Only in America

This article is based on Norman Mailer’s Commonwealth Club speech in San Francisco on February 20, 2003. Mr. Mailer received the Club’s Centennial Medallion, in honor of the organization’s hundredth anniversary. An audio stream of the speech can be heard on commonwealthclub.org.

It is probably true that at the beginning of the present push of the administration to go to war, the connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were minimal. Each, on the face of it, had to distrust the other. From Saddam’s point of view, bin Laden was the most troublesome kind of man, a religious zealot, that is to say a loose cannon, a warrior who could not be controlled. To bin Laden, Saddam was an irreligious brute, an unbalanced fool whose boldest ventures invariably crashed.

The two were in competition as well. Each would look to control the future of the Muslim world—bin Laden, conceivably, for the greater glory of Allah, and Saddam for the earthly delight of vastly augmenting his power. In the old days, in the nineteenth century, when the British had their empire, the Raj would have had the skill to set those two upon each other. It was the old rule of many a Victorian crazy house: Let the madmen duke it out, then jump the one or two who are left.

Today, however, these aims are different. Security is considered insecure unless the martial results are absolute. So the first American reaction to September 11 was to plan to destroy bin Laden and al-Qaeda. When the campaign in Afghanistan failed, however, to capture the leading protagonist, even proved unable, indeed, to conclude whether he was alive or dead, the game had to shift. Our White House decided the real pea was under another shell. Not al-Qaeda, but Iraq.

Political leaders and statesmen are serious men even when they appear to be fools, and it is rare to find them acting without some deeper reason they can offer to themselves. It is those covert motives in the Bush administration upon which I would like to speculate here. I will attempt to understand what the President and his inner cohort see as the logic of their present venture.

Let me begin with Colin Powell’s presentation before the UN on February 5. Up to a point, it was well detailed and looked to prove that Saddam Hussein (to no one’s dramatic surprise) was violating every rule of the inspectors that he could get away with. Saddam, after all, had a keen nose for the vagaries of history. He understood that the longer one could delay powerful statesmen, the more they might weary of the soul-deadening boredom of dealing with a consummate liar who was artfully free of all the bonds of obligation and cooperation. It is no small gift to be an absolute liar. If you never tell the truth, you are virtually as safe as an honest man who never utters an untruth. When …

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