Call it bipartisan bloodlust. Bill Clinton rapped the table and wagged his finger at the Fox Network interviewer. "I tried to kill him," he said with heat and passion. "I tried very hard to kill him." And then went on to blame the CIA and others for the "failure" to assassinate Osama bin Laden.
Mr. Clinton turned livid as the mocking anchor questioned his record. Here was the former President of the most powerful nation, once the head of the `civilised world,' telling the planet of his role in plotting the death of an enemy. He wasn't in the least worried about the implications of that. A public admission of being in the business of assassination. What galled him was that his minions had failed to pull it off. He was happy to acknowledge his role in trying. He was unhappy at being blamed for the failure. Because Bush & Co. have employed such intense levels of violence these past few years, it is easy to believe they are somehow uniquely depraved. But this bloodlust is bipartisan. One of those "shared values."
In the mainstream U.S. media, though, in the week after the interview, the comment roused little if any concern at all. Mr. Clinton's response to other issues, notably 9/11, was hotly debated. The President-as-assassination-plotter went down without a whimper.
That was last September. Last month, George W. Bush crowed about the hanging of Saddam Hussein. It was a milestone in Iraq's march towards democracy, he exulted. That rah-rah act closely followed the footage of the former Iraqi leader going to the gallows, taunted, jeered and humiliated by his captors. Later, Mr. Bush - once Governor of Texas when that State saw a record number of prisoners sentenced to death and executed - told the media, "I am not a revengeful person."
Saddam's death also came at the end of a trial that gives kangaroo courts a bad name. One chief judge was kicked out or forced to resign. Defence lawyers were bumped off, the living ones providing target practice for passing gunmen. Saddam's attorneys were ejected from the court more than once, on the judge's order. The trial was conducted "on Iraqi soil" because that's about the only soil where the U.S. could control such a process. Saddam, who launched a war against Iran that took close to a million lives; who used chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraqi Kurds - was not even charged with those crimes. He was held responsible for the death of 148 Shias and sent to the gallows.
The U.S. needed him dead and soon. But it could not be on those major charges. Expert teams of the United Nations more than once found his troops guilty of using chemical weapons; of attacking Kurds and Iranians with mustard gas, nerve gas, cyanide gas and tabun. The Security Council "strongly condemned" Iraq's use of such weapons in 1986. But of course any action against Iraq was blocked by the U.S. After five years of filing reports on these crimes, the team of experts refused to go again. It was obvious, said Colonel Ulrich Imobersteg, one of its members, that no action was going to be taken.
Planned and scripted
The idea that the filming of his hanging was an aberration that just somehow happened is farcical. That was no goof-up but a planned and scripted act. And this was a cameraman who knew his job and was allowed to do it, even if only on a mobile phone. No less dumb is the notion of the Americans wringing their hands while the Iraqis who cannot cough without their permission - misbehaved in rushing through with the execution.
It was not Iraqi leaders who summoned press conferences to say, "We got him" when Saddam was captured. Nor was it the Iraqis who enabled the televised display of the bullet-ridden bodies of his sons. The ritual humiliation of the vanquished by the victor is as old as empire itself.
The kings of conquered nations were paraded through the streets of Rome, tied to Caesar's chariot. Some were fed to the lions. Others, decapitated in public. Slave revolts that failed saw the crucifixion of thousands who challenged the empire. The British, Spanish and Portuguese empires kept up these quaint traditions of the civilised world through their eras. Mr. Bush is merely the keeper of the flame. His `surge' in Iraq has more bipartisan acquiescence than many might suppose. Or, at least a lack of sincere opposition from the Democrats.
A couple of Democrats have indeed said, "It's time to bring the troops home." It's a feel-good statement with little action to back it up. Hilary Clinton, who will run for President, won't commit herself to ending the war. Not even at anti-war rallies, which seem to be picking up again. Nancy Pelosi and others elected on a wave of discontent with the war have begun fudging the issue. Ms. Pelosi told the media she was committed to the troops "already there." This is the old Democrat position: We're not with the President, but we're with the troops.
As Alexander Cockburn writes: "The only way the Democrats could end the war is to refuse to okay the money to pay for it. This is something they could do, since they now control Congress." (Another tack quite familiar to the Romans in their Senate in the old days.) But they are not willing to do it. Not yet, anyway. They would mostly favour seeing the Republicans twisting in the wind at the end of the noose that the war has become.
Remember the half-a-million Iraq children who died due to sanctions? Most perished during the reign of "I-tried-hard-to-kill-him" Democrat Bill Clinton. And it was his Secretary of State Madeline Albright who made that appalling statement on television. That the death of half-a-million-children was an acceptable price to pay for bringing Iraq to its knees in the 1991 war.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has struck at Somalia, taking anew its war on "terror" into Africa. And again, there is little trouble from the Democrats.
Mr. Bush has also made his infamous speech about the need to beef up troop strength in Iraq by over 20,000. The Democrats have distanced themselves from this unpopular action in theory. In practice, many are waiting for the President to enmesh himself further in what is a completely lost game. They believe this will help them clinch the White House in 2008. And so it could. But it won't end the war - which might by then spread to more countries.
The U.S. media spent years helping the establishment exorcise the ghosts of earlier defeats. This is not Vietnam. And indeed it is not. The long-term fallout could be far worse. Top media pundits cheered their military when Iraq was first overrun. "Mission accomplished," said Mr. Bush giving them a never to be forgotten photo-op. The war was over only days after it had begun. Only, it got worse.
Then when Saddam's sons were gunned down, "the backbone of the resistance had been broken." Things, predictably, got more awful. Then the capture of - "We got him" - Saddam was announced as the end of the conflict. The bloodletting only grew. The killing of Zarqawi saw more of the "beginning-of-the-end" claims. And Iraq is worse than it ever was. Nor is Afghanistan a holiday resort. The killing and the dying go on and on and on.
And Mr. Bush might yet decide to go after Iran and Syria. As one journalist put it: he's not looking for an exit strategy from Iraq. He's working out an entry strategy into Iran. Maybe, our national security experts will learn something? Remember how keen they were to send our own troops into Iraq alongside those of the U.S.? Remember it was to have been such a good thing for India? Like to go into Iran now? Imagine where we would have been by now had we followed that expert advice. Things are about to get much worse. Empires kill and lay waste. The Caledonian leader Calgacus knew that nearly 2000 years ago. As the Romans devastated his land and butchered countless thousands, he said: "They made it a desert and called it peace." Pax Americana will make Pax Romana seem the efforts of friendly amateurs.