Madison’s warning, delivered during the early years of the American Republic in a congressional debate over presidential powers, has been vindicated many times since then. For reasons that the fourth president could not possibly have foreseen, his observation may be even more urgent now. And when he further observed that war empowers the nation’s chief executive with “all the means of seducing the minds . . . of the people,” he seemed to anticipate how a modern president might be tempted to exploit a state of “continual warfare”—such as an indefinitely extended “war on terror,” also known as “the long war”—to secure political domination.
In American history, authoritarian excess has often accompanied war (or the fear of war), from the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by Madison’s political opponents to Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of habeas corpus; from the Red Scare of World War I to the internment of Japanese in World War II; from Joseph McCarthy’s depredations at the beginning of the cold war to Richard Nixon’s abuses during the war in Vietnam.
Those wartime encroachments eventually receded, owing to the end of hostilities or the vitality of democratic resistance. But what would happen in a nation beset by continual warfare? How will liberty and democracy survive what the Pentagon and the president predict will be decades of a long war against terror?
In literature, too, war has been depicted as the precondition for dictatorship. Two of the twentieth century’s most celebrated authors imagined totalitarian societies in which permanent warfare could become the most effective instrument of control. In their very different novels about societies without freedom, Sinclair Lewis and George Orwell portrayed politicians who misled their countries into aggressive military conflict for ulterior motives. The central fact of life in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a perpetual and perplexing battle among three superstates, which may or may not be waged largely for the sake of brainwashing and subduing their own peoples. The action takes place in London, and Orwell’s masterpiece is not only a denunciation of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism, but a warning about what all modern societies were in danger of becoming.
More than a decade earlier, Lewis satirically depicted the exploitation of the same bloody means to achieve a nefarious end in It Can’t Happen Here—a story set in the United States. He imagined an elected dictatorship fabricating bogus provocations that would allow America to wage a preemptive war against Mexico. The author of this plan is a presidential adviser who bears a startling resemblance to a certain contemporary figure in attitude, influence, and proximity to the president. It is this crafty, ruthless adviser, Lee Sarason, the creator of President Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who first articulates how and why war will prove indispensable to the new regime.
Holding forth in a cabinet meeting, Sarason “demanded that, in order to bring and hold all elements in the country together by that useful Patriotism which always appears upon threat of an outside attack, the government immediately arrange to be insulted and menaced in a well-planned series of deplorable ‘incidents’ on the Mexican border, and declare war on Mexico as soon as America showed that it was getting hot and patriotic enough.”
Sarason’s scheme elicits an enthusiastic response from Hector Macgoblin, the secretary of education and public relations, a burly boxing fan and nationalistic bully with multiple doctoral degrees (a character who could have been based on radio blowhard William Bennett, the former drug czar and education secretary). He points out that in the past “governments had merely let themselves slide into war,” but that “in this age of deliberate, planned propaganda, a really modern government . . . must figure out what brand of war they had to sell and plan the selling campaign consciously.”
That scenario will seem startlingly contemporary to anyone who remembers the campaign to sell the invasion of Iraq—including the role of Karl Rove and the White House Iraq Group. That infamous selling campaign was announced in September 2002 by White House chief of staff Andrew Card, who breezily explained the administration’s timing to the press. “From a marketing point of view,” quipped Card, a former auto industry lobbyist, “you don’t introduce new products in August.”
Now, more than four years later, most of that product’s regretful buyers have been left wondering what the sellers were actually selling. By now everyone knows that the purposes proclaimed by the Bush administration at the time of the invasion—to rid Iraq of actual and potential weapons of mass destruction—were fraudulent. Moreover, everyone also knows that during the months leading up to the invasion, the president and his closest advisers were aware that the alleged facts justifying war “had been fixed,” as the British intelligence chief noted in the famous “Downing Street memo” of July 2002. Some analysts believed that the objective of the war was to gain control of Iraqi oil, although Saddam Hussein had always been willing to sell petroleum to the West at the world price. Others suggested that Iraq was an easy target for the assertion of U.S. military force at a critical moment. And still others insisted that invading Iraq was merely the first stage of a broader plan to remake the Middle East by force that had long been mulled by neoconservative ideologues.
The decision to go to war probably reflects all those elements, but the question of its timing remains. Why introduce this controversial “new product” in September 2002, only weeks before the midterm elections? Why call for a congressional vote authorizing the use of military force against Iraq that autumn? With that demand, Bush reversed the path his father had taken in preparation for the Gulf War in 1990, asking Congress for authorization only after the U.N. Security Council acted first.
Several months earlier, Karl Rove had hinted at the real reason for the rush to war. For this architect of conservative power, with his ambition to inaugurate a generation or more of Republican political domination, the second year of George W. Bush’s first term was a critical and dangerous time. He needed to win the midterm elections, against the historical odds—and nothing would unify the country behind the presidential party like the force of war.
Rove, the powerful “Mayberry Machiavelli” who merged policy with politics in the Bush White House, had closely monitored the effect of war on the domestic political fortunes of his patrons. In 1991, he had observed the first President Bush’s popularity rocket upward during the first Gulf War. A decade later he had watched as the approval ratings of his boss, the second President Bush, reached even more impressive heights as he commanded the overthrow of the Taliban. Yet he could also recall how the popularity of the first President Bush plunged after the Gulf War troops came home—and he had measured the ratings of the second President Bush as they dwindled almost thirty points between September 2001 and August 2002.
That is why Bush and Rove departed so radically from the conduct of past wartime presidencies, which struggled to bring the entire nation together against the enemy. Using war to cement Republican political domination means dividing, not uniting.
Karl Rove rarely indulges any urge to speak publicly. He knows his own limitations and tends to remain in cloistered offices and back rooms, quite distant from the dangerous limelight. Yet although he is neither an inspiring nor a charismatic speaker, he understands the power of a simple message that is repeated again and again. On the few occasions over the past several years when he has spoken out, Rove has struck a single chord with growing intensity. His message could be summarized in this way:
America is at war. It is a war that will continue indefinitely. Republicans and conservatives possess the moral strength to fight and win, while Democrats and liberals do not. Therefore, the survival of the nation requires that the Republican Party maintain a monopoly of power.
To Rove this simple equation represents “the post-9/11 worldview.” In his world, it is the only valid worldview. He may not fully believe every word of it; in fact, he knows from his own experience that its characterization of Democrats and liberals is false, but that scarcely matters. For him the equation is true in a much deeper sense, because it served Rove’s self-appointed mission of establishing Republican hegemony.
The first indication that Rove planned to turn the war on terror into an assault on the loyal opposition came during January 2002, in a speech to the winter conference of the Republican National Committee in Austin, Texas. With President George W. Bush riding a powerful wave of public support and bipartisan unity, his chief political strategist had returned to Texas to discuss the upcoming midterm congressional elections with party leaders.
Only months earlier, on the steps of the Capitol, the nation’s elected representatives, from the most liberal Democrats to the most conservative Republicans, had promised to stand with the president against the terrorists who had destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon. “We want America to speak with one voice tonight and we want enemies and the whole world and all of our citizens to know that America speaks tonight with one voice,” said Richard Gephardt, then the House Democratic leader. Tom Daschle, then the Senate Democratic leader, stood with his Republican counterpart, Trent Lott, in a display of unqualified support for the president. “We want President Bush to know—we want the world to know—that he can depend on us,” declared Daschle.
Those faithful pledges—fulfilled in unquestioning cooperation with every legislative and budgetary request from the White House, including the rapid passage of the USA Patriot Act—meant nothing to Rove. He was looking ahead to November 2002, when he hoped to score a historic victory that would prove the nation’s ideological realignment to the right and mark a milestone for Rove and the generation of right-wing zealots who acknowledge him as their leader. Back then, Grover Norquist, the preeminent conservative strategist, lobbyist, and antitax activist who has known and worked with Rove since they were leaders of the College Republicans, articulated their ultimate objective. “It isn’t our job to seek peaceful coexistence with the left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently.”
More than taxes, race, abortion, or any of the perennial grievances of the right, permanent war seemed to provide the most compelling means to achieve that lifelong goal.
In Austin, Rove told his fellow Republicans, “We can go to the country on this issue, because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.” Those bland phrases hardly reflected his real feelings and intentions. The ensuing campaign against Democratic incumbents included some of the most vicious advertising deployed in many years, with Daschle portrayed as a stooge of the al Qaeda terrorists and Senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam war hero and winner of the Bronze Star and the Silver Star, derided as unpatriotic. Both lost their reelection bids.
Damaging as the midterm campaign was to national morale, at a time when unity should have been paramount, Rove’s strategy was nevertheless brilliantly successful. The Republicans carried the same precepts forward into the 2004 presidential campaign, which featured the gross exploitation of the 9/11 attacks in advertising and at the GOP convention in New York; an outrageous smear of the patriotism and navy service of Democratic nominee John Kerry; a series of conveniently timed terror alerts leading up to Election Day; and repeated warnings by Vice President Dick Cheney and other party spokesmen that a Democratic victory would signal weakness to the terrorists who are waiting to strike again.
The following summer, as the reelected president’s ratings plunged along with popular support for the war in Iraq, Rove returned to the same theme with still greater ferocity. On June 22, 2005, he addressed the annual dinner of the New York State Conservative Party—a third party founded by members of the Buckley family and run by hard-line ideologues who consider the state’s Republican Party much too moderate.
Rove had traveled north to accept the Conservative Party’s Charles Edison Award. This special honor is named for a deceased New Jersey governor and industrialist who also happened to have been among the first prominent endorsers of the ultraright extremist John Birch Society, which smeared President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a Communist traitor.
That old Birch mind-set seemed to have inspired Rove’s remarks.
He opened with a few bland paragraphs of congratulation, hailing the great strides in recent decades by Republicans and conservatives, and noting their traditional disagreements with liberals over tax cuts and the role of government. But he had come to dinner to serve red meat, not pablum. First he declared that “the most important difference between conservatives and liberals can be found in the area of national security.” Then he launched a savagely sarcastic attack on the character of every liberal American and most Democrats:
“Conservatives saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and prepared for war, liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to . . . submit a petition. I am not joking. Submitting a petition is precisely what [the progressive grassroots organization] Moveon.org did. It was a petition imploring the ‘powers that be’ to ‘use moderation and restraint in responding to the . . . terrorist attacks against the United States.’
“I don’t know about you,” Rove continued, “but moderation and restraint is not what I felt as I watched the Twin Towers crumble to the earth; a side of the Pentagon destroyed; and almost 3,000 of our fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble.
“Moderation and restraint is not what I felt—and moderation and restraint is not what was called for. It was a moment to summon our national will—and to brandish steel.”
The only steel Rove had ever brandished was a fork, but that didn’t slow him down.
“MoveOn.org, Michael Moore, and Howard Dean may not have agreed with this, but the American people did. Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said: we will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said: we must understand our enemies. Conservatives see the United States as a great nation engaged in a noble cause; liberals see the United States and they see . . . Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, and the killing fields of Cambodia.”
This was the legendary dirty fighter of American politics, deliberately distorting the views of liberals and Democrats, freely fabricating “facts” to slander his opponents. He knew that no liberals had urged therapy or understanding for the hijackers. He knew that Moveon.org, with millions of progressive citizens organized via the Internet, had never circulated any petition demanding restraint against the Taliban. He knew there was no evidence that Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman, had opposed the war in Afghanistan or urged “understanding” for al Qaeda. He knew that liberals didn’t regard America as the equivalent of Nazi or Communist totalitarians. (That crack referred to a floor speech by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, lamenting the mistreatment of detainees in the military camps at Guantánamo Bay, as revealed in a declassified FBI report.) As Rove well knew, the truth was that the vast majority of American liberals and progressives, including Dean and Durbin and the members of Moveon.org, had concurred with the president in his decision to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban.
Rove knew, in fact, that the liberals and Democrats in Congress had stood squarely behind Bush in the decision to extirpate the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda. Their only disappointment was that he had done the job so hesitantly and ineptly, allowing Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar to escape.
Rove’s Conservative Party speech exemplified the classic rhetorical tactics of authoritarianism, employing innuendo and lies to transform political opponents into soft-minded dupes and potential traitors. After spewing his slanders, he was just clever enough to provide himself with a rhetorical safety net. “At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security,” he said. “Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn’t make them unpatriotic—not at all. But it does make them wrong—deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong.”
It was an audacious lie from beginning to end. But if you believed him, then you would also agree that the Democrats should be disqualified from power for as long as the nation was in danger—and if you believed Bush, that would be a long, long time.
Since Rove delivered that speech, the White House has rebranded its “global war on terror” twice. For a brief period that summer, the war was officially renamed the “global struggle against violent extremism,” apparently in belated acknowledgment that political and ideological strategies are just as salient as military power. Slate military analyst Fred Kaplan observed in despair that “the driving force behind the new slogan [was] a desire for a happier acronym.” What had been GWOT, pronounced “gee-wot,” became GSAVE, or “gee-save.” That didn’t help much.
President Bush more recently said that he thinks of it as World War III, but Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative literary light and amateur strategic thinker, has suggested that it is really World War IV, because we already fought World War III in the cold war.
In January 2006, a new official name appeared in the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the strategic planning document issued by the defense secretary every four years. The latest version refers to the struggle against Islamist terrorism as “the long war”—a portentous description that is clearly intended to evoke the cold war’s decades of global confrontation. “The struggle . . . may well be fought in dozens of other countries simultaneously and for many years to come,” warned the report. By implicitly comparing al Qaeda and its ragtag allies with the massive armed forces of Soviet Communism, Donald Rumsfeld and the neoconservative ideologues who worked for him evidently sought to initiate still another vast enlargement of the defense budget and a greatly expanded American presence overseas. The outcome of this permanent state of war is meant to be American hegemony abroad and conservative domination at home.
Copyright © 2007 by Joe Conason. All rights reserved.