Historical Amnesia: The Nation's Number One Disease

Recent indicators suggest the US military mission in the Middle East and Southwest Asia is waning in influence, leaving us mired down with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and billions of dollars of equipment and bases. And a lot of face to save.

According to a New York Times analysis, Turkey and Iran are rising in regional influence as the United States is falling. And let’s not forget, arguably the single-most important historical act that boosted Iran to this level of regional influence was the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

“The jockeying might be a glimpse of a post-American Middle East,” writes Anthony Shadid in the Times analysis.

Still, you have to admire US leaders for their talent and tenacity in never publicly recognizing the obvious. George Bush, of course, was an underestimated master at this.

He and his gang of cutthroats stumbled around in the world like drunken fat men knocking over furniture and vomiting on the couch. Then, at the press conference when a reporter asked if there was anything he could say had been a “mistake,” he’d give us that famous vacant look

“Gee. I’m thinking,” he’d say with an aw-shucks grin and a shy chuckle. “I’m trying but I just can’t come up with anything right now.” Another chuckle and a little shrug. Then: “I’ll take it under advisement and get back to you in a couple decades.”

In other words, “Buzz off and leave me alone. I’m the leader of the free world. I don’t make mistakes. I make history.”

Now, of course, we have a man in the White House who most everybody agrees is a smart guy – even those who insist he’s a Third World Manchurian Candidate.

Presidents Obama and BushPresidents Obama and Bush

Mr. Obama doesn’t play the same coy public games Mr. Bush played. His game revolves around the idea that all the mistakes were made by Bush, but since they are now so institutionalized that they constitute The-State-Of-America-Today, to rock the boat would only damage the nation. And no American President can get very far – like be re-elected – by doing anything that might be characterized as hurting America.

What is “America” but the bright and shining accumulation of 235 years of decisions and campaigns that left a lot of death, wreckage and collateral damage in their wake? So Mr. Obama’s modus operandi to stay afloat and get ahead in this great churning enterprise is to go with the flow, since those who try to dam the flow or swim against it only get battered and smashed by the flotsam and jetsam rushing down-river. Better to be forward-looking.

Frank Rich of The New York Times described this top-down, power-driven national process nicely. Specifically, he was speaking about how our government and media were addressing the aftermath of the Tucson shooting. Rich picks it up at the close of President Obama’s beautiful speech in Tucson:

“As soon as the president left the podium Wednesday night, we started shifting into our familiar spin-dry post-tragedy cycle of the modern era – speedy ‘closure,’ followed by a return to business as usual, followed by national amnesia.”

We certainly saw that cycle at work following the economic collapse in the middle of the 2008 election campaign. Greed has, maybe, been tempered ever-so-slightly — but not enough to put a damper on the profit-driven market, which was, of course, bailed out (that “closure” thing) with many hundreds of billions of our tax dollars. The poor and the working middle class were left to struggle to keep their homes and their jobs, which was deemed good for their character.

Closure in this case applies to soothing the beast we might call “the American Street,” to borrow a popular phrase from the Arab world. The Wall Street pundits are no doubt correct when they assure us that if the high-finance economy had been left to the whims of the worshiped free market the wreckage might have been much worse — like of such destabilizing, revolutionary intensity that, while some hair would have been mussed, real change of some sort might have happened.

As it stands, the American Street is confused and divided and fighting amongst itself, which is no doubt just fine with those in the moneyed financial class.

The current street revolution in Tunisia seems quite instructive. We are told that Tunisia’s 23-year-long tyranny led by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was so tight a bunch of corrupt thugs that the well-educated nation with a healthy middle class was ripe for the bottom-up eruption we’re now seeing.

Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern nations with similar corrupt regimes out of touch with their people are less susceptible, we’re told, because the corruption there is not so concentrated and exclusive, not so greedy and more spread out at the top, making such a massive street outpouring more complicated to spark.

Two things helped set off the Tunisian eruption. First, Mohamed Bouazizi, a poor, struggling fruit peddler was harassed by a government factotum to the point he set himself on fire before the governor’s house in a poor province of the country.

Then once the street reaction grew, demonstrators became aware of cables released by WikiLeaks that showed US diplomats expressing disgust at the levels of corruption and greed they witnessed in the Ben Ali regime – at the same time these diplomats made it clear the Ben Ali regime was working for US interests and was, thus, just fine with the United States.

An op-ed in The New York Times by the young Tunisian novelist Kamel Riahi shows how frightening it can be to be in the middle of a bottom-up social conflagration.

Right now, ”the Tunisian Street” is in a confusing struggle for control of the nation with remnants of the Ben Ali regime, the police, the Tunisian army and the best and worst of human nature. How the decimated and banned Communist and Islamic parties factor into the mix is an open question.

The Islamic Al-Nahda party — in English The Renaissance Party – was crushed by the Ben Ali gang, its leaders murdered, exiled or tortured. One of those leaders, Ali Larayedh, was imprisoned and tortured for 14 years. He is now part of a true renaissance movement and the center of great popular interest, as is the founder of the party, now exiled in London. Larayedh says his party is a modern Islamic party that advocates free and fair democratic elections, women’s rights and the selling of liquor.

“We are Muslim, but we are not against modernism,” he told a Times reporter. “We are still against the political agenda of American interference in Arabic countries.”

All eyes should be on Tunisia, since the current crisis is a chaotic and democratic experiment ripe for meddling. If Larayedh is right, it could become a model for moderate Islamic governance, something that, of course, terrifies many westerners who preach democracy but abandon that line and resort to military violence when Islam is involved.

As the Tunisian eruption was unfolding, Hillary Clinton weighed in last week with what The New York Times called “a scalding critique of Arab leaders” at a conference in Qatar in the Persian Gulf.

Hillary Clinton and the Tunisian StreetHillary Clinton and the Tunisian Street

Clearly aware of the implications of unfolding crises in Tunisia, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, Clinton took the podium and ripped into Arab leaders. (In Lebanon the government had collapsed; in Afghanistan, Karzai and the Parliament were on a collision course; and in Iraq, a firebrand Shiite had returned from exile in Iran and over 50 Shiites were slaughtered in bomb blasts.)

“In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand,” Clinton said. “The new and dynamic Middle East that I have seen needs firmer ground if it is to take root and grow everywhere.”

She fulminated on corruption. To do anything in the Arab and Islamic world “you have to pass money through so many different hands,” she said. Arab leaders’ determination to hold onto the past and to keep those with power in power was killing future opportunities and future growth. The woman was on fire.

“Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever,” she scolded. “If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum.”

Of course, she was absolutely right, and the audience of Arab foreign ministers, business people and rights groups were “stone-faced,” according to the Times reporter. In Tunisia, “others” were in fact filling the vacuum. And the Islamic Al-Nahda party in Tunisia was calling for real democracy, amnesty for exiles and social programs for the poor.

A performance like Clinton’s always recalls for me the moment on the Rachel Maddow Show when, during a discussion on Afghanistan, Maddow asked former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski about the corruption in Afghanistan.

Clearly charmed by Maddow, Brzezinski seemed caught off guard. He chuckled and said: “Yeh, Rachel. But what about the corruption in Washington?”

It was one of those moments when the fog momentarily clears and some kind of real truth is inadvertently revealed. They both chuckled knowingly and, then, Brzezinski answered her question: Sure, there was a lot of corruption in Afghanistan.

Everything Mrs. Clinton railed against in her Qatar speech applies on a much larger scale in Washington DC and the America of 2011. Arabs have bribes, and we have the “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling that enshrined in law what a legendary crooked congressman from South Philly once said about Washington DC: “In this town money talks and bullshit walks.”

Unless and until a critical mass of Americans (that “American street”) begin to realize how damaging this state of affairs is and begin to do something about it – here at home, in the United States – no one in North Africa, the Middle East or Southwest Asia is going to pay much attention to fiery speeches like Mrs. Clinton’s.

Everyone in that room in Qatar knew very well the history of US intervention that reached back long before the First Gulf War. They knew what really motivated the horrific attack of 9/11 and about the reactive US war in Afghanistan. They knew what the full-blown “shock and awe” invasion and occupation of Iraq was really about. Everybody in that room knew about the special operations assassination raids and the increased drone assaults and the civilian collateral damage in Afghanistan now spreading into Pakistan. Everyone in that room knew about the one-sided US defense of Israel’s facts-on-the-ground militarist policies right down the line to the brutal assault into Gaza and the spread of Israeli settlements. And every Arab in that room didn’t need Mrs. Clinton to tell them they lived in a corrupt world — as they also completely understood Brzezinski’s reference to Washington corruption.

Actually, the audacity of Mrs. Clinton’s speech was amazing. You had to hand it to her; she was one tough iron lady. Up there in a class with Margaret Thatcher.

The problem was Mrs. Clinton’s power in that speech in Qatar was not based on moral leadership. It was based on the blood on her hands. Which is something the Arab street also understands. To borrow her term, US moral leadership was sinking fast into the sand.

What was needed was not a scolding speech. What was needed was for the American people to get over their amnesia and come to terms with all the costly Bush era military blunders done in their name. Mrs. Clinton and President Obama could wash all that blood off their hands. It would increase their waning influence. It would save the nation a lot of squandered resources..

Finally, there’s a great moral stink still emanating from our prison in Guantanamo, where the Obama administration, despite campaign pledges otherwise, is planning to pursue military tribunals for men like Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of bombing the Cole in 2000.

Beyond the rarely-observed fact that we hold the Cuban base at gunpoint based on some bogus 1898 imperial contract, the military tribunal decision is an instance of national amnesia at its worst.

The reason for these military tribunals is legalistically shameful. One, they will allow hearsay evidence from US intelligence and military agents; and two, the water-boarding and other tortures men like al-Nashiri underwent by US agents or their proxies will be finessed away.

No one is demanding the US let down its guard or become an international chump. But it’s time to prescribe serious medicine to heal America’s epidemic of amnesia. The goal is a healthier nation, one able to cut back on expensive military boondoggles and to divert funds to creating jobs, improving education, encouraging alternative energies and fixing our crumbling infrastructure. The list is long.

Mrs. Clinton said it best in Qatar:

“Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever.”