In a famous interview about two years ago, a high White House official—my guess would be Karl Rove, but this has never been confirmed—told Ron Suskind that he, Suskind, belonged to “the reality-based community,” which habitually analyzed the day’s events carefully and judiciously to reach a reasonable conclusion. “But we’re an empire now,” the official said, “and we create our own reality.” Some months after that, I heard indirectly that Rove had told a reporter that the truth was what he said it was, and that if he could convince 51% of the American people he was right that was all that mattered. (When I reached the man who reportedly had heard Rove make this statement, however, he declined to confirm it.) Those of us hoping to keep the country on track would do well to keep those quotes in mind, in order to remember that our leadership is essentially running a propaganda operation rather than actually trying to govern. Some of the bitterest controversies of the last six years have involved its attempts to control reality. The leak of Valerie Plame’s name, I have been told authoritatively, was not designed to publish a former Ambassador, her husband, but rather to intimidate her Agency, the CIA, from leaking any more unpleasant truths that would reflect badly upon the White House. But what is more frightening is that, based upon what one reads and does not read in the news today, Rove was right.
This occurred to me again last week as I finished Peter Galbraith’s new book, The End of Iraq, which I mentioned last week. A long-time adviser to the Kurds, Galbraith has been deeply involved in the occupation of Iraq since it began, and he tells an astonishing story that has not gotten into the press. Paul Bremer’s coalition authority was largely staffed by young Republicans who had sent their resumes to the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, and they wrote a constitution without reference to Iraqi realities. (The Iraqis have successfully modified some of its provisions. The Americans insisted upon a supreme court with (surprise) nine members; the Iraqis eventually arranged for it to judge legislation according to Islam, and specified that experts on Islamic law—that is, clerics—would have to be included in it.) Bremer’s catastrophic decision to disband the army and exclude former Ba’athists from the government are well known (and Thomas Ricks’s new book, Fiasco, shows how American military authorities had been pursuing more realistic policies), but I did not know that he paradoxically insisted that Sunni ex-Ba’athists represent their religious brethren in the constitutional negotiations after the Sunni people refused to vote. This ended disastrously, since the Sunnis consistently resisted what the Kurds and Shi’ites wanted—the right to set up almost completely independent states. Because Bremer was up against President Bush’s mid-2004 deadline for handing over sovereignty, he had to give in on every point (another example of propaganda trumping the needs of policy.) The civil war in Iraq, Galbraith argues in effect, did not break out in 2003 or 2004 because of Al Zarqawi, but because Sunnis were determined to maintain their commanding position and Shi’ites were determined not to allow them to do so. The Shi’ites resent the Sunnis for decades of oppression, while the Sunnis regard the Shi’ites as non-Iraqi Iranian puppets. (There is some truth to that last convention, of course.) Just this past week, for the first time, the American press began reporting that Shi’ite leaders were discussing the formation of their own autonomous region. In another indication of where things are going, Prime Minister Maliki complained about an American raid on Moqtar Al-Sadr’s militia, widely blamed for mass executions of Sunnis. This is apparently one reality that the Administration will be forced to confront.
Buried earlier in the book, however, is a truly extraordinary fact. Galbraith describes a meeting in early 2002 between President Bush and three prominent Iraqis living in America, including Kanan Mikaya, the Brandeis academic who supported the invasion and contributed a great deal to another important book, George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate, which I reviewed here months ago. (I regret being unable to name the other two, but I had to return the book to the library.) According to two of the participants, Galbraith says, the three Iraqis had been discussing the tensions between Shi’ites and Sunnis when they suddenly realized that President Bush did not understand what the terms meant. They spent a good deal of the rest of the meeting telling him about divisions within Islam. Given the amount of discussion in American newspapers of those terms since the Iranian revolution of 1979, this story speaks volumes about the President’s general knowledge, and the ways in which those around him must have adapted to him while doing their own jobs. But I have seen only one reference to this interesting fact in the weeks since the book appeared—and that was in a Doonesbury strip by Gary Trudeau.
Ron Suskind has also discovered that the market for revelations about the Bush Administration has plummeted since he and Paul O’Neill wrote The Price of Loyalty in 2003. His new book, The One Per cent Doctrine, is an inside account of the development of the Bush Administration’s anti-terror policies. Buried within it is a story, which Suskind claims to have definitely confirmed, that the United States purposely bombed the Al-Jazeera office in Kabul during the Afghan war to “send a message.” That in turn correlates rather well with the bombing of the Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad as U.S. troops were entering the city, which killed a reporter, and with the Blair-Bush conversation in 2004 leaked in Britain (resulting in the invocation of the Official Secrets Act) in which President Bush reportedly suggested bombing the main Al-Jazeera headquarters in Dubai. No one, however, has paid any attention to those stories in the American press either.
There is every reason to believe, in short, that Rove and company may successfully keep control of reality within the United States for the next two and a half years, unless we suffer an unmistakable catastrophe. Reality, however, is threatening the position of the United States, if not the Administration itself, on several fronts. Recent statements from the American military leadership in Baghdad stress that violence among Iraqis will stop only if they want it to stop, which sounds like the first step towards washing our hands of the civil war that was the inevitable result of the invasion. The Army and Marine Corps simply cannot sustain their current force levels in Iraq much longer. More importantly, the utter fiasco of the Administration’s attempt to orchestrate the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” is obvious to the entire world. “We would like to return to the old Middle East,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has just remarked, “because we don’t see anything in the new Middle East apart from more problems.” Story after story reports that the Israel-Hezbollah conflict has marginalized moderates all over the Arab world. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin commented at the G-8 meeting that Russia was not going to participate in a Holy Alliance or Crusade, a remark which National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said he found puzzling. (That is one of the basic principles of Bush Administration foreign policy talk: use language that suggests no one but an evil terrorist could possibly have a disagreement with the United States.) But as a new poll shows that more than half of the American people (a substantial increase during the last year) believe that Saddam Hussein had WMD in 2002, one wonders whether foreign reality will, indeed, penetrate the curtain that has been drawn around the U.S.