Letter to European Friends: Why is America Behaving This Way?
May 14, 2002
By Bernard Weiner
Dear Jacqueline and Wolfgang,
You say that as Europeans, you can't figure out why the U.S.
is "rampaging around the globe, behaving like an arrogant
bully." So, while we're waiting for the attack-on-Iraq shoe
to drop, let me try to offer a few perspectives that put the
current US government's actions into an understandable context.
To begin to discern the global tides, one must first understand
the domestic currents. The key event in America's recent history
is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire. The US
no longer had a simple world to navigate: our enemy, the one
who provided a balance-of-power container, wasn't there any
Internally, the American right wing, which had always organized
itself around combatting communism, desperately needed a new
enemy. The fast-changing world was frightening, scary. The
new enemy became that very confusion itself. For the Right,
the political symbol of that chaos and uncertainty -- and,
most importantly, moral laxity -- was the liberal Democratic
Party and its supporters. And thus began the move toward the
current nasty Cultural Civil War in America.
As in other societies, in America the confusions of the modern
world had led to the swift growth of fundamentalist religious
organizations, which promise to explain away the terrors with
simplistic enemies: the Devil, '60s ex-hippies, secular humanists,
abortionists, homosexuals, atheists, non-believers among the
faithful, you get the idea.
So there we were with no unifying Communist enemy, no clear-cut
answers to life's confusing complexities, the social fabric
already fraying because of the near-civil-war we experienced
over Vietnam, no clear direction provided us in this new,
open-ended world. Democrats began to resemble Republicans
as everyone more or less hovered for psychological safety
around the middle part of the spectrum, sometimes a little
bit Right (Nixon, even Reagan), sometimes a little bit Left
(Carter, Clinton), but mostly operating from the center out,
while the country tried to figure out where to go.
But there was one group that quickly was getting its act
together: the HardRight. Motivated by economic greed and a
lust for power, they quickly saw the opportunity ahead for
seizing total control. After all, in global terms, the US
was now the world's only superpower; who was there to stop
America? In domestic terms, near-total control is a bit trickier
to bring off, being a democracy and all, but remained the
The HardRight -- a coalition of religious fundamentalists,
corporate movers and shakers, and political extremists, many
of them politicians -- grew out of the traditional Conservative
movement, But these HardRight types thought, given that the
liberal/centrist approach would take the country to ruin and
continued moral decline, that the normal rules of civil political
debate, and the checks-and-balances system, were too confining.
It would take these zealots far too long to get anything done
if they remained straight-jacketed by the usual rules of democracy
and the politics of civility and compromise. (Of course, in
Europe and elsewhere, similar movements began to develop,
with not a little smell of neo-fascism in many of those parties
The HardRight leaders were desperate. Their chance to take
over -- and thus move their greed-and-power agenda through
quickly -- was in jeopardy, inevitably getting smothered in
the give-and-take of traditional politics, one party in power
and then the other, etc. Something had to give.
They were all poised for total control of the three branches
of government: the Congress (led by the likes of such GOP
HardRightists Gingrich and Armey and Delay and Lott), the
Courts (more and more packed with HardRightists), the Executive
(Democrat Clinton was looking more and more vulnerable and
irrelevant). And then, surprise of surprises, Clinton got
re-elected, and continued to exercise his veto over the HardRight's
more outrageous proposals. Clinton was anything but a Left-winger
-- he operated mostly from the center -- but so strong was
the HardRight's ability to set the agenda in the country that
they had effectively moved the parameters of discussion, thus
making the center "the left". Clinton was blocking the way
and had to go.
Thus the HardRight's ferocious assault on Clinton, the aim
being to wreck his presidency, one way or another. As in the
HardRight's other fights, the only object is to win, to destroy
the other side; doesn't matter if you lie, smear, make 180-degree
turns in your own expressed principles. Only victory will
suffice. Clinton, unable to control his own adolescent impulses,
stepped into the trap; true, he wasn't removed from office,
but the never-ceasing attacks and investigations -- which,
of course, ultimately yielded no illegalities, only consensual
sex (we'll ignore for a moment the adulterous hypocrisies
in the GOP) -- basically destroyed his effectiveness as a
Chief Executive, and gave the HardRight an organizing point
in ratcheting up the Cultural Civil War.
(There have been earlier books by journalists and other uninvolved
outsiders detailing the HardRight's campaign to seize power,
and now, finally, there is a book by a very-much-involved
insider, David Brock's "Blinded by the Right," which names
names and dates and places where the HardRight conspiracy
did its dirty work. Brock was the journalist who smeared Anita
Hill in the Clarence Thomas episode, and who got the Paula
Jones/Bill Clinton story started. In this book, he recants
his sleazy HardRight role, and apologizes to those whose reputations
HardRight Agenda Gets Blocked Just as the GOP did
itself in by nominating the bland Bob Dole, because it was
"his turn," the Democrats four years later nominated the bland
(and, by association with Clinton, somewhat tainted) Gore.
His campaign was a see-sawing disaster, but, even so, Gore
managed to win the popular vote, by about a half-million ballots.
The other side, which nominated a none-too-bright and inexperienced
front man, George W. Bush, played political hardball all the
way, and the traditional liberals and centrists surrounding
Gore never knew what hit them. In the end, ideological HardRightists
on the US Supreme Court, totally reversing their principles
on states' rights, simply pulled the plug on counting all
the votes and installed Bush as President.
Now the HardRight could move quickly to establish total dominance
over the three branches of government, and ram through their
agenda: everything for the wealthy and big corporations, the
moral/cultural issues for the fundamentalist base of the party,
the dismantling of the New Deal/Great Society programs and
policies, the destruction of environmental regulations, etc.
All was looking good until Republican Senator Jeffords, out
of principle, deserted the conservative party and chose to
vote with the Democrats, thus taking control of the US Senate
away from the HardRight Republicans. This meant that the entire
HardRight agenda was now in jeopardy, as the centrist Democrats
could block any meaningful Bush&Co. legislation. Something
had to be done.
The 9/11 Attacks
Now please don't get me wrong. I am NOT saying that the Bush
Administration ordered or supported the September 11th attacks
on the US; there simply is no proof that they knew the targets
and date of the attack, only that "something big" was coming.
What I am saying is that those attacks were used mightily
by Bush&Co. -- perhaps with plans drawn up earlier -- to accomplish
what could not be accomplished by other means: the seizing
of fuller power, the movement of America closer to a martial-law
society, the evisceration of key civil liberties, the cowing
of the Democratic opposition in the name of support-the-war
"patriotism," the speedy passage of legislation designed to
roll back the social programs of the past 40 years because
money to pay for them was taken away (either locked up for
a decade in huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and
corporations, or spent in war-related adventures), the weakening
of oversight agencies that normally would be protecting consumers
and the environment, etc. etc.
Again, don't misunderstand what I'm saying. Once the US was
attacked, it had to respond vigorously in defense, and even
go on the offense in some way. These are vicious religious
extremists, who must be stopped. The point I'm making here
is that, right or wrong in methodology, the Bush Administration
has been highly manipulative in using the 9/11 tragedy to
its ideological advantage and to the advantage of its corporate
sector, especially in the energy/oil arena. Those who disagree
are treated as unpatriotic.
On the global front, the hawks in the Administration saw
that, as the remaining superpower on the planet, they could
do more or less what they wanted in military terms, setting
up and supporting friendly regimes (Afghanistan, Israel, et
al.) and engineering the demise of those deemed unfriendly
(Iraq, Venezuela, et al.). In all cases, the grays of complexity
were overlooked and simplistic black-and-white, you're-with-us-or-against-us
diplomacy ruled the day.
Europe, the United Nations, global treaties -- nothing and
nobody was permitted to stop the US unilateralist approach
to foreign relations. What the US elephant wanted, the US
elephant moved to take or control, always for the benefit
of its corporate-class sponsors. European and other complaints
were heard and brushed aside as irrelevant to the task at
hand: the establishment of a Pax Americana across the globe.
Normally, the US population and Congress would debate such
sweeping moves toward the establishment of what amounts to
an empire abroad. But Bush&Co. could breathe easy. Everything
was couched in the name of "national security" and the "war
on terrorism," so they didn't have to worry much about being
questioned or attacked by the Democrats, or by the media (mostly
owned by huge corporate conglomerates, in any case). Even
now, as the US prepares to invade Iraq, there has been no
debate in Congress -- the branch of government under the Constitution
given the sole power to declare war -- about the wisdom and
consequences of such a military adventure.
Bush&Co. constantly heighten the fright level, and have told
the citizenry to get used to a "permanent war." The public
is beginning to lose its enchantment with Bush's policies,
especially in the domestic area, but there still isn't a broad
groundswell of opposition to his foreign policies, even when
they aren't working or are thoroughly confused and inconsistent.
So you, and your other European friends, ask why America
is behaving the way it is. Bush&Co are doing so because they
can get away with it. They cleverly have folded their permanent
"war on terrorism" into the HardRight agenda, and not enough
citizens have noticed or cared.
On the other hand, arrogant bullies always go too far, and
invariably get caught out and implode, often as a result of
their overweening greed and power-seeking. The lurking Bush&Co.
influence-peddling and other scandals, when allied with obvious
foreign-policy and military mistakes, are starting to eat
away at Bush's support. If the Democrats do well in the November
elections, perhaps even inflicting an embarrassing defeat
to the GOP in the Congress, the Bush house of cards will begin
to wobble and may even collapse. More Congressional investigations
will be launched. Resignation or impeachment is not outside
the realm of possibility.
To aid in this process, not only does the liberal/progressive
Left in America need to increase the pressure on Bush&Co.
but our friends in Europe and elsewhere must maintain their
questioning posture and pressure from the outside. A better
day will come, the shadow forces will recede, we will move
back to a saner, more centrist balance. Keep the faith, and
keep on keepin' on.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught American government and
international relations at Western Washington University and
San Diego State University; he was with the San Francisco
Chronicle for nearly 20 years and has published in The Nation,
Village Voice, The Progressive, and widely on the Internet.