Politics of Terror and Scandal

— The Editors

SCENARIO: AGAINST THE background of a depression in Japan, the economic collapse of Russia and stock market crashes on three continents, a United States president facing imminent expulsion from office for concealing illicit sex in the Oval Office orders retaliatory Cruise missile strikes on two already-ravaged Middle Eastern countries and declares “war on international terrorism.”

Take that idea and try to sell it to Hollywood. Forget about it: Even in Wag the Dog, after all, not only the pretext but the “war” itself were both imaginary, while the realities of the late summer of 1998 would tax the credulity of even the devotees of Armageddon.

On a more mundane level, imagine yourself putting out a bimonthly left-wing journal that went to the printers two days before the bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan – and just prior to the twelve percent fall on Wall Street. You’d have trouble making a movie out of that, too, but it’s what happened to us here at Against the Current. (And not just once: This issue goes to press prior to the November election, so we cannot here analyze the outcome, its effect on the impeachment circus, etc.) We are left with the less than satisfying, but necessary, task of after-the-fact commentary.

A Criminal Act

To begin with what is essential: Clinton’s bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan is a criminal act, one which cannot be separated from the entire ongoing effort of United States imperialism to control the Middle East and the world. This crime must be named and condemned for what it is, regardless of whether the claims made by the U.S. government (dubious as they are in any case) turn out to be true.

We stress this point, because the criminal nature of the Clinton administration’s act is partially obscured by packaging it as an act of self-defense against the car bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. These acts were of course hideous in their own right, not only in the killing of civilian embassy employees, but in the large-scale random slaughter of hundreds of African working people in the neighboring streets and buildings.

The perpetrators of these acts are utterly indifferent to the lives of ordinary people and, therefore, incapable of any kind of progressive activity. But that same statement applies, with ten times more force, to the United States government. Indeed, there is nothing surprising about the fact that the probable director of the embassy bombings, the now-famous Osama bin Laden, was one of the CIA’s great “friends” during its covert operations in the Afghan civil war.

Like Saddam Hussein, Washington’s murderous-dictator-of-choice during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war; like the Nicaraguan contras, hired by the United States Congress to kill pro-Sandinista peasants and who then set up in business selling crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles; Osama bin Laden and certain of his associates, such as Ramzi Yusuf, whose project of turning Afghanistan to a Dark Age theocracy once suited U.S. purposes, represent another fantastic “blowback” from the sordid history of U.S. Cold War politics and covert operations.

The government of the United States, with all the imperial arrogance of its only-superpower status, now claims to confront a monster of “international terrorism” in the service of an extreme reactionary-religious ideology. If such a monster exists, its development has been facilitated by U.S. policy in a twofold sense.

It’s not only that bin Laden and company started in business as a CIA franchise operation. Even more important, the rapid advance of religious fundamentalism among the dispossessed in many Middle Eastern societies is the result of the great success of the United States, and global capitalism, in defeating the movements that offered them hope.

The promises of Arab nationalism, of the secular left, of democratic politics, of the labor movements in the Middle East have all been dashed or severely set back, leaving tens of millions of people feeling powerless, their lives controlled by decisions made by Washington or Wall Street.

It is easy for this absolutely legitimate anger against imperialism, where revolutionary or progressive outlets remain blocked, to be channelled by political-religious elites whose real agenda is their own power and aggrandizement. Even though those among the poor, the marginalized and especially the women who embrace the fundamentalist cause are only further enabling their own enslavement, that cause continues to gain strength as imperialist policy deepens the underlying anger.

And what could fuel legitimate popular rage more than Clinton’s bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum? We repeat, that act was a crime even if U.S. claims were proven true-but the claims themselves have a grotesque character. People are supposed to believe that U.S. intelligence, on the basis of a soil sample, “knew” that the plant produced a precursor of VX gas, yet did not know that the plant was a major producer of desperately needed medical drugs.

Nor, supposedly, did the vast intelligence-gathering apparatus of “the indispensable nation, which sees further than others” (in Madeline Albright’s great phrase) know that the product in question may well have commercial uses other than poison gas, or that the plant (according to the testimony of foreign civilian workers there) had none of the security one would expect from a place involved in secret military work.

Inasmuch as U.S. officials have ceased to press the claim that the plant was engaged in poison-gas production, they may by now have decided that “a mistake was made.” But we know the Clinton watchword when caught in a crime or a lie: Never admit a thing. If that’s the case in trivial matters, it will be more so in major ones. If the Lewinsky affair “depends on what you mean by sex,” then maybe the al-Shifa attack depends on what you mean by “bombing.”

What the Dog Wagged

Was the bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan truly a wag-the-dog script? In part, of course it was-especially in the rapidity of the action. The facts about al-Shifa seem to have been poorly checked. It may also be significant that the action took place at a time when the administration had apparently decided not to pursue another confrontational round with Iraq, leaving the U.S. president needing another venue in which to look tough with no cost.

Yet rather than the bombings diverting attention from Clinton’s sex-and-lies scandal, something like the reverse has happened. The possibility of any serious public debate or outrage developing around the bombing was stifled by the stench of the U.S. political system mud-wrestling in its own excrement.

Mere political analysis somehow fails to capture the spectacle of this president-for whom his own self-gratification seems to be the only meaning of political office, friendships, marriage, everything-being impeached by a Congress which resembles nothing so much as the Harper Valley PTA. We must ultimately rely on artists whose talents we don’t possess – the surrealists, the satirists and the gag-writers for Jay Leno and David Letterman – to offer some adequate interpretation.

Here we can do no more than plagiarize and paraphrase what the late Ayatollah Khomeini said about the two rival superpowers: Kenneth Starr and the Republicans are worse than Bill Clinton, Clinton is worse than Starr and the Republicans, and both are worse than each other. We don’t mean by this that they are identical. Rather, the two capitalist parties have been antagonistic but symbiotic partners in dragging all political discourse to the right – not to mention downward – with Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” presidency as the perfect vehicle for the voyage.

In the scandal-and-impeachment spectacle, there are some serious issues that require analysis beyond the scope of this editorial. These include: the enormous abuse of prosecutorial power that is inherent in the grand jury system, which victimizes people with much less power and resources than the president of the United States; the impressive wisdom and maturity displayed by the U.S. population, which has rejected the idea of removing a president for sexual behavior and resisted the sexual-witchhunt politics on display in the impeachment campaign; and the reasons why the African-American population on the whole feels especially threatened by the possibility of Clinton’s removal.

Leaving all these issues for another time, there’s a conclusion about recent U.S. politics to be drawn from this unbelievable situation.

For the past half-decade, national government in this country has been truly “bipartisan.” That is, a Democratic president and Republican congress have worked together to screw the population on fundamental issues. These bipartisan achievements include destruction of the federal welfare entitlement. Then there’s the “anti-crime” legislation that rips up Constitutional protections for defendants, notably the elimination of habeas corpus for death row prisoners and severe (including retroactive) restrictions on their federal appeals.

Immigrants are now deportable on the basis of secret evidence presented in secret hearings, where the accused and their lawyers don’t even know the charges. Other achievements include the first steps toward dismantling social security, and blockage of any possibility for a rational and non-corporate system of health care insurance.

The utter marginalization of liberal (let alone left) politics and the general absence of major differences between this president and the Republican leadership has led to the substitution of personal viciousness for substantive political argument. With the cascade of Whitewater/ Paula Jones/Monica Lewinsky and more, this process of scandal and vilification has gone berserk, threatening to consume its own architecture. The main good news, we repeat, is the population’s profound distaste for the whole sex-policing, Tripp-wiring, Starr-chambering exercise.

With Clinton’s administration dysfunctional, U.S. and global capital now have precious little in the way of political leadership – what Marxists call an “executive committee for the ruling class” – at a time when it is suddenly needed in the face of the international financial crisis.

We offer no personal or political sympathy for Bill Clinton, although he is now a victim as well a principal cause of this systemic and bipartisan political degeneracy. The real victims are the working people, the poor and the victims of racism in this country – and of course, the peoples of the shattered nations where the Cruise missiles fall.

ATC 77, November–December 1998