Culture » October 20, 2004
Recipe for Disaster
Never mind the latest Matrix or Star Wars cinematic extravaganza. In this era of sequels, the biggest blockbuster is the Return of the Reaganites, a George W. Bush production featuring a cast of thieving thousands. This is the sequel to die for, perhaps literally, as the forces of the right consolidate power, subvert the laws and sabotage the government while ransacking on a global scale. As two new books make abundantly clear, Bush & Co. have perfected robber baron tactics of deceit and destruction, applying them to issues as seemingly disparate as the environment and the war on terror.
It’s instructive to recall James Watt, Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, who openly disavowed any responsibility to the public as he dismantled his department and sought to sell off public lands at fire sale prices. Watt cited the approaching apocalypse in his defense, declaring, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” Watt resigned following a firestorm of protest; in the intervening decades, his ideological heirs have learned to present rabid extremism and profiteering in a more persuasive package, masking their agenda with secrecy and lies.
In Crimes Against Nature, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. documents Bush & Co.’s astonishing success stealthily sabotaging existing environmental laws through regulatory revisions. When a federal judge ruled against “mountain-topping”—a form of strip mining involving the demolition of mountaintops and the subsequent disposal of millions of gallons of toxic sludge—a former coal lobbyist who’s now a Bush deputy rewrote the regulations to qualify the sludge as “fill” rather than waste subject to federal oversight. When litigator Kennedy won his case against factory hog farms, which dump a brain-damaging- “fecal marinade” into the waterways of 34 states, the Bush administration gathered Big Pork to write new regulations exempting the industry from the Clean Water Act.
Bush has applied Texas-tested devolution strategies to finally realize the Reagan Revolution of government in lockstep with corporate power—and the long-term impact extends beyond environmental consequences. For generations, we’ve been protected by a “permanent government” of civil servants who’ve insulated us from the excesses of our elected leaders. Bush has battered this beneficent bureaucracy. Kennedy observes that as part of a federal plan to outsource 425,000 federal jobs, “thousands of environmental science positions are being contracted out” to industry hacks. Concerns about conflicts of interest have become passé. When the courts directed the Bush administration to start regulating atrazine—which causes grotesque deformities in frogs—it outsourced the job of oversight to Sygenta, the same firm that manufactures the cancer-causing pesticide.
Kennedy’s polemic lays out what would be a vast conspiracy, except that so much of it is happening in view of a public, press and Congress without the will to see or stop it. Alas, this is not a story of government incompetence: The White House has ruthlessly effectuated the agenda of its corporate base, putting the sleaziest industry advocates in top policy positions, from Cheney on down. The union of business and government interests is so complete, Kennedy doesn’t hesitate to use the f-word, quoting a dictionary definition of fascism as “a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership together with belligerent nationalism.”
Others express shock at the startling ways this presidency puts American lives at risk. In “Pollution and Deception at Ground Zero” (www.sierraclub.org), a Sierra Club report released in August, author Suzanne Mattei catalogues the fantastic efforts of the Bush administration to hide the huge public health hazard created by the smoldering Twin Towers, the world’s largest incineration pit of industrial materials. In the days following the attack, the Environmental Protection Agency—in press releases rewritten by the White House—repeatedly assured the public that the air at Ground Zero was safe, despite government readings showing asbestos in the air and dust as caustic as drain cleaner.
Mattei details the lengths to which the feds went to reinvent reality, jettisoning established scientific procedures and expertise in order not to find the toxic pollution obvious to everyone who looked. As one angry rescue worker told Mattei, “What the EPA did was like using a colander with giant holes, and then saying ‘Look, there’s no spaghetti.’ ” Government scientists attempted to protect public health, but as the heads of 19 EPA locals complained, their “professional work [was] subverted by political pressure applied by the White House.”
Chain of Command, Seymour Hersh’s new book on the White House’s war on terror, reveals the same pattern of deceit and despotism in the administration’s conduct of foreign affairs. Hersh presents layer upon layer of fact, and his densely documented work is more frightening than a horror movie.
Hersh describes how a “can-do” crew of ideological cowboys consistently overrode the objections of public servants, condemning their cautions as cowardice and disloyalty. Repeated warnings about out-of-control interrogation practices at Guantánamo were cast aside, as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld insisted that coercion and torture could serve as shortcuts to obtain “actionable intelligence.” Rumsfeld proceeded with plans to apply Guantánamo tactics in Iraq, as Bush unilaterally and secretly suspended the rules of conventional warfare. Similarly, Bush & Co. overrode the chorus of insider objections to their claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, setting up a special office of ideologues to promulgate “noble lies” on behalf of war. And as the invasion of Iraq grew imminent, the White House slashed and burned the plans prepared by the U.S. Central Command, dramatically downsizing projections of needed troops and supplies.
These savagely shortsighted moves have done nothing to make America safe. Indeed, the world has turned furiously against us. Why would the White House continue along this road to disaster?
Blind greed fortified by hubris is the answer. At Chain of Command’s conclusion, Hersh plaintively asks, “How did eight or nine neoconservatives who believed that war in Iraq was the answer to international terrorism get their way?” His oddly credulous question overlooks the multitudes inside and outside government who stood to profit—from Iraqi oil, reconstruction contracts and our now more than $536 billion military budget. Bush & Co. are not bumblers; they just don’t care about the public or the future. After all, the apocalypse is nigh.
Phyllis Eckhaus is an In These Times contributing editor who has written essays and book reviews for the magazine since 1993, covering everything from the history of Mad Magazine to the economics of terrorism. Her work has also appeared in Newsday, The Nation, the Guardian (U.S.) and the Women's Review of Books, among other publications. Trained as a lawyer and social scientist, with degrees from Yale, Harvard and New York University, she works in nonprofit management and lives in New York City.