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Friday, January 03, 2003

Our Opinion

The Naked Emperor

As we embark upon this third annual cycle of the new millennial order, certain realities have become distressingly clear, and a number of truths are no longer deniable even by the most obsequious, amoral, or odious defenders of the imperial powers-that-be. As the question of peace and war in Iraq moves inexorably to its foregone conclusion – regarding which the United Nations and the humanitarian “international community” it purportedly represents are apparently transparent if baroque fig-leaves – the horrendous vista of a possibly more deadly military confrontation and exchange opens up on the Korean peninsula and stretches farther east, all the way to the Japanese archipelago. As we (brazenly ignored citizens) leafed through our morning newspapers across our (increasingly enfeebled) Republic in silent disbelief on this new year’s first day, we had to be forgiven for asking ourselves a pathetically obvious question: How did the “leader” (the word is used presumptively rather than literally) of the most powerful nation in history manage within a ridiculously, almost incomprehensibly, short span of roughly 23 months to put the planet at risk from the world’s last Stalinist regime, which, moreover, is not only unusually paranoid and unpredictable (and brutal and vicious), but also happens to have (at least a couple of) nuclear weapons at its disposal?

So much for empire. This must be what historians mean by the concept’s innate frailty and fragility, its flimsiness and vulnerabilities. Wasn’t it a mere three months ago that President Bush proclaimed ex cathedra, trumpets blaring and cymbals crashing and drums rolling, the ill-named (and, now it seems, ill-starred) “National Security Strategy of the United States” (actually, our international imperial design)? Wasn’t that the document in which grandiloquent reference was made to the “great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism end[ing] with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom…” as well as, more pregnantly (and, of course, self-importantly), to “Our priority…to disrupt and destroy” any “state sponsor of terrorism which attempts to gain or use weapons of mass destruction…or their precursors”? Indeed, didn’t the current avatar of Winston Churchill go on to warn in no uncertain terms that he would “defend…the United States, the American people and our interests at home [sic] and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders…[and] not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively”?

O tempora! O mores! On New Year’s Day, The New York Times published an op-ed article on the current American retreat in the face of North Korea’s threats; it was written by Leon Fuerth, national security advisor to former Vice President Gore (he of the paradoxically victorious yet lost election). Its lead sentence read: “We’re beginning the new year in a deep fix.” Quite.

If there were any honesty left in this nation’s political discourse, we would all agree that we’ve begun the new year disastrously – but not surprisingly. The Greek tragedians taught us a painfully long time ago (whether or not we have absorbed the instruction) that hubris does not merely or “simply” destroy individuals, but – this is actually the point – societies and nations. A tragedy in the making? Certainly a performance, and one in fact that began as farce, in what was portrayed at the time as Florida’s staging (in more ways than one) of the democratic franchise. Nobody ever said that democracy is easy, but – poor, benighted fools that we are – we occasionally expect it to be democratic.

As do others, in other lands. Yes, they actually exist – people who have opinions different from, even opposed to, those in the White House or the Pentagon or in Dick Cheney’s boardrooms – and they actually make demands on their elected representatives. An almost universal one nowadays seems to be resistance to the United States.

Item: On September 22, 2002, Gerhard Schroder eked out reelection as Germany’s chancellor. He did so by adopting an unprecedented (for a German chancellor) anti-American rhetoric; until doing so, his campaign had been badly trailing that of his conservative opponent.

Item: On December 19, 2002, Roh Moo-hyun, a distinguished human-rights attorney and critic of US policy won election as South Korea’s president on a wave of anti-American demonstrations and a platform that promised to continue outgoing president Kim Dae-jung’s rapprochement with the North. President-elect Roh’s conservative opponent unsuccessfully ran a campaign calling for a return to “traditional” ties with the United States and adherence to its policies on Korea. (It is noteworthy that while Mr. Roh is critical of the United States, one of his heroes is Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the party that is now defined by politicians by the name of Gramm, Thurmond, and Lott.)

Item: Luiz Inacio da Silva, universally known as Lula, was sworn in as Brazil’s president two days ago, following his landslide victory on October 27, 2002. Lula won over 60 percent of the vote in a historic election in which his margin of victory was 19 million votes – almost twice the population of Greece! (Our own president, of course, received a little over half a million votes less than the “loser” in our last “election.”) In his inaugural address, Lula – fifth-grade dropout, former peanut vendor, former shoeshine boy, former metal worker and victim of an industrial accident, former union organizer, co-founder of the radical Workers Party, friend and comrade of Fidel Castro, committed opponent of what is known south of the Rio Grande as “the Washington consensus,” and now leader of the largest nation in Latin America – declared: “I am not the result of one election, I am the result of a history.”

We don’t think we need to dwell on how deeply enmeshed – actually, the word is implicated – the United States is in that history, or in the history of so many other nations in the world. So, elections in three different countries on three different continents within four months reward leaders who are manifestly critical of the US despite – and this is the unkindest cut of all – each nation’s heretofore famous, conspicuous, and steadfast alliance with our country. As Arlo Guthrie once put it, apropos of a different kind of dissent in a different period, “it’s a movement.”

But does anyone care? From all appearances, not inside the Beltway. Although virtually every other country sent representatives of stature and substance – from Spain’s crown prince to South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki – to Lula’s inauguration, we sent…Robert Zoellick. The man who recently threatened Brazil (acting on orders from on high) with what amounted to an embargo for having the temerity to elect Lula as its president (and was referred to by Lula himself as “the subsecretary of a subsecretary of a subsecretary”) is the US trade representative. The Brazilians, of course, took the US snub with exemplary equanimity (and wisdom). “…Never mind,” Jose Genoimo, president of the Workers Party, was quoted by the Times as remarking, “that’s how the Americans are.”

The rest of the world evidently knows us better than we know ourselves. One head of state who was present at Lula’s inauguration was a man who understands well what it means to be embargoed by the United States, and whose nation is officially part of our president’s evil axis. “I wished on January 1st what could be wished to our beloved brother,” Fidel Castro said of the incoming president of Brazil, “Cuba loves Lula very much and feels very happy.”

It is salutary to remember that Lula won his crushing victory only after his fourth attempt. It is not easy, after all, to convince a democracy to vote for radical change – but it is possible, and requires great patience. Last month, the man who won our last presidential election announced that he would not contest Mr. Bush again in 2004. It needs to be said that anyone who was so flagrantly denied his country’s highest elective office would not have made that decision in any other democratic nation in the world; indeed, the thought is inconceivable. In every other democratic nation in the world, in fact, Al Gore – and his party – would be gearing up for the political rematch of their lives. But this is America.

So, what does the new year hold in store? The cruelest response would be more of the same, but it is the only one we can honestly come up with. As for the putative empire and its emperor, the former might be a sum of incoherencies, and the latter utterly, and indecently, shorn of all his glittering raiment – although, in his self-delusion, he sees himself as fabulously attired – but that’s the funny thing about empires, they never, ever, transform themselves, let alone reform; invariably, they collapse. We still have some time left, of course, but, as each new year sorely reminds us, the clock never stops ticking.

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