SINCE 1759

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… and now on the contrary there was no one to ask him for anything, no one to say to him at least good morning general sir, did you have a good night, he didn’t even have the consolation of those nocturnal explosions that woke him up with a hail of broken glass and blew the doors off their hinges and sowed panic among the troops but which at least let him feel he was alive and not in this silence that buzzes inside my head and wakes me up with its noise, all I am now is a fright painted on the wall of this horror show where it was impossible for him to give an order that wasn’t carried out long before…

—From Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch.

And the turkey this time?

Baghdad Drop-Kick
The President in His Labyrinth

It’s one of the many hallmarks of totalitarian leadership that it seeks out secrecy the way a roach seeks out the dark. It feeds on its own deceptions in the shadows of people’s ignorance to accumulate the kind of power that has nothing more than itself as the measure of its worth. We don’t have a totalitarian regime in the United States. At least not yet (the potential is always there when, as in the Balkans, nationalism and religion speak louder than law). But we do have a president who submits freely and increasingly to the totalitarian temptation. His regime could not function without secrecy. His war on terror, his spying manias, his secret prisons, his not-so-secret but no less abject prisons in Cuba, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, the corrosion at the heart of their purpose would all be laid bare if a small amount of sunshine was shone on their workings. There is nothing to justify them all but the word of the president. There is nothing to certify the president’s word but a long line of lies, slithers and fabrications that themselves now need protection from being found out. The secrecy, you see, is the veil that allows our Oz of a patriarch to keep up the illusion both of leadership and of the self-fulfilling necessity of the edicts and felonies he’s accrued in his nearly six years at the controls.

Sometimes the secrecy bites its own rear, and sometimes the bite is a colonoscopy of the vacuum at the secrecy’s core. That’s what Bush’s latest drop-kick into Baghad was. The trip was designed to lend support to the new Iraqi prime minister. But how do you lend support to another country’s leader when you, the alleged leader of the free world, have to hide from your own cabinet along the way? Bush only told his junta about the trip—Dick Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld. Pool reporters permitted to go along were sworn to secrecy, forced not to tell their spouses and forced to turn over all communication devices when they reported for the trip. The Iraqi prime minister himself was not told. Talk about mistrust. The reason, of course, is that it would have endangered the president to give any sort of notice to the bombers over there. Fair enough. But the reason also unravels the president’s pretensions about Iraq: If the place is so dangerous that the most powerful man on earth needs to travel it incognito, and through secretive measures extending all the way to the inner circles of his own government, something is wrong not only in Iraq, but in his own government: The mistrust with which he’s inspired a nation (and six years of policies) is circling back to himself. He has become the paranoid supreme, another tell-tale of the totalitarian psyche.

The trip was revealing in another regard: The Unites States is done fomenting democracy. It’s back to backing strongmen. Missed in all the celebrations of a new, functional government is the way in which that government has announced it will operate, the iron fist it has said it will use, the neo-Saddamite tactics it has been using, and the unrestricted support it is getting to that end from the Bush administration, which has figured out that if repressive violence is the way to restore the semblance of peace in Iraq—where Iraqis are beginning to long for the more peaceful if repressive days of the Saddamite regime—then so be it. At least American troops won’t be tagged for the massacres, and Iraqi troops can always wear different costumes from the wardrobe department to do the necessary killings as American troops couldn’t: the boys from Brooklyn and West Virginia and Idaho cab only fake Arabic so far, and usually only just enough to call attention to a “hajji” on whose head they like to smash Coke bottles.

Bush’s presidency has been a labyrinth of braggart policies, hubristic wars at several nations’ expense (the United States among them of course) and, when all fails, at it inevitably has, evasions, and leaving others holding the bag. Bush’s Iraq trip was one such hand-off: Your problem Mr. Prime Minister, our ticket out of here. Use all the power you wants as secretly as you want (“works for me,” Bush must’ve told the minister). Just leave us out of it. We have elections to win, power to preserve, fresh deceptions to nurture. We’re done: In short, we laid waste to Iraq and called it peace. Or at least called it a day.

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