Apparently, my DU article either got lost in the mail or they just decided not to use it (which would be a first), so I'm just going to post it here. It's a little dated now as it contains no reference to Bush's speect last week, but to my mind it's still operative. Enjoy.
The Fire Next Time
“We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
- National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice
When Condoleeza Rice spoke those fateful words almost exactly three years ago, kicking off the administration’s ultimately successful push for an invasion of Iraq, I reacted as most peace activists who knew half of anything about global politics did. I laughed, mixed a drink, and settled in for a nasty battle I knew the antiwar movement ought to win, but probably wouldn’t.
By the following February, the whole thing was beginning to seem faintly ridiculous. Hans Blix had found nothing and said so, noting that more time was needed for weapons inspections but that access to inspection sites was unfettered and there were scant signs that Iraq was hiding any significant banned weapons program. The normally pliant UN Security Council had made very clear that it was not interested in supporting a US invasion of Iraq under current circumstances, and despite the fawning reception by the stateside punditocracy, Colin Powell’s disgraceful speech had done nothing to change the ambassadors’ minds.
Though there had been some crucial missteps by the antiwar movement in late 2002, such as the failure to stage a significant D.C. protest the weekend before the congressional vote to give the president a blank check for war, it seemed that after one last push the administration’s crazy swashbuckling might actually be thwarted by an engaged global populace. Protesters poured through the snow-covered streets of New York over Valentine’s Day weekend, chanting the only slogan that’s ever mattered to really serious rebellion junkies: “El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido.”
I remember chatting that winter with a friend of mine from GW, joking lightheartedly about one of the many boneheaded gaffes that had led the man who, seemingly indestructible after the attacks of September 11th, had somehow found himself on the fast track to become the first president in history to have his very public push for war headed off by popular protest.
Then it happened – Eliza’s face hardened slightly and she stammered “I mean… We can’t invade Iraq.” In that one unmistakably italicized word I heard every unthinkable consequence we had fretted about all summer, tens of thousands of innocent people killed, the most volatile region in the world destabilized still further, the strain of occupation leading another generation inevitably toward a military draft.
In the lines of her face in that moment, dramatically lit by a distant D.C. streetlight, I saw a harsh mirror, reflecting my own feelings of deep unease. With the New York protest approaching and the Bush administration on its heels, we felt confident. But how much of that confidence was fueled by the fact that the prospect of a second Iraq War, so much more arrogant and misguided than the stupidest of Ronald Reagan’s doddering overseas adventures, seemed like The End of Everything?
In the end, of course, the good guys lost. The slogan, it turns out, is good-natured hyperbole. The people, divided, will always be defeated. Otherwise, it’s a crapshoot, which is all we were ever promised, after all.
Now, two and a half years later, the Iraq invasion is in the books, and those tens of thousands of Iraqi innocents are in the tomb. The military is groaning and listing and ready to sink under the weight of Bush’s massive war of choice. As has happened so many times in history, the end of everything has come and gone, with little of the expected fanfare.
We stand, this September, amidst the rubble of yet another spectacular Bush administration failure, the almost impossibly inept government response to the worst hurricane disaster in United States history. Bush’s last defenders protest thinly that state and local governments failed, too, and perhaps they did. But that is a matter for the Louisiana electorate. Here in the capital we must consider the common peril of the whole nation. What a grave peril it is turning out to be.
The American people have watched as the Bush administration turned a budget surplus into a massive deficit, cutting essential services and public projects while lining the pockets of the Republican base, the very richest and most prosperous people in the world. We have seen a lackadaisical intelligence apparatus caught flat-footed by a low-tech terrorist attack on two major U.S. cities, followed by a wildly popular but poorly planned military invasion that failed to apprehend the perpetrators.
We have been shamed by revelations that our president rose to power largely through the patronage of men who were nothing but common criminals in expensive suits, and that he stood by as those same bandits milked a desperate situation in California for all they could before Enron, their sham of an enterprise, evaporated into the dusty, smog-choked Texas sky.
We stared in disbelief as the American military became bogged down in a massive, unwinnable war against an ill-defined, shadowy opponent in Iraq, pouring more and more part-time soldiers into a buzzsaw that today is just as dangerous as Vietnam in 1966, and that is showing no signs of improving.
Yet still there are those, some of them in the highest levels of the Democratic party, who refuse to admit that Bush is what he is – the most incompetent president in modern history. “September 11th was a systemic intelligence failure; could have happened under any administration,” these bitter-enders assure us. “Enron was a business scandal, not a political one,” they cluck. “Catching bin Laden was never that important,” they assert beyond all reason. “We were all wrong about Iraq,” they lamely concede.
As if that weren’t enough to swallow, we are now asked to believe that the federal government's feckless response to the Katrina disaster was the fault of New Orleans’ mayor. Nothing, it seems, is sufficient to convince the Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, or the Joe Liebermans of the world that Bush is a dangerously inept and useless leader. So we press on with a government that every serious person knows has been stripped of its ability to perform its essential functions, turned into an enormous revolving cash machine by Bush and his crony capitalist to-the-victor-go-the-spoils approach to governing.
How many more people have to die before we say enough is enough? How many more years can we take under leadership that seems more appropriate to a drunken Mardis Gras bender than the presidency of the world's most powerful nation? How many critical ground balls does Bush have to boot before we bench him and replace him with some hot prospect just called up from the political minor leagues?
Does the smoking gun really have to be a mushroom cloud?
The question is more than just hyperbole. It’s true that in the context in which she uttered it, Condoleeza’s Rice’s fretting about a nuclear attack on US soil was plainly absurd. Iraq was among the least nuclear-capable countries on earth at the time of the US invasion; we had about as much to fear from Bolivia or Cameroon in terms of possible sources of bomb-making materials.
In a more general sense, however, Ms. Rice’s warning was a prudent one. The only significant large-scale terrorist threat to the United States remains a nuclear attack on an American city. Despite the misleading omnipresence of the catch-all term “weapons of mass destruction,” no unconventional weapon approaches the destructiveness of a nuclear bomb, and no other weapon of any type carries with it the same potential for touching off a catastrophic global thermonuclear war.
So how much progress has been made in protecting the country against the proliferation of bomb-making materials? I could list, as many writers of conscience have done, the many egregious missteps the Bush administration has made, on nonproliferation, disarmament, nuclear site security, the list goes on.
In the wake of Mike Brown’s ignominious departure from FEMA amidst revelations that his already anemic background in emergency management had been fabricated (by him or by the White House, it is not known), let us take a different tack. Let us ask whether nuclear nonproliferation has, like FEMA, been transformed from a vital and serious government function into a stagnant pool of political patronage.
A quick glance at the cast of characters reveals much to be worried about. Until recently, the top US official on international arms control was John Bolton, a man who has been almost universally derided as incapable of relating constructively with anyone except his ideological masters in the White House.
At Bolton’s Senate committee hearings, one of the key exceptions to the cacophony of scathing denunciations of Bolton’s leadership style was the testimony of his second-in-command at the State Department, GOP loyalist Stephen Rademacher. Rademacher himself was appointed to his crucial arms control post after working for the previous ten years as a big-shot Republican lawyer during a time when the GOP was working overtime to craft legal justifications for weakening and dismantling existing arms control treaties. According to his State Department website, Rademacher’s educational background in arms control is none. Of course, in his defense, we have no real reason to believe the information in his official biography is true.
Picking on Rademacher is probably unfair. In truth he is no different from any number of Bush executive branch officials, whose main qualification for their current complex, demanding positions is that they are very good at being friends with George W. Bush. But do the American people have to wait for the next great catastrophe to befall us before we demand that these sycophantic nincompoops be replaced by people who have some idea what they are doing? Is the time for examining these peoples’ qualifications now, or after another American city has been turned into a mass grave?
To shirk these matters because we are afraid of the implications is cowardice. To pretend these concerns are not realistic is insanity. To call such questions “the blame game” is pathetic and dangerous.
Perhaps, as de Tocqueville is supposed to have warned, in George W. Bush’s manically incompetent administration we Americans have finally gotten the government we deserve. But one thing is certain: in a world such as ours, full of grave dangers that threaten the very survival of our species, it is past time we demanded the government we need.
Swirling in the fetid waters left behind in New Orleans by hurricane Katrina are the last echoes of an old southern plantation song, stretching back into ancient history to bring us what may be our last warning:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water
The Fire Next Time