Cry havoc, and let slip the wagging dogs of war

With former president Clinton’s note-poking, finger-waving hissy fit on Sunday, he reminded me of something that annoyed the hell out of me back in 1997 — and still bugs me today.

I am not the best-educated, most literate, most cultured individual. My knowledge has some rather shocking gaps in it, and sometimes certain allusions or references go right past me. But there are a few things I do know, and they appall me when they are misused.

One of them is the term “Ugly American.” It’s often used to refer to gauche, insensitive, loutish behavior by Americans abroad, and used denigratingly to explain some of the reasons why we are often disliked around the world. The reference is to the book of the same name by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, and I’ve read it — several times. “The Ugly American” in the book is, by any standards, one of the finest examplars of American ideals and a superb representative of our nation to the world. The truly bad Americans are the pretty ones, the glamorous ones, the officious ones. We need MORE “Ugly Americans.”

But Clinton’s little hissy-fit with Chris Wallace brought up his use of the military during his administration, and he himself brought up the “wag-the-dog” meme. It’s a reference to the 1997 movie “Wag The Dog,” when a struggling president arranges for a war to boost his popularity. He collaborates with Hollywood figures to “stage-manage” the whole conflict.

When the movie came out, and was received as a comedy, I was infuriated. You see, the idea was based on a novel, which I had read — and the novel was hardly funny.

American Hero” was first published in 1995, and is labelled a work of fiction. Repeatedly. Because the fictional characters and plot are cast against real people, real events, real history.

In the book, Lee Atwater — the Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 80’s, who helped lead the resurgence of the GOP — is on his deathbed. Atwater had carefully earned his reputation as a ruthless, brilliant, ingenious political schemer, who was instrumental in developing the “Southern Strategy” that took the region from the Democrats. Atwater was Karl Rove’s mentor, and after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, he converts to Catholicism, renounces his deeds, and issues apologies to those he attacked over his career.

One of the last people to see Atwater on his deathbed was James Baker, a key advisor to former President Bush and an informal advisor to the current president Bush. In the book, Atwater tells Baker about his greatest scheme, the one plan he never got to carry out — and asks Baker to destroy it.

In the book, Baker takes the plan and intends to destroy it — but reads it first, and can’t bring himself to get rid of it. It’s too good a plan, one that will pretty much guarantee President Bush’s re-election — but is of such despicable morality that he can’t imagine ever using it.

Atwater’s plan — in the book — is brilliant in its simplicity. Bush needs a war to win re-election, but the right kind of war. Atwater wanted to choreograph the perfect war, one that would not kill too many Americans, one we are guaranteed to win, and one that would leave Bush respected and admired enough to win his second term.

Atwater — in the book — saw the proper model for the war as the Superbowl. He saw that the actual event was largely secondary; it was the buildup, the hype, the events leading to the actual conflict were far more important than the match itself.

Also, — in the book — he saw that the American people needed a way to relate to, to grasp, to comprehend the events. Therefore he needed someone who was very well versed in telling epic stories to the American people. The perfect example is Steven Spielberg, and a thinly-disguised version of him features in the book.

The Spielberg analogue — in the book — finds that his “story” needs a villain, and finds a ready-made one in Saddam Hussein. The grand plan is simple: Saddam will invade Kuwait, then sit there and do nothing besides making threatening noises and bad PR moves. Bush will denounce him as a new Hitler, build a multinational coalition to fight him, repeatedly hype the danger and threat he poses, and then defeat him and drive him out of Kuwait, with a minimum of US and allied casualties, and in record time.

The plot — in the book — hinges on Saddam’s cooperation. How do you sell him on being the bad guy, the loser, in such a plot? By promising him that not only will he not be toppled, but we will make sure he remains in power. By pointing out that by standing up to the United States, he will rally both his own people and much of the rest of the Arab world to his side.

Baker — in the book — puts the plan in the back of his safe, with no intention of ever letting it see light. But when Bush’s poll numbers start seriously tanking after going back on his “read my lips — no new taxes!” pledge, he takes it out and gives it a long, hard look.

And he finally sees a way to sell it to Bush.

In the book, he points out that our nation’s best leaders have been forged by war. As of 1990, the most recent major conflict was Viet Nam, and the scars of that fiasco were (and are) still deep. America will need leaders in the future, and we need to make sure that they have something besides Viet Nam to mold them, to serve as a crucible for the future. The World War II generation gave the United States Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush. Who would be the presidents to come out the Viet Nam? And what lessons would they bring?

In the book, the Atwater plan is implemented, and works flawlessly. We have our nice, tidy war. We win it. We have a united and proud nation, a president seen as a leader, and a thorough villain defeated and contained, with a minimum of messy American bodies.

But in the book, Baker pulls it off too soon. He is panicked by Bush’s plummeting popularity, and stages the events too quickly — it’s all over and done with before the elections.

Like I said, it’s a novel. A work of fiction. A work of fiction that is more thoroughly documented than many non-fiction books I’ve read (I think it has almost 200 footnotes showing where the events described are true), but still a work of fiction.

I think that latter events have shown it to be most likely false. The animosity between Hussein and the presidents Bush has been too great, with too many attempts to kill each other, for such a secret to remain concealed. Especially after the invasion of Iraq, when Saddam really had nothing left to lose by keeping his mouth shut.

It’s still a decent novel, and shows some of the ancestry of moonbattery, Bush Derangement Syndrome, and the precursors of such refined lunacy as shown on Democratic Underground long before any of those came to fruition.

And it’s a damned shame that such an interesting novel has been pretty much overshadowed by the mediocre movie it spawned.

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  1. fatman September 26, 2006
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