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Politics in the ‘New Normal’ America

Rhode is a protege of Michael Ledeen, a neo-conservative who was a National Security Council consultant in the mid-1980s when he introduced Ghorbanifar to Oliver North, a National Security Council aide, and others in the opening stages of the Iran-Contra affair. A former CIA officer who himself was involved in some aspects of the Iran-Contra scandal said current intelligence officers told him it was Ledeen who reopened the Ghorbanifar channel with Feith’s staff. Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an ardent advocate for regime change in Iran, would neither confirm nor deny [note: according to The New York Times, he later confirmed] that he arranged for the Ghorbanifar meetings.

What were we doing here? What kind of profound amnesia had overtaken us? How had it taken hold, come to prevent the laying down of not only political but cultural long-term memory? Could we no longer hold a thought long enough to connect it to the events we were seeing and hearing and reading about? Did we not find it remarkable that the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to concentrate our intelligence functions in the White House would have been met with general approval? That former members of Congress would urge action by executive order to enact a plan that would limit the congressional role to “oversight”? That the only reservations expressed would be those reflecting issues of agency turf?

Did we not remember the Nixon White House and the point to which its lust for collecting intelligence had taken it? The helicopter on the lawn, the weeping daughter, the felony indictments? Did we not remember what “congressional oversight” had recently meant? Did we have no memory that the Reagan administration had been operating under congressional oversight even as it gave us Iran-contra? Had we lost even the names of the players? Did “Manucher Ghorbanifar” no longer resonate? Had we lost all memory of Ronald Reagan except in the role assigned him by his creators and certified by the coverage in the week of his death, that of “sunny optimist”? Did we not remember that it was his administration, through its use of Islamic fundamentalists to wage our war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, that had underwritten the dream of unending jihad? Was no trace left of what we had learned about actions and their consequences?


In March of 2003, before the war in Iraq had begun, Robert M. Berdahl, at that time chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, wrote, in The San Francisco Chronicle, an Op-Ed piece critical of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. He later spoke to the Berkeley alumni magazine, California Monthly, about his reasons for writing the Op-Ed piece, which he had recognized might antagonize some supporters of the university. Given his position, he said, he believed it correct to speak out only on issues critical to the university’s future. He believed the Bush foreign policy to be such an issue. He believed, he said, that we were experiencing a fundamental change not just in foreign policy but in “the fabric of constitutional government as we have known it in this country.” He was troubled that the doctrine of preemption had been adopted with so little congressional discussion. He was troubled that sweeping war powers had been granted with so little dissent. He was troubled by the way in which the Patriot Act allowed the government to subpoena university library records, medical records, and student records generally while binding the university to secrecy. He was troubled, finally, by the tenor of the discourse, which he saw as forcing universities into a dichotomized way of thinking, one in which “the critical faculty of understanding and recognizing the validity of conflicting points of view” could diminish to the vanishing point.

These were not uncommon concerns, yet they were concerns, during that period, discussed only rarely in the daily and weekly forums from which most Americans derived their understanding of what the government of the United States was doing and why it was doing it. Such concerns, when they were discussed, tended to be dismissed as dated, the luxuries of less threatening times; confessions no longer, in the “new normal,” relevant. Attention was drawn instead to what seemed increasingly to be strategic diversions, sophistic arguments about the possibility of proving the existence or nonexistence of weapons of mass destruction, say, or conveniently timed “Homeland Security” alerts that flared and vanished, or the encouragement of nativist impulses. (Our borders were porous, the world beyond them “hated our way of life,” the United Nations was in the words of Condoleezza Rice “playing into the hands” of Saddam Hussein, Senator Kerry “looked French.”)

On the question of what use the administration might be making of its alerts and of its “war on terror” in general, there was most notably a fastidious reticence, a disinclination to speak ill encouraged by both the political fearfulness of the President’s opponents and the readiness of his supporters to suggest that only traitors disagreed with him. “The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war,” Andrew Sullivan had written in the London Sunday Times shortly after September 11, sounding the note that would see the current president through his first term and provide the momentum for his second campaign. “The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.”

This association of the administration with what had become known as “the heartland,” alienated from and united against a tiny overentitled minority “in its enclaves on the coasts,” a notion made graphic by the red-blue maps illustrating the 2000 election, was on its face misleading; the popular vote was basically even, and just one of those “enclaves on the coasts,” California, represented that year not only 12 percent of the US population but the world’s fifth-largest economy. Again, however, the projection of a “decadent” coastal minority was useful, in the same way the perceived intransigence of the United Nations and France was useful: the introduced specter of movie stars and investment bankers making common cause in attractive West Los Angeles and eastern Long Island venues had come to constitute, as the issue of school prayer and the words “abortion on demand” constituted, a straight-to-the-bloodstream intravenous infusion of the kind of class resentment that powered the Republican vote.


Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war, but it was evident that there had been a fairly long interval of peace during his childhood, because one of his early memories was of an air raid which appeared to take everyone by surprise…. Since about that time, war had been literally continuous, although strictly speaking it had not always been the same war. For several months during his childhood there had been confused street fighting in London itself, some of which he remembered vividly. But to trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one. At the moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia…. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But this was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.

1984, by George Orwell, Part One, Chapter 3

Such was the state of mind in which many of us discovered ourselves at one point or another during the recent past: our memories were not satisfactorily under control. We still possessed “pieces of furtive knowledge” that were hard to reconcile with what we read and heard in the news. We saved entire newspapers, hoping that further study might yield their logic, but none emerged. Why, for example, on April 25, 2003, a day on which it was reported that the President had suggested for the first time that we might not “find” Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (“but we know he had them”), did we seem officially unconcerned about the report in the same day’s papers that North Korea claimed to possess exactly the weapons we were failing to find in Iraq? The explanation, according to “administration sources” quoted in that morning’s Los Angeles Times, was that any reports of the North Korean claim were “leaks,” which had come “from administration insiders opposed to Bush’s efforts to negotiate a settlement with North Korea.” Did the assertion that the information had been leaked materially affect the credibility of the information? Were we at war in Iraq but not in North Korea because a decision had been made that we could afford Iraq? Had we not recently supported Saddam Hussein as we were now trying to support Pyongyang? At what point would Iraq again become Eastasia, and North Korea Eurasia? Would we notice?

On September 6, 2003, The Washington Post published on its first page a story reporting that 69 percent of Americans, in a consensus broadly shared by Democrats, Republicans, and independents, at that time believed it “at least likely” that Saddam Hussein had been involved in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “Bush’s defenders say the administration’s rhetoric was not responsible for the public perception of Hussein’s involvement,” Post reporters Dana Milbank and Claudia Deane wrote, and quoted Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd: “The intellectual argument is there is a war in Iraq and a war on terrorism and you have to separate them, but the public doesn’t do that. They see Middle Eastern terrorism, bad people in the Middle East, all as one big problem.”

The source of any misunderstanding, then, was “the public,” not the President (who said as recently as June 17 that “the reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaeda is that there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda”), not Richard N. Perle (who had called the evidence for the putative Iraqi involvement “overwhelming”), not even, it seemed, Paul D. Wolfowitz. “I’m not sure even now that I would say Iraq had something to do with it,” Wolfowitz had said a month before on The Laura Ingraham Show. Yet seven months before that, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he had foregone the opportunity to make “the intellectual argument” that “there is a war in Iraq and a war on terrorism and you have to separate them” and instead said this:

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