Ashcroft & Arafat: Behind the Magic Screen
by Bernard Weiner
Magicians rely for their success on the trick of distraction.
We're looking at what they want us to look at, but the real
action is elsewhere. That's why, of course, it's best not
to restrict one's reading to the front pages. Oftentimes,
clues to other vital news are buried inside the papers on
In the case of America's current war, for example, while
it's important to follow the shifting battle lines in Afghanistan
and the hunt for the elusive Pimpernel of global terrorism,
there is lot of important news happening almost under the
radar screen, a good share of which will impinge on our lives
much more than what is happening in the caves and tunnels
Three items seem most important in this regard: 1) The assault
on civil liberties and the way it's been handled; 2) The decoupling
of the Israeli/Palestinian problem from America's agenda;
and, 3) The future role of Central Asian oil.
When observing the Bush forces during the voting-count in
Florida and beyond, I was struck by their tough, take-no-prisoners
demeanor and actions. These were folks (Karl Rove, James Baker,
the Bush Clan, Karen Hughes, et al.) who knew what they wanted
and apparently would do anything to succeed. They and their
GOP allies were poised for total control of governmental power
in the Gingrich era - and thus would be able, finally, to
enact their far-right economic and cultural agenda - only
to have it slip away from them once more by Clinton's second-term
victory. They weren't going to let power slide out of their
So, installed into office by the conservative majority on
the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush began trying to enact the agenda
of the far right that was the foundation for his campaign.
But he ran into snags: not only was his legitimacy (and competency)
clearly in doubt, but Senator Jeffords' later defection from
the GOP meant the Congress was no longer easily controlled.
Bush & Co. couldn't have asked for a better and more timely
enemy than Osama bin Laden and his suicide air force. The
U.S. was united in patriotic fervor, Bush found his voice
and Looked Presidential, the Democrats in Congress lost their
tongues and rolled over easy lest they appear "unpatriotic,"
and suddenly, the rightwing agenda could be enacted in the
name of "national security" and "homeland protection." Whatever
Bush and his allies wanted, by and large, he got, and continues
Which brings us to the civil liberties question, or, phrased
another way, the attempt to cut swatches from the U.S. Constitution
and its Bill of Rights. Those nasty little amendments keep
getting in the way of true progress in establishing a rightwing
utopia. Attorney-client privilege, for example - virtually
gone. Privacy on the internet - severely compromised. All
the government has to do is to allege suspicions of some contact
with "terrorism." Could be a vicious neighbor denounces you
as engaging in suspicious, anti-patriotic expressions or behaviors;
you're whisked away ("disappeared") to a detention facility,
probably with nobody knowing for quite a while where you are
or why you're there, and your life is investigated. Torture
is a possibility, widely talked of and advocated by many anti-terrorism
Am I making this up, out of some third-world scenario we've
seen in too many movies set in the dungeons of France or Colombia?
No, this is Congress' law of the land - even though virtually
none of the members of the House ever were able to read the
final version of the bill before voting on it. (It came out
of committee one way, and Bush-Ashcroft substituted a new
version at the last minute and demanded that the GOP push
it to a quick vote.)
In short, out of nervousness and fright, the U.S. population
- represented by politicians that do not want to appear "soft
on terrorism," lest they not be re-elected next time out -
seems, on the whole, to be willing to allow the Constitution
to be majorly bent in the name of "national security," as
we move more and more toward a martial society. (The one hopeful
sign: marginalized leaders from the far right, suspicious
of big government, joined the marginalized ACLU types in trying
to oppose the worst aspects of the bill.)
The ingredients are there for a "national security" (read:
police) state, with all law-enforcement functions centralized
in the White House's National Security Council, dominated
by the cultural warriors of the far right. If you liked John
Mitchell and Ed Meese, you'll love John Ashcroft and General
Wayne Downing. (Downing is the National Security Council's
anti-terrorism chief, second-in-command to Tom Ridge in the
Homeland Security Office.)
I don't want to be misunderstood. There is a good reason
for a war on terrorism; the al Qaeda network is not playing
games, and they must be rooted out and made inoperative. What
we're talking about here are the crimes to the Constitution
under the rubric of "national security."
In a broader sense, the GOP's meanness and single-minded
tenacity to overturn decades of progressive and middle-of-the-road
domestic policies continues unabated in the Bush administration,
war or no war, and despite talk by Bush about the need for
unity and non-partisanship.
The first fully domestic item pushed by Bush & Co. after
September 11 involved giving billions in retroactive tax breaks
to (surprise!) large corporations. Did you hear much about
this? Not likely, as we're all watching the prestidigitations
on the front page? Read anything lately about the raid on
Social Security and Medicare funds, to help pay for the war?
Didn't think so. Opening up ANWR for oil exploration? Kinda
slipped back without much fuss.
In short, the hardwingers of the GOP, especially in the House
as supported by President Bush, are trying to slip all sorts
of things under the political radar while the public is distracted
by bin Laden, bombs and patriotic bombast. The only hope,
and it may not be much of one, given the jellyfish-like spines
of so many Democrats, is that the U.S. Senate could still
stop the most dangerous House/Bush legislation if it so chose.
Contact your senators, but don't hold your breath.
Israel & Palestine
Just as Bush & Co. are reverting to their original, hardline
intentions domestically, so too is their neo-isolationist
foreign policy back in force.
It looked for awhile that the U.S. might feel obliged to
step into the Israeli/Palestinian dispute and try mightily
to organize a peace. But in recent days, the impression given
is that the U.S. feels it doesn't have to do that to maintain
the war coalition - especially the Muslim nations in that
coalition - and so Arafat and the Palestinian cause have been
detached from immediate U.S. concerns. The result on the ground
is that Israel might well interpret this laissez-faire attitude
on the part of its sponsor as even more of a blank check to
determine the geopolitical future in the Mideast according
to its own needs.
In hindsight, it looks as if Arafat should have taken what
he could have obtained - which was a lot but not everything
he wanted - while Barak was Israel's prime minister. Now he's
dealing with a blood-bathed, hardline zealot, Sharon, who
has no intention or desire, or need, to make concessions to
the Palestinians. (All this underlines Abba Eban's famous
observation from years ago that the Palestinians never pass
up an opportunity to pass up an opportunity.)
True, Bush and Powell use the term "Palestine" and talk about
the "future Palestinian state," but those are fairly empty
terms unless the U.S. forces Israel to make the necessary
concessions that will bring peace and hope to the region.
In short, those of us American activists interested in trying
to get U.S. military/political policy to change in the Middle
East - so as to alter the soil in which present and, most
importantly, future terrorists grow - have a more difficult
fight on our hands. Bush & Co. clearly don't think re-examining
U.S. policy is necessary any longer, if they ever did. It's
business as usual domestically, and it's business as usual
in foreign policy - no U.S. brokering a peace in the Mideast,
no U.S. calls for more democracy in the authoritarian states
of the area that support the American war effort, no U.S.
attempts to get the autocratic rulers to deal more with the
desperate poverty and injustice in their countries (which
conditions, again, help prepare the soil for terrorism).
In sum, it's business - and that means big business - as
usual, while the Middle East continues to fester.
Central Asian Oil
While it may be true that the U.S. war in Afghanistan began
as a reflex action (in Tariq Ali's apt description: "A powerful
animal temporarily blinded, by a bee sting, lashes out in
a crazy way"), it does have a major natural-resources dimension.
Crudely put, pun intended, we're talking oil here and a proposed
massive exploitation of the large Central Asia oil reserves
- located in the "stan" countries of the former Soviet Union
- through a pipeline that might well go through (drum roll
here) Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the revenue and bribery
monies that entails.
The pipeline was a possibility during the last decade, but
the political situation was so tenuous and chaotic that Western
oil companies decided it wasn't worth the risk. But if Afghanistan
and Pakistan and the other "stans" are made politically stable
(read: amenable to U.S. policy), and demonstrate that they
are anxious to do business with a Western oil consortium,
such a pipeline is a real possibility.
If this comes to pass, Middle Eastern oil - and the corrupt,
crazy politics that go with it - becomes of less importance
to the U.S. and Europe, while political cozying up with Russia
and the "stans" becomes much more vital. Follow the money
and you almost never go wrong in figuring out some major reasons
why leaders act the way they do.