Editor’s Page

Is Bush Mad – or just dumb?


In the previous issue of Southern Cross Review John Le Carré stated that the U.S. has gone mad, and listed reasons which seem to indicate that that is indeed the case:
-    an erosion of the admired American freedoms;
-    compliant U.S. media and corporate interests limit debate on the war on Iraq to the East Coast press;
-    Bin Laden made the war on Iraq – planned long before – possible by the attack on the Twin Towers of Manhattan;
-    This event put on the back burner the administration’s abrogation of international treaties and the international court;
-    Administration officials do not have to explain their connection to firms like Enron – and so on.

Le Carré’s thesis is that the American people have been hoodwinked into supporting a war that makes no sense and will have disastrous consequences.

Jimmy Carter objects more on the basis of morals, specifically Christian ones. He does not condemn war as such, but can only condone it as a last resort.

Amos Oz, an Israeli writer, also objects to the war, but for another reason. He fears (or knows) that extremist Islam nationalism can only be stopped by moderate Islam nationalism. And that war on Iraq will only inflame Arab extremists more than they already are.

Gaither Stewart explains why Europeans – governments and populations – are so opposed to their perceived U.S. hegemony.

If the world is so opposed to this unilateral action – though the Bush administration prefers to call it a “coalition” which, however, consists of the U.S., the U.K. and a few Australians – why did the United States go ahead with a war which threatens to alienate the rest of the world, weaken perhaps irreparably the United Nations and NATO, and give ideological nourishment to Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism?

Jane Addams, an American sociologist, said in 1894 on the occasion of a violent conflict between owners and labor, that antagonism (conflict) is always unnecessary because it never arises from real, objective differences, “but from a person’s mixing in his own personal reactions-the extra emphasis he gave the truth, the enjoyment he took in doing a thing because it was unpalatable to others, or the feeling that one must show his own colors.”

Addams invokes the image of King Lear to explain conflicts. Cordelia, after all, does love her father. And Lear doesn’t oppose her, he merely misinterprets her. And yet, tragedy occurred. “It is easy for the good (sic) and powerful to think that they can rise by following the dictates of conscience by pursuing their own ideal unconcerned with the consent of their fellow-men.”

Does this apply to George W. Bush and his cohorts? I think in a sense it does. In an interview with Bob Woodward, Bush admitted that he acts according to his instincts. If he does, then he must be convinced that these instincts (and instinctual acts preclude, to a large extent at least, thinking) must be correct. It’s fine when instinctive athletes such as Willie Mays and Diego Maradona always do the right thing without having to think, but a person with the fate of the world in his hands who acts instinctually is a very dangerous actor indeed, especially when these instincts are born of experience limited to parochial business interests and fundamentalist (so-called Christian) capitalism. And, like Lear, Bush goes about his instinctual business without listening to exterior warning voices. The voices he does hear are from his own interior and those of the people around him who are ideological clones. Perhaps the most important unheard, very exterior voice, is a book entitled In the Shade of the Qur’an. (More about this below.)

We tend to simplify the motives of the suicide bombers or, if we are honest with ourselves, admit that we do not understand them in the least. There is a great difference between the brainwashed teenage fanatics who walk into Israel cafés with explosives tied around their waists, and the people who took out the World Trade Center. These latter were educated men who learned to pilot 747s with sufficient expertise to hit their targets dead on. It is very hard for us to understand why men who had lived for years in Europe and the U.S. and had university educations could want to commit suicide and bring about the violent death of thousands of others while they were at it.

In the March 23, 2003, issue of the New York Times, Paul Berman, in a ten page article titled “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror”, introduces us to the Karl Marx, as it were, of Islamic Terrorism: Sayyid Qutb (pronounced KUH-tahb). His most important work, In the Shade of the Qur’an, is a 12 volume opus, partly translated into English and published in the 1970’s by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, an organization suspected of being involved in terrorist attacks. Another organization, the Islamic Foundation in England, is frantically working to bring out the rest.

Qutb is not shallow. Qutb is deep. In the Shade of the Qur’an is, in its fashion, a masterwork. Al Qaeda and its sister organizations are not merely popular, wealthy, global, well connected and institutionally sophisticated. These groups stand on a set of ideas too, and some of these ideas may be pathological, which is an old story in modern politics; yet even so, the ideas are powerful. We should have known that, of course. But we should have known many things.

Qutb, born in 1906 in Egypt, received a modern, secular education, which is reflected in his early writings. He even earned a masters degree at the Colorado State College of Education in the 1940’s. Back in Egypt in the 50’s he turned to radical fundamentalism, which meant turning Islam into a political movement to create a new society based on ancient Koranic principles. He soon established himself as Islamism’s principle theoretician in the Arab world. This movement dreams of resurrecting, in a modern version, the Islamic caliphate of the seventh century, when the Arabs were conquering the world. Qutb envisioned the caliphate as a theocracy, strictly enforcing shariah, the legal code of the Koran – the one we now have seen an example of as condemning that Nigerian woman to death by stoning for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, along with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, represents the violent wing of this philosophy, while Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party represents the most violent wing of the more secular Pan-Arabism.

Nassar of Egypt was also of the Pan-Arabism movement and feared the Muslim Brotherhood so much that he jailed Qutb for ten years - during which time Qutb wrote In the Shade of the Qur'an, which, according to Berman, “must surely count as one of the most remarkable works of prison literature ever produced” - and finally hanged him in 1966.   

In his book Qutb relates how humanity has lost touch with human nature and is therefore in an unbearable crisis. Sexual relations are deteriorating “to a level lower than beasts”, people are turning, in their unhappiness, to drugs, alcohol and existentialism. And what is the cause of this unhappiness, this split between man’s true nature and modern life? Western philosophers, especially Nietzsche, pointed to ancient Greece to explain this – where man put his faith in human reason instead of God. Qutb looks to Palestine. God gave man the Law through Moses. But Judaism degenerated into what Qutb called “a system of rigid and lifeless ritual”.

Jesus – a human prophet, not divine – tried to correct this and also introduce a new spirituality. The squabbles with the old-line Jews, however, made it impossible to realize his mission. His followers were persecuted, so were never able to give a reliable account of his message. Christianity introduced Greek philosophy into its religion and abandoned the Mosaic code, thereby opening the way for sin and wantonness. Furthermore, following Jesus’ dictum “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”, Christianity divided the spiritual from the physical, the political from the religious. For Qutb, this was a “hideous schizophrenia”.

As time went on, this schizophrenia was intensified to include science on one side and the church on the other. Everything Islam knew to be One, Christianity separated into Two. The European mind itself split asunder in a fateful divorce between the sacred and the secular. The sin of the United States is not that its founding principles have not been lived up to, but rather those principles themselves, especially the separation of church and state.

Perhaps we can understand just a little the terrible angst and fanatical feeling of necessity that could have motivated the suicidal assassins of September 11 and others of their ilk. Surely they knew well not only the Koran itself, but also Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of it. We may well wonder, however, to what extent the Western powers, especially the Bush and Blair administrations, are aware of the terrible spiritual power working in the souls of Arab religious nationalism; how this distortion of the spiritual can explode in acts of terror and can only be increased by attacking an Arab country, even one controlled by a vicious dictator like Saddam Hussein.

Enemy number one of the Muslim world, until now, has been Israel. The United States of America, with the war against Iraq, has moved into first place – but not only of the Muslim world. It seems now that the world at large sees the U.S. as its enemy. How things have changed!

Allow me to indulge in a personal note to illustrate this change. I was in the U.S. army in Germany in the late fifties, when Germany was still reconstructing and the Soviet bear was breathing down its neck. America, far from being the great Satan, was the great protector, not only respected, but loved. Fraternization, though frowned on officially, was the natural order of things. Soldiers were forgiven their ignorance of European reserve and manners, German-American Friendship Clubs abounded and were well attended by both nationalities. In Berlin, the city most exposed to the Soviet threat, American soldiers were invited into German homes at the slightest contact, and beer in the bars was consumed in great quantities along with vows of eternal friendship. In the early sixties, when I was no longer there, Jack Kennedy went to Berlin and said: Ich bin ein Berliner. He could have been elected Kaiser on the spot.

In Argentina, where I was living when Kennedy was assassinated, his death affected the Argentine people almost as much as the Americans. A line of people waiting to sign the condolence book in the United States consulate in downtown Buenos Aires was wrapped around the block for a whole week.   

I lived again in Germany as a civilian after Vietnam, and things had soured considerably. The Soviet threat was still there, and the American presence was therefore still necessary – but now considered to be more a necessary evil than a welcome alliance of friendship. Soldiers, though present, were hardly seen outside their ghettoes.

Since the advent of the Bush administration, and especially since the war against Iraq, admiration of the United States in most of Europe and Latin America (I only speak of my own experience) has turned to open contempt. Is this important? Do we care what others think of us? Many in the U.S. obviously couldn’t care less. (If you’re not with us, you’re against us.) I, however, think that it is very important, for it shows that something is wrong. The war against Iraq is perceived by the world as one motivated by arrogance and greed and perpetrated by a nation most defensive of its own security, but indifferent to the suffering of innocent, defenseless people who are the real victims of any war. This perception is not completely accurate, but it’s close enough.

Why didn’t the U.S. government wait for the United Nations weapons inspection process to run its course? Why not accept Canada’s alternate proposal to extend the time limit, but include an ultimatum? France said it would not accept any resolution that included an ultimatum, true, but that was valid only if no weapons of mass destruction were found. One suspects, then, that the U.S. feared just that, that none would be found because there were none. But even if none were found but Iraq could or would not account for the ones they once had, and a United Nations ultimatum might finally have been negotiated, it would mean the world united against the brutal Iraqi regime. Even Saddam Hussein could not have survived that. Bush said the other day that the war will last as long as it takes. The inspections could also have lasted as long as it takes.

What will happen if Iraq really does have biological or chemical weapons and, in a last destructive impulse of revenge, uses them against American and British troops in Iraq? Bush and Rumsfeld could clap and say: See, we told you so! And what would be their reaction? Revenge on revenge. Until now the bombing of Iraq has been selective, but the U.S. is perfectly capable of wiping it off the map and I fear that would happen. But it raises another question. If they are so sure that Iraq has these weapons, why do they expose their own troops to them?

The key to the whole question is, in my opinion, Palestine, as it has so often been in world history – the seat of all three religions directly involved. The Bush administration has ignored the Israel-Palestine conflict, has even supported Sharon’s misguided actions, perhaps because Bush and Sharon are birds of a feather. This lack of interest is criminal, because the United States is the only party with enough influence with Israel and Palestine (especially Israel, of course) to continue the arduous road to peace there, as initiated by Carter and continued by Clinton – now abandoned by Bush. I have doubts as to the wisdom of a Palestinian state, but one thing is certain. The Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory must go. Before that happens nothing can be accomplished. Israel says that Arafat must go. I agree, he is an untrustworthy survivor. But Sharon, then, must also go. This is wishful thinking, of course, and more so if we include Bush in the exodus.

It would be encouraging to see a courageous Secretary General of the United Nations instead of an over-cautious bureaucrat like Kofi Annan. But who wants a courageous SG, one who might tell the world what he thinks of the honorable members of the Security Council? Certainly not those members themselves, and they appoint the Secretary General.

Bush and Co. are neither mad nor stupid, nor are they evil. Despite their professed born-again Christianity, they are in an Old Testament time warp (the Koran, though of a much later date, is contemporary with the Old Testament), together with the Israeli and Arab leadership, in which an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the commandment that still prevails. The remaining eye, though, is blind, and lashes out in fury.