no more than 500 Americans (and I'm being generous here), including the man affected and the people he flew with. It's sensational, but it's not important to the daily lives of Americans. Similarly, how many convertibles are on the road? According to a Motor Trend article, in 2002, convertibles made up 3.8 percent of new car registrations.

In other words, with the U.S. fighting a war in Iraq that kills American soldiers on a daily basis, CNN was reporting on stories that actually affect only a fraction of people in the U.S.

The American people have shown sporadic interest in Bush's incompetence, telling pollsters they don't approve of his performance and handing the Congress to the Democrats in 2006. But, with the Bush administration creating scandal upon scandal, and with the war in Iraq becoming more damaging and more obviously poorly run with each day, I can only hope that it will reach a point where the electorate will erupt and demand changes in the way things are run.

Americans may not remember Queeg or Bogart, but they know delusional when they see it. After all, with the massive media coverage of Paris, Nicole, Anna Nicole, Britney and Lindsay, if American citizens know one thing, it's the face of crazy.