By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Peter Bennett
There are no knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns — that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know, but there are also unknown unknowns — things we do not know we don't know.
—Zen Master Rumsfeld
George Bush and his control-freak handlers hate televised press conferences because, being unscripted, a few glimpses of truth always manage to slip through. One such moment came during last week's prime-time press conference, which was otherwise a small masterpiece of redundancy and evasion. Asked why so much of the world is protesting U.S. policy toward Iraq, Bush assumed his trademark constipated glower. "You know, I appreciate societies in which people can express their opinion," he said, uttering these words with such surpassing sourness that you could tell he wished America wasn't one of them.
Not that the White House press corps was any advertisement for free expression. Aside from ABC's Terry Moran, who had the guts to imply that Bush had ducked a previous question about the world's opposition to war, these high-profile reporters groveled like a roomful of Gollums (though without the cunning). They didn't call the president on his eight bait-and-switch references to September 11, his slippery linkages of Saddam and "al Qaeda-type terrorist groups," or his refusal to discuss the cost of impending war with the citizens who must pay for it. Instead, like Gunga Dan Rather in his self-aggrandizing interview with Saddam, they were content just to be in the same room with the big guy. None dared risk the fate of 82-year-old correspondent Helen Thomas, who recently declared Bush the worst president in U.S. history, becoming persona non grata at the White House.
By now, such capitulation is second nature. Even as CNN's Barbara Starr refers to the 21,000-pound MOAB bomb as a "psychological weapon," our networks tell us nothing about how the war has already begun (those Special Ops commandos carrying out missions in southern Iraq), how the supposed evidence of Saddam's reinvigorated nuclear program was based on shoddily forged documents, or how the Bush administration's cronies are going to profit from the invasion: The contract for fighting Iraqi oil-well fires was just given to (you guessed it) a subsidiary of Halliburton, the corporation once run by Dick Cheney. When the London Observer printed a document claiming that the U.S. has been spying on U.N. Security Council members, the story became a worldwide scandal — except in the U.S., where (as a fine piece in Salon noted) the networks and press pointedly ignored it.
Now that Bush has obviously decided the war will begin soon, the official media narrative has started focusing on his "boldness" and "self-confidence" and bracing "lack of self-doubt." Whether it's The N.Y. Times' Thomas Friedman comparing the president to a quarterback throwing "the long bomb" or Time's Joe Klein portraying him as a high-stakes poker player, we're asked to see Bush as a man with a gift for direct action. Rigid in his diet, exercise regimen and world-view, this reformed alcoholic goes to bed at 10 every night confident that he's fighting (as one of his aides put it) "the biblical struggle between good and evil" — no matter how many Christian clerics oppose his war plans.
Although such peace of mind is enviable — I couldn't fall asleep at 10 p.m. if you plied me with 'ludes and tapes of Joe Lieberman — I'm frankly spooked by persistent reports that Bush is at complete inner peace with his plans for war. After all, if you lose in football or poker or the oil business, you're only losing a game or some money. But if Bush is wrong about invading Iraq, a war that even the rabid Tory George Will has termed "optional," he risks calling down horrors that fill any thinking person with dread: hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, soldiers slaughtered by chemical weapons, bloody civil war in Iraq, terrorist attacks throughout the West, the dismantling of NATO and the U.N., massive instability in the Islamic world, fundamentalists seizing power (and nukes!) in places like Pakistan, worldwide hostility to America and maybe global jihad. If only a couple of these things happen, Bush will be reviled as the man who brought on calamity — against the advice of the whole world.
Of course, those who oppose the Iraq war also face a big "What if?" What if the invasion doesn't go wrong? What if it goes "well"? (Actually, nothing so bloody as war can ever truly go well, least of all for its victims.) What if Bush turns out to be right?
Despite the many nightmare scenarios, it's not impossible that the war will go according to plan: American and British troops will inflict "acceptable" casualties, the Iraqis will quickly embrace them as liberators, inspectors will find huge caches of hidden biochemical weapons (even if the CIA has to put them there), and faced with all this, the world will view the war in a positive light. For all the president's talk of Iraq being a clear and present danger, the country has been chosen as a target precisely because it's so weak — the Bush administration wants a walkover — and because Saddam's not exactly a figure who inspires popular loyalty. (I remember traveling in Romania a few weeks after the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and everybody agreed that whoever came next couldn't possibly be worse. I suspect the Iraqis will feel the same about their own monster.)