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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 informed that you just swore to the opposite today of what you avowed yesterday, you remark, “I never said that,” or should the words be on record, you declare that you are grossly misinterpreted. Confusion is sown rich in permutations.

So, Saddam had managed to survive seven years of inspection from 1991 to 1998. He had made deals—most of them under the counter—with the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Jordanians; the list is long. He also knew how to play on the sympathies of the third world. He convinced many a good heart all over the world. The continuing cruelty of America was starving the Iraqi children. The Iraqi children were, in large part, seriously malnourished by the embargo Saddam had brought upon himself, but, indeed, if they had been healthy, he would have kept a score of six-year-olds starving long enough to dispatch a proper photograph around the world. He was no good and he could prove it. He did so well at the games he played that he succeeded in declaring the inspections at an end by 1998.

There had been talk before, and there was certainly talk then in the White House that we had to send troops into Iraq as our reply to such flouting of the agreement. Unfortunately, Clinton’s adventure with Monica Lewinsky had left him a paralyzed warrior. In the midst of his public scandal, he could not afford to shed one drop of American blood. The proof was in Kosovo where no American infantry went in with NATO and our bombers never dropped their product from any height within range of Serbian antiaircraft. We did it all from 15,000 feet up. So, Iraq was out of the question. Al Gore was a hawk at the time, ready, doubtless, to improve his future campaign image and rise thereby from wonk to stud—a necessary qualification for the presidency—but Clinton’s vulnerability stifled all that.

So, in 1998, Saddam Hussein got away with it. There had been no inspections since. Colin Powell’s speech was full of righteous indignation at the bare-faced and heinous bravado of Saddam the Evil, but Powell was, of course, too intelligent a man to be surprised by these discoveries of malfeasance. The speech was an attempt to heat up America’s readiness to go to war. By the measure of our polls, half of the citizenry were unready. And this part of his speech certainly succeeded. The proof was that a good many Democratic senators who had been on the fence declared that they were in on the venture now; yes, they, too, were ready for war, God bless us.

The major weakness in Powell’s presentation of the evidence was, however, the evidential link of Iraq to al-Qaeda. It was, given the powerful auspices of the occasion, more than a bit on the sparse side. With the exception of Great Britain, the states with veto power in the Security Council, the French, the Chinese, and the Russians, were obviously not eager to satisfy the Bush passion to go to war as soon as possible. They wanted time to intensify inspections. They looked to containment as a solution.

Not a week later, al-Jazeera offered a recorded broadcast by bin Laden that gave a few hints that he and Saddam were now ready, conceivably, to enter into direct contact, even though he called the “socialists” in Baghdad “infidels.” But this last statement was in immediate contradiction to what he had just finished saying a moment earlier: “It does no hurt under these conditions [of attack by the West] that the interests of Muslims [will ultimately] contradict the interest of the socialists in the fight against the Crusaders.”

Bin Laden may have chosen to be ambiguous and two-sided in his remarks, but the suggestion of a common interest, despite all, between al-Qaeda and Saddam was also there. Was it finally happening? Had the enemy of Saddam’s enemy now become Saddam’s friend? If so, that could prove a disaster. We might vanquish Iraq and still suffer from the catastrophe we claimed to be going to war to avert. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction could yet belong to bin Laden.

Without those weapons, al-Qaeda would have to scrape and scratch. But if Saddam were to make transfer of even a sizable fraction of his bio-warfare and chemical stores, bin Laden would be considerably more dangerous.

The inner diktat of George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq as rapidly as possible now had to face the possibility that Saddam had come up with an exceptional countermove. Was he saying, in effect, “Allow me to string along the inspections, and you are still relatively safe. You may be certain I will not rush to give my very best stuff to Osama bin Laden so long as we can keep playing this inspection game back and forth, back and forth. Go to war with me, however, and Osama will smile. I may go down in flames, but he and his people will be happy. Be certain, he wants you to go to war with me.”

Since the sequence of these kinds of moves was present from the beginning, it could be asked, as indeed more than a few Americans were now asking: How did we allow such choices in the first place—these hellish Hobson choices?

Meanwhile, the world was reacting in horror to the Bush agenda for war. The European edition of Time magazine had been conducting a poll on its Web site: “Which country poses a greater danger to world peace in 2003?” With 318,000 votes cast so far, the responses were: North Korea, 7 percent; Iraq, 8 percent; the United States, 84 percent….

As John le Carré had put it to The Times of London: “America has entered one of its periods of historic madness, but this is the worst I can remember.”

Harold Pinter no longer chose to be subtle in language:

…The American administration is now a bloodthirsty wild animal. Bombs are its only vocabulary. Many Americans, we know, are horrified by the posture of their government, but seem to be helpless.

Unless Europe finds the solidarity, intelligence, courage and will to challenge and resist American power, Europe itself will deserve Alexander Herzen’s declaration—“We are not the doctors. We are the disease.”

According to Reuters, on February 15 more than four million people “from Bangkok to Brussels, from Canberra to Calcutta…took to the streets to pillory Bush as a bloodthirsty warmonger.”


A quick review of the two years since George W. Bush took office may offer some light on why we are where we are. He came into office with the possibility of a recession, plus all the unhappy odor of his investiture through an election that could best be described as legitimate/illegitimate. America had learned all over again that Republicans had fine skills for dirty legal fighting. They were able to call, after all, on a powerful gene stream. The Republicans who led the campaign to seize Florida in the year 2000 are descended from 125 years of lawyers and bankers with the cold nerve and fired-up greed to foreclose on many a widow’s home or farm. Nor did these lawyers and bankers walk about suffused with guilt. They had the moral equivalent of teflon on their soul. Church on Sunday, foreclose on Monday. Of course, their descendants won in Florida. The Democrats still believed there were cherished rules to the game. They did not understand that rules no longer apply when the stakes are large enough.

If Bush’s legitimacy was in question then from the start, his performance as president was arousing scorn. When he spoke extempore, he sounded simple. When more articulate subordinates wrote his speeches, he had trouble fitting himself to the words.

Then September 11 altered everything. It was as if our TV sets had come alive. For years we had been watching maelstrom extravaganzas on the tube, and enjoying them. We were insulated. A hundredth part of ourselves could step into the box and live with the fear. Now, suddenly, the horror had shown itself to be real. Gods and demons were invading the US, coming right in off the TV screen. This may account in part for the odd guilt so many felt after September 11. It was as if untold divine forces were erupting in fury.

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