Weapons of mass hysteria

Bush, The Second Iraq War, and the Attention Economy

Wars have always been a part of human experience, we are repeatedly told. Actually, what we call war, namely a military struggle for the control of land territory, is an outgrowth of the rise of agriculture and early industry. Land is valuable for growing crops or extracting resources. For those in most advanced societies who have abandoned a primary dependence on these kinds of activities, those reasons for war no longer make sense. Today, wars in general, and the second Iraq war in particular have primary value as a means for their instigators of focussing and attracting attention.

For Bush et al, the attention of those in the countries around Iraq mattered somewhat, but that of those at home in the US mattered far more. Some of us looked on in excitement -as if watching a sporting event – or in relief in the attack on a tyrant supposedly dangerous to the US. Others, including me, watched in deepening depression that the war had begun contrary to established international law and principle and despite every effort to oppose it. We were sick not only with the needless killing and destruction, but for fear of the power that George W. Bush would gain from it, a fear in itself quite useful to Bush. Our greatest fear perhaps is that this war will be followed by many sequels for the same ends.

Saddam has surely been a vicious, vainglorious tyrant, ruling, like all tyrants, by fear. Among his other misdeeds he plunged his subjects twice before into deadly wars they had no chance of winning. In this instance he could probably have avoided the invasion by bowing to the inevitable and ceding office sooner. Bush on the other hand, though not exactly a tyrant, used the vast forces at his disposal to fight an un-called for war in order to give himself a chance to retain and use power at home, so as to advance his anti-egalitarian policies with less resistance -and to win re election.

The central and paradoxical point about the Bush administration is that it has perfected using attention-economic techniques to help the old economy leaders who are its allies retain power and usable wealth as long as possible. This incoherence means the administration is poised on a knife edge, and to continue to stay upright it has little option but to fling about dangerously and dishonestly.

When he can, Bush – both like Saddam and different – also doesn’t hesitate to rule significantly by fear, justifying his wars through thinly veiled appeals to both the terror and the desire for revenge engendered by the al Qaeda attack of September 11, 2001. Meanwhile the Democratic Party opposition is too cowed by his political success and his high poll numbers, got by emphasizing war, to stand very much in his way.

Having only recently lost a fifty-year grip on Congressional domination, facing the fact that as the country heads towards a population of 300 million so that the representatives keep getting further from those they represent, facing a generation that doesn’t understand in any positive way what community and government do for them, being part of a system that increasingly favors the rural few over the urban many (due to the way state borders are defined), in a time of growing selfishness in which the cultivation of a flip unreflective attitude is combined with a macho moral superiority for those who happen to do well, Democratic politicians have reacted, at best with a kind of bemusement, looking to media-savvy consultants to tell them how to act, which usually comes down to being pale imitations of Republicans.

Further, in their years in Congressional power, many Democrats became implicitly corrupt, as they still are, eager to please their large corporate contributors, who can buy them the TV ads they need to or think they need to retain enough attention to win elections. The Republicans are quick to label them "tax-and-spend liberals" or in favor of "big government" if the occasion arises, to accuse them of being "soft on defense" (it used to be "soft on Communism)" to assert they are "anti business" (and therefore against jobs) or in favor of "class warfare" as soon as they note that the Bush tax cuts favor the corporations or the rich. Rather than combatting these idiocies by pointing out the need to take into account the common good, the need for internationalism, the need to fight against global warming, or the case against excessive criminal penalties including death, the consultants mostly seem to tell the Democrats to sound less controversial. As a result the more assertive Republicans most often get what they want – except when it borders on the truly outrageous, as it increasingly does.In this context, Bush’s war-on-terrorism talk adds a further whip with which to subdue the Democrats.

The Democrats’ fears, however, are not entirely of political loss: the US Capitol, where Congress sits was apparently the target of the hijacked plane that was forced down by its passengers; Congress members in this vast land are mostly forced to be frequent flyers heading back and forth between their home districts and Washington; and Democratic Senators were the specific targets of the still-unsolved anthrax attacks that came close on the heels of September 11 (but almost certainly had a domestic source). All this left them quite frightened of terrorism and very vulnerable to arguments about "weapons of mass destruction" in the hands of Saddam Hussein or others, regardless of the actual threat Saddam might have posed.

But neither Saddam nor Bush ruled (or rule) solely by fear. Saddam, like a caricature of the typical tyrant, put up statues and portraits of himself everywhere throughout his domain, so that he would attain a sort of godlike status in the eyes of the citizenry who saw him always, everywhere. (In so doing, he not only violated an important tenet of Islam – the total ban on portraits of human beings – but made clear the great value of that ban) George W. Bush doesn’t have to rely on static portraits of himself. He is always before at least American eyes because his staff is so good at manipulating the media, a manipulation in which media stars such as the hundreds of White House reporters are quite willing co-conspirators. Every time Bush gets seen and heard, so, at least briefly, do they. Bush’s handlers have perfected the art of having him speak (usually without taking questions) before audiences he can be sure of impressing with his folksy, almost boobish delivery, leading to frequent applause that is then broadcast to add to the attention paid to Bush and his message. Saddam’s handlers, though they did some of the same, evidently were much less imaginative in this regard.

Also like Saddam – at least between 1991 and his downfall – Bush makes endless references to God and religion. However much each may mean it (or have meant it) the fact is it is (or was) intended to secure the support of the large religious bloc in either country, and it probably worked somewhat that way for both.

The parallels probably extend further – to war itself. Patriotism remains the last refuge of a scoundrel – or is it, as Ambrose Bierce suggested, the first? A scoundrel trying to unite the populace behind him can make himself look patriotic if he claims he is defending the nation or the national honor with war. That certainly helps account for Saddam’s three disastrous wars, and reminds us of his constant effort to portray himself as the new Saladin, who would once again drive the Western, European conquerors out of the heart of Islam and Arab lands.

Relatively early in his dubiously obtained term of office, Bush’s popularity was weakening, when al Qaeda fortuitously handed him the opportunity to "do something" for us by staging a war – or several. While any US President has only modest powers of persuasion at best for domestic matters, he has at his disposal what by now is overwhelmingly the best-armed and best prepared (at least for fighting) military in the world, a military which however had grown rather cautious about actually engaging in combat.

Weapons of Mass Hysteria

It still remains unclear just what al Qaeda hoped to achieve by its unexpected and unparalleled attack on the World Trade Center. But like all terrorist groups it presumably hoped to increase the effectiveness of its actual attack by use of the media , especially television, to strike fear into the hearts of the target – in this case American – public. To the degree that air travel declined ever since, and that the American economy has probably stumbled even more than it otherwise would have, al Qaeda did succeed in getting attention in a way probably useful for its own goals.

But the event was also a wonderful attention-getter for the American news media, in effect a "godsend" for journalists, and they lost very little time in taking advantage of the opportunity. Within 24 hours television channels had come up with titles for the ongoing "show" such as "Attack on America" or "America’s New War," thus not only helping to maximize every American’s identification with the victims but at the same time setting the stage for much further attention to the same media and most of the same reporters as the "war" they had declared continued to unfold. A quite different outcome might have resulted had the label merely been the accurate "mass murder in lower Manhattan."

Many outside the media also took advantage of the event to strengthen their own chances for attention. Prior to the attack, some intellectuals tied in one way or another to the American "defense" establishment had posited a "clash of civilizations," between Islam and the West. Others had prepared scary reports of the danger to the United States of terrorist attacks utilizing "weapons of mass destruction," though the Arab terrorists of September 11, like all previous terrorists anywhere in the world, used nothing of the sort (except perhaps for one attack in Japan by its homegrown group, Aum Shinrikyo).

"Weapons of mass destruction" is a code name for what used to be called "ABC weapons": atomic, biological, and chemical respectively. But the danger is not necessarily very large that terrorists, even if they had access to chemical or biological weapons, could launch an attack on a technologically advanced country such as the US that would not end up causing much more devastation to parts of the world the terrorists presumably favor. For instance, should terrorists try to spread smallpox in the U.S., it is quite likely that an effective public health response could be instituted here, but whatever epidemic were started here would spread with far less control to a country like Pakistan or Egypt, which lack the resources to contain it. As far as chemicals go, deadly chemicals are in daily use in large quantities in many places in the US, and terrorists would likely have a much easier time sabotaging such processes than they would synthesizing, importing and somehow spreading chemical agents such as nerve gas.

Nuclear (that is atomic) weapons, if snuck into the country in one of the many thousands of shipping containers that arrive daily in many ports would be a real danger. Still, terrorists would have to acquire such a weapon directly or indirectly from some state that had manufactured it, and there are many reasons for both sides in such a transaction to be very wary of the deal. No government could be sure that the terrorists would not use the weapon on it, or that so-called terrorists are not actually its enemies in disguise. Terrorists would hardly be able to test the merchandise. They would have no way of aring themselves the thing actually was a bomb, and they would further have to rely on the accuracy of the triggering codes provided them. (These codes exist to prevent unauthorized or accidental use.) Without the correct codes, the thing wouldn’t go off, and whoever found it could probably trace where it had originated, likely leading to serious reprisals. Even if a terrorist’s acquired bomb did explode and cause widespread death and panic, it’s quite possible that the exact configuration of isotopes released would point to the country of origin, who could then be coerced to reveal who had bought it, as well as being at risk for reprisal attacks. (Indeed the very threat of making and selling nuclear weapons to terrorists may be a much better terror weapon in practice than the actual bombs in the hands of stateless terrorists themselves, as North Korea may be proving.)

In other words, "weapons of mass destruction" are not particularly suitable terrorist weapons. However, worrying about them increases the respectability of defense intellectuals, and provides a handy excuse for attacking countries like Iraq. Without claims about such weapons, how would Bush and company have hoped to persuade both the US Congress and the UN that an attack was justified? In the end the UN failed to take the claim seriously with the speed Bush expected, but it did help give a very thin veneer of respectability for a war quite shaky on other grounds. In the end, it wasn’t required that Iraq be shown actually to possess such weapons at the time the war started; all that the US had to do was assert our intelligence agencies were sure they were there. As I write this, it’s still not clear if that was more than a blatant lie. But who can now believe that was the true target of the war anyway? All of a sudden, after these weapons were not immediately found on the war’s conclusion, the Bush administration floated the story that it has known all along that for the last ten years Iraq had been hiding its weapons of mass destruction in its not entirely friendly neighbor Syria.

A War to Play to Ourselves

Meanwhile, using a series of pretexts developed well before the 2001 attack, the Bush government had announced a doctrine that pre-emptive war would now be justified; a country may be attacked to keep it from getting into a position to attack us. This doctrine has a long history: In the 1940’s, none other than the philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell called for pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union to prevent it from having the opportunity to develop nuclear weapons, and thus preventing nuclear war from ever occurring; he was largely ignored though. The new Bush doctrine, on the contrary, is characteristically focused entirely on maintaining US hegemony forever.

But even if Iraq under Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, how was it supposed to attack the US with them?? If it couldn’t do that, why would pre-emption be needed?? The main justification that Iraq had that ability – presumably essential even under this new doctrine of pre emption – was the link to al Qaeda, a link for which only the wispiest and most suspect evidence could be offered. President Bush resorted to mentioning Iraq and September 11 together, yet without much bothering to claim that he knew of any link. Even after the war, still without any evidence, he repeats the claim that he has defeated an "ally of al Qaeda." A large part of the American public, upwards of 40%, apparently accepted before the invasion that there was such a link. Without that belief, advance public support for the war would have been far too small to make it possible. Thus Bush, an incurious and ignorant man by all accounts, though one who has called for a revamping of the US educational system, was relying on the still more vast ignorance about other countries and their viewpoints that has strangely and tragically become the hallmark of this "nation of immigrants."

America is a very large country. Through Hollywood, Silicon Valley, New York and other media centers, it draws in attention from the rest of the world, and for that very reason we ourselves overwhelmingly pay attention only to other Americans. We are a country with only two real neighbors, one of which, Canada is superficially much like us but much smaller in population – not at all a danger and not even of much interest; while the other, Mexico, is so different and so poor as to be easy to stereotype and ignore. The rest of the world, for many of us, is just a blur, little thought of and little understood, easily lumped into interchangeable units, hard to tell apart. Few of us watch foreign movies or television, or read the foreign press or foreign books, except sometimes British ones, even in translation. Most American college students, just before the war, after months of debate and talk, couldn’t identify Iraq on a map, probably couldn’t say how, if at all, it differed from Persian Iran, still less would know how Arabs might differ among themselves.

From that point of view, 9-11, as we call it, was not only frightening but represented a rude intrusion into our self-absorption as a nation, forcing us, against our will to think of the rest of the world. It was quite out of the question that we would seriously seek to understand the terrorists’ deeper reasons, if any. Clearly, something had to be done so that we once again could safely focus inward. Given that for no apparent reason we had spent trillions of dollars on our military since the end of the Cold War, a military response seemed utterly obvious. As long as war would not be too costly in money or American lives, a war vaguely against terrorism was expected. The Afghanistan had been successful in its way, but by now it has largely vanished from the public mind. If we were to be convinced that Bush was "doing something" for us, nothing was easier or more likely to be successful than another slightly larger war.

Of course, opposition to the latest was also amazingly high, especially considering how little notice the media gave it. Not all the opponents were much better informed than the war supporters; some were just against war in general, some were afraid of the costs in American lives and dollars, or generally distrusted Bush. But it seems safe to say that most of those Americans who knew more about the rest of the world were more opposed than those who didn’t.

The Pentagon cleverly arranged the war to be good television for an American audience, with very little reason to challenge parochialism, or to see the war from the viewpoint of the Other. "Embedded" reporters with American troops were supplemented by mini-biographies of each American casualty or prisoner of war, with the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from prisoner-of-war status easily the second largest story of the war, right after the fall of Baghdad. Daily briefings by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and others, further focussed American media on domestic pro Administration interpretations of the story.

The war also unfolded a little like a video game, with impressive high tech weapons integrated into an overall structure that made it almost impossible for the technologically much less advanced forces loyal to Saddam to function, and our media lovingly examined these whiz-bang details.

Before the war, Rumsfeld and others promised we would see Iraqis dancing in the streets because we were liberating them. (Originally, the story goes the war was to be entitled – yes, all American wars now need titles – "operation Iraqi Liberation" – but then it was realized the initials spell OIL, which is what many opponents suspect the war is really about, so it was changed to Operation Iraqi Freedom.) When the dancing in the streets wasn’t seen right away, there was some worry, but then, when Baghdad suddenly fell,there was one incident of young, soccer-hooligan-aged men, jumping up and down with cheers. What exactly were they cheering? The end of Saddam Hussein? The end of the bombing? The chance to be on TV? Via the media we have no way to know. After all, large crowds on both sides cheered at the start of the First World War in 1914. Large Austrian crowds cheered German troops under Hitler entering in 1937, "liberating" them from their own lesser dictator.

But Rumsfeld was quick to label the brief scenes of Iraqi cheering and the pulling down of one large Saddam statue with the aid of US Marines as the equivalent of the destruction by peaceful crowds of the Berlin wall in 1989, or the Rumanians’ overthrow of their own terrible Ceaucescu, though outside invaders were not needed for either. Only much time will tell whether the average Iraqi ends up grateful for our invasion, not to mention the reaction of its neighbors. Long before that can be known, American attention will have turned to somewhere or something else. (Within a week of the fall of Baghdad, the biggest story in the American media was that of the discovery of the corpses of a pregnant woman and her fetus who had been missing since Christmas Eve, apparently murdered by a philandering husband. Evidently this is of far greater human interest than the fate of 25 million Iraqis, newly in our power)

A World Again Made Safe for War?

In the Viet-Nam war millions of young American men were drafted and others were afraid they would be; quite a few were jailed rather than fight. That war dragged on for over ten years with two million deaths, including over 57,000 American ones. Importantly the US has never engaged in any sort of official soul-searching or trials of those responsible for the extended killing of innocents. Everyone under 45 is now too young to be able to remember first hand the debate that did go on during the conflict.

Together the Afghanistan and the Iraq actions have largely wiped clean the slate of American memory of the Viet-Nam debacle. Now we no longer have the draft. America is such a large country that only one in a thousand of us were sent to the Iraq area for fighting the latest war. Given the huge size of our military budget even in "peacetime," the added cost of fighting in Iraq was not very great.

The real "victory" of the war may be that now more than ever war is a good show for the US, with our military deaths kept so low as hardly to be a distraction.It now may seem that any President who can galvanize fear or even just wants a diversion from serious domestic problems can calmly contemplate planning and launching a new Iraq-like war on any suitable enemy We are told that what happened in Iraq gives us a true taste of "twenty-first century warfare" as further indication our military can now be expected to fight many more such wars.

But where will these further wars be fought? And why? And to what effect? In point of fact, few countries have the combination of foolish, brutal, universally disliked leader, a suitable size of population, ideal weather and terrain for quick attack along with effective isolation from neighbors it might counterattack (such as North Korea’s thousands of artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, the capital of South Korea). Few have Iraq’s oil resources or anything similar that would hold forth the promise that the country attacked would easily face a better future under U.S suzerainty.

Few countries can even with slight plausibility be connected with al Qaeda. Pakistan, for instance, is clearly connected with al Qaeda, but its government has already become a U.S ally of convenience in the "war on terrorism." Its population is anyway too large for the US to contemplate occupying it even for a short period, no matter how good our weapons. In any case, the very fact that we chose to attack a country that had little to do with al Qaeda underscores the fact that there is nothing much our military can or need do at this point to defeat al Qaeda. Like other terrorists they are more a police problem than a military one, and as I have said, they were weak to begin with and are weaker still now.

Countries smaller than Iraq, such as Syria, will probably now feel constrained to meet U.S. demands well enough to forestall a similar attack. Such threats will work less well against a truly popular regime anywhere, regardless, say, of how militantly Islamic it might be, or how it might offend the U.S. in other ways. Iran, perhaps ideally the next prime target for Bush, since he has already labelled it part of his invented "Axis of Evil," is too populous and geographically and politically complex to be a viable target, though again military threats might have some effect.

Since Iran, like North Korea, may be developing the only genuine weapons of mass destruction, nuclear bombs, it is worth considering what the effect of being a new entrant in the nuclear club is likely to be. During the Cold War, the Soviets provided this kind of shield for their allies; now it would seem that anyone who can be made out to be an enemy of the US better develop some of their own, in effect as a kind of identification badge to hold up to forestall a US invasion. But, as always with nuclear weapons, the ie of "credibility" arises.

If the US were to attack either North Korea or Iran, neither could attack back directly, though each more credibly might attack neighbors of theirs that are US allies: South Korea or Japan for North Korea; Turkey or Israel for Iran. They would then face nuclear reprisal at least from the US. Still, even credibly claiming to have nuclear weapons is likely to get a country enough attention that even a Bush would be much more loathe to invade it. Tens of thousands of people killed even in some third country as a direct result of an invasion undertaken for dubious reasons would be terrible publicity even for him.

Then too, the speed and ease of the Iraq war now becomes a standard that any subsequent war, to have the same effect, would probably have to surpass or seem a failure at least in winning popularity for a President who orders it. Very few countries would really be usable targets for yet another lightning war. In fact, I can only think of one that might fit. That is one of the few remaining Marxist holdouts – Cuba.

Cuba has nothing to do with al Qaeda, of course – aside from the fact that without Cuban permission the US continues to hold the eastern tip of the island and uses the base, Guantanamo Bay, to imprison al Qaeda and Taliban suspects, probably against international law. The Bush administration is full of extreme anti-Castro connections, though. John Bolton, a high State Department official, has already floated the odd idea that Castro is developing biological weapons. Fidel Castro himself is sufficiently nervous about the prospect of being the next target that he recently gave a speech emphasizing how he is unlike Saddam. One has to doubt that Bush would be much concerned with those differences.

But Cuba is much better known to Americans than Iraq, even after 40 years of a trade and tourism embargo. Anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida were crucial in putting Bush in power; if they were to return to Cuba following a US invasion, that might not be good for a president who ordered it. Latin America as a whole also has some presence in our attention, and they would strongly condemn any US attack. Inattentive as the US is to the rest of the world, we are still tied in complex fashion to almost everywhere else, and so there are few targets as convenient as the two we have already hit.

With its spectacular new toys, the Pentagon and Rumsfeld in particular probably have ared themselves higher budgets than their already huge ones for the next few years. But all the new high-tech weaponry and clever new strategies can’t overcome the fact that very few wars can play right in a world shrinking every day. Endless supplies of ever-newer high tech weapons just make no sense. They are merely video games in the wrong medium.. The giant budgets are twentieth-century remnants rather than a harbinger of things to come.

Bush’s Future

Bush has shown he can use the military to grab headlines from terrorists. He has made the terrorist threat look puny, as it actually is, despite how horrifying it appeared on September 11. That attack was far, far more searing than anything al Qaeda had accomplished before (or since) or than they could reasonably have expected. It took advantage of an utterly unprepared US, and , even so, went only partially according to plan. Though future attacks are not impossible, now that our general guard is up – even much too high – they will be much, much harder to carry off on the same scale. No terrorist group intent on making a mark for itself in the American consciousness will be able to do so with any sizable foreign base for its activities. Even though much has been written about it as the future of warfare, terrorism, too, is more a form from the past than the future.

By now, having grabbed attention by his wars, Bush cannot logically keep it by continuing to use fear of terrorism to justify our overlooking his domestic short-comings – though he clearly intends to. He has already relabeled the Iraq war as just a battle in an ongoing, larger War on Terrorism. He is planning to accept re-nomination in New York, perhaps at the site of the attack, just days before the third anniversary of September 11. But he is in a bind; if before the next election there is another successful large-scale terrorist attack somewhere in the US, it will be his fault that his "Homeland Security" efforts didn’t forestall it, but if there isn’t one our willingness to feel ourselves at war with terrorism forever will inevitably fade.

Had it not been for September 11, Bush and his cohort would most likely have reached a very low level of popularity by now, caught up in a wave of corporate scandals that would have almost certainly have included his Vice President. The support for old wealth and older forms of capital, such as agriculture, oil, metals and railroads, which this clique chiefly represents, would have been seen to be reactionary and just plain stupid. The ideas of ever-booming industrially driven, market-based capitalism that they managed to latch onto would have come under increasing question.

The boom of the nineties that supposedly resulted from capitalism set free, turns out in retrospect to have been even more than we knew then a manifestation of attention economics. Material and monetary wealth went to those who were able to get and hold attention even when they held it by merely pretending capitalist success. Companies like Enron, which owed its growth to nothing so much as cleverly disguised fraudulent accounting, have turned out to be far more numerous than was once supposed; their leaders were less capitalists than stars convincingly play-acting parts that happened to entail claims of profits. The dot-com bubble was only a particularly visible manifestation of the connection between attention-getting and money, then in the form of investments pouring in.

The Internet boom in fact hastened the moment that it will become apparent that wealth in the form of attention is far more potent than wealth in more material forms. If the old kind of wealth is to survive any longer, it has to remove as many restraints to itself as it can, and that is the basic purpose of the younger Bush and company, even more visibly and blatantly than it was of his father. This move, if it is to be managed at all, can only be accomplished through use of the tools of attention getting raised to the utmost pitch and focused on its agenda while using whatever wiles it is capable of to disguise its purposes. One of its ends was to restore the discipline and tension of the Cold War, since that justified spreading American might and backing American control of mineral resources throughout the world. That would allow using patriotism, for example to counter environmental restraints more suitable for an attention economy. Thus the Bush administration started out pushing suspicion against countries like North Korea, while opposing the restraining hand of international agreements wherever possible. Only September 11 provided an opportunity to make the whole program go forward.

The sheer self-interest of journalists eager to gain attention by reporting on a war, made it easy for Bush and company to focus the American media largely in support of the Iraq war. One thing they didn’t count on is that out of nowhere – largely via the Internet – an international opposition was able to organize its own informal centers of attention into a world-wide anti-war movement impossible to ignore. That movement has been partly silenced by the war itself, by the spectacle of the high-tech military machine, and by the temporary awe that goes to a clear winner. Nonetheless, having just become aware of itself and having only a faint outline of its own potential, it might yet solidify into a real base of opposition – a borderless movement in favor of policies that make more sense in the attention era. To achieve that, however, will require a clearer understanding of what those policies might be and how they can be effected.

I plan to turn to these questions in a future article. They must be tied with a fuller reassessment of how current politics tends to be conducted, a world of sensationalism, ridicule and its avoidance, endless – often dangerously macho – posturing, oversimple moralizing, and pretense. In the US in particular that will entail, among other steps seriously reforming a system of representation designed nearly 220 years ago and now seriously anachronistic, unfair, unresponsive and unwieldy.