By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
One of the most famous quotes from the era of Bush the Younger came from Ron Suskind in his (October) 2004 article, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush”:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. [now?] And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Joseph Goebbels would be proud. No, Joseph Goebbels would be awed. And, back in 2004, what was, pre-Obama, regarded as the left blogosphere, bloggers rose en masse to claim the mantle “proud member of the reality-based community.” We know how that worked out. But a little over a decade on, we can ask the question: Was Bush’s “senior advisor” right? Do we, as imperialists, create our own reality? I’d argue that the current Syrian fiasco shows that the answer is No.
Let’s assume that the reality we, as imperialists, were attempting to create was whatever the outcome of The Rummy’s Nutty Plan to invade seven Middle East countries in five years was supposed to be; rainbows and ponies, lots of lovely moolah for cronies, heaps of dead far away brown people, a death grip on that oil, also too Israel. Or some combination thereof! General Wesley Clark on “how things will sort out” (full interview):
Because I had been through the Pentagon right after 9/11. About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld [“Rummy”] and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, “Sir, you’ve got to come in and talk to me a second.” I said, “Well, you’re too busy.” He said, “No, no.” He says, “We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq.” This was on or about the 20th of September. I said, “We’re going to war with Iraq? Why?” He said, “I don’t know.” He said, “I guess they don’t know what else to do.” So I said, “Well, did they find some information connecting Saddam to al-Qaeda?” He said, “No, no.” He says, “There’s nothing new that way. They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq.” He said, “I guess it’s like we don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments.” And he said, “I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.”
So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” And he said, “Oh, it’s worse than that.” He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” — meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office — “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” I said, “Is it classified?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “Well, don’t show it to me.” And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, “You remember that?” He said, “Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!”
Now, it’s clear if “Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran” was The Plan, the plan was implemented… Well, about as well as ObamaCare. Requirements got dropped, and deadlines were slipped. Afghanistan wasn’t on the list at all, and Syria didn’t come after Iraq, maybe because Iraq turned out not to be a cake walk, and we blew past Somalia (or not) and the Sudan (or not). But it’s certainly suggestive that Bush crossed Iraq off the list, and Obama took out Libya, and is going after Syria. And everybody knows Iran’s in the crosshairs. So I think we can accept that there’s a huge honkin’ binder with a version of Rummy’s Nutty Plan in it, lovingly kept up to date by the national security nomenklatura , and the national security and political classes are following it. No, we don’t know that, but then, we wouldn’t, would we? So how’s that working out for the imperialists, I mean, us?
Badly. Consider the following declension: Iraq, Libya, Syria. Let’s lay out some comparisons in the form of a table:
|Allies||US, UK, Australia (26 countries)||France, UK, US (19)||France (1)|
|Forces||200,000 ground troops||Aircraft, naval blockade||Cruise missiles?|
|Casualties||6 figures||4 figures||3 figures?|
|Objective||“Stand up” a “young democracy”||Regime change||“Red line”|
In each case, as we move forward in time, power declines. Fewer allies. A smaller force. Fewer deaths and maimings. Less ambitious objectives. Hubris, meet nemesis; we are, one might almost think, looking at a bad case of imperial overstretch and subsequent decline. It seems that, rather defining reality, reality is defining us.*
However, there’s a second reason why we don’t seem to be nearly as effective in defining our reality as we thought we were: We’ve got competition. Consider this curious statement at the end of a New Yorker article on Syria:
Above: In a photo authenticated based on its contents and other A.P. reporting, Syrians inspect buildings damaged by heavy shelling from Syrian government forces in Aleppo, on Monday, August 26th. Aleppo Media Center AMC/AP
Why would the famously fact-checked New Yorker even have to explain the provenance of one of its photos? Well, because there’s a boatload of mis- and disinformation floating about in the form of pictures and YouTubes, that’s why. The administration unwittingly confirms (with emptywheel providing context):
[C]onsider how the number and location of sites plays in the [administration’s] case [for war] itself.
Local social media reports of a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs began at 2:30 a.m. local time on August 21. Within the next four hours there were thousands of social media reports on this attack from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area. Multiple accounts described chemical-filled rockets impacting opposition-controlled areas.
We have identified one hundred videos attributed to the attack…
We assess the Syrian opposition does not have the capability to fabricate all of the videos, physical symptoms verified by medical personnel and NGOs, and other information associated with this chemical attack.
That is, the USG points to the sheer number of social media reports as proof that the attacks really happened, because the Syrian opposition couldn’t have faked them all.
And yet the USG’s own case suggests that those locations may be inaccurate, even though the locations are portrayed in the videos.
In fact, the administration”s assessment is quite wrong. The Syrian “opposition” has this exact capability, in spades. Maybe because there aren’t any English majors on Our President’s national security team, nobody read this fascinating and instructive article in the London Review of Books. The author was embedded with several units of the Syrian opposition, and this is what he saw:
How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons)
‘Where will you go?’
‘A very good man, a seeker of good deeds – he is from our town but he lives in the Gulf – told me he would fund my new battalion. He says he will pay for our ammunition and we get to keep all the spoils of the fighting. We just have to supply him with videos.’
‘But why would he do that? What’s he getting in return?’
‘He wants to appease God, and he wants us to give him videos of all our operations. That’s all – just YouTube videos.’
‘So he can get more money.’
‘Well, that’s up to him.’
So how do you form a battalion in Syria? First, you need men, most likely young men from the countryside, where the surplus of the underemployed over the centuries has provided for any number of different armies and insurgencies. Weapons will come from smugglers, preferably via Iraq or Turkey. You will also need someone who knows how to operate a laptop and/or a camcorder and can post videos on the internet – essential in applying for funds from the diaspora or Gulf financiers.
So, in fact, YouTubes are essential to the Syrian “opposition” and used for fund-raising. And if you can make a video, you can fake a video. One can only speculate as to the quantity of funds that will be raised on a video that makes it to whitehouse.gov, even when aggregated with a hundred others. Eh?**
Summing up: Two reasons why the wheels of our imperial reality-creating machine have gone missing:
1. Reality creates us just as much as we create it, as Aeschylus and Euripides would have understood at once, and
2. Nimbler competitors are stealing our wheels for their own machines.
Too bad, so sad, but although the transition might be painful, we as a country will certainly be better off when we aren’t blowing faraway brown people to pink mist and waiting for blowback, and when the organs of state security aren’t a swollen sac of pus that’s waiting to burst. If we don’t end our imperial experiment, it will be ended for us. Best to get on with it.
NOTE * One might speculate that the reason Obama will put no “boots on the ground” in Syria also explains his fondness for drones: The Bush and Obama administrations between them broke the Army with poorly conceived missions, PowerPoint generalship, corrupt contractors, and constant re-ups, such that it is not necessarily a reliable fighting force. Certainly Army suicides are troubling, and inexplicable (or maybe not). And then there’s the public relations risk of more collateral murders.
NOTE ** As far as the twitter, I’m sure that all sides in the Syrian conflict are just as capable of Hasbara as the Israelis are.
NOTE I assume the Assad regime is issuing its own fakes. I just don’t have any evidence for that. Readers?
Cocktailhag at FDL points to a third reason the wheels are falling off:
And on this side of the pond, Obama Derangement Syndrome, once again, is paying off in a satisfying way. As much as Republicans love wars, they despise Democrats generally, and Obama in particular, enough that many are likely to join Barbara Lee, Alan Grayson, and 50-odd other mostly liberal Democrats calling for at least a constitutionally-required consultation with Congress.
[N]ot for the first time, the teabaggers are lining up to save the rest of us from another ruinous bout of Presidential bipartisanship. Just as they scuttled a Grand Bargain on Social Security and Medicare, they’re hauling out the peace bong now, and for that we should all be grateful to Aqua Buddha and the gang.
“[T]hey’re hauling out the peace bong now…” BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!! But it’s true, it’s true. Meanwhile, the post-Red Wedding Catelyn Stark-like Nancy Pelosi calls for war, just as she called for the bailouts. It’s a funny old world.