Bushmongering

Trapped between a rock and a hard place by the legacy of his brother’s War in Iraq, Jeb Bush delivered a speech at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley (I wasn’t invited) that followed the pattern of all self-rationalizing bullies: blame the victim.

Hillary was First Lady during the transition to Jr’s Administration. The Cole destroyer had been holed by a floating IED, and the Clinton team had determined that Al Qaeda was certainly the culprit. The defense briefings implored the Bush team to send a strong message to the perpetrators, but Karl Rove’s political calculationn was that the incident was something that could be painted as a Democratic legacy.

Instead, the Bush team set about antagonizing both allies and adversaries with strong-armed attempts to modify the interpretation of arms limitations treaties to allow deployment of a nuclear missile shield. The week before 9/11, Tom Daschle, leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate, called a press conference on the Capitol steps to voice his concerns that the Bush team did not understand the geopolitical threat posed by Islamic extremists. Later reporting indeed revealed that American withdrawals in Beirut and Somalia were capped by the failure to take action after Cole. Osama bin Ladin believed that America was morally weak, and that one further blow would cause us to curl up and hide from the world.

The Bush team’s incompetence and short-sightedness was compounded in the run-up to the Iraq War. The false claim of yellow-cake trading with Niger was the linchpin of the “weapons of mass destruction” case against Saddam Hussein. When Joe Wilson, former Ambassador to Niger, stood up to dispute the claims, the Bush Administration outed the CIA’s head of nuclear threat control – Valerie Plame, who happened to be Wilson’s wife.

While the conquest of Iraq was a military masterpiece, the weakness of the planning for the peace was evident. Despite the “Mission Accomplished” announcements, the tangled web of Iraqi ethnic resentments provided rich soil for Al Qaeda sympathizers. The nation began to collapse, and the Bush team kept National Reservists in the theater and called up large numbers of additional troops in a “Surge” that finally allowed Iraq to return to self-government.

Since then, the Obama administration’s policy has been to disengage slowly, providing time and incentives for the Iraqi nation to stand on its own two feet. It hasn’t been a pretty picture.

At root, what Jr’s Administration revealed was the danger of disengaging from reality – of treating all foreign policy decisions first and foremost as domestic political decisions. The Democratic response was to serve as the loyal opposition to the nation’s commander-in-chief. They swallowed their complaints and criticism, and focused on trying to ensure that damage was minimized and lessons were learned.

So what about Jeb’s claims that the Obama administration was culpable in the rise of ISIS? How sophisticated a view of foreign policy do they represent?

Well, I would assert “naive to the point of dangerous.” Bush calls, for example, for arming of the Kurds. That can only antagonize Turkey, which has seen 40,000 casualties in a decades-long struggle for Kurdish independence. Turkey’s president Erdogan was apparently a supporter of IS until attempts to control the activities of Sunni extremists lead to a number of bombings. So, no, he’s not a reliable ally, but there’s no reason to push him into the arms of IS.

Or the claim that the Obama Administration didn’t take strong initial action against Islamic State (IS)? Far enough, in 20/20 hindsight. IS grew out of the Syrian civil war, which started as a rebellion against a leader guilty of crimes against humanity, but became a global lightening rod for militant extremists as it dragged on.

The nature and ambitions of IS were not obvious until defectors revealed that operations were actually being guided in secret by Sadaam’s Baathist generals. The initial IS surge was so successful because it exploited Sunni resentment against Shia dominance of Iraq’s government, with many of the early atrocities committed against Shia troops guarding the peace in Western Iraq.

The policies stated by Bush would be to bring additional American troops and material back into the region. That makes sense, except that the most potent weapon in the IS arsenal are suicide bombs crafted from Humvees captured from Iraqi bases. Until the Iraqi security forces demonstrate the resolve to engage the enemy, unless American commits indefinitely to a military presence, IS will simply fade into the civilian population, only to appear again after we leave to take advantage of the resources we leave behind.

And the final charge that Clinton didn’t visit Iraq during her tenure at State: well, there was no State Department presence. The entire operation was run out of the Department of Defense. What would have been the point of starting a turf war?

I understand that in domestic politics, the best defense is always a strong offense. It was perhaps to be expected that Bush would mount his attack against the Democratic front-runner. But what the tone and substance of the attack reveals is a dangerous lack of understanding of the issues. Given the documented history, Hillary will clean his clock in the run-up to the general election, or we’ll find ourselves suffering at the hands of the government we deserve.

Deadly Meaning

From Herbert’s Dune Trilogy, among the most disturbing images is that of a Fremen Mujaheddin crashing his flitter into an Imperial troop transport. The observer recognizes it as the completely rational act of a warrior in the service of a greater purpose.

IS is reliant, it appears, on similar behaviors among the ranks of its elite fanatics. Infiltrating as civilians, they kill indiscriminately, and then detonate a suicide charge when security forces arrive. The ensuing chaos is exploited by a conventional assault that seizes the target.

The common refrain in public media is that religion is the common thread in such events. Certainly the Fremen were incited by faith in their Messiah, Maud’Dib, born Paul Atreides. IS fanatics surrender themselves in the belief that they are engaged in a jihad, their death thus gaining in the afterlife the boon due to a holy martyr.

The chorus of the anti-religious is composed of people with many good reasons to want to live. They have people that want to listen to them. Among that audience are those seeking to understand IS, primarily for the purpose of destroying it. Others simply wish to disengage from the problem – if Muslims do not hold any value in life, what are we to do? All too often the answer is, “Go to the Met and pay someone to keep the evil out.”

The talk show hosts, ushers and garbage men protect us from becoming cut adrift. They create a sense that we mean something, that the world will order itself to our needs. They make life worth experiencing. But what of them? Do we really imagine that they find deep satisfaction in serving that purpose for us? Does the garbage collector sweeping the streets of Los Angeles at 2 A.M. float in visions of the latest triumph at Disney Hall? Or does he just see a used condom in the gutter?

It is from those forgotten by the elites that IS recruits in the Western world. A house-bound girl recounts her experience of posting a question about Islam online, and being taken into a community of people that were devoted to her psychological needs. There was nothing concrete exchanged – she was brought in simply by the ready attention that provided a sense of meaning something. She abandoned her church and converted.

Strangely enough, that is what religion is supposed to do. People are supposed to take the time to be present for one another. Ultimately, that simple human attention is overtaken by direct relation with the divine presence. Our need for human validation decreases. We become, instead, a refuge for others.

But those initial stages are terribly vulnerable: the hope of receiving love is formed in the soul of the seeker, but not yet anchored to God. In that state, tyrants can enter and substitute their purpose. The sacred community, threatened from without by reprisal for violence organized by their leaders, spawns martyrs committed to protecting the source of meaning in their lives. The immediate and practical realities of conflict drown out the tenets of scripture written by people wiser but at the remove of centuries.

As the gap in wealth yawns ever wider in this country, I wonder whether the elite sees beyond their immediate circle of servants to concern themselves with how to connect the society as a whole to a sense of purpose. Herding people around with fear isn’t enough. Neither are the theories of capitalism or science, no less mysterious to most than the Qaballah. If we fail to fill this vacuum with meaning, sooner or later people will grasp for meaning in the only act that any longer has significance – their death.