Wednesday, December 29, 2004

War of Words 

We don't know who dropped a nickel in the Prez, but this latest blast of blistering rhetoric is so darned blistering that it turned large swaths of Yr. Mst. Hmbl. Mnrch.'s body hair all black and crispy. We can only imagine what effect it must have had on the intended target, a Mr. O. bin Laden of No Fixed Address, Waziristan, who has recently been urging all Muslims to boycott the January 30 elections in Iraq:
"His vision of the world is where people don't participate in democracy," Mr. Bush said of the terrorist leader, who has eluded capture for more than three years now. "His vision of the world is one in which there is no freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and/or freedom of conscience. And that vision stands in stark contrast to the vision of, by far, the vast majority of Iraqis" . . . .

"So the stakes are clear in this upcoming election," Mr. Bush said in a helicopter hanger on his ranch here, where he held a short news conference to express his sympathies to the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. "It's the difference between the ability for individuals to express themselves an the willingness of an individual to try and impose his dark vision on the world, on the people of Iraq and elsewhere. And it's very important that these elections proceed."
Although Mr. Bush's natural diplomacy has until now prevented his from saying so directly, this volcanic tirade established in the bluntest possible terms that in Bush's opinion, the leader of al Qaeda, philosophically at least, is no Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- although the President did appear to cool off somewhat before he got around to describing Mr. bin Laden's positions on Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear, feeling perhaps that the latter was obvious and the former best not mentioned.

Juan Cole, meanwhile, believes that the latest videotape, in which the mastermind of 9/11 attempts to portray grand ayatollah Ali Sistani, the beloved Shiite cleric, as an "infidel," betrays nothing so much as bin Laden's utter lack of influence on the Iraqi street:
If Bin Laden had been politically clever, he would have phrased his message in the terms of Iraqi nationalism. By siding with the narrowest sliver of Sunni extremists, he denied himself any real impact. By adopting Zarqawi, who has killed many more Iraqis (especially Shiites) than he has Americans, he simply tarnishes his own image inside Iraq.

It appears that Bin Laden is so weak now that he is forced to play to his own base, of Saudi and Salafi jihadists, some of whom are volunteer guerrillas in Iraq. They are the only ones in Iraq who would be happy to see this particular videotape.

The only way Bin Laden could profit from this intervention in the least would be if a civil war between Sunni Arabs and Shiites really did break out in Iraq, and if the beleaguered Sunnis went over to al-Qaeda in large numbers. Since the Sunni Arabs are a minority of 20%, they and he would still lose, but for Bin Laden, who is now a refugee and without any strong political base outside a few provinces of Saudi Arabia, to pick up 5 million Iraqi Sunni Arabs, would be a major political victory . . . .

It is a desperate, crackpot hope. The narrow, sectarian and politically unskilfull character of this speech is the most hopeful sign I have seen in some time that al-Qaeda is a doomed political force, a mere Baader-Meinhof Gang or Red Army Faction with greater geographical reach.
Which brings us round to Jonathan Raban's piece the current New York Review of Books, "The Truth About Terrorism," commended to our attention by Richard Cranium, our revered colleague from the All Spin Zone. Read Cranium's introduction, then read Raban's review of recent books by Richard Clarke, Michael Sheuer, and Matthew Brzezinski (as well as Adam Curtis's three-part BBC series The Power of Nightmares) for a quick lesson in how the purported "war on terror" has masked imperial designs and domestic depradations:
In its present form, the war on terror is a cripplingly expensive, meagerly productive effort to locate, catch, and kill bad guys around the globe. Its successes are hardly less random, or more effective in the long term, than those that might be achieved by a platoon of men armed with flyswatters entering a slaughterhouse whose refrigeration has been off for a week. The US, desperately short of Arabic speakers and translators, lacks the basic intelligence abilities needed to conduct such a threat-based, "go-to-the-source" war, as Stephen Flynn labels it in America the Vulnerable, his brisk, cool, and hearteningly constructive account of how the Bush administration has neglected the defense of our exposed flanks in its headlong, enraged pursuit of hidden enemies.

Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander and director for global issues on the NSC staff under Clinton, effectively turns the war on terror on its head, inviting us to concentrate not on covert networks of terrorists, real or imagined, but on the vital and all too permeable networks of trade and communication that connect the US with the rest of the world. "Americans need to grow up," he writes: acts of terrorism —by al-Qaedaists and by others—are a fact of modern life, like airline disasters and car crashes, and are no more susceptible to being eradicated than crime itself. "The best we can do is to keep terrorism within manageable proportions" . . . .

But Flynn's detailed plans are only the outward and visible signs of the important idea that drives his book— the conviction that American democracy can safely withstand a terrorist attack that is sensibly anticipated and prepared for but could collapse in the panic attending attacks for which the population is physically, emotionally, and intellectually entirely unprepared. In America the Vulnerable, it is not just the movements of American commercial goods that are vulnerable; the Bush administration has failed to safeguard the democratic system, which is its most precious and fragile charge. On one hand, it jiggers with the color-coded alert system, rigs cities with spy cameras, and speaks darkly of secret intelligence that more often than not turns out to have been no real intelligence at all. On the other, it assures us that we are safe in its hands, and that, in Flynn's words, "our marching orders as citizens are to keep shopping and traveling." Government is most to be feared when it treats its people as babies, the way the administration does now.
"A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear." -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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